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In spring and summertime, many drivers in New England continue to experience winter’s wrath on the roads, when deep ruts are left in the roadways – long after winter weather ends. Before construction crews fill and pave over the damage, drivers and motorcycle riders need to be aware and ready for these potential hazards.

Potholes are not always visible, sometimes obscured by dark conditions or filled with water, so even cautious drivers may not see them. Hitting a pothole risks damage to your car, including to the shocks and suspension system. The impact can be equivalent to a collision at 35 miles per hour.

In extreme cases, hitting a pothole may lead to an serious accident, which might even include a fatality – especially if the car hits a motorcycle, bicyclist or pedestrian.

How Do Potholes Form?

PotholePotholes are an unfortunate road hazard that correlate with freezing and thawing. Starting with a crack in the asphalt, water seeps below the surface, where it freezes. Because ice expands, freezing forces some of the asphalt upward, creating a depression in the pavement.

Vehicles constantly driving over these spots can worsen the damage, resulting in a wider, deeper pothole when warm weather arrives. Although potholes can form on any roadway, areas with poor drainage and lots of traffic tend to be more prone.

If towns and cities take their time maintaining the roads, these depressions may remain for months – often until a major accident occurs.

How Potholes Damage Your Vehicle

According to an Urban Roads report from TRIP, highly populated areas tend to have poorer road conditions. In Connecticut, the top three urban areas – Stamford-Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven – are graded above 30, a number which indicates the percentage of “poor” roads in the region.

Across the country, potholes and dangerous road conditions are responsible for one-third of annual traffic fatalities. Although drivers are expected to be on the lookout, potholes are often worse than they appear, leading to tire blowouts and loss of control. A hole may be so wide that, in an effort to swerve around it, the driver hits another vehicle or collides into property.

Hitting a pothole can cause varying degrees of vehicle damage, some of which emerges later – possibly leading to an unexpected accident. Common issues include:

  • Punctured tires
  • Bent rims
  • Misalignment
  • Wearing away shocks and struts
  • Damaging suspension parts
  • Throwing a steering wheel out of alignment
  • Damaging the exhaust system
  • Engine damage

Within this group of issues, the following components of a vehicle may be affected:

  • Tires: Even if they don’t blow out at the scene, tires can experience some sidewall bulging, which may lead to a blowout later on. The sudden impact causes the air inside the tire to shift. When this occurs, the tire may have sustained permanent damage and will likely need to be replaced.
  • Wheels: Rims and sides get bent, cracked or large pieces can chip off – this is not merely an aesthetic issue. Rather, a distorted wheel shape affects how the car moves and can cause premature tire wear.
  • Undercarriage: When you hit a pothole at high speeds, this area is vulnerable to punctures and may result in fluid leaks, rust formation and a diverted exhaust system. The exhaust pipes, muffler and catalytic converter are all relatively exposed, and a sudden impact could create a hole in the system or route exhaust fumes into the cabin.
  • Suspension: Damage to this system directly affects how your car steers and moves. Following an encounter with a pothole, it may seem like your vehicle pulls to one side or you can’t steer it properly. Your steering wheel might also be out of alignment. Long term, ignoring this issue places greater wear on your tires, leading to blowouts.

Extreme pothole accidents, particularly when those involving multiple vehicles, could be life-changing. Victims may experience broken bones, traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury. If a motorcyclist is involved, he or she could be thrown off the bike and seriously hurt.

Who Is Responsible for a Pothole-Related Accident?

When a pothole plays a role in a serious accident, three parties may bear some of the responsibility.

  • The Driver: If you collided with the pothole, only to lose control and hit another motorist, you may be partially responsible for the incident, on the grounds you should have slowed down or reacted sooner.
  • Tire or Vehicle Manufacturer: Especially if the tires blew out prematurely or parts of the wheel were improperly installed, the incident could partially be related to these elements, as they should have been able to last through the impact – unless they experienced a significant amount of previous wear and tear.
  • City or Town: The municipality is typically responsible for maintaining its roads, ensuring they are safe enough for travel. Yet, these claims quickly become complicated. As the plaintiff, you’ll need to ensure the municipality is actually responsible for maintaining the road on which the accident occurred. After establishing that relationship, you need to prove they had knowledge of the pothole, its severity and were negligent in repairing it.

Particularly on the subject of city or town responsibility, you may encounter the following issues:

  • In some cases, the state may be responsible for filling in and paving potholes, while the city or town focuses more on cleaning the streets and removing debris.
  • The approach the government entity took to alert other drivers. In an ideal situation, the municipality or state routinely inspects the roads for defects or hazards, posts warning signs or repairs the road before the issue worsens.
  • Did anyone previously alert the government entity of this hazard? For instance, a city or town may be negligent if they received multiple reports but took no action.
  • The condition hasn’t been around for long – for instance, it’s the byproduct of a recent snowstorm – and the municipality or other government entity hasn’t repaved the road.
  • The condition has existed for a while but, because no one reported it, the government entity doesn’t know it exists.

If you’re thinking about filing a claim:

  • First make sure you’re directing it to the appropriate government department.
  • Know all deadlines to follow – you have a small window to bring a lawsuit against a town or city.
  • You’ll need to prove liability beyond the fact the pothole exists. You’ll need to show the hole itself, rather than your driving, directly contributed to the accident and that the town or city’s negligence turned this pothole into a hazard.
  • Added to the points above, you’ll need to show the government entity knew about this pothole in the first place. You and your lawyer may need to review past survey records and research how long this issue has existed.
  • Before the pothole gets filled in, it’s a good idea to take pictures of the road and any damage to your car and surrounding property.

If you have been injured in an accident, caused by a pothole which was left untended and not repaired, do not assume you’re solely responsible. To bring a claim against a negligent city, government entity or manufacturer responsible, contact the experienced car accident lawyers at Trantolo & Trantolo today.