Legal Action Against the Government Over Road Hazards
Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) has reported more than 150,000 traffic crashes that result in injury each year for the past several years. Traffic accidents occur for a variety of reasons, many of which are preventable and a result of drivers who make poor choices behind the wheel. Yet, even the most careful motorists might end up in a traffic accident by no fault of their own. State, city, and local government agencies in Florida are responsible for designing and maintaining Florida’s roads and highways. When they fail to do so, drivers are at risk of accident and injury.
Florida law entitles you to sue the appropriate government entity for damages if you have sustained an injury after crashing on a poorly maintained road. This guide will give a broad overview of what constitutes a poorly maintained road, why you can sue the government after a crash, and the special procedural requirements for filing a lawsuit against a government entity after a traffic accident on a poorly maintained road.
Examples of Poorly Maintained Roads
Many think of potholes when they think of poorly maintained roads, yet many different types of road hazards might cause a traffic accident. Some common examples include:
- Roads that flood because of clogged drainage or poor drainage design
- Road construction cuts in the pavement
- Missing manhole covers, potholes, and sinkholes, which are especially common in Florida
- Uneven pavement
- Oil or other excessive spills on the road
- Lack of guardrails or broken guardrails
- Unmarked roads without shoulder or centerline markings
- Dangerous curves and inadequate sight lines.
- Inadequate, incorrect, or missing signage
- Malfunctioning traffic signals
- Inadequate lighting because of burned out street lights or lack of street lights
- Foliage that obstructs visibility or obstructs traffic signals or traffic signs
- Fallen trees that have blocked a road
- Other debris and road obstructions
Some of these road hazards are a direct result of weather and not government negligence. An experienced personal injury attorney will help evaluate whether regular maintenance or timely attention to the hazard might have prevented an accident in your particular circumstances.
Waiving Sovereign Immunity
It may seem counterintuitive that a citizen can sue the government. After all, in the United States, the government is generally immune from being sued because of a longstanding legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. This legal tradition has its roots in the British common law principal rex non potest peccare, which is Latin for “the king can do no wrong.” During early British rule, sovereign immunity protected the ruling monarch from his subjects. Today, federal and state government entities in the United States enjoy the same immunity unless they waive their right and give consent to be sued. (Because municipal governments are creations of the laws of the state where their municipalities are located, the scope of their immunity from being sued depends on those laws.)
Under Florida law, the state agencies and subdivisions that have waived their sovereign immunity and consented to be sued in certain cases include:
- Executive departments
- Judicial branch, including public defenders
- State universities
- Corporations acting as agencies of the state, a county, or municipality
One of the types of lawsuits authorized by these laws is a suit against the government for a personal injury, including for injuries sustained in traffic accidents caused by a government entity or employee. A Florida resident who crashed due to a poorly maintained road in or around Clearwater may sue the government under the following conditions:
- Injuries sustained were caused by negligence. This means that a plaintiff must prove negligence to prevail in a court case, which includes proving the government knew or should have known about the poorly maintained road.
- Losses can be compensated by money damages.
- A Florida court would find a private party liable in the same situation.
These are the minimum requirements for a suit against a government entity in Florida. Every case has its own unique facts which may add to or change these requirements. An experienced auto accident attorney can help you determine the issues relevant to your particular circumstances.
Exceptions to Suing the Government After a Crash
Even though Florida law entitles you to seek damages from the government if you were injured in a crash caused by poorly maintained roads, the law also contains some exceptions that apply to claims against the government:
- You cannot hold a government employee individually liable unless you show that the employee intentionally caused harm, which is rare in these types of cases; instead, you may only seek damages from the employer government agency or subdivision.
- You cannot collect more than $200,000 in damages; if more than one party is involved, the cap increases to $300,000. In the rare case that a government entity has purchased liability insurance at a limit above the legal cap, additional damages might be awarded up to the policy limit.
- The court will almost never award punitive damages in cases involving a government agency or subdivision. In extremely rare cases of gross negligence of the government agency, a court may elect to award punitive damages.
Florida PIP Insurance Considerations
Florida is a no-fault insurance state that requires drivers with registered vehicles to carry personal injury protection (PIP) insurance coverage and property damage liability (PDL) coverage. This means that liability doesn’t immediately play a part when a traffic accident occurs. Each party files a claim with their own insurance carrier to recover losses from their accident and injuries. Under Florida law, PIP insurance covers 80 percent of medical treatment costs and 60 percent of lost wages related to injury or hospitalization up to the policy limit. In the event you crash because of a poorly maintained road, your first step will almost always be to file a claim under your PIP policy.
If your accident resulted in severe injuries, it’s highly likely that you have exceeded your PIP policy limits or will very soon. Once you exhaust your PIP limits, you may have the right to file a lawsuit to recover your remaining damages. An experienced personal injury attorney can advise you on when or if you should bring suit against one or more government entities to seek additional damages not covered by your PIP policy. Once you choose to file a lawsuit against the government, you, with the help of a qualified attorney, must follow specific procedures beyond the scope of filing a similar lawsuit against a private party.
Protocol for Suing the Government After an Accident on Poorly Maintained Roads
Suing a government entity is far more involved than filing a lawsuit against a private party. Florida law places the following requirements on plaintiffs who make a claim against the government:
- You cannot file a lawsuit until you notify, in writing, the government agency or subdivision that was responsible for maintaining the road where the accident occurred.
- You must notify the Florida Department of Financial Services of your claim within three years.
- You must submit your claim against the government agency or subdivision within three years of the date of injury.
- After you notify the government, they have a six-month investigation period before you may file a lawsuit in civil court.
- Normally, you have four years from the date that the accident occurred to bring suit against the government agency or subdivision. But, if you are a surviving family member or representative for an estate who is filing a wrongful death suit, you must take legal action within just two years.
The sophisticated nature of lawsuits against the government requires the expertise of a skilled personal injury attorney. He or she can guide you through this process and ensure that all the requirements are fulfilled. Failure to follow proper protocol when filing a suit against the government might result in the inability to recover damages related to your accident and injury.
Comparative Negligence in Florida Car Accidents
In personal injury cases, Florida courts assign a percentage of blame to each party named in a lawsuit. This application of comparative negligence, sometimes called comparative fault, rests on the notion that plaintiffs’ own actions sometimes contribute to the cause of an accident and resulting injuries. For example, if a plaintiff was speeding at the time of a crash, the defense might argue that the plaintiff bears fault for a crash on a poorly maintained road.
Let’s say the court finds the plaintiff is 20 percent at fault. The court reduced the amount of damages they award according to the percentage fault of the plaintiff. If the court awarded $1,000,000 in this case, the plaintiff can only collect $800,000. Comparative negligence gives the defense the incentive to shift blame to the victim to avoid financial liability after an accident as well as a variety of other defense tactics.
Defense Tactics in Cases about Poorly Maintained Roads
Whether someone is suing a private party or a government entity, any party named as a defendant in a lawsuit will do what they can to avoid liability. Counties and small municipalities in Florida have additional motivation to fight against claims because paying out a large judgment might deplete or at least damage available funds for the community. In the event that the government entity you sue refuses to settle and you must file a lawsuit in civil court, it might use some of the following defense tactics to reduce its liability:
- Proving negligence requires proving that the government knew or should have known of the road hazard. Fixing roads is often a slow-moving process and it’s likely the agency or subdivision that you are suing will argue that they had no knowledge of the problem. Time may also play a factor to the extent that the defense may argue that not enough time went by for the city or town to learn about the hazard.
- The defense might suggest that you have pre-existing injuries that weren’t caused by the accident or downplay the severity of your injuries.
- The defense might suggest that you caused the accident because you were driving while impaired, distracted, or recklessly. They might also claim that you were violating other traffic regulations that led to the accident.
- The defense might claim that they knew about the danger and they posted warning signs which you ignored.
A skilled personal injury lawyer will anticipate these strategies and fight against them to maximize your chances of recovering damages for your injuries.
Contact a Clearwater Auto Accident Attorney for the Legal Help You Need
Florida law entitles you to sue the government if you sustained an injury in a car accident caused by poorly maintained roads. Yet, doing so is a daunting task that has special procedural requirements, not to mention that these cases can be complicated because multiple parties are often involved in government lawsuits.
It’s in your best interest to hire a reputable and knowledgeable attorney who can handle the details of the paperwork, so the government doesn’t deny your claim on a technicality. Additionally, a good attorney can investigate your accident to build your case against the appropriate agency or subdivision and handle negotiations to pursue the best possible outcome for your circumstances.
Serious injuries often bring additional emotional stress and financial hardship, on top of the physical pain of recovery, to victims. During this challenging time, concentrate on healing and coping with the aftermath of your injury while an experienced attorney advocates for you against the government entity that is responsible for your accident and injuries.
Contact the skilled legal team at Dolman Law Group in Clearwater at (727) 451-6900 for a free case evaluation and to learn about how our experience and insight may help you after an accident on a poorly maintained road. Our clients typically don’t need to pay attorney fees up front. We handle most personal injury cases on contingency, only collecting attorney fees from any compensation that we secure for our clients in a settlement or verdict in their favor.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765