Poor road conditions, such as missing guardrails, erosion, potholes and faulty design, can be the cause of vehicle damage or serious personal injuries for the unwary driver and his passengers. However, whether a person can sue for the resulting damage or injuries is a complicated question.
Anyone who is a victim of a car accident due to poor road conditions must prove that the road conditions actually caused the damage to the car and/or the injuries. The victim must be able to demonstrate that the agency or company responsible for maintaining the road was negligent in its duty to provide a safe roadway — or that they failed to adequately warn drivers of a potential hazard. Finally, the plaintiff must determine if the agency responsible is allowed to be sued in court.
Who Maintains the Roadway?
Roads are typically maintained by cities, counties and states. Different maintenance responsibilities for a certain roadway can also be shared by more than one governmental agency. For example, a state might be responsible for filling potholes and paving the roads, while a city might be responsible for snow plowing and de-icing the roadways. When roads are constructed, there are strict rules for the implementation of signs and guardrails to warn motorists of road conditions. Figuring out which agency was responsible is important, not only for suing the proper party, but for determining if the particular agency can be sued at all.
How can you Prove a Road was Negligently Designed or Maintained?
Once it is determined who is responsible for maintaining the roadway, the victim of an accident must prove that the agency was negligent in the way the road was designed, or in its failure to maintain the road. That is to say the agency could have, and should have, repaired the road but chose not to do so, or that the agency constructed the road in a defective manner.
For example, a county might choose to reduce funding for the addition of guardrails in an area where cars are known to frequently leave the road and roll down a steep embankment. If a car goes off the road and rolls down the embankment, and it can be proven that guardrails would have prevented such an accident, the county may be responsible for the resulting injuries to the driver and passengers in that car.
Determining the Cause of the Car Damage or Injury
Proving that the damage to the vehicle or the injuries to passengers was the direct result of the agency’s negligence will almost always require an expert opinion. Therefore, it is very important to engage an attorney that is experienced in handling personal injury claims caused by defective road conditions. This way, an expert can be retained to examine the roadway, take photographs and measurements, and preserve important evidence before any changes can be made to the accident scene.
Can the Agency Be Sued?
Most government agencies, including states and the federal government, have immunity from lawsuits, which means that they cannot be sued (this is called “sovereign immunity” when it is applied to the federal and state governments, and “governmental immunity” when it is applied to city, county and other smaller governments). This immunity severely limits a victim’s ability to seek compensation from a responsible government entity.
Although government agencies are often immune, there are exceptions to immunity under specific conditions. Typically, negligence in maintaining a roadway will create an exception to immunity and allow a victim to sue. However, there may be narrow constraints, for example, the negligence must have been “gross” (i.e. extreme negligence).
The exact circumstances under which a plaintiff can sue for injuries due to defective road conditions can vary greatly from state to state. Indiana’s Tort Claims Act is found at I.C. 34-13-3-1. It requires that the State agency be notified within 180 days of the accident. Failure to timely file a Tort Claim Notice will mean that your case will be dismissed. In addition to the notice requirements of the Tort Claims Act, in Indiana a victim must file a lawsuit within 2 years of the date of the accident. This is known as the “statute of limitations.” If the victim fails to file the lawsuit in the correct court before the deadline set by the statute of limitations, a court will not allow the plaintiff to proceed, and the case will be dismissed.
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