Most car accidents are caused by the negligence of one or more drivers. But missing guardrails, erosion, potholes, and faulty design can also play a factor in car accidents, although proving fault for these kinds of incidents is no easy task.
The first step is showing that poor road conditions actually caused the accident, which usually means showing that the agency or company responsible for maintaining or planning the road was somehow negligent. Next, the injured person must determine if the responsible party can be sued in court, or if a special claim-filing procedure must be followed. We'll cover these issues in more detail below. (For a related discussion, see what happens when potholes or poor road conditions cause vehicle damage.)
Roads are maintained by cities, counties, and states. Different maintenance responsibilities for a certain roadway can also be shared by more than one governmental agency. For example, a state might be responsible for filling potholes and paving the roads, while a city might be responsible for snow plowing and de-icing roadways. Figuring out which agency was responsible is important not only for bringing the proper party into the action, but for determining if the particular party can be sued without going through the injury claim process that's usually a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against the government (more on this below).
Once you determine which agency is responsible for maintaining or planning the road, you must prove that the agency was negligent in connection with the accident. This means showing that the agency had reasonable notice of a problem with the road, had a reasonable opportunity to fix the situation (or issue adequate warnings), but failed to take the proper steps, and the crash resulted. Or it could mean showing that there was some safety-related defect with the planning or execution of the road's construction.
For example, let's say there is obvious and well-documented erosion occurring near a lake, and multiple reports have documented potential safety problems with a lakeside road. If the state does nothing, and the road buckles a few months later, causing an accident, the state might be liable for damages resulting from the crash. On the other hand, if a large tree falls into a different stretch of road, but there was no way the state could have discovered any danger related to the tree, and there was no reasonable reason to secure or remove it before the accident occurred, then it will be much more difficult to prove negligence on the part of the state.
Most government agencies (including states and the federal government) have immunity from lawsuits, which means they cannot be sued without permission. Most governments have provided this permission by crafting an administrative claim process that typically serves as a sort of prerequisite for the filing of a lawsuit.
It's important to note that some government actions and decisions cannot form the basis of a claim or civil lawsuit. Typically, negligence in maintaining a roadway is the kind of wrongful conduct that can lead to a claim, but there might be constraints—for example, you might need to prove that the negligence was "clear" or "gross" (i.e. obvious).
Every state has a special set of rules that cover claims against the government at the state and local level, for compensation for some kind of loss. The procedure varies, but there's usually a short timeframe in which to notify the proper government entity of the date and exact location of your accident, and how much you're asking for in terms of compensation. The government might have its own claim form for you to complete, or they may just maintain a list of information you need to include in your claim. Start by doing an online search using a phrase like "claim against [name of state/city/county] government" to learn more.
If you're not sure whether it is the state, county, or city that is legally responsible for maintaining the road where your accident happened, you probably can't go wrong with filing a claim with multiple entities. You should also contact a lawyer who can help with a claim against the government.