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Cities, states will pay pothole claims — for a lucky few

By Autumn Cafiero Giusti

Hitting a pothole can mean taking a hit to your pocketbook since insurers don't always cover the damages. Most insurers look at pothole damage as an at-fault damage claim, which means bent rims and a torn-up suspension are on you.

If you don’t want to foot the bill for a torn-up suspension or a bent rim, you might try hitting up the city, county or state agency that’s responsible for maintaining the roadways.

This isn’t always an easy process, and lots of cities pass the buck on to motorists and insurance companies. But if you’re lucky, some state and local governments will willingly pay for the damages that potholes cause to vehicles.

It just might take a little patience, and some work.

Compared to other cities, Chicago appears to be one of the more forthcoming municipalities when it comes to paying out pothole claims. The Chicago Office of the City Clerk processes damage claims of up to $2,000 before passing them along to the City Council’s Finance Committee.

In 2013, the city paid off 754 claims, at an average of $240 per claim, according to a report by Chicago Magazine.

“It’s a nice customer service,” says Pat Corcoran, spokesman for the Office of the City Clerk.

The catch is that the city usually pays half the cost, with the idea that motorists are partly at fault for hitting the pothole. And filing claims can be a tedious process that can take several months.

“We find that people are initially frustrated with the realization that it’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be a full reimbursement,” Corcoran says. “However, people are generally pleased when that check finally arrives.”

The best piece of advice, Corcoran says, it to have the claim forms filled out completely and accurately before they’re submitted, since having errors in the damage claim can lead to further holdups.

It’s also best not to delay submitting the claim, since the City Council meets only once a month to review them. “Get those receipts to us as quickly as possible to expedite what’s going to be a longish process,” he says.

Grand Rapids, Mich., is another city where residents have had some luck getting their money back, 1 in 7 residents paid in 2013, according to a report by MLive. That included nine pothole damage claims approved for payment, for a total of $4,185; 55 claims were rejected, in most cases because the city claimed no prior knowledge of the pothole.

Cities reluctant to loosen purse strings

Other cities appear to be less forthcoming with payouts. The city of Dallas is less forthcoming with payouts. The Dallas Morning News

reports that 217 people filed pothole-related claims between February and July, but 200 of those claims were denied. As of July, the other 17 claims remained under investigation.

In New Orleans, a city notorious for its pockmarked roadways, potholes have become such an issue for motorists that one resident formed an advocacy group known as Fix My Streets to get the attention of public officials.

Some of the city’s gaping potholes have been known to swallow vehicles ranging from garbage trucks to Mardi Gras floats.

“Anything on wheels and using the streets of New Orleans at some point has been stuck in a pothole, and we probably have pictures of it,” says Jeff Januszek, spokesman for Fix My Streets.

Fixing the streets is a tall order in and of itself in New Orleans, but fixing vehicles damaged by potholes is unheard of, Januszek says. “If someone went to the city and asked about it, I can’t imagine it would go too smoothly,” he says. “They might get laughed out of the room.”

Improving the odds

Often there’s one big catch when it comes to getting your money back. Several of the state and local governments that accept claims will pay out only if you can prove that the agency knew about the pothole beforehand and didn’t fix it.

The Michigan Department of Transportation accepts claims of up to $1,000 for any damage that takes place on a state road or highway.

But in order to have the state pay a claim, the motorist would need to prove that MDOT was negligent in its maintenance efforts. That means providing evidence that MDOT knew about the pothole for 30 days or more before the incident and failed to repair it.

Needless to say, MDOT payouts have been few and far between. There were 12 in 2013, six in 2012 and nine in 2011, according to an MLive report.

“Showing me there’s a pothole probably isn’t that difficult. But showing me that there was one there for 30 days and the state didn’t know about it, that’s tough,” says Todd Berg, an attorney at Michigan Auto Law in Farmington Hills, Mich.

It’s so tough that on MDOT’s claims page advising motorists that the majority of claims are denied under governmental immunity laws.

All is not lost, though. Motorists can take steps to protect themselves and others against pothole damage, but they need to do it before the damage is done, Berg says. If there’s a pothole you have to swerve to miss every day on the way to work, call it in right away to ensure that the state has been warned, Berg says.

“Report every pothole you see,” he says. “Because the more people go out and report the potholes they encounter on the roadway, the better the chances are that when someone comes in and files a claim, the governmental entity already received notice about the pothole.”

Even if you’re not sure whether you’ll be compensated, you won’t know for certain unless you file a claim, Berg says.

“I think people would just as soon avoid having to file a claim for pothole damage,” he says. “If nothing else, just do it so the organization in question can maintain these things. Everybody wins that way.”