Understanding Pothole Trip and Fall Injury Claims and Lawsuits

Here’s what you need to know about pothole trip and fall accidents. Learn about common injuries and what you need to get fair compensation.

Anyone can easily trip and fall because of a pothole located in a roadway, parking lot, or sidewalk. Trip and fall accidents involving potholes can cause painful injuries that require treatment and time spent away from work.

The property owner must bear responsibility for your injuries if they knew of a dangerous pothole, or reasonably should have known of one, but failed to fix it or warn pedestrians of the danger.

At-fault property owners have to compensate you for such losses as medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Most trip and fall victims file an injury claim with the property owner’s insurance company, and some must file a lawsuit to get the compensation they deserve.

Causes of Potholes

Potholes often form after the hard surface of a road, parking lot, or sidewalk erodes. The process is mostly advanced by freezing water. As time passes, the layers of pavement weaken. Weather, cars, and foot traffic all contribute to this reduction in strength.

Cracks soon begin to form in sections of pavement that start to wear out. Water from rain or melting snow eventually seeps into these cracks. As temperatures drop, the water in the cracks freezes. Since ice expands, the freezing water forces the cracks to get bigger.

The water and ice also soften the matter below the pavement, which is often rock and clay. Repeated freezing and melting in weakened areas of asphalt or concrete continues to enlarge and erode the area, creating a pothole.

Excessive heat that causes buckling of asphalt-type surfaces can also cause a pothole to form.

Some potholes take years to form, while others seem to appear overnight. Weather conditions and traffic usually determine how quickly a hole gets created.

While some potholes are massive, others might only measure a few inches in depth. Potholes are often found in parking lots, garage structures, and well-traveled roadways and walks.

Parking lots and garages can be poorly lit, making a pothole even more dangerous since a person has less chance of seeing it before it’s too late to avoid injury.

Poorly Maintained Property

While natural conditions can result in a pothole forming,  potholes become most hazardous to pedestrians when a property owner failed to maintain their roads, sidewalks, or parking areas.

Property owners have a duty to repair sections of eroding pavement if they create a safety hazard on their property. For instance, if a crack in the street or sidewalk appears, poor maintenance and time can cause this crack to deepen and widen. The result is a pothole.

Common Pothole Trip and Fall Injuries

Potholes pose a clear safety hazard as people can step in them, trip, and fall to the ground.

Injuries can stem from:

  • The act of stepping into the hole
  • Trying to catch one’s balance after the initial trip
  • Trying to prevent oneself from falling to the ground
  • A person’s body turning or twisting after tripping

Broken Bones from Slip, Trip and Fall Accidents

Bones break when they can no longer stand up to the pressure that’s exerted on them. Breaks can happen when the foot is stuck in a pothole as the victim falls, or from violent contact with the surrounding pavement.

Trip and fall accidents can often lead to broken:

  • Hips
  • Wrists
  • Ankles
  • Arms

Less common, but just as serious are potential facial fractures if the victim falls forward, hitting their face on the pavement.

As your age increases, your likelihood of breaking a bone increases as well. But this doesn’t mean your compensation would be less than a younger claimant.

The eggshell skull doctrine is a legal principle that says the at-fault party cannot use the victim’s frailty, weakness, sensitivity, or feebleness as a defense in a personal injury claim.

The purpose of the eggshell skull doctrine is to encourage fair compensation for victims and punish the at-fault party for negligence.

Definition of an Eggshell Plaintiff

An “eggshell plaintiff” is an injured person who files a personal injury claim and had some underlying medical issue before filing that claim.

In personal injury law, the negligent party must “take their victim as they find them.” This saying means that a property owner can’t use the victim’s vulnerability to avoid responsibility for an accident.

Sprained Ankles and Wrists

Sprains and strains occur when muscles or ligaments are stretched or torn during a fall.

You can suffer an ankle sprain from a pothole if your ankle twists from suddenly stepping into a hole. You can sprain your wrist from trying to catch yourself as you fall to the ground.

Sprains can take a long time to mend. Victims might be unable to perform simple activities of daily living during their recovery. It’s hard to drive with a sprained ankle, or change a diaper with a sprained wrist. Victims of these injuries often ask for pain and suffering as part of their compensation.

Cuts and Scrapes from Rough Pavement

Cuts and scrapes can occur after an accident victim falls to the pavement following a trip.

Scrapes and are likely to happen to hands, forearms, and elbows, as well as knees. Depending on the fall, a person could end up with “road rash” on their face.

While cuts and scrapes can cause some pain and discomfort, they usually heal quickly. Some larger cuts and scrapes may require stitches, antibiotics, and a follow-up visit to your medical provider.

Knee Injuries from Pothole Accidents

Examples of severe knee injuries after a trip and fall are torn ligaments, commonly ACLs and MCLs. Both of these can occur if you badly twisted your knee after stepping into a pothole.

Knee injuries can take some time to heal and may involve surgery and physical therapy.

As with sprains, victims who suffer knee injuries often seek compensation for pain and suffering and emotional distress.

Shoulder and Neck Injuries

Trying to break your fall with an outstretched arm, or landing hard on your shoulder can leave you with painful neck and shoulder injuries after falling from a pothole trip.

Trip and fall neck injuries can include things like muscle sprains, whiplash-type injuries, and in more serious cases, nerve and spinal cord damage.

Common shoulder injuries from a pothole accident include dislocated shoulders, shoulder tears, and shoulder separations.

Both shoulder and neck injuries are painful, and may require surgery and physical therapy during recovery.

Slip and Fall Back Injuries

Trip and fall injuries caused by potholes typically occur in hard-surface areas. Back injuries can come from slamming backwards on a hard surface, or a violent fall against a curb, nearby parked vehicle, or other objects or surfaces in the vicinity of the pothole.

Hard falls can result in back injuries like:

  • Herniated discs
  • Spinal fractures and dislocations
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Tailbone injuries

Back injuries are often painful. Serious back injuries may also lead to temporary or permanent paralysis.

If you’ve injured your back from a pothole-related trip and fall, you may require surgery and physical therapy. Spinal cord injury claims are best handled by an experienced attorney.

Holding the Property Owner Responsible

Pothole trip and fall cases are rooted in premises liability law. This area of the law says that property owners must protect visitors or customers by making reasonable efforts to avoid potential harm. For example, owners should try and patch a large pothole, place a warning sign, or cordon off the area.

Property owners don’t have to keep visitors safe from all risks of harm, but they do have to protect them from conditions or objects that are potentially dangerous.

To receive compensation, trip and fall victims have to show:

  • The property owner knew or should have known of the pothole
  • The owner failed to fix the pothole or warn pedestrians

It’s sometimes difficult to prove that an owner knew of an unsafe risk. Some evidence that helps demonstrate this knowledge includes surveillance videos and incident reports.

Fall victims usually have an easier time proving that an owner failed to fix an unsafe condition. For example, in pothole cases, you can take a picture of the hole to show that an owner was negligent in repairing it.

Other valuable evidence in pothole cases includes witness statements and photos or video from your smartphone.

When possible, collecting evidence is one of the key actions to take after a slip and fall. If you can’t because of injuries, ask a witness to help.

If you’re unable to collect evidence immediately after your accident, you or a friend can always return to the accident scene later. Try to collect whatever evidence remains. At the least, get a picture of the pothole that caused your trip and fall.

Potholes on Government Controlled Property

Many trip and fall cases involving potholes take place on government property. Some examples include potholes in the parking lot of the DMV or a post office, and roadways controlled by city or county agencies.

Claims against a government agency typically require the same evidence you’d need for an injury claim against a private property owner. But keep in mind that procedural laws for injury claims against a government entity have short timelines and special paperwork that must be submitted correctly for your claim to survive.

For example, there is a “notice” requirement when filing an injury claim against the government. You’re required to file a notice of your injury with the agency you believe caused your injury. You must file your notice prior to filing your injury claim.

The notice laws can be different for state, local, and federal agencies, but they all require certain information from you.

Government injury claims must include: 

  • Your name, address, and contact information
  • The date of your injury and an explanation of how it occurred
  • A description of your injuries
  • A description of your losses

Your losses may include medical expenses, lost wages, out-of-pocket expenses, and pain and suffering.

Shared Blame for Pothole Trip and Fall Accidents

Many insurance adjusters will want to assert that you helped contribute to your trip and fall injuries because of your comparative negligence.

For example, an insurer may try to reduce your compensation by saying that you saw the pothole before your accident but failed to avoid it, or were using your cell phone and not paying attention.

Most states have some type of comparative negligence laws that apply when an accident victim was partly responsible for causing the unfortunate event.

Many state’s laws still allow an injury victim to receive compensation, even if they shared some of the fault, but the percentage of recovery is reduced by the victim’s percentage of fault in causing the accident.

Case Summary: Woman Wins Trip and Fall Lawsuit Involving Pothole

On February 9, 2004, Lillian Robinson, a woman in her 50s, parked her car and then started crossing the street to return to her Brooklyn home. While walking, she tripped and fell after stepping into a pothole that was covered with black ice.

Mrs. Robinson’s lower leg was fractured in at least two places as a result of the accident. She had to undergo surgery after the incident where doctors had to use rods and screws to help repair her injuries.

Through her attorney, Robinson filed a lawsuit against the City of New York. While the jury determined Robinson’s claim was worth $193,735 for her injuries and pain and suffering, they also found her substantially at fault for the accident for not paying proper attention while she was walking.

Under New York’s comparative fault laws, the jury said she was 80% at fault for causing the accident while New York City was 20% responsible. Mrs. Robinson was therefore awarded $38,747.

Robinson’s attorney appealed the decision and asked a higher court to re-evaluate the allocation of fault in the case.

The Supreme Court of the State of New York agreed with Mrs. Robinson that the allocation of fault was inaccurate. The court modified the lower court’s decision, allocating 45% of the fault to Mrs. Robinson and assigned 55% of the fault to the City of New York.

With her attorney’s help, Lillian Robinson received a final award of $87,180.75 in compensation for her pothole slip and fall damages.

Compensation in Pothole Cases

You’re entitled to seek compensation for your slip and fall damages in pothole accident cases.

Damages for injury claims include:

  • Medical costs, including rehabilitation
  • Lost wages, past and future
  • Property damage, like eyeglasses and clothing
  • Out-of-pocket expenses such as medications, crutches, and more

The above are economic damages. You can also receive non-economic damages in trip and fall cases. These are a little bit more difficult to prove because a bill or a receipt doesn’t determine their value.

Examples of common non-economic damages are:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Scarring and disfigurement
  • Physical disability

An injury journal can help prove non-economic damages. In the journal, make sure to write down your inability to sleep,  embarrassment, fear, and frustrations caused by limitations you’re experiencing because of your accident, and any activities you’ve had to miss because of your injuries.

Some trip and fall cases are more complex than others. A complex case means your case’s facts are difficult or confusing, or your damages are significant.

Unless you’re fully recovered from minor injuries, it’s wise to speak with a trip and fall attorney to discuss how to get the compensation you deserve.

Most personal injury attorneys offer free initial consultations. A free consultation means you won’t have to pay a dime to learn of the legal options at your disposal.

Also, most injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. With this fee arrangement, you won’t have to pay your lawyer any money unless your claim settles or you win an award in court.

These cost savings help make legal help more accessible in trip and fall cases. If you have questions about your claim, contact a qualified personal injury attorney to get the assistance you deserve.

Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>