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Tort Liability for Highway Maintenance

The massive collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minnesota in 2007 has served as a stark reminder of the problems created by the aging infrastructure in the United States. Numerous less dramatic examples of the consequences of failure to properly maintain and repair highways and associated structures such as bridges and tunnels have led to the bringing of legal actions claiming damages for deaths, personal injuries, or property damage caused by such occurrences. Such actions can involve both governmental units and contractors who perform highway repair and maintenance work on behalf of those governmental units.

The maintenance and repair of the public streets and highways are the responsibilities of government at its various levels. As a result, government entities have a duty to properly maintain the public roads and to repair deficiencies in the road system that come to their attention. Actions seeking to recover damages as a result of failure to properly maintain and repair public roadways may involve incidents resulting from a defect existing in a highway itself, or they may be based on conditions at a road repair site, and contractors working at such a site may thus become involved in these suits. The standards for bringing such legal actions are often set out in bodies of statutory law referred to as tort claims acts, which sometimes contain requirements that a claimant provide the governmental unit involved in the case with notice of the claim prior to filing such an action.

Tort law, the branch of the legal system that deals with the recovery of damages for private injuries or wrongs not arising from contractual relationships, has developed in the United States out of the separate legal systems of the individual states, supplemented by a related body of decisional law created in federal courts throughout the country, rather than out of a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing liability for failure to properly maintain and repair the public highways will vary from state to state.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.