Governments can be sued for bad road conditions

Most auto accidents are the result of a careless driver. But sometimes, they’re the result of poor road conditions … and in certain cases, a local government may be financially responsible for the injury if it didn’t maintain a safe road.

For instance, a truck in Nebraska spilled wet corn mash – which has the consistency of tapioca pudding – all over a highway. County authorities arrived and moved the spill into a ditch, using shovels, brooms and hoses.

But the next day, some of the mash made its way back onto the road. A driver named Kaelynn Kimminau, who was delivering newspapers, slid on the mash and hit a utility pole, seriously hurting herself.

So could Kaelynn sue the county for her injury?

The general rule in Nebraska is that a government isn’t responsible for bad road conditions unless it knew about them and had time to fix them. So the county argued that it couldn’t be sued, because it had no idea that some of the corn mash has seeped back onto the highway.

But the Nebraska Supreme Court sided with Kaelynn. It said the county knew about the corn mash spill the day before – and if it did a careless job cleaning up the mess, such that the problem recurred, it could be liable for any injuries that resulted.

In another case, Karen Cotty joined other members of a local bicycle club on a 72-mile ride on public roads in upstate New York.

A local construction company had replaced the asphalt in a trench along the edge of one of the roads to make way for a water main conduit. There were supposed to be two layers of asphalt to bring the edge to the same level as the roadway, but only one level had been laid, leaving an unmarked inch-deep lip where the road and the edge met.

The cyclists, who were riding single-file, attempted a “hopping” maneuver to avoid the lip. But when the rider in front of Karen tried to hop the lip, he fell. Karen swerved to avoid him, and she fell too. She slid across the roadway and was hit by an oncoming car.

Karen sued the town. The town argued that the case should be thrown out because Karen had “assumed the risk” of being injured while cycling. It claimed that cycling was a sport with its own inherent dangers, and Karen was in the same position as a recreational baseball player who injured himself sliding into first base, or a skier who simply fell on a trail.

But a New York appeals court said the town could be liable anyway. It said the town might be right about skiers and ballplayers, but cycling on a public road is very different from mountain biking, where rough terrain is part of the fun. Bicyclists on a public road have a right to expect safe conditions, the court said.

So be careful when walking, running or bicycling on our roads. Look out for potholes, sewer grates with gaps and any other dangerous conditions on the road. If you would like to speak to us about an incident you were involved in, please contact us at 561-266-9191 or at

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