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Who is Liable When an Accident is Caused by Debris on the Roadway?

Asphalt road in forest

The most fundamental advice that all drivers receive from the first day they get on the road is to pay attention to the road. We all know that we need to pay attention to what other cars are doing, to any nearby pedestrians, to speed limits and to road signs. However, we often forget to take that fundamental advice literally: pay attention to the road.

One of the most potentially dangerous situations a driver could find themselves in is when stray debris is left on a roadway. Often, such debris will come into focus only a split second before impact, and at nighttime or on busy roads that moment may never even come until it is too late. If you ever suffer an injury in an accident like this, you will likely be wondering who is financially liable for the damages.

Unfortunately, accidents caused by road debris are not uncommon due to the many vehicles on the road transporting unsecured or loosely fastened items. If you find yourself in a situation where you were unable to avoid debris hitting your car, it is important to consult with a personal injury attorney to explore your options for seeking compensation.

What Should Your First Steps Be When in an Accident Cause by Debris?

When you are in an accident due to road debris, it is important to first follow the same steps that you would in any other accident. The first step you should always take is to ensure that everyone in your vehicle is safe. Then, thoroughly check for any further hazards or nearby debris at the scene. Finally, after ensuring that there is no oncoming traffic, see if you can identify the type of debris that caused the accident. Try and take pictures of the debris and location. If the debris is still on the road, do not walk in the middle to identify it yourself. Contact the police to investigate the scene.

Who to Call?

At the scene of an accident, it is prudent to always call the police and obtain a police report. Pursuant to the requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:4-130, New Jersey drivers involved in an accident in excess of $500, must report it to the police. If you are feeling any type of pain due to the accident, you should inform the police officer at the scene. If you do not file a police report at the scene, you should do so at the nearest office in the county where the accident occurred, within ten days. A police report can better help access liability in an accident and often plays a large part in any following litigation.

If you are on a state highway, you should also consider contacting the Department of Transportation and reporting the stray debris.

You may wish to contact your own insurance company to let them know what happened as well. However, if you believe you have suffered an injury in the accident, it may be best to speak to a personal injury attorney first, before speaking to the insurance company.

What Type of Debris?

Liability is generally determined by the type of debris involved in the accident. Some examples of road debris are:

  • Loose or Broken Car Parts
  • Loose Car or Truck Tires
  • Cardboard Boxes
  • Fallen Tree Limbs
  • Fallen Car Signs
  • Mattresses

There is a wide array of different types of road debris, and they can arise from many different sources. Depending on the type of debris, one or more parties may be responsible for your damages.

While determining the type of debris that caused the accident, it would be prudent to try and determine whether the debris stemmed from a private entity or a government agency. The type of litigation required, would turn on this question.

Flying Debris

Flying debris is generally considered a comprehensive loss. Insurance companies often label these types of debris as the fault of the driver that the debris was attached to. If the driver of the vehicle stops, you should collect information from them as you would in a normal car accident. It is always prudent to proceed with caution when engaging with other parties. Try to obtain:

  • Other Driver’s Insurance Information
  • Other Driver’s Name and Contact Information
  • Other Driver’s License Number and License Plate Number

If the other driver either negligently leaves the scene or was unaware of the debris, you should aim to collect as much evidence as possible to find out who is responsible. That includes eyewitnesses or dashboard cameras from any nearby vehicles. If you can obtain any information about the vehicle, such as its make, model, color, and license plate number, it may help the police find the negligent driver.

Road Debris

Insurance companies generally consider any road debris laying on the road as “avoidable.” Unfortunately, accidents deemed avoidable are usually uncollectable. If it is determined that the accident was a result of avoidable road debris, it is possible that your insurance premiums will increase. To avoid that increase, you would need to prove that the road debris flew or fell off a negligent party’s vehicle or property. Accordingly, you should aim to gather as much information as you can of the negligent party at the scene.

Did the Debris Come from a Government Vehicle or Entity?

While the general rule is that debris will be considered unavoidable, there are situations where this will not be the case. For instance, a construction company with a government contract that leaves debris on the road in a hazardous location, could be held responsible for any accidents caused by that debris. Similarly, government agencies may also be liable for stray debris left on a public highway, as it is their responsibility to keep the major interstates clear.

Unlike claims against a private entity, guidelines for tort claims against government entities are set forth in the New Jersey Tort’s Claim Act. There are certain pre-requisites to file a claim of damages against a government entity. First, the claim against the government entity must be filed within ninety (90) days of the accident. Second, you must be able to prove that you received a serious, permanent and lasting injury due to the accident. Third you must prove that the government entity had actual or constructive notice of the defective.

The Torts Claims Act provides the government and its actors various immunities to liability. This includes avoiding liability when failing to provide ordinary traffic signals, signs, or markings. Thus, filing a claim against a government entity can be a lengthy process and requires a deep understanding of the system, so it is advisable to seek the assistance of a personal injury attorney.

Accidents Due to Swerving to Avoid Debris

Another type of accident that could result due to road debris is when a driver swerves to avoid the debris, but hits another vehicle or some other type of object instead. If a driver acted as a reasonable person would in an emergency, such as stray debris on the road, then the driver may avoid liability. However, if the driver swerves to avoid road debris and hits another vehicle, the first driver will generally be held liable because the debris was “avoidable.”

When Should You Hire a Personal Injury Attorney?

An attorney can assist you in demonstrating that debris was not avoidable, which could allow you to avoid filing a claim through your insurance company resulting in an increase to your premiums. An attorney can further help you to prove that you acted in a reasonable manner in the circumstances. In the case of flying debris, an attorney can aid you in gathering the necessary information to identify and hold the negligent party liable.

Establishing that another party is responsible for the debris that caused your accident could entitle you to receive compensation for your vehicle, medical expenses, lost income emotional distress, and other such damages. Working with an experienced personal injury law firm that you can trust is the best way to recover the fair value for your harms and losses. Our New Jersey personal injury attorneys at Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens & Cammarota can help. Please call our office to schedule a free consultation to go over your options.


Guillermo J. Gonzalez

NJ Attorney with extensive experience on Bankruptcy Law Real Property Law, Litigation, and Immigration Law. Dedicated Associate Attorney at Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens, & Cammarota LLP.

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