Government Liability for Dangerous Roads

A state senator’s letter on file with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) gave an injured motorcyclist a chance to recover damages against the state, State and local governments have very limited liability to people who are injured as a result of dangerous road conditions. But where it can be proved that the state had written notice or actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, injured claimants may have a case.

In the case involving the motorcyclist, she was seriously injured when she hit a pothole on a state road in western Pennsylvania. Before the accident, a local state senator had written a letter to PennDOT, advising that the stretch of road was dangerous and that “patchwork has caused more problems than it has solved.”

The senator’s letter described the road as “in disrepair’ and asked for immediate corrective action. A PennDOT representative acknowledged the letter in writing and advised that major improvements to the road were planned but that no funding was available to start the project.

Pennsylvania statutes provide that if a state agency has actual written notice of potholes or sinkholes or “other dangerous conditions’ of state roads, the state is not immune from lawsuits for personal injuries. Similarly, Pennsylvania statutes hold local government agencies like townships and cities to task for road conditions about which the agencies have “actual knowledge.” Actual knowledge can be proved by the minutes of public meetings or by the statements of city or township officials. PennDOT was successful in getting the motorcyclist’s case dismissed at the trial level-the agency claimed that the senator’s letter was too general to have given written notice of pothole problems, as it did not even use the word “pothole.”

But on appeal, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court disagreed, noting that the letter was detailed, identified the road adequately, and mentioned that “patchwork” had created dangerous conditions. Because the letter had been sent in adequate time for PennDOT to investigate and repair the pothole, the court found that the motorcyclist was entitled to take her claims to a jury trial.

In a previous case, the Commonwealth Court had found that written notice to the state cannot consist of a telephone message taken down by a state employee, however detailed the message may have been. State and local governments can’t keep all roads in perfect condition at all times; but written or actual notice of particular dangerous conditions can make state and local government liable to injured parties.

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