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Who Is Liable for Dangerous Private Roads?

By Jason Bottlinger on November 27, 2020

It is no surprise to many Nebraska drivers that our rural roads are dangerous. Often dotted with potholes, lined with sharp turns, and receiving little lighting at dusk or dawn, these roads are often witness to catastrophic, if not fatal, crashes. First responders have difficulties safely getting to these collisions, and any delays could cause a victim’s condition to worsen. This issue goes double for private roads, which are often the responsibility of negligent property owners.

Why Are Rural Roads Dangerous?

Given Nebraska’s history as a farming state, it is extremely normal for drivers to travel along rural roads. While this may not be shocking, the larger issue is that rural roads are often the site of fatal collisions. In Nebraska in particular, 70% of all traffic fatalities in the state occur on rural roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That is a staggering statistic, especially given that only 10% of road traffic in Nebraska takes place on rural roads. Despite making up the minority of traffic in the state, the majority of fatal car crashes take place on rural roads.

Several factors contribute to the high rates of traffic fatalities, including:

  • Speeding: Because rural roads are not as heavily policed as urban areas, drivers are more prone to breaking the speed limit. This can prove dangerous, as 27% of all fatal collisions on rural roads occur at high speeds.
  • Rollovers: Roughly 38% of all rural car crash deaths involve a rollover, significantly lower than the 24% that occur in urban areas. Rollovers are often the result of a high-speed collision, poor road conditions, and vehicle design. In fact, larger vehicles like SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks are far more likely to tip over in a crash than a standard sedan.
  • Poor road conditions: The remote nature of some rural roads means they are less likely to receive regular maintenance, especially during the winter months, which can contribute to serious collisions. In addition, animals such as cattle, deer, and even coyotes can wander onto the road and cause a collision or force a driver off the road.
  • Roadway departures: Sometimes referred to as being “run off the road,” roadway departures occur when a vehicle is driven outside its lane of traffic, leading to it hitting a tree, guardrail, or being involved in a head-on collision. The Nebraska Department of Transportation notes that while this is a major issue on Nebraska roads, the number is decreasing over time due to improved road designs.

While all of these issues can affect both a private and public road, it is important to note the legal differences. With public rural roads, the Nebraska Department of Transportation is responsible for enforcing traffic laws and improving road conditions. In contrast, private roads are managed by the individual property owner, who may be less likely to respond to dangerous conditions in a timely manner.

Liability for Private Roads

Typically, if you are in a collision with another driver, then you would be able to file a claim against their auto insurance company. But, if the collision was caused by a dangerous road condition, then it is a whole other matter entirely. Because Nebraska is a comparative negligence state, you may be able to hold multiple parties at fault for your injuries. In this case, it would be both the other driver and the property owner.

In most cases involving dangerous road conditions, your claim would be filed with the state government, as it is required to maintain and repair damaged roadways. These cases are often tougher than standard auto accident claims, as you have a shortened deadline to file a claim (six months) and are far more likely to have your claim rejected. But, given that private roads are not managed by the state, you can instead file a claim against the actual property owner.

Whether your crash occurred on a private road to a farm, factory, refinery, or other business, the property owner is required to keep the road free of safety hazards. This means filling potholes in a timely manner, keeping cattle and heavy equipment such as tractors off the road, posting mirrors or signs at blind curves, and generally ensuring that any guest or visitor can safely travel on the road.

However, it is important to note that owners of private properties can only be liable for injuries to visitors they know are on the property. For example, if a driver was illegally trespassing on a private road and crashed into a tractor, the owner could not be held liable because they were not aware that the trespasser was on the property and did not owe a duty of care to the trespasser. But if you do have permission to be on the property, then the owner should take every precaution to ensure the road is safe or dangerous to drive on. Failing to do so could open them up to liability in a claim.

Cases involving private roads are often far more complicated than a standard auto accident claim. You will have to show that you were legally allowed to be on the property, that the property owner’s negligence caused your crash, and that they owed you a duty of care. All of this can take hours upon hours of research and investigation, which is difficult to do while recovering from severe injuries.

That is why working with an Omaha auto accident attorney at Bottlinger Law L.L.C. may be your best option. Our lead attorney has extensive experience investigating collision claims and determining where fault can lie. Whether a negligent driver or property owner caused your crash, our team can advocate for proper compensation in a claim. To learn how, contact our office at (402) 505-8234 and schedule a free consultation.

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