'Tis the season ... for potholes

A sedan drives into the "abyss" on Main Street at Pine Street in 2016

New legislation recently approved by state lawmakers expands New York government's liability for damage sustained by vehicles on state-owned roads.  

But one local representative from the Niagara Region says the "poorly drafted" legislation won't do much for the drivers and will likely lead to needless legal costs from state attorneys. 

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, amends existing law, which limited state liability to between May and November. It also adds language that makes the state responsible for defects it has received prior notification about or that are of a nature officials should have known of, termed "constructive notice."

"It’s not fair for hardworking Western New Yorkers who pay their taxes to cover the costs of road maintenance, yet still have to pay out-of-pocket for car repairs when those roads aren't maintained," Kennedy said in a prepared statement. 

Senate documents related to the legislation said increasing reports of "poor conditions of state roadways" prompted the need for the government liability to be increased.

State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, a former attorney and city court judge, said there is no legal definition for "constructive notice." He was among the 22 "no" votes on the bill in the lower house.  

"Other than that one word, I would have supported this," he said.

Morinello predicted that lawsuits brought under the legislation, if it is signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will bounce between higher and lower courts without a favorable resolution for the driver of the damaged vehicle and "end up costing taxpayers money in lawsuits."

The legislation supported without dissent in the state Senate. 

State Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonwanda, said in a prepared statement that he considered it the state's duty to address concerns hazardous road conditions.

"For the amount of money that New Yorkers pay in taxes, the state Department of Transportation should be responsive to repairing the roads owned by the state," he said. "This bill gives drivers recourse if their vehicle is damaged due to state negligence."

The bill was originally submitted in 2014, but until the most recent legislative session, has not received enough support to guarantee its passage. None of the state representatives said they had an indicated as to whether Cuomo would sign the bill. 

In the absence of constructive or actual prior notice, drivers would remain liable for damage to their vehicle.