Expect little help to pay for cars damaged by potholesby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Cities have potholes. Potholes damage cars. Does that mean cities are liable for damage caused by potholes?
Not necessarily. Sam Hardman found that out the hard way.
Hardman was running errands in St. Paul on a Saturday in January when it happened.
"Just a really loud bang, and, then the next thing I know, I'm running on the rim of my tires," he recalled.
Hardman pulled into the first empty parking lot he saw. It took him about 40 minutes to change the tire.
"It was freezing out, and I couldn't do it with my gloves on, so I had to get my hands warm every few minutes and then go back to it," he said.
Hardman took the car to a garage where his tire was replaced and the bent rim fixed. The bill came to about $120. Hardman paid it, but later discovered that his insurance company wouldn't cover it.
Then he heard you could submit a claim to the city. Hardman found a claim form online.
"On the claim form, there's a line for filling out exactly where it was and what time of day," Hardman said. "It makes you think, 'Oh, somebody's going to listen to me.'"
A few weeks later, Hardman got a letter from the city of St. Paul, rejecting his claim. His pothole apparently hadn't been reported to the city.
In Minnesota, cities are only liable for vehicle damage from a pothole if officials have been notified about that pothole and didn't fix it.
Sandra Bodensteiner, St. Paul's manager for Workers Compensation and Tort Liability, said every claim is investigated.
"I can't really think of a situation with a pothole where we really had one where we've paid recently, or even in the last couple years. Our crews are really good about -- if we have a complaint call come in -- getting out there," Bodensteiner said.
She's right. The city hasn't paid a claim in the last four years. Records show St. Paul usually gets anywhere between two and 20 pothole-related claims every year during prime pothole season -- January through March.
The claim numbers are a bit larger in Minneapolis. That city received 59 claims in the first three months of 2011, and hasn't paid any. In 2010, there were 49 claims, and it paid three, totaling more than $760.
Drivers can also submit claims to the Minnesota Department of Transportation if they hit potholes on state roads. Those claims are managed by David Ahern's division of the state Department of Administration. He said MnDOT does an internal investigation and then makes a ruling.
"They'll make a determination that we feel responsible, we need to pay for this one or thanks we now are aware of it, we repaired it and we don't feel responsible for the damage."
The number of claims submitted to MnDOT has been relatively consistent. But last year the department saw an uptick in claims. Between January and March 2010, 155 people asked MnDOT to pay for repairs from pothole damage. And this year it's at 136. That's higher than the average number of 40-90 claims per year.
In 2010, the department paid five claims for more than $4,700. This year is paid three, in the amount of $1,600.
Ahern said dwindling funds and deteriorating roads are to blame.
"I think there has been a shortage of dollars to do permanent repair -- replace the entire surface of a section of a road," he said. "So a lot of it has been patching."
Many people don't have to worry about submitting claims to cities or the state because they have comprehensive insurance.
The Insurance Federation of Minnesota says most comprehensive insurance policies cover pothole damage. Federation spokesman Mark Kulda said that leaves about 20 percent of the state's drivers, like Hardman, out in the cold.
"One out of five drivers in Minnesota drives without insurance, and comprehensive coverage is not required, so even fewer people have the comprehensive coverage," Kulda said. "My guess is that these are people who probably don't have insurance. So they get their car damaged, and they want to fix it so they go to the city or the state to try to make a claim. But, you know, budgets are tight."
The federation lobbies for insurance companies in Minnesota. Kulda said those companies don't add much to Minnesota drivers' premiums because of the potential for pothole damage in the state.
- All Things Considered, 04/22/2011, 5:24 p.m.