Sorting out liability and other key issues is a tough task after any car accident , but it’s all the more challenging when the accident was caused -- either wholly or in part -- by hazards in the roadway, such as potholes or debris.
This article looks at car accidents where road surface hazards may have played a role -- including a discussion of who might be legally responsible for the accident, and an explanation of the procedural hoops you may need to jump through if you decide to bring a claim against a government agency.
In almost all car accident cases, including claims stemming from crashes involving road hazards, figuring out who to blame -- and who will be responsible for damages -- will depend on who was negligent. In order for an injured driver to prevail on a claim of negligence after an accident involving a road hazard like a pothole or debris, it must be shown that:
In a car accident case involving road hazards, the negligent party could be a government agency (responsible for maintaining the road), or a private party (like a trucking company that is obligated to secure and transport cargo in a reasonably safe manner). Let’s take a closer look at each possibility.
If a car accident is caused by potholes or other sorts of debris left in the middle of a public road, it is possible that some government entity may have breached its duty to provide adequate road maintenance. In such cases the government entity in question would likely be the state or municipal government with direct responsibility for road maintenance. However, claims of negligence against government entities can be made particularly difficult because the government may have sovereign immunity to such lawsuits. Sovereign tort immunity can limit the government’s liability considerably, and in many instances the government will still be entirely immune from suit.
Even if sovereign immunity is not applicable, there may still be special requirements for bringing a personal injury claim against a government entity. The rules in this regard also differ from state to state, but typically a “notice of claim” must be filed within a certain period of time after the accident. The applicable period of time is defined by statute, but is typically sixty days. If a notice of claim is not filed with the government agency within the prescribed period of time, the plaintiff may have waived any right to bring a lawsuit. Read more in Nolo's articles about filing a claim against the federal government, or against your state.
When a car accident is caused by a road hazard created by a private party’s negligence (truck cargo falling onto a highway, for example) the facts must be examined to determine who might be liable. For example, if a vehicle is hauling cargo that would present a serious road hazard if it were to become unsecured and fall onto the highway, the driver of the transporting vehicle owes a duty to other drivers on the road, to take reasonable precautions to keep the cargo secure -- including driving in a manner that will keep the cargo from falling onto the highway. If the same driver is an employee who is transporting cargo for an employer, (like a transportation company or retail distributor), then there is the issue of employer liability for the car accident, under a legal doctrine known as respondeat superior. This rule of liability holds an employer liable for the harmful acts (torts) committed by employees who are acting within the normal course of employment. To sustain a claim against an employer based on respondeat superior, the plaintiff must show that the negligent tort was actually committed during the scope of employment, rather than during a purely personal activity on the part of the employee.
Car accidents caused by potholes or road debris can present unique issues of liability, and strict rules of compliance when claims against the government are involved. To protect your rights, you may want to discuss the particulars of your case with an experienced personal injury attorney.