Who’s At Fault if Poor Road Conditions Cause an Accident?

How to prove liability for accidents caused by poor road conditions. Act fast for accident claims against government agencies and contractors.

Almost a third of all motor vehicle accidents are related to poor road conditions, resulting in more than two million injuries and 22,000 fatalities per year.¹ Although state and federal laws require local governments to design, build, and maintain safe roads and highways, poor roads continue to be a significant safety issue.

How to Determine Liability for Dangerous Roads

Figuring out liability for accidents caused by hazardous road conditions can be complicated. Passenger vehicles, motorcycles, and heavy work trucks may be involved in the crash, on top of the road issue that contributed to it.

While most auto accidents are caused by negligent drivers, poor road quality and conditions can be a significant factor. In other words, even if poor road conditions aren’t the only cause of the accident, they likely made it worse.

3 Steps to Proving Fault for Accidents Caused by Poor Road Conditions

Step 1. Pinpoint the Hazardous Condition

Step 2. Show the Hazard Could Have Been Prevented

Step 3. Identify the Responsible Parties

Bonus: Pursuing Compensation for a Hazardous Road Accident

When you’re injured in an accident caused by poor road conditions, you’ll have to prove the hazard that caused your injuries and who caused it. In most cases, the at-fault party will be a government entity, a construction company, or another corporate business.

Proving fault and filing a claim against the government is different than filing a claim against another driver’s insurance company. Here’s what you need to know about pursuing compensation from agencies responsible for road safety.

Step 1: Pinpoint the Hazardous Condition

Pinpointing the hazard is usually the easy step. Common road conditions that contribute to car accidents include:

  • Damaged, missing, or hidden road signs
  • Potholes and cracks in the road surface
  • Uneven roads
  • Missing or inadequate guardrails
  • Faded paint markings, like the center line or road edge markings
  • Road shoulder drop-off
  • Debris in the road
  • Improperly treated roads in winter weather

Hazardous road conditions are usually obvious, like winter weather. Snow and ice often cause traffic accidents. But how can you get compensation when you’ve been injured in a crash caused by snow?

The county may argue that snow is a naturally occurring substance that can’t be prevented. Further, the county may assert that they have sovereign immunity from injury lawsuits. And they will argue it was your own fault, not theirs.

Don’t give up without a fight.

Even when a driver is partially to blame for an accident caused by road conditions, they may still be entitled to compensation from the responsible government agency. In this case, it would be the agency responsible for plowing the snowy roads.

Case Example: Man Awarded $600,000 for Injuries Caused by Poor Snow Removal 

On a cold January morning in Illinois, Paul Ziencina was driving north on Ridgeland Avenue when he stopped at the intersection of Ridgeland and Vollmer. On the side of the intersection, snow had been plowed into piles higher than a car roof, and extending 30 to 40 feet along the roadside.

After stopping at the traffic sign, Ziencina began to edge forward, bit by bit, in an attempt to see traffic coming on Vollmer. As he pulled forward into the intersection trying to see around the mounds of snow, he was broadsided by an SUV driven by Terry Miller. Miller had the right-of-way.

Ziencina suffered severe injuries to his chest and lungs, and had to be intubated at the hospital. He was hospitalized for more than a month before being transferred to a rehab facility for several more weeks.

Attorneys for Ziencina filed a lawsuit against Cook County, alleging the county was liable for the dangerous road conditions caused by the mounded snow.

Witnesses testified that the snow was piled up high by the county’s plow operators, and was not a natural accumulation of snow. Experts testified that plowing the snow into high mounds violated normal safety standards.

Although Cook County tried to claim immunity, and disputed Ziencina’s future pain and suffering, the jury determined Cook County was 50% to blame for the accident, awarding Ziencina $600,000 for his injuries and pain and suffering. The award was upheld on appeal.

Note: Ziencina’s damages were valued by the jury at $1.2 million. However, the jury also found Zeincina’s own negligence (he did not have the right of way) to constitute 50% of the total fault and therefore awarded the plaintiff a net amount of $600,000 in damages. 

Step 2: Show the Hazard Could Have Been Prevented

Some types of dangerous conditions happen suddenly. If you’re injured before local authorities have a reasonable chance to remedy the situation, they may not be responsible. For example, no one could have anticipated this huge sinkhole that opened up in a residential street, swallowing a parked car in a Queens neighborhood. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Showing that a road condition could have been prevented requires evidence. You must prove that the agency responsible for the road knew, or should have known, that the problem existed and had the time to fix it.

Using the sinkhole example, once the city was notified, they had an obligation to promptly cordon off the sinkhole and fix the street.

You can prove the city was notified of a problem by gathering statements from neighborhood residents and business owners. The amount of time the hazard remained after the city was notified can show they had ample time to fix the problem but did not take action.

It’s not true that “You can’t fight city hall,” but you probably can’t fight them on your own. An experienced accident lawyer will be able to discover witness testimony, maintenance records, prior claims and lawsuits, and other compelling proof of the responsible party’s pattern of neglect.

Case Example: Motorcyclist Awarded $3.4 Million for Pothole Crash Injuries

Roger Gates spent six weeks in the hospital, ten weeks in rehab, and endured multiple surgeries after he was hit by a minivan while swerving his motorcycle to avoid large potholes on a Passaic County roadway.

The accident occurred on Oak Ridge Road, a county roadway with a long history of vehicle accidents caused by poor road conditions, including numerous recurring potholes.

A witness testified that the two potholes that threw Gates into oncoming traffic were each “three feet long and up to a foot deep.” The witness also verified she had previously reported the dangerous potholes to the county.

Despite the County’s attempt to claim immunity from liability, and to shift blame onto Gates, the jury found in favor of Gates. The verdict was upheld on appeal.

Step 3: Identify the Parties Responsible for the Hazard

Every car accident scenario is unique, and there may be more than one avenue you can pursue for compensation.

1. The at-fault driver:  When you’re injured in an accident caused by a negligent driver, even if poor road conditions contributed to the crash, you’ll need to file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company.

2. Government agencies:  The road with the hazardous condition may be under the jurisdiction of a city, county, or state government.  A smaller number of roadways, such as interstate highways, fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

3. Negligent third party: When the hazardous road condition was triggered by the negligence of a third party, who was not part of a government agency, you may be able to seek compensation for your damages from that party.

For example, recently in Utah, a rollover accident was caused when a construction truck spilled gravel on the roadway. Three vehicle occupants were hospitalized with serious injuries. The injury victims will likely have a strong claim against the construction company hauling the gravel.

When multiple parties share liability for your injuries, the case can drag on as the parties try to shift blame onto each other. It may not be resolved outside of a courtroom.

Case Example: Jury Awards $13.1 Million to Man Injured By Defective Road Paving 

Gernardo Cato was among five college students traveling together on South Carolina Interstate 77. The driver was attempting to get onto the highway from the shoulder when the car went airborne, landing on top of another vehicle in the opposing lane of traffic. The driver had lost control of the car because of a 4.5-inch pavement drop-off.

Four of the students were killed in the crash. The only survivor, Cato was airlifted to the hospital with traumatic brain injuries and a broken collarbone.

The interstate highway was undergoing a repaving project at the time of the crash. There had been no signage or markers to warn drivers of the dangerous drop-off and no apparent measures taken to grade the area between the pavement and the soft shoulder.

Cato’s attorney filed suit against the general contractor Archer Weston Construction Co., the paving contractor, and the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT).

The jury found Archer Weston 60 percent liable for the accident and SCDOT 40 percent liable. The jury determined the paving company was not liable because it was Archer Weston’s responsibility to backfill the area after paving.

The award to Cato included more than $200,000 for medical expenses, more than $500,000 for future care, and nearly $1.4 million for loss of earning capacity. The jury awarded $7 million for his pain and suffering and $4 million in punitive damages.

Pursuing Compensation for a Hazardous Road Accident

Depending on the type of road hazard and who’s at fault, you may be seeking compensation from a government agency, a private third party, your own insurance company, or all three.

Compensation From Your Own Insurer

Always notify your insurance company after an accident, even if it wasn’t your fault. Most policies have a “notice clause” that says you agree to notify the company of an accident, and you agree to cooperate with the company’s investigation into the crash.

In a no-fault insurance state, your Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage pays the medical bills for you and your passengers no matter who caused the accident, up to the coverage limits. PIP does not cover pain and suffering. Aside from PIP, many policies have elective MedPay coverage to help pay your immediate medical expenses.

PIP and MedPay can help defray some of your immediate medical costs, even if you are pursuing other parties for compensation. Collision coverage should pay for your property damage claim, and may provide a rental car while your vehicle is in the shop.

If another party is responsible for the crash, your insurance company will seek reimbursement from that party.

Compensation From Non-Government Entities

If another vehicle hits you, you’ll file an injury claim with the at-fault driver’s car insurance company, even if unsafe road conditions contributed to the crash.

Companies that create a hazard (like spilled cargo) or government contractors responsible for maintaining or repairing roads and bridges, will carry business liability insurance and may have their own legal department. You can file a claim directly against these entities.

Compensation From Government Agencies

If you plan to file a claim against a government agency, you begin by filing a Notice of Claim. This formally tells the agency that you’re filing a civil claim against them. You must file a separate notice of claim against each government agency responsible for the roadway.

The claim form must be filled out completely and correctly. An incomplete form will be rejected, so it’s important to get it right the first time.

Once you file your notice of claim, a government attorney usually reviews it. The attorney may reject your claim or schedule an administrative hearing where you can present your case.

If your claim is denied at the administrative hearing,  you can file an administrative appeal. If you lose the appeal, your final option is to file a lawsuit against the government agency responsible for your injuries.

Beware the Statute of Limitations

Unlike injury claims against private individuals, where the statute of limitations for filing a claim is two to five years, the statutory period for filing a claim against the government can be six months or less.

Failing to file your claim before the government deadline means you’ll lose your chance to pursue compensation from the agency, no matter how badly you’ve been hurt.

Claims against the government can be complicated. It’s in your best interest to meet with a personal injury attorney for a free consultation. The attorney will review the facts of your case, provide legal advice, and help you navigate the government claim process.

Poor Road Conditions Accident Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>