Thousands of people are hurt or killed each year on U.S. roads and highways due to poor road quality and conditions. Although state and federal laws require cities, towns, villages, and counties to design, build, and maintain safe roads and highways, it’s virtually impossible to ensure every road and highway is completely safe.
The Federal Highway Administration is the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation responsible for assisting state and local governments with guidelines for the safe design and construction of roadways. They monitor car accidents and make regular inspections of accident scenes where road design, maintenance, or defects are contributing factors. See the work they do.
Common road conditions that contribute to car accidents:
- Confusing, damaged or missing signs
- Roads not salted or plowed in winter weather
- Blind curves and poorly banked roads
- Lack of traffic signals or poorly placed signals
- Improperly graded curves and uneven shoulders
- Poor landscaping and vision obstructions
- Overly bright lights or lack of nighttime lighting
- Lack of appropriate road markings
- Inappropriate road materials
- Low bridges or incorrect overhead bridge markings
- Broken guardrails
What happens when you’re in a car accident caused by poor road quality or conditions? If you believe your accident was due to faulty roadway design, a defect in the road or because of poor maintenance, you must first report the accident to your own insurance company. Most liability policies cover property damage and injuries from accidents occurring on roads and highways, even when the accident involves only your car.
If you’re convinced the accident was not your fault and that it resulted from any one of the above-listed roadway factors, you have the option to pursue a claim against the government responsible for designing, building, or maintaining the road where the accident occurred.
Liability – Where to begin?
If you choose to take on the government, you probably need an attorney. It’s very difficult to pursue a claim without one. State and local governments have sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that makes them immune from civil lawsuits. There are exceptions, however.
Over the years, the courts have begun to slowly erode sovereign immunity. The courts have generally decided to permit lawsuits against government agencies when the actions of those agencies are reckless or grossly negligent. Although doing so has helped thousands to pursue property and injury claims, it still takes a good deal of evidence to get past sovereign immunity.
Identifying the Proper Parties
If you want to do some research before deciding whether to hire an attorney, the first thing you have to do is identify who’s responsible for your accident. This is sometimes tricky because it may involve several parties.
For example, a private contracting firm was hired by the local government to built the road. But the state Department of Transportation controls the funding for building the roadway. Also, the local city is responsible for ongoing roadway maintenance. All three of these entities may have some liability, although it’s more than likely sovereign immunity will apply to one, or all of them.
To sort out the various parties, you can begin by going to the county clerk’s office. There, you can find land surveys and the names of any party that’s involved in the roadway’s design, construction, and maintenance. Because county records are freely accessible to the public under the various open records acts, you won’t have any problem accessing them. You can ask one of the clerks at the county records department to help you find the information you need.
Gathering the evidence you need to succeed in your claim will take a lot of time and research. Here are some of the most effective ways to obtain credible and relevant evidence:
Call the police
You or your passengers may need medical assistance. When the police arrive, they assess the scene and begin creating a police accident report. This report is crucial in your claim. It includes the names of any witnesses and a description of road quality and conditions. The police officer normally draws a diagram of the accident scene. He’ll also list weather conditions and other contributing factors.
If you believe a roadway fault or obstructions caused the accident, tell the police officer. Ask the officer to include that as a contributing factor in the accident. Police officers may have responded to previous accidents at the same location and created substantial numbers of reports listing the same roadway fault as a factor in those accidents.
Take photographs and videos of the accident scene and the point of impact. Make sure you photograph the road, especially the fault, defect, or obstruction that was directly responsible for the accident.
Look for witnesses
If the accident occurred on a local road or highway, knock on doors of homes located near the accident scene. People can tell you how often accidents occur at that spot. They may have strong opinions about the reason the accidents continue to occur. They may have witnessed many accidents similar to yours caused by obstructions or other roadway faults. They may also have previously reported the roadway problem to the state, city, or town government.
Do some research
Go to the federal courthouse and look up lawsuits filed against the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation. Look for lawsuits specifically related to road quality and conditions at the location of your accident.
Go to the county clerk’s office and look up lawsuits filed against the individual state or local government agencies, and private contracting firms over the design, construction, or maintenance of the roadway. In those lawsuits, look for fact patterns similar to yours, similar accidents, evidence the plaintiffs used, and the amount of compensation.
Contact your state attorney general’s office and request copies of advisory opinions the AG’s office issued to state and local government agencies over road design and defects.
Get online and research the many articles dealing with lawsuits against the government. You can gradually narrow your search to notices of claims, administrative hearings, and lawsuits over roadway defects.
Notice of Claim
If you plan to take on the government, you begin by filing a Notice of Claim. It’s a form government agencies issue. A notice of claim formally tells the government agency you’re filing a civil claim against them. You must file a separate notice of claim against each government agency responsible for the roadway.
In it, you enter all pertinent information about the accident, including the date, time and location of the accident, and then a detailed explanation of the design, construction, or maintenance fault that caused the accident.
It goes on to list your damages, including property damage costs, hospital bills, etc. Your explanation doesn’t have to specifically contain the words “gross negligence” or “recklessness,” but it must contain enough information to suggest government negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your property damage and injuries.
Once you file your notice of claim, a government attorney usually reviews it. The attorney may reject your claim for lack of evidence or he can set up an administrative hearing where you can present your case.
If you get to the administrative hearing and the hearing officer denies your claim, you can file an administrative appeal. If you lose your appeal, you have to find an attorney willing to file a lawsuit on your behalf. Unless your claim involves substantial injuries and high medical bills, it’s unlikely an attorney will accept the case.
Statute of Limitations
Unlike most personal injury claims against private individuals, when 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. Make sure you check the claim filing period in your locality. Missing it can forever bar you from getting compensation for the damages you suffered due to the roadway fault.
Roadway Accidents with Deer and Other Large Animals
Poor road design, maintenance, or defects don’t cause all roadway accidents. Thousands of accidents occur each year when wild animals wander into the road. The animal most responsible for roadway accidents is the deer. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “each year more than 2.5 million car crashes in the United States were caused by deer or large animals…”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, each year more than 300 people die and more than 10,000 are hurt in deer car accidents. The estimated property damage amounts to $1 billion. According to a study by the State Farm Insurance Company, during the past five years, the number of car accidents involving deer increased tenfold.
The months of October, November, and December are deer migration and mating seasons. As a result, those are the months with the highest number of deer accidents. West Virginia is perennially the state with the highest number of deer-related car accidents. Iowa comes in second followed by Michigan. Hawaii has the least number.
Insurance Coverage for Deer Car Accidents
The comprehensive part of your policy normally covers property damage from deer accidents. The policy declaration page may not specifically refer to deer accidents, but you can find specific references in the policy’s fine print. If you want a quick answer, call your insurance company. Someone there can verify your coverage.
Because the issue of who was at fault isn’t normally required to make a claim on your comprehensive coverage, a police report isn’t absolutely necessary. If you’re hurt in a roadway fault accident or collision with a deer, your insurance will cover you if you have PIP (Personal Injury Protection) coverage. If not, you may have to rely on your own medical health plan.
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