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Getting hit by debris while driving: Why proving blame is complicated

If you hit something in the middle of the road, like on a freeway, who is responsible for paying? It's not an easy process to get refunded for repairs.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Picture this: You are driving down the highway when your car is damaged by a piece of debris. Who gets the blame and the bill to fix it? 

Like most situations, it's complicated. 

WCNC Charlotte's Bill McGinty gets complaints about this situation a lot. Sometimes it's a pothole, sometimes it's debris left in the road and other times it's a contractor working on a construction project. Accidents happen but as for pinning responsibility, that can be difficult and complicated. 

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Long stretches of three- and four-lane highways offer a lot of potential obstacles. Sometimes, debris falls off other vehicles. It's their responsibility to strap things down. If your car is hit by something like that, you need to know who it is, where it came from and what time it happened. The burden is on the person whose car is damaged to play detective and get the information. 

"Basically, NCDOT isn't the one who makes the decision on whether or not to grant a claim," said Jen Thompson with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing money@wcnc.com.

Thompson said claims are decided by the state's justice department. The process of reporting damages is pretty similar in most states, so even if you don't live in North Carolina, this story could be a valuable lesson. 

Kevin Lankford was driving on Interstate 485 when something hit his car. He suspected a worker on a lawnmower kicked something up and it blasted his car. 

“It obviously startled me and I had to grab the wheel with both hands to steady it," Lankford said. "All I noticed was the color of it, and I would say it was about the size of a football."

Credit: Kevin Lankford

It wasn't Lankford's fault but pinning the blame was tough. By the time he went back to the area, the mower was gone, which makes it hard to assign blame when reporting damage. 

“Anything you have to prove your case — photos, video, documentation, estimates — anything will be helpful in making a final determination,” Thompson said.

Cheap dash cams are readily available. You can buy them almost anywhere and they'll plug into your car's power ports. They usually hold a few hours of video before recycling the memory. It's not a bad way to prove what you didn't see coming. 

Pothole damage is also a common complaint. Both North Carolina and South Carolina have to know about it in order to fix it. Claims will be considered legitimate if they knew about the hazard and did nothing or took weeks to repair it. 

Contact Bill McGinty at bmcginty@wcnc.com and follow him on Facebook.

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