Poor road conditions such as potholes, uneven pavement, poor or misleading traffic signals, a lack of guardrails, poor road maintenance, or even poor or unsafe road design, cause serious traffic accidents every year in California. Injured motorist who are victims of roadway defects must pursue different legal remedies from motorists who suffer a traffic accident due to another driver and, as a result, many are confused at their options.
In California, a driver who is injured as a result of a roadway defect must pursue a claim against the state of California, a city, a county, or another government entity that has responsibility for designing and maintaining the roadways. California permits theses claims under a specific provision of law known as the California Tort Claims Act (the CTCA). Without this act, all claims against any government entity would normally be barred under a rule known as “sovereign immunity.” In general, sovereign immunity means that a government or agent of the government cannot be sued for negligence, except under specific exemptions, such as the CTCA.
As a result, the CTCA proscribes very specific rules that must be followed prior to a suit against a government entity or its agents being filed. One extremely important provision of the CTCA is the necessity for filing a written claim within 6 months of the occurrence of the accident. It is therefore advisable for anyone injured as a result of a roadway defect to file such a notice, even if it is not immediately apparent that a suit should be filed. This differs notably from other types of actions, in which an injured party may have several years to even begin the process of filing a lawsuit. Although the CTCA does not necessarily shorten the statute of limitations—the time period during which an injured individual has to file a lawsuit—the requirement of filing a timely notice stating the possibility of a claim is a unique and therefore often missed aspect of suits for roadway defects. In some cases, the time period may be waived or extended, however, only an attorney familiar with the CTCA will be able to negotiate such an extension or waiver.
The CTCA also proscribes specific bases for pursuing claims against California entities or individuals (see, for example, §815.2, on pursuing a claim against an individual California employee). These bases are similar to “ordinary” negligence actions, although may differ in their scope depending on the exact nature of the roadway defect or accident. In general, however, an injured motorist must show that there existed a duty, that this duty was violated, that the violation of the duty caused the injury or accident, and that the accident resulted in actual, physical damages or injuries.
The state of California, municipalities, counties, or other agents responsible for maintaining the roads have numerous duties owed to drivers and passengers. For example, the state must maintain reasonable maintenance of the roadways, must maintain proper signaling if applicable, must set a reasonable speed given the design of the roadway, and must design the roadways in a reasonable and safe manner. These duties also apply to any agent of the state: for example, if the state, city, or county hires a roadway contractor to design, build, repair, or maintain a road, any defect caused as a result of that contractor’s negligence will be imputed to the state. In such a circumstance, the state, roadway contractor, and, potentially, individual employee responsible for the defect may all be liable for the accident.
If a driver is injured after passing over a pothole, for example, the driver might argue that the state of California (or any other entity involved in maintaining the road) had a duty to reasonably repair and monitor the roadways for such potholes. The driver would argue that the state violated this duty by not repairing the pothole, and that the pothole caused actual, physical damage to the driver’s car. The state, in response, might argue that, although it does have a duty to maintain the roadways, it is not reasonable that the state can repair all potholes on all roads at all times, given the vast roadway system and the state’s limited resources. Were the case to go to trial, a judge or jury would determine whether is it reasonable for the state to be charged with the duty of repairing potholes such as the one that damaged the car, considering all the circumstances. Such circumstances might include the size of the pothole, how long the pothole has been present, whether other accidents have occurred as a result of the pothole, and so on.
Similarly, an injured driver might allege that the state has failed to design a roadway in a safe manner. Such a suit would allege that the state has a duty to design reasonably safe roadways, has breached this duty in designing the stretch of roadway that led to the accident, that this breach resulted in an accident, and that the accident resulted in physical damage to a driver’s car, or to the driver personally. Again, this is a factually intensive inquiry, which may depend, for example, on whether other accidents have occurred on this roadway, the standards that exist for roadway design, changes or alterations in the roadway over time (such as the addition or removal of guardrails or breakdown lanes), driving conditions at the time of the accident, and so on.
Because many entities might be involved in the maintenance of roads—such as the state, a county, city, or a roadway contractor hired by any of these agencies—and because all roadway defect claims must be pursued under the CTCA, it is vital to immediately contact an attorney familiar in suing for roadway defects, both in order to protect valuable rights that may be lost if a notice is not timely filed, and also to maximize the chances of recovery by identifying all parties that might be at fault for the accident. Because the CTCA is a very specific provision of law, it is important to seek out attorneys that are familiar and experienced in litigating under it. Moreover, experienced attorneys will be able to determine important facts, such as the existence of prior accidents possibly due to the same roadway defect, that may greatly assist in pursuing a lawsuit or settlement against the government entity allegedly at fault for a roadway defect.