Pothole Damage Claims: Drivers Mostly Not Compensated

By January 9, 2017 No Comments

Collision damages from potholes leave many drivers covering the cost themselves. An insurance claim might work (but probably not).

The city of Jackson, Mississippi has its share of potholes. Motorists there are subject to the bumps, dings and dents that happen in almost every city – despite its subtropical location that limits its freeze-thaw cycles. Over a four-and-a-half year period, from early 2012 to latter 2016, the municipality paid out $170,000 to owners of vehicles that suffered damage from potholes, utility cuts and sinkholes on the state capital’s streets.

From a driver’s perspective, that actually is pretty good. Because Gulfport, Mississippi, the next largest city in the state, paid out nothing on drivers’ claims over that same time period.

Which illustrates an important point: What cities, counties and states do to compensate motorists for pothole damages varies widely. In a survey of other nearby cities in The Magnolia State conducted by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the payouts are very often quite limited. Some cities never take financial responsibility for damaged rims, axels, tires, suspension systems, steering wheel alignment, exhaust systems and wear on shocks and struts due entirely to poorly maintained pavement.

Draw a straight line north to a very different climate, Minnesota, and the experience is not much better. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported a few years ago that claims are at best infrequently paid there as well. A single pothole on Interstate 94 hit five different cars (technically speaking, the cars hit the hole) causing a cumulative $3,566 in damages to rims, tires and a transmission. But all claims were denied. Less than 10 percent of claims filed anywhere in the Twin Cities area ever produced a payout for the motorist.

Why do so few claims get honored? In most jurisdictions, it’s the challenge of demonstrating that the pothole had been identified for a period of time before the claimant reported a collision. Transparency on what had been reported is not uniform; it’s difficult for any driver to prove the specific pothole that damaged his or her transmission had been reported a week or two earlier.

And there are limits. In Chicago, the highest damage claim payout is $2,000. In 2014, 754 claims where honored at an average of $240 per claim. In Toronto, the denial rate is 96 percent. The city of Grand Rapids, Michigan paid out a total of $4,185 for 55 different successful claims (an average of $76 each, barely enough to fix a flat tire).

Complicating the matter of filing for damages is that different roads are the responsibility of cities and townships, counties and states. Each has its own bureaucracy and policies.

The alternative is to file an insurance claim. But that of course requires the damages be greater than the policy’s deductible. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, about 29 percent of drivers do not carry collision coverage, and of the 71 percent who do the deductible runs between $250 and $1000. Each driver has to decide if collecting for damages above the deductible amount is worth it, as claims often trigger a rate increase when the policy is renewed the following year.

As with so many things, prevention is the best cure. Drivers are urged to avoid potholed roads wherever possible (uh, brilliant advice…). But at least one city in England, Plymouth, found a way to save on payouts to drivers. They fixed their roads before the 2015-2016 winter season, reducing the number of claims from 518 to 91 and payouts from £123,603 to £3,673 (17 of the 91 claims were successful).

Perhaps cities such as Jackson, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Toronto might take their cue from across the pond. Few things are safer for a car than a smooth, pothole-free highway.