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Your City Could Pay for Car Damage Caused by Potholes. But It Probably Won’t

4 minute read

It’s common to hear that if your car is damaged due to a pothole, you should file a claim to get the locality responsible for the road to cover the expenses. Good luck with that.

Flat tires, bent rims: This winter has been full of them, thanks to months of hellacious weather and an epically bad environment for potholes. Hand-in-hand with this year’s plague of potholes is a surge in pothole-related damage claims filed around the country.

For instance, the Sun Times reported this week that more than 1,100 pothole-related claims were recently submitted in Chicago. Not only did the figure represent a record high, it was nearly quadruple the number of claims introduced at a city council meeting in February (305), which at the time was the highest monthly total seen in four years.

In Chicago, and throughout the country, a driver has the right to file a claim when a car is damaged as a result of a pothole, or any other unsafe road condition that is supposed to be addressed by local public works crews. But for a wide range of reasons, most claims are rejected, and even when cities do pay up, they rarely cover the full costs of repair. Some towns, counties, and entire states are notorious for being ruthless when it comes to rejecting claims, paying off drivers under only the most egregious of circumstances.

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In theory, Chicago can cover damage claims up to $2,000—above that, you have to take the city to court—but it maintains a general rule of paying no more than one-half of a pothole-related repair, “on the theory that motorists are at least partially responsible for hitting potholes instead of driving around them,” the Sun Times noted, understandably. According to Chicago Magazine, last year the city paid off 754 claims, at an average of $240 per claim.

Chicago appears generous compared to some other cities, such as Colorado Springs. Here, as in other municipalities, the city will refuse to pay if it hasn’t received complaints about the existence of the pothole that’s caused the damage, and also if road crews haven’t been given ample time to patch up the hole. A Colorado TV station recently looked into how Colorado Springs was rejecting pothole-related claims at a rate higher than 98%. In addition to other tactics—such as directing drivers to take up claims with private contractors if they’re doing construction work in the area—the city says that it considers one or two weeks as a reasonable amount of time to address a pothole after drivers start complaining. In other words, if you alert the city of a pothole one day, and then a week or 10 days later your son hits that same pothole and blows a tire, the city probably wouldn’t cover the repair costs.

Drivers in Virginia face an uphill battle as well. A spokesperson for Arlington Country, in Virginia, told a local newspaper that pothole claims were considered on a “case-by-case basis,” but that they were almost universally rejected. “Only in unusual circumstances would the county pay damages, because the county has sovereign immunity and, therefore, under the law, generally has no legal liability,” she said. “It would be a very unusual circumstance that would lead us to accepting a claim.”

The vast majority of drivers will be out of luck in Toronto as well, which was found to have a 96% denial rate according to a recent report. What’s more, in a sample of claims, more than half were rejected “automatically without an investigation.”

Drivers seem to have much better odds, relatively speaking, of getting some cash in Grand Rapids, Mich., where nine out of 55 pothole damage claims were approved for payment last year, for a total of $4,185 in compensation.

(MORE: Why 2014 Will Be an Epically Bad Year for Potholes)

Because claims can and are rejected for every reason under the sun—if cities paid everybody, it would lead to fraud, and they’d go broke, after all—drivers are advised to keep meticulous track of the incident, repair estimates, and expenses incurred. It’s a good idea to take photos of the offending pothole, as well as the damage it caused, and to fill out the local filing claim forms with close attention to detail, in a timely manner. Just don’t expect to hear back from the city in an equally timely fashion. The Chicago Magazine story says that reimbursement can take as long as 18 months.

It’s also advisable to not get your hopes up in general.

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