What is a town’s responsibility regarding damage to a car caused by a manhole cover?

My sister was driving down a side street and saw a manhole cover in the road that was raised up higher than normal. She slowed down to safely drive over it. As she drove over it, a piece of her engine was ripped off and her airbags deployed, totaling the car. Neighbors in the area said the manhole had been an issue in the past but the town had never attempted to fix it. After filing a claim with the town, she received a response from the town stating that the town was not liable because no one had reported the road conditions to be dangerous before. A few days prior to this, my sister drove past the same manhole and saw cones surrounding it and saw that some construction was done. Does she have a case?

Asked on August 13, 2014 under Accident Law, New York


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

She may have a case: as the town implied, the key issue is whether they had notice of the problem, since if they knew of it, they may have been negligent (unreasonably careless) in not fixing it--but if they did not know, they did nothing wrong.

Your sister does not need to take the town's self-serving statement at face value--if your sister believes (e.g. based on what neighbors told her) that the problem was reported to the town previously, she can sue the town and try to prove in court that the town was aware (and therefore liable for) the problem.

Note that there are special rules, extra paperwork, and shorter-than-normal timeframes for suing towns; if your sister wants to explore suing the town, she should speak with an attorney right away, before more time goes by.

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