Who Is Liable if a Road Hazard Causes a Car Accident?

June 5, 2024 | By Francis Firm Injury Attorneys
Who Is Liable if a Road Hazard Causes a Car Accident?

Many factors, ranging from driver error to mechanical failures, can contribute to car accidents. However, one often-overlooked cause of accidents is hazardous road conditions.

Potholes, debris, inadequate signage, and other road hazards can lead to serious collisions, leaving drivers, passengers, and sometimes pedestrians with significant injuries and property damage.

Determining liability in these cases can be complex, as multiple parties may be responsible for maintaining safe road conditions. Read on to learn about the various road hazards, factors that influence liability, and guidance on protecting yourself and others from road hazard-related accidents.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto accident caused by road hazard, contact a Southlake car accident lawyer near you for legal assistance.

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8 Common Types of Road Hazards

Road hazards come in many forms, each posing unique dangers to drivers and their vehicles.

Eight of the most common types of road hazards include:

fallen tree branches caused a Car accident
  1. Potholes: These holes in the road can range from minor inconveniences to serious safety risks. When drivers encounter potholes, they may swerve to avoid them, potentially losing control of their vehicles or colliding with other cars. Potholes can also cause significant damage to tires, wheels, and suspension components, leading to unexpected mechanical failures that can result in accidents.
  2. Debris: Objects on the road, such as fallen tree branches, loose cargo from trucks, or even animal carcasses, can create sudden and dangerous obstacles for drivers. When drivers are unable to maneuver around debris safely, collisions can occur. In some cases, other vehicles may also kick up debris, causing damage or obstructing the vision of drivers behind them.
  3. Inadequate signage: Clear and accurate road signs are essential for informing drivers about speed limits, sharp turns, merging lanes, and other crucial information. When signs are missing, damaged, or obscured, drivers may be unaware of potential hazards, increasing the risk of accidents. Inadequate signage can be particularly dangerous in areas with complex road layouts or during adverse weather conditions.
  4. Poor road design: Some accidents can be attributed to roadway design flaws. Sharp curves, inadequate banking, insufficient shoulders, and other design issues can make it more difficult for drivers to maintain control of their vehicles, especially in wet or icy conditions. Poor drainage can also lead to standing water on the road, increasing the risk of hydroplaning and loss of vehicle control.
  5. Construction zones: Road work is necessary to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure, but construction zones can also create hazards for drivers. Uneven surfaces, narrow lanes, and confusing traffic patterns can all increase the risk of accidents. Construction companies and government agencies must properly mark work zones with adequate signage and barriers to protect workers and drivers.
  6. Malfunctioning traffic signals: Traffic signals are critical in regulating traffic flow and preventing collisions at intersections. When traffic signals malfunction or are not properly maintained, drivers may be left unsure when to proceed, increasing the risk of accidents. Malfunctioning traffic signals can be particularly dangerous during peak traffic hours or in areas with high pedestrian activity.
  7. Inadequate lighting: Poor lighting on roads and highways can make it difficult for drivers to see potential hazards, especially at night or during inclement weather. Inadequate lighting can also reduce the visibility of pedestrians and cyclists, increasing the risk of accidents. Government agencies and private property owners must properly light roads to maintain safe conditions for all users.
  8. Improperly maintained shoulders: Road shoulders serve an important safety function, providing a space for drivers to pull over in case of emergencies or mechanical issues. When shoulders are not properly maintained, they can pose hazards to drivers. Potholes, uneven surfaces, and shoulder debris can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles or suffer damage that can lead to accidents.

Who's at Fault? 5 Factors That Determine Liability in Road Hazard Accidents

Determining who is liable for the resulting damages and injuries can be complex when an accident occurs due to a road hazard. In general, the party responsible for maintaining the road may be held accountable if they failed to address known hazards or did not take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the roadway.

However, several factors can influence liability:

  1. Government agencies: State and local government agencies are often responsible for maintaining public roads. If an accident occurs due to a road hazard on a public road, you can hold the government agency tasked with maintaining that road liable. However, sovereign immunity often makes claims against these agencies difficult. To successfully bring a claim against a government agency, plaintiffs may need to demonstrate that the agency had actual or constructive notice of the hazard and failed to address it within a reasonable timeframe.
  2. Private property owners: When an accident occurs on a private road or in a parking lot, the property owner may be liable if they fail to maintain safe conditions or address known hazards. This includes making sure that the road surface is free of potholes, debris, and other hazards and providing adequate lighting and signage. If a property owner is aware of a hazard and fails to take action to address it, they may be held liable for any resulting accidents and damages.
  3. Construction companies: Road construction and maintenance projects can create additional hazards for drivers. If an accident occurs due to a road hazard that is the result of ongoing construction work, the construction company may be held liable for failing to maintain a safe work zone or provide adequate warning to drivers. This includes ensuring that construction equipment and materials are properly stored and secured and providing clear signage and barriers to guide drivers safely through the work area.
  4. Vehicle manufacturers: In some cases, a vehicle's design or manufacturing defect may contribute to an accident, even if a road hazard is present. For example, if a tire blowout occurs due to a manufacturing defect, causing the driver to lose control and crash, the vehicle manufacturer may be liable for the resulting damages. In these situations, plaintiffs may need to demonstrate that the defect posed an unreasonable safety risk and that the manufacturer failed to take appropriate steps to address the issue.
  5. Driver negligence: While road hazards can contribute to accidents, drivers are still expected to exercise reasonable care and adjust their driving to suit the conditions. If a driver is found to have been negligent in their actions leading up to the accident, they may be held partially or fully liable for the resulting damages. Examples of driver negligence include speeding, distracted driving, or failing to maintain a safe following distance. In some cases, driver negligence may be considered a contributing factor even if a road hazard exists.

Establishing Liability in Road Hazard Accidents: The Four Key Elements

To hold a party liable for damages resulting from a road hazard-related accident, the plaintiff must typically prove four key elements:

  1. Duty: The defendant (the party being sued) had a legal duty to maintain safe road conditions. This duty may arise from state or local laws, property ownership, or the defendant's role in constructing or maintaining the roadway.
  2. Breach: The defendant breached their duty by failing to address known hazards or take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the roadway. This may include failing to repair potholes, remove debris, or provide adequate signage and lighting.
  3. Causation: The defendant's breach of duty directly contributed to the accident and the resulting damages. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the road hazard was a substantial factor in causing the accident and that it would not have occurred if the defendant had fulfilled their duty to maintain safe road conditions.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff suffered actual damages, such as property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, or pain and suffering, resulting from the accident. The plaintiff must provide evidence of these damages, such as repair bills, medical records, and employment documentation.

Gathering evidence to support these elements can be challenging, particularly when dealing with government agencies or large corporations.

Plaintiffs may need to rely on expert testimony from accident reconstructionists, engineers, or other professionals to demonstrate the nature and extent of the road hazard and its role in causing the accident. Thorough documentation of the road conditions, including photographs, witness statements, and police reports, can also be crucial in building a strong case.

Shared Fault in Road Hazard Accidents: Understanding Comparative Negligence

Comparative Negligence

In some cases, the court may find that multiple parties, including the driver, share responsibility for an accident caused by a road hazard. Many states follow a comparative negligence model, which allows for allocating fault among multiple parties.

Under this model, each party is assigned a percentage of fault, and their liability for damages is proportional to their assigned percentage.

For example, if a driver is found to be 30% at fault for an accident due to their own negligence, such as speeding or distracted driving, while the government agency responsible for maintaining the road is found to be 70% at fault for failing to address a known pothole, the driver's recoverable damages would be reduced by 30%. In some states, if a driver is found to be more than 50% at fault for an accident, they may be barred from recovering any damages.

It's important to note that the specific rules governing comparative negligence can vary by state. Some states follow a pure comparative negligence model, which allows drivers to recover damages even if they are found to be more than 50% at fault, while others follow a modified comparative negligence model, which may set a higher threshold for barring recovery. Consulting an experienced personal injury attorney can help plaintiffs understand how comparative negligence may apply to their case.

See a Road Hazard? Report It and Help Prevent Accidents

One of the most effective ways to prevent road hazard-related accidents is to report hazardous conditions to the appropriate authorities as soon as they are identified. If you encounter a pothole, debris, malfunctioning traffic signal, or other road hazard, contact your local department of transportation or public works office to report the issue. Many municipalities also have online reporting systems or mobile apps that allow citizens to submit road hazard reports easily.

By reporting road hazards, you not only help alert the responsible parties to the need for repairs but also create a record of the hazard that can be used as evidence in the event of an accident. If an accident occurs due to a hazard that has been previously reported, it may be easier to demonstrate that the responsible party had notice of the hazard and failed to take appropriate action to address it.

In addition to reporting hazards, drivers can take steps to protect themselves and others when navigating hazardous road conditions.

5 Ways Drivers Can Reduce Accidents

  1. Slowing down and increasing the following distance to allow more time to react to hazards.
  2. Avoid distractions, such as cell phone use or eating while driving, to maintain focus on the road.
  3. Double check that vehicle tires, brakes, and other safety features are properly maintained to minimize the risk of mechanical failures.
  4. Adjusting driving habits to suit weather conditions, such as reducing speed on wet or icy roads.
  5. Being particularly cautious in construction zones and other areas where road conditions may be unpredictable.

By taking a proactive approach to road safety, drivers can help prevent accidents and protect themselves and others from the dangers posed by road hazards.

Road Hazard Accident? Talk to a Car Accident Attorney Today

If you've been injured in a road hazard accident, don't hesitate to seek legal guidance. An experienced personal injury attorney at Francis Firm can help you with determining liability, gathering evidence, and pursuing the compensation you need. They can also help you understand how comparative negligence may apply to your case and work to protect your rights throughout the legal process.

Don't let a road hazard accident leave you struggling with medical bills, lost wages, and other damages. Contact us at Francis Firm today to schedule a consultation and learn more about your legal options. With the right legal representation, you can hold the responsible parties accountable and secure the compensation you need to move forward after a road hazard accident.