Thousands of car accidents occur every year, and the carelessness of one or more drivers is by far the most common cause of most of these mishaps. But hidden or missing road signs cause -- or at least play a part in -- many an accident too.
Oftentimes road signs are improperly positioned or inadequately maintained. If your car accident was caused by a hidden or missing road sign, you may be able to bring an injury and/or vehicle damage claim against the company or municipality who is charged with installation and upkeep of road signage in your area.
What Caused the Accident?
Before you can make a claim against the municipality or company that is responsible for local road signs, you need to assess whether the accident was actually caused by a hidden or missing sign.
For example, if you lose control of your vehicle on a sharp curve and hit a guardrail because the cautionary road sign was almost entirely blocked by a tree branch, you might successfully argue that the hidden or missing sign at least contributed to your accident. If, however, you lost control of your vehicle because you were speeding and fumbling around for your cell phone and did not keep your eyes on the road, and it just so happens that the cautionary road sign was partially obstructed, you probably won’t be able to argue that the accident was caused by the hidden sign.
Who Can Be Held Liable?
If your accident was indeed caused by a hidden or missing road sign, then you next need to determine who is responsible for installing and maintaining the sign.
Road signs are typically maintained by a local government’s department of transportation, though some municipalities may hire private companies to maintain their roadways and signs. If a road sign is hidden or missing due to the negligence of the municipality, then the municipality may be held responsible for any damages resulting from an accident caused by the hidden or missing road sign (but making a claim against the municipality isn't usually as simple as filing a personal injury lawsuit; more on this later).
Also note that sometimes a missing road sign may be the result of theft. In that situation, the person who illegally removed the sign, if identifiable, could be held financially responsible for your losses. But if the sign has been gone for some time, that fact would likely only strengthen your argument against the municipality/company; your argument here would be that the failure to replace the sign within a reasonable time amounted to negligence.
Suing a Municipality
If a road sign is hidden or missing due to a state or municipality’s negligence, you need to be aware of the special procedure that typically must be followed if you want to make a claim against the government.
State and local governments are generally immune from civil lawsuits, but they have carved out exceptions to this immunity by putting in place an administrative filing procedure for claims alleging that injury or property damage was caused by the government or one of its employees.
The procedure varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but you usually must first file a Notice of Claim, which formally notifies the government agency of your allegations. The Notice of Claim must typically include the date, time and place of the accident, as well as specific information detailing the government’s alleged negligence, plus an itemized list of your claimed damages. Usually, if the claim is properly submitted and formally denied by the government, you'll then be able to file a lawsuit in court.
The time limit for filing the Notice of Claim is often quite short (sometimes six months). If you fail to file your Notice of Claim in time, you'll probably be barred from suing the municipality to recover your damages. If you think you have a valid injury claim against a state or local government, it's probably a good idea to talk with an experienced personal injury attorney sooner rather than later.
What Evidence Should You Gather?
Gathering evidence after a car accident is always important, but it's usually critical to any case involving road signage. Immediately after your accident, you should call law enforcement to the scene to complete a police report. Be sure to tell the police officer about the hidden or missing road sign, so it is documented it in the report. You should also call your insurance company to report the accident. At the scene, you should take photos of your vehicle and the surrounding area, taking special care to take photos of the hidden/obstructed road sign, or the location where the missing road sign should have been. Get the names and contact information of any witnesses to the accident.