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Court Dismisses Pothole Case against County

Plaintiff Luz Cruz (“Cruz”) tripped and fell in a pothole when crossing River Avenue in Camden, New Jersey. She broke her fifth metatarsal of her left foot and sued the County of Camden for her injuries. In Cruz v. Camden County, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 385 (App. Div. Feb. 19, 2019), one of the issues was whether the County had prior notice of the pothole.

Cruz and her friend drove a U-Haul truck to pick up a couch in an apartment on River Avenue, a County owned road. They parked the truck across the street from the apartment. They did not see a pothole while walking to the apartment. As they were carrying the couch to the truck, Cruz stepped into the pothole in the middle of the road and fell. About two months after the accident, plaintiff’s expert measured the pothole as about 18 inches in length, 6 inches wide, and 3 inches deep.

The County had no prior notice of this pothole’s existence. The County’s Department of Public Works (“DPW”) employees are tasked with looking for potholes and repair them upon their discovery. In addition, the County has a dedicated phone line and email address for complaints as to potholes or other road problems. Also, police, fire, and public safety personnel will report road problems. However, no complaints had been called in as to this particular pothole or on this block of River Avenue in the 10 years before the accident.

As for constructive notice, plaintiff was unable to establish how long the pothole had been present. Cruz had been there the year before at the same address and did not notice the pothole. Plaintiff retained an expert who did not determine or estimate when the pothole had formed.

The County filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to show that the County had actual or constructive notice of the pothole, as required under the Tort Claims Act to prove a claim against a public entity for a dangerous condition. The trial court agreed and granted the motion, finding that the plaintiff was unable to prove any time frame for the pothole or that the pothole was “of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.”

The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that the County had actual or constructive notice of the pothole and failed to repair it and that the County’s failure to maintain a major County road was palpably unreasonable. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and upheld the trial court’s decision.

The Appellate Division noted that public entity liability is restricted under the Tort Claims Act. For liability to attach for an injury caused by a dangerous condition, a plaintiff must establish that a public entity “had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition” in “a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”

The Court agreed with the trial court that there was no actual notice. The question was whether the plaintiff had proven that the County had constructive notice of the pothole. To prove constructive notice, the plaintiff must establish “that the condition existed for such time that the [County], in exercising due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous condition.” The Appellate Division found that was no evidence of how long the pothole existed before the accident. Hence, the plaintiff could not prove constructive notice either. Without such notice, the Court found that the plaintiff’s claim fails.

The Appellate Division also found that the County’s inaction in repairing River Avenue was not palpably unreasonable. The plaintiff failed to show that it was not palpably unreasonable for the County to fail to fix a pothole that was harmless for a vehicle to pass over to prevent a pedestrian to trip over in a portion of the road that was not a designated crosswalk.

This case is illustrative of the difficulty that plaintiffs face in pursuing pothole claims against public entities. Because potholes can pop up in a day, depending on weather conditions, unless the public entity has actual notice of the pothole, it can be very difficult for a plaintiff to prove constructive notice.

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Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.