Poor road conditions -- including potholes -- can sometimes play a part in causing a car accident, or can otherwise cause damage to vehicles and injuries to drivers. When an accident is caused by poor road conditions, the question becomes whether the person who suffered loss (injury or property damage) can make a legal claim for damages. This article discusses a few key issues related to these kinds of cases, including special rules for filing a claim against the state or local government entity that might be responsible for maintaining the roads and highways in your area.
Did Road Conditions Actually Cause the Accident?
If you want to file an injury or vehicle damage claim because you believe your car accident was caused by poor road conditions or a pothole, you will have to prove that the road conditions actually caused (or at least contributed to) the accident and the resulting damage and/or injuries. It's not enough that you got into an accident on part of a road or highway that was in less-than-optimal shape.
For example, if you hit a deep pothole, lose control of your car, and hit a guardrail, you've got a pretty good argument that the pothole caused your accident. If, however, you lost control of your vehicle because you spilled coffee on your shirt while driving, and took your eyes off the road, and it just so happens that the highway in that area is in poor shape, you probably won’t be able to argue that the accident was caused by the sub-par road conditions. Put another way: Be prepared to counter the other side's near-certain argument that something other than poor road conditions caused or contributed to your car accident.
Who Can Be Held Liable?
If you can successfully demonstrate that poor road conditions caused your accident, you will next have to figure out who is legally responsible, and if/how you can file a claim. That means first identifying the state or local government entity (or in some areas, the private company) responsible for maintaining the roadway. Next, you will have to prove that the entity somehow failed to meet its legal obligation to maintain a reasonably safe roadway. For example, you might try to show that the condition of the road represented a dangerous condition, and the entity either failed to fix the problem within a reasonable amount of time, or failed to adequately warn drivers of the danger. In other words, you'll need to show that the entity's negligence caused your injuries or other losses.
If a state or local government agency is responsible for maintaining the road or highway where your accident occurred, there are some procedural hoops you'll need to jump through in order to bring a claim for injury or property damage.
Bringing a Claim Against State or Local Government
Bringing a claim against a state or municipal agency isn't usually as simple as filing a personal injury lawsuit. You'll need to comply with strict procedural rules that have been put in place. These rules vary from state to state (and from municipality to municipality). But typically, anyone claiming that an injury or property damage is the fault of the government (or a government employee) must first file a Notice of Claim. The time limit for filing this Notice is usually pretty short, sometimes 90 days or six months after the incident giving rise to the claim. Miss this deadline, and you've likely lost your right to get compensation for your losses.
The Notice of Claim must typically include the date and location of the accident, details establishing the government’s fault, plus a list of 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.
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.
Immediately after the car accident, call the police to the scene so that a police report can be prepared in connection with the incident. Make sure you let the officer know about the road condition so that it is documented in the report. Write down the precise location of the accident scene and a detailed description of the road condition. You should also call your insurance company to report the accident. At the scene, take photos of your vehicle and the surrounding area, especially the condition of the road. Get the names and contact information of any witnesses to the accident.