Lawsuits for Accidents Caused by Road Debris

Whoever leaves behind debris on the roadway is liable for any damage caused. When a driver or passenger is injured in an accident caused by roadway debris, the injured parties may file a personal injury lawsuit to get compensation for their injuries. In some cases, the government is liable for failing to keep the roadways clear and may have to compensate injured victims for their damages.

Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about lawsuits for accidents caused by objects and debris left in the roadway:

If you have further questions about road debris accidents after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

Road debris
Whoever leaves behind debris on the roadway is liable for any damage caused.

1. Can I file a lawsuit for an accident caused by road debris?

Anyone who is injured in an accident caused by road debris may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit. The victims of the accident can file a lawsuit for damages against the party who was responsible for leaving debris on the road or failing to clean up the debris. If the defendants are found liable for causing the accident, the plaintiffs can win compensation for their injuries.

Road debris includes any objects or materials that are not supposed to be on the roadway. Road debris is a hazard to drivers, cyclists, and even pedestrians in the area. Debris on the road can cause an accident when a driver hits the object, or if the driver swerves to avoid the hazard and gets into an accident.

In a California personal injury lawsuit, the victims and their families recover damages for:

If someone is killed in a car accident caused by a faulty tire, the family members may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit for compensation and to hold the tire company responsible for their actions.

A traffic accident may also be caused by another driver who knew he or she was driving on a faulty tire. In this case, the injured driver, passenger, or pedestrian may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent driver for damages.

2. What damages are available in a road debris accident lawsuit?

When filing a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff is seeking damages related to their injury or loss. These include compensatory damages, which are intended to cover the what the plaintiff and plaintiff's family have lost as a result of the accident.

Compensatory damages include both “economic” and “non-economic” damages. Economic compensatory damages are losses which can be readily calculated and have a set dollar value. In an accident caused by road debris, economic damages may include:

  • Hospital bills,
  • ER bills,
  • Surgery bills,
  • Other medical care,
  • Medications and supplies,
  • Physical therapy,
  • Future medical treatment,
  • Lost wages,
  • Lost earning potential, and
  • Court costs.

Non-economic damages can be more difficult to calculate. These are the losses associated with a serious accident that do not have a clear dollar value. It is up to the jury or the court to determine how much a plaintiff should be awarded, depending on the type of injuries involved. Noneconomic damages may include:

  • Pain,
  • Suffering,
  • Scarring,
  • Emotional distress,
  • Loss of a limb, and
  • Loss of enjoyment of life.

3. Who is responsible for the debris on highways and roads?

The party who is responsible for road debris depends on the type of debris, how it got there, and how long it's been there. In most cases, the party responsible will be:

  • The party who dumped the debris on the road;
  • The party who did not secure their cargo, which fell onto the road; or
  • The party who did not clean up the debris if they were required to keep the road clear.

Under Vehicle Code 23113, any person who drops, dumps, deposits, places, throws upon any highway or street any material shall immediately remove the material or cause the material to be removed.1

It may be difficult to determine who was responsible for the road debris. However, if the road debris caused a serious accident, it is generally worth hiring an experienced attorney who will investigate the automobile crash to determine who may be responsible for causing the accident.

4. Is the government responsible for cleaning up road debris?

In California, Caltrans is generally responsible for keeping the highways and freeways free of dangerous debris. As the property owner, even the government has a premises liability responsibility to keep property owned or controlled by the government in a reasonably safe condition. However, this does not necessarily mean that the government is liable for any injury caused by road debris.

Under Government Code 835, public entities are liable for dangerous conditions on their property. This would include dangerous conditions on

  • county,
  • city, or
  • state roadways.

However, in order to make a claim for damages, the plaintiff would have to show that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and sufficient time to take measures to protect against the dangerous condition.2

The lawsuit would have to be made under the California Torts Claims Act. To make a claim against the government, the plaintiff may have to show:

  1. The road debris created a dangerous condition at the time of the injury;
  2. The injury was proximately caused by the road debris;
  3. The road debris created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which occurred; and
  4. The public entity had notice of the road debris and sufficient time to have taken measure to protect against the dangerous debris.3

It may be difficult for an injury victim to show that Caltrans or other responsible government agency had notice to clean up the debris before the accident occurred.

Example: Kenneth was driving down the 91 freeway at night through Anaheim. A truck in front of Kenneth was loaded up with junk when suddenly, an old piece of metal fell off the truck and landed in the middle of the land. Kenneth didn't have time to stop or avoid the debris and ran over it with his car.

The debris punctured Kenneth's tire and he lost control of the car, crashing into the wall. Kenneth suffered $10,000 in medical bills and his car was totaled.

Kenneth couldn't determine who was responsible for the junk in the road. He did not get the license plate number of the truck and he could not find out who dropped the metal in the road causing Kenneth to crash.

Kenneth files a claim against Caltrans in a lawsuit for allowing an unsafe road condition. However, Kenneth saw the junk fall off the truck. The debris was not in the road more than a couple of seconds before it caused the accident. Kenneth could likely not show that Caltrans was aware of the road debris or had time to clear off the debris. Kenneth may lose his claim for damages against Caltrans.

5. How do I prove who was responsible for road debris?

Liability in California personal injury cases is often based on negligence. Under California negligence law, if an accident was caused by negligently dropping an object or leaving debris on the roadway, the negligent party may be liable for any injuries and damages.

In a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff has to show the defendant was negligent in causing the accident. This requires showing the following elements for negligence:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached that duty of care; and
  3. The defendant's breach was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's injuries.4

In a road debris accident, the “duty of care” would include the general requirement to use the ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.5 A reasonable person would not be careless in loading objects on a vehicle so that it could fall off and possibly injure someone else.

The plaintiff would generally have to show that the defendant breached their duty of care by negligently loading their vehicle or failing to secure their cargo, allowing debris to fall off the vehicle and onto the road.

5.1. Debris Falling Off a Truck

A lot of road debris is made up of objects that have fallen off a commercial or work truck. This generally involves hauling junk or other debris. Trucks swerving to avoid road debris can also cause serious trucking accident injuries. Some types of road debris that ends up falling off of a truck may include:

  • Branches from a landscaping truck;
  • Scrap metal taken for recycling;
  • Wood or building material from a construction site dumpster;
  • Fruit or vegetables from transporting produce; or
  • Bales of hay on the way to or from a farm.

5.2. Regular Drivers Failing to Secure Objects

Drivers often try and haul materials in their standard sized pickup trucks or even tied to a passenger car. However, many individuals are not very experienced in securing objects and end up failing to securely tie down the objects, risking an accident for anyone who hits items falling off their cars.

Regular drivers who fail to secure objects creating a road hazard include:

  • Students moving away to college;
  • Loading up furniture from IKEA;
  • Hauling lumber from the hardware store;
  • Going on a road trip with too much luggage; or
  • Bags of yard waste on the way to the dump.

5.3. Other Drivers Hitting Road Debris

If another driver was not paying attention or was otherwise negligent when they hit some piece of road debris, the injured victims may also have a claim against the negligent driver.

All drivers in California have a duty to use reasonable care when driving. Failure to use reasonable care that results in an injury to someone else may be negligence. The standard of care requires drivers to:

  • Use reasonable care in driving a vehicle;
  • Keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicle; and
  • Control the speed and movement of the vehicle.6

Drivers need to keep a lookout for obstacles on the road, including debris. If a driver is speeding, driving on the shoulder, or texting while driving, he or she may not notice the road debris until too late, causing an accident. If a negligent driver causes an accident involving road debris, the injured victims may have a claim against the negligent driver for damages.

6. How long do I have to file a claim for a road debris accident lawsuit?

The time an injury victim has to file a lawsuit may depend on who was responsible. In most personal injury cases, the statute of limitations to file a lawsuit in California is two (2) years. The plaintiff generally has 2 years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit against the defendant(s).7

However, if the plaintiff's claim is against the government, the time limit to file the lawsuit is generally much shorter. Personal injury claims against the State of California generally have to be made within six (6) months of the accident.8

Talk to your lawyer about the statute of limitation for claims against the city, county, or other government entity. It is important to talk to an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible after an accident. If the claim is filed too late, the injury victim may have their claim denied.

7. Can I file a lawsuit if my child was killed in a road debris accident?

When someone is killed in a car accident caused by another person's negligence, the deceased cannot file a claim against those responsible for causing the accident. However, family members may be able to file a wrongful death claim to make sure the person who caused the accident is held responsible.9

A wrongful death lawsuit in California also allows family members who have lost a loved one in a car accident to be compensated for their loss. Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit may include:

  • Burial expenses;
  • Funeral costs;
  • Loss of financial support for the family; and
  • Compensation for the loss of support, guidance, affection, and companionship.

California's wrongful death claim laws allow certain family members are eligible to file a wrongful claim, including:

  • Surviving spouse;
  • Surviving domestic partners;
  • Children;
  • Grandchildren (if the children are deceased); or
  • Anyone else entitled to the property of the deceased under California intestate succession laws.

8. How Can I Avoid a Road Debris Accident?

The most important rule in avoiding road debris accidents is to allow a safe following distance and obeying the basic speed law. Drivers should not drive at a speed that is higher than reasonable under the circumstances.10 Drivers should also not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable.11

Road debris can lead to serious accidents as drivers try and avoid objects in the road while traveling at high speeds. Swerving to avoid hitting something in the road can lead to:

Drivers should leave enough room ahead of them so that if road debris does suddenly appear in their lane, they have enough time to stop, or change lanes to avoid the hazard. Speeding, tailgating, or driving while distracted can increase the risk of hitting road debris (or getting into any other vehicle accident).

9. Road Debris Accident Facts and Statistics

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, between 2011 and 2014, about 500 people were killed in more than 200,000 accidents caused by roadway debris. Another almost 39,000 people were injured in road debris-related accidents.12

About 1 in 3 of the fatal accidents were caused by a driver swerving to avoid the roadway debris. Other fatal accidents were caused by a driver hitting the debris, or other drivers and passengers killed in chain-reaction multi-vehicle accidents.

According to the study, the problem has worsened over the years. A 2001 study found there were about 25,000 road debris accidents and less than 100 deaths. Based on the most recent study, the annual rate of accidents is about 50,000, leading to about 125 deaths per year.

The most common types of road debris, according to the AAA study, included:

  • Tires and wheels detaching from a vehicle;
  • Exhaust systems and mufflers falling off a car;
  • Furniture and appliances;
  • Tow trailers separated from a vehicle;
  • Construction equipment;
  • Animals in the road;
  • Tree limbs;
  • Road signs;
  • Debris from a previous crash; and
  • Work-zone debris.
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For questions about road debris accident lawsuits in California or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California auto accident lawyers, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 23113.
  2. California Government Code 835 -- Liability of Public Entities.
  3. Same.
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  5. California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 411 (“Every person has a right to expect that every other person will use reasonable care, unless he or she knows, or should know, that the other person will not use reasonable care.”)
  6. CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care. (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.“)
  7. California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 (“Within two years: An action for assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.”)
  8. California Government Code Section 911.2
  9. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  10. California Vehicle Code 22350 (“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”)
  11. California Vehicle Code 21703 (“The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicle and the traffic upon, and the condition of, the roadway.”)
  12. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The Prevalence of Motor Vehicle Crashes Involving Road Debris, United States, 2011-2014. April 2016.

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