Who Is Liable When Roadway Defects Cause a Crash?

In many parts of the United States, springtime is also "pothole season" – that time of year when gaping holes in the road destroy vehicle tires. Potholes have also been known to cause crashes.

When a pothole or other roadway defect causes a crash, motorists may wonder who is liable for their damages. Usually, determining the answer to that question requires some research.

The Issues of ‘Actual Knowledge' and ‘Constructive Knowledge'

If cities were financially liable for all pothole-related damage, some municipal governments would be bankrupt. So to prevail on a liability claim, a motorist would need to show that the party responsible for road maintenance had "actual knowledge" of a road defect, but did not take timely action to repair it.

Actual knowledge is a broad term used in most types of liability and personal injury cases that means the defendant "must have known" of a hazard or defect. In cases involving roadway defects, actual knowledge may be proven through records and interviews. For example, if a local public works department logged numerous phone calls about a road hazard, or if residents of a neighborhood say they had reported a defect, those facts might support a plaintiff's liability claim.

Constructive knowledge means that a party should have or could have known of a fact, even without actual knowledge. For example, based on constructive knowledge, any experienced driver would know that during an ice storm, roads are slick. But that driver would not have actual knowledge of a pothole, unless they had previously seen it or been warned about it.

The Element of Time in Liability Cases

Time is a factor in liability cases, and there is no hard-and-fast rule regarding how soon a defect must be repaired. Courts are often asked to determine whether the time that elapsed between a party's knowledge and repair of a defect is "reasonable."

If a commercial truck suddenly spills its cargo on a highway, and that cargo immediately causes a crash, the parties that maintain the highway would not be found liable, because they could not have reasonably removed the hazard in a few seconds. The driver of the truck, or the driver's employer, however, might be liable for such a crash if driver error or improper loading contributed to the cargo spill.

In a landmark liability lawsuit involving a public road defect, the Los Angeles City Council paid $9.5 million to the family of a girl who was fatally struck while crossing the street. The street, which separates a beach from the beach parking areas, had been the site of numerous accidents and had no crosswalks in the area. The city council knew of these crashes yet took no timely action to provide safe crossing areas for pedestrians.

When a road defect cannot be repaired in a timely manner, the party that maintains the road may avoid liability by warning motorists of the defect. That might entail using barricades to close a traffic lane or dispatching a police officer to block access to a hazardous area.

Shared Liability

Many states have laws that allow motorists to be compensated for their losses, even when they share a portion of blame. Here's a hypothetical scenario that illustrates shared liability:

A motorist is following a pickup truck on the highway, when a large object falls out of the back of the truck. The motorist strikes the object and crashes, but witnesses tell police that the motorist was following the pickup truck at an unsafe distance. A court may find that both drivers shared fault for the crash, but that the pickup driver's share of fault was greater, because of failure to secure the object.

Motorists who are injured in a crash due to roadway defects or debris should seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney, because they could be entitled to compensation for their losses.

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