Courts Grapple with Pothole Repair Liability Questions

Severe storms, fluctuating temperatures and flooding all wreak havoc on our roadways, creating minefields of potholes for motorists and cyclists to navigate. Damages from these road hazards can range from blown tires, pricey alignment adjustments, physical injuries and, in some cases, even death. How far does the responsibility of local governments to repair these damaged roadways go? That’s a question recently addressed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Just this past week, the Supreme Court was considering the extent of local governments’ liability to repair potholes as it reviewed the case of Polzo v. County of Essex. The family of Mathi Kahn-Polzo brought suit against Essex County after she died from head injuries suffered when she hit a pothole while cycling with friends on a county road. (1)

The question the Court is struggling with is whether local governments are responsible only for repairing damages they have “constructive notice” of, which meets the Tort Claims Act requirement, or if their responsibilities extend further to include establishment of an inspection program to detect road damage. (1)

While Ms. Kahn-Polzo’s estate is arguing that had Essex County properly maintained its roadways her death may have been avoided, attorneys for the county contend that the local government cannot be held responsible for repairing damages it didn’t know about. Forcing local governments to have an inspection process in place to detect all potential road hazards would put undue burden on agencies that have limited resources they claim. (1)

New Jersey is not the only state dealing with pothole problems. Wisconsin, for example, is currently battling over a proposed Assembly bill that would change a state law which allows motorists to sue local governments for damages caused by road hazards without having to prove negligence, but requires proof of negligence in similar suits against the State. Proponents of the bill say it would even the playing field between state and local governments, but opponents say it would limit the rights of motorists to recover damages. (2)

While the courts continue to grapple with the liability question, residents can do their part by reporting potholes and other road damages to the proper agencies. Local government websites can help here. Be sure to note the exact location of the damage and provide pictures if possible. Go a step further — ask for an expected repair date and follow up. (3)

If you are someone you know has been injured in a car accident, contact the car accident attorneys at Ragland Law Firm to protect your legal rights.




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