Road Debris and Auto Accidents

Sometimes the debris on a roadway will cause or contribute to an accident or injury. When that occurs, it is possible that somebody will be liable for causing the debris to be present on the road, or for failure to remove the debris. But proving a case can be difficult.

Road Debris and Accidents

The most common ways that road debris may contribute to accidents is by either:

  • By causing a driver to lose control of his vehicle; or

  • By being launched by the tires of a car into the windshield of another vehicle.

If an item in the roadway are particularly large, it may also necessitate sudden braking by an approaching driver or require drivers to change lanes, increasing the risk of a collision.

Most drivers have personal experience with having a stone or object strike their windshield - an event that can be very surprising and distracting. In some cases the object will go through the car window, and even strike the driver or another occupant.

Some roadways are susceptible to falling rock or to mudslides. If you are driving in an area that appears potentially susceptible to fallen rock or mud on the road, or where signs indicate that you should watch for rocks or mud on the surface of the road, you should modify your driving conduct accordingly.

Finding the Responsible Party

It is often difficult to identify the source of dangerous road debris, or to hold the government responsible for the continued presence of debris on a roadway.

Who is Responsible for the Debris

Even when an object appears to have been placed in the road or to have fallen off of another vehicle, it is often difficult to identify the driver or person who is responsible for the presence of the debris or object on a road.

Even a minute after a truck loses a piece of retread, a muffler falls off of a car or an item of furniture falls off of somebody's pickup truck, it may be nearly impossible to establish how the debris came to be on the road. As a result it is often difficult to recover damages for injuries from the responsible party following an accident caused by road debris.

At times there will be witnesses to the events leading up to an accident. For example, sometimes a witness will see debris fall off of the back of a truck or other vehicle. If the witness can identify the vehicle, its owner or driver, it may be possible to pursue a negligence claim against the driver for harm or injuries caused by the debris. Unfortunately, the person responsible for causing dangerous debris to be present on a roadway is often never identified.

Debris Removal

The government agency that is responsible for road maintenance will normally respond to the presence of road debris, both by periodically cleaning debris from the shoulder of the road and by responding to remove large items or debris from traffic lanes.

In most cases where an accident results from road debris, it is difficult to prove that the government should be liable for injuries arising from the presence of debris on the road. In order for a government agency to be liable, you must typically establish both:

  1. That the government had knowledge of the presence of the object or debris, and
  2. That they failed to respond to its presence within a reasonable amount of time after learning of its presence.

It is often difficult to determine when debris first came to be on a roadway, and many items of debris won't be reported by motorists to the government agency responsible for the roadway. When debris is reported, the questions are raised of whether the notice was sufficient to put the agency on notice that a dangerous condition exists, and whether the agency responded to the situation within a reasonable time.

Principles of governmental immunity may provide the government agency an additional defense against liability claims.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.