Can You Sue the City for Potholes?

Recovering for damage in New Jersey can be a rough road

Dealing with winter driving is bad enough. But just when the welcome rays of spring begin: Bam! You hit a giant hole, smack in the middle of the road, blowing out your tire, maybe also damaging your rims, alignment or axle. It could be hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to fix. But is it possible to recover the cost of the repairs from the city, county or state whose road caused it?


The Problem with Potholes

While potholes may seem like a relatively trivial matter, the yearly scourge causes some serious harm. Nationwide, potholes cause roughly $3 billion in damage each year. What’s more, depending on the severity of the encounter, pothole-caused accidents can result in head injuries, whiplash and other types of harm. Road hazards, of which potholes is one, are deemed responsible for approximately one-third of annual traffic fatalities.

Potholes are most prevalent in the spring, due to the freeze-thaw cycle, when water present under and around roads expands and contracts. As this happens over and over, pavement weakens and cracks. Adding salt to the mix compounds the problem, by lowering the freezing temperature and increasing the number of freeze-thaw cycles that will occur in fluctuating spring temperatures. In addition, the weight of traffic repeatedly pressing on weakened spots causes the displacement of the cracking material. Ever notice that potholes always seem to be where you want to drive, not off to the side of the road? This is why.

Some areas will be more susceptible to these sinkholes than others, notably, low-lying areas where water tends to collect, as well as where there is particularly heavy traffic.

What Can You Do?

If you were “lucky” enough to damage your car on private property—for example, a privately maintained parking lot or subdivision—your chances of recovery are good. Under standard premises liability rules, a property owner is responsible to visitors for injuries they incur as a result of the owner’s negligence. Failure to maintain a publicly accessible road to the extent that a pothole results in vehicle damage would likely constitute such negligence and trigger compensation for damages. Beware that improperly maintained premises may void insurance coverage, leaving individual owners personally liable.

If, as is more likely the case, you were traveling on a public right of way when your wheel sunk into the ground, your claim would be against the city, county or state agency responsible for maintaining that road. And while New Jersey law technically provides for recovery, payouts are in fact few and far between. The standard for payment is that the governing body knew about the pothole but failed to repair it in a timely manner. This can be a challenge to prove.

Note that not all pothole-related damage is to cars. Pedestrians can trip and fall, and bicyclists can be thrown by cracks and holes in roads, parking lots and sidewalks.

If you have an unfortunate run-in with a pothole, and want to recoup your losses from the city or state, it’s worth a shot. In 2016, New Jersey paid 39 pothole damage claims—out of 2,647 filed. To make a claim, you need to submit a claim form, within 90 days of the accident, along with a receipt or estimate for repairs, the specific location where the damage occurred, and a copy of your car insurance declaration page.

If you encounter more serious damage to your vehicle, collide with another vehicle or sustain physical injury, this is beyond the scope of the claim process. Speak to an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible. 

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of personal injury, trucking accidents, and motor vehicle accidents.

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