Road Hazards

Some motor vehicle accidents arise not because of a driver’s carelessness, but rather road hazards. Road hazards can include animals, rough roads, gravel, bumpy edges, uneven expansion joints, slick surfaces, standing water, debris, snow, ice, or objects that have fallen from a construction site or another vehicle.

In some cases, nobody is to blame for the road hazard. Blame cannot be assigned to anyone when wild animals, snow, ice or other natural conditions cause an accident. However, in other cases, a particular and identifiable person or entity causes a road hazard. For example, the government as well as the construction company that designed and constructed a road may be held responsible for a particularly rough road or bumpy edges. In some cases, standing water is the result of a negligently designed road that is unreasonably dangerous. While certain road hazards may be minor to a truck or a sturdy car, they can have outsized effects on a motorcyclist, a bicyclist, or a light SUV.

Suppose, for example, that a motorcyclist hits a large construction tool left behind after roadwork was complete and loses control of his vehicle, resulting in a motorcycle accident and catastrophic injuries. The motorcyclist or his family may be able to bring a lawsuit based on negligence and premises liability against the government, as well as the entity that designed and constructed the road.

Liability for Road Hazards

Most cases involving road hazards involve negligence. However, which entity is liable for an accident arising out of a road hazard varies. Some negligent parties can include public entities, such as the federal government, the state, the city, or a public agency, or private businesses, such as landscapers and construction companies. For example, a public agency that is doing construction on a road may have the responsibility of posting a warning sign or reducing the speed limit in a particular area to avoid or reduce the accidents in a construction zone. Or, for example, if a log rolls out of a construction truck parked next to a work site on the road, causing the drivers who are approaching to swerve, lose control, and crash, the construction company may be held liable.

In some cases, a driver’s own behavior is partially or fully to blame for an accident arising out of a road hazard, and in all states this will affect his or her compensation. However, different states follow different rules related to a plaintiff’s own liability. In states that follow comparative negligence, the jury will assign percentages of fault to all parties, including the plaintiff, and a plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by his or her proportion of fault. Suppose, for example, the driver of a light SUV is speeding 30 miles over the speed limit through the rain, and the SUV rolls over when it hits a slick surface and an expected bump in the road, resulting in injuries. The driver of the light SUV who was speeding may have $100,000 of damages, but if he is 80% at fault and the government entity that negligently designed the road to have standing water is 20% at fault, the driver can only recover up to $20,000 from the government entity. In some states, any fault by the plaintiff, such as speeding, would bar that person from recovering at all. In other states, the plaintiff can only recover as long as he or she is either less than 50% or 51% responsible.