Bicycle and motorcycle accidents due to poor road conditions are not uncommon. Even experienced riders can lose control when a pothole or unexpected crack throws their machine off course. In a typical accident, that rider would look to hold the responsible party accountable for the cost of the accident through a civil suit. Unfortunately, these cases require more diligence than a standard personal injury case as the other party is often a government entity.
In the seminal case Polzo v. County Essex, a group of bicyclists were riding downhill on a county road. One of the riders hit a pothole and crashed. She struck her head and suffered from serious traumatic brain injury.
She died less than a month after the accident as a result of these injuries.
The cyclist’s family brought a lawsuit against Essex County, the party who owned and was responsible for maintenance of the road. The case worked its way through the court system to the highest level. The New Jersey Supreme Court was asked to address the following issue: Could the victim hold the county responsible for the accident or did the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA) prevent their case from moving forward?
What is the TCA and why was it such a big factor in this case?
The TCA is a statute that provides immunity to certain public entities. Those who are injured and believe a public entity is responsible generally need to overcome this immunity before their case can move forward.
What do victims need to establish to build a case against a government entity?
The court used this case to provide important guidance on how to decide similar matters. Three important questions the court used to analyze the issue included:
- Actual or constructive notice. First, whether the county was aware or should have been aware of the poor condition of the road.
- Foreseeable risk. Next, whether it was reasonable to believe the county should have recognized that the condition could create a reasonably foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.
- Ability to address the issue. The court also stated that the county was only liable if its failure to repair the condition was “palpably unreasonable,” i.e., arbitrary, capricious or outrageous.
If the injured party can present favorable evidence of these elements, they can defeat the immunities that are present within the TCA and move forward with their case.