Vehicle Damage Due To Poor Road Conditions: Who Is Liable?

From potholes to construction zones, who is on the legal hook when your car is damaged by road conditions?

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Figuring out who is liable for most car accidents isn't a mystery. If you are stopped at a stop sign, and the car behind you rear-ends you, then that driver is most likely liable for damage to your vehicle and for any injuries you suffer. But what if your vehicle is damaged (or you are injured) because of:

  • potholes,
  • shoulder drop-off
  • oil and chip
  • construction zone
  • icy or snowy roads, or
  • wet roads.

Who is legally liable in those situations? In many cases, it is the government entity charged with maintaining the road where your accident took place. But there are also times when someone other than the government is responsible. In this article we'll help you determine who is responsible if your vehicle is damaged due to poor road conditions, and how to proceed with making a claim.

Government Responsibility To Maintain Roads

As mentioned above, the city, county, or state charged with maintaining the road where your accident occurred may be responsible for any damage caused by poor road conditions. The theory here is, because it is the government’s job to maintain the roads, the government is also responsible for any damage that results when roads aren't kept reasonably safe. The key here is what is considered "reasonable." The government won't always be responsible simply because your vehicle was damages by the questionable condition of a road.

State laws typically allow the government a reasonable amount of time to discover poor road conditions and a reasonable amount of time to repair them. Governments generally discovery dangerous road conditions in one of two ways:

  • through individuals reporting a dangerous condition, and
  • by conducting regular surveys of the roadways.

If the government has not discovered a dangerous road condition, there is a good chance it will not be responsible for any damage the condition causes. The one exception may be, if the dangerous condition has been around long enough that the government should have discovered it. In that case, the government may still be on the hook even though it did not actually know about the poor road condition.

Also, the government will not likely be responsible for damage caused by a dangerous road condition if it has not had enough time to repair the condition. Bottom line: If you are going to make a successful claim against the government for damage to your vehicle caused by poor road conditions, you will have to prove two things:

  • the government knew about the poor road condition (or should reasonably have known about it), and
  • the government did not repair the poor road condition within a reasonable amount of time.

Making a Claim

The first thing you will want to do is take down relevant information. Record the following:

  • the general location of the poor condition, i.e. what businesses/landmarks are nearby?
  • the name of the road
  • the direction you were traveling
  • the exact location of the poor condition in the road
  • the physical characteristics of the poor conditions, e.g. size and depth of a pothole
  • the names and contact information of any witnesses

If you think you may have a claim, you will need to find out which government body is responsible for maintaining the road in question. You can likely find out which government body is responsible by calling your local county commissioners’ office. If they are not responsible, they can likely tell you who is.

Once you determine which government body is responsible, you will need to give the government body notice of your claim. You will probably need to do this quickly. Typically there is a limited amount of time to make such a claim. If too much time has passed, you may lose your right to make a claim. (Learn more about Injury Claims Against the Government.)

Proving Your Claim

Chances are, the government is not going to send you a check for your property damage just because you make a claim. You will have to prove the government is legally liable. First, you need to show the government knew about the poor condition. The government may admit to its knowledge of the poor condition. If not, you have a couple of options:

  • Request Survey Records – Government bodies conduct regular surveys to check for poor road conditions. You can request these records. Examine them and determine whether someone previously located the poor road condition that caused your vehicle damage.
  • Show the Government Should Have Known About the Poor Condition -- This could be difficult. It will take some leg work. You will have to take measures to research the area. One way to do this is to interview people who live nearby.

Report the Incident No Matter What

Whether or not you decide to make a claim, you should report the poor road condition. There is a good chance you will help prevent the poor condition from causing damage to someone else’s vehicle. You may even help prevent someone from being seriously injured. If you are not sure who to report the condition to, contact the local police department.

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