MUNICIPALITIES AND THEIR LIABILITY FOR DANGEROUS ROADWAYS

There are many motor vehicle accidents that occur that are not caused by the negligence of the drivers.  There are many roadways which are themselves, inherently dangerous and cause a great number of accidents.  In our most recent road design defect case, the law firm of Spiegel, Brown, Fichera & Coté, LLP, represented a motorcyclist in a claim against a municipality for a motorcycle accident that occurred with another car at a very dangerous section of the roadway.  The accident caused our client to suffer devastating brain injuries, multiple fractures to his spine, as well as nerve injuries to his arm which ultimately resulted in his right arm being amputated.  A claim was made against the municipality in which the road was located after investigation revealed that there was a history of accidents at that location.

A municipality owes to the public, a non-delegable duty to keep its streets and highways in a reasonably safe condition. This duty, however, is not absolute.  A government body enjoys qualified immunity for its decisions in maintaining its roadways.  What this means is that once a municipality is made aware of a dangerous traffic condition, it must undertake a reasonable study with respect to that condition and may be held liable if that study is either plainly inadequate or if the decision it makes after the study has no reasonable basis.

For a municipality to be liable it must first be made aware of a dangerous condition of a roadway.  One of the most common ways in which it can be shown a municipality knew or should have known of the dangerousness of a particular segment of roadway, is if there is a history of prior accidents at that location.  Unfortunately, just a number of accidents is not usually enough to establish the town had notice.  Prior accidents will only be admissible if the facts of those accidents are substantially the same as the accident which caused the lawsuit that you are litigating.  In such situations the judge has discretion of which accidents are admitted and the attorney must make sure they have gathered all the information available with respect to the prior accidents.  This is when an attorney’s experience in litigating a road defect case is critical.  Information gained during the discovery process from various sources outside of the municipality, including the local traffic and safety board and the various law enforcement departments who might have investigated the prior accidents, can make a difference of whether you are ultimately victorious in your litigation.

Once it has been established that the municipality was on notice of a dangerous condition, then it must be shown that they either failed to undertake a reasonable study or that the decision they made following the study had no reasonable basis.  For example, if it is claimed that a stop sign should have been installed at an intersection with a history of vehicles having collisions, it must be shown that the municipality failed to investigate why there was a high number of accidents at that location as opposed to other intersections.  If on investigation by the town concluded that there was a problem at that intersection, then there should be a record of what alternatives were discussed by the town and the reasoning behind what they did or did not do with respect to this problem to correct it.  If the municipality decided not to install a stop sign but instead put up a speed advisory sign reducing the speed through this intersection, then there must be a reasonable basis for doing so as opposed to the stop sign.  If the only reasoning was that the town did not wish to order a stop sign but had a speed advisory sign lying around, then the argument may be made that it was not a reasonable basis.  If, however, there was a budget crisis and they could not afford a stop sign at the time that may be considered a reasonable basis for not putting up the stop sign.

Once a municipality has determined what reasonable measures may be necessary to alleviate a dangerous condition, it cannot unjustifiably delay in taking that action. As one court stated “While the decision to install a traffic control device is a discretionary governmental function which will not expose a municipality to liability . . . a municipality that determines that a traffic control device is necessary to remedy a dangerous condition, must act with reasonable speed to correct the condition and it might be held liable where there is an unjustified delay in implementing its remedial plan.”

Cases against municipalities for dangerous conditions on the roadway can be very difficult and an attorney must have a good understanding of the law and the burdens of an injured person in presenting their case to recover for their injuries.  Many drivers who are involved in accidents because of a dangerous roadway never seek compensation for their injuries because they are unaware they are allowed to do so.  In the case noted above involving the motorcyclist, handled by the law firm of Spiegel, Brown, Fichera & Coté, LLP, it was learned that just eight months prior to our client’s accident, there was another almost identical motorcycle accident at the same location.  During our representation of our client, a thorough search was performed for any prior lawsuits related to the location of the accident.  We found that no other lawsuit involving this prior motorcycle accident had ever been filed or that any claim had been brought against the municipality.  The motorcyclist who was killed in this accident had a viable claim against the municipality just as our client did.  Unfortunately, his estate probably never realized this and never retained an attorney to prosecute the claim against the municipality, so his heirs were never compensated for the municipality’s negligence and how it contributed to his accident.  Even if you are involved in a single car accident you may not be at fault for its happening.  If it is a dangerous roadway then the municipality may be negligent for your accident and you should seek an experienced attorney to help you to help find out if you are entitled to compensation.


Friedman v. State, 67 NY2d 271 (1986).

Bresciani v. County of Dutchess, 62 AD3d 639.

Witkowski v. Escobar, 28 AD3d 543 (2nd Dept., 2006).