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?

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were an estimated 6,756,000 traffic crashes in 2019. Many of these millions of traffic accidents were caused by driver negligence (careless conduct). But drivers aren't always to blame. Sometimes poor road conditions cause vehicle damage and accidents. In this article, you'll learn about:

  • how poor road conditions can cause vehicle damage and accidents
  • when the government is at fault (liable) for poor road conditions, and
  • special rules for filing claims against the government (tip—act fast!).

What Are Poor Road Conditions?

In the United States, one in five miles of highways and major roads, and 45,000 bridges, are in poor condition, according to a White House fact sheet about the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021.

The poor road conditions most likely to cause damage to your vehicle include:

  • potholes
  • missing barriers and guardrails
  • shoulder drop-offs
  • uncleared ice and snow
  • poor road design
  • wheel ruts
  • unsafe construction zones (see below), and
  • oil and chip (a temporary fix for roads that gets slippery if it sits too long).

Even the most cautious drivers can get into an accident when faced with poor road conditions. This article focuses on who is responsible for vehicle damage caused by poor road conditions. For a related discussion, learn what to do if a poor road condition causes a car accident.

The Government Is Responsible for Maintaining Roads

Roads are typically maintained by cities, counties, and states. If your car is damaged because a road or highway is in bad shape, you can probably file a claim against the government asking for compensation.

In order to win your claim, you'll need to show that the government failed to safely and reasonably maintain the road. Governments generally discover dangerous road conditions in one of two ways:

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

Sometimes it's the government's attempt to fix a road—road construction—that leads to accidents and vehicle damage. If your car is damaged in an unsafe construction zone, you might have a claim against the construction company responsible for the work.

The Government Must Be "Negligent"

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 that the government was negligent. In other words, you'll have to prove:

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

For example, let's say a giant pothole develops on a downtown street in your city. The local newspaper is full of letters to the editor complaining about it and people have expressed concern about the pothole at city council meetings. But the pothole remains, untouched, for six months. If your vehicle is damaged by the pothole, you'll have a strong claim against the city because city officials knew about the pothole and had a reasonable amount of time to fix it.

On the other hand, if a well-maintained tree falls unexpectedly and hits your car, the government (city or county depending on where you were parked) probably won't be on the hook for damages. The tree was well-maintained and the government had no reasonable reason to remove it before it fell—the damage was caused by an accident, not negligence.

What You Need to Make a Claim

The first thing you'll want to do is gather information to get your claim started. You'll need:

  • the name of the road and direction you were traveling
  • the exact location of the damaged road or hazard
  • names and contact information of any witnesses, and
  • physical characteristics of the road or hazard (like size and depth of a pothole—take pictures if you can).

Next, you'll need to figure out which government agency is responsible for maintaining the road in question. Local roads are usually maintained by a city or county. State governments (often with federal and local government assistance) maintain highways. The federal government is responsible for the federal highway system and interstates.

If you're not sure whether it's the city, county, state, or federal government that is legally responsible for maintaining the road where your vehicle was damaged, you can't go wrong with sending a claim to as many governmental entities as possible.

Special Rules for Claims Against the Government

Every state has special rules for claims and lawsuits against the government. You can't sue the government at all over some actions (or inactions). But you typically can sue the government for failing to maintain roads. First, you have to file a special claim (sometimes called an "administrative claim") with the agency before you can file a civil lawsuit in court.

The claim-filing process varies from agency to agency, but you often have a short window to notify the government in writing of what happened and how much compensation you want. For example, in California, you have six months to file a special claim for property damage or personal injury in most cases. If you miss the window, you lose your right to make a claim or file a lawsuit.

The city, county, or state government might have its own claim form for you to complete, or they might just maintain a list of the required information. Start by doing an online search for "claim against [city/county/state] government."

Once you submit your claim, the government has a certain amount of time to respond (for example, 45 days for most claims in California). The government might agree to pay you some or all of the money damages you demanded, and you might not need to go to court. If the government rejects your claim or offers less money than you demanded, you have a limited amount of time to file a lawsuit in court.

Proving Your Claim

Chances are, the government isn't going to send you a check for your vehicle damage just because you make a claim. You will have to prove the government knew about the road's poor condition and didn't repair it within a reasonable amount of time. The government might admit it had knowledge of the road's poor condition. If not, you have a couple of options:

Request Survey Records. Government agencies 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.

Investigate. If you can't prove the government knew about the road condition, you'll have to prove that the government should have known about it, which will take some leg work. You will have to investigate the area. Try to interview people who live nearby and request police reports documenting all accidents in the area.

Report the Incident and Talk to a Lawyer

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 your car was damaged because of poor road conditions, you might want to talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you decide if you have a claim against the government. Learn more about how to file claims against the government in your state and what kind of lawyer you need to sue a city.

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