27 Investigates: Over 90% of pothole damage claims denied since 2012

Potholes
Potholes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Latosia Austin heard a loud ‘thunk.’

It was the night of February 13, and Austin’s car had just struck a pothole on her way home from work, bending the rim and piercing the tire. That marked the beginning of a nearly month-long struggle with the city of Youngstown over who would pay for the damage.

“I should be reimbursed,” Austin said. “I could see if it was just a minor pothole or just a little dip in the road…This was like a crater in the street.”

As Austin continued her drive home, the steering wheel started shaking. She took her car to the dealership the following morning, where mechanics said the fixes would cost over $630.

She said she didn’t have the money to pay for it, so she called the Youngstown Street Department. Workers there told her to call the city’s Law Department. The department, according to public records data, received her letter February 14. She said she called the Youngstown Law Department with no response until two weeks later, when a law department worker told her to check back with the street department.

The street department did not know the status of her claim at that time. She felt like she was getting the runaround.

“I was frustrated because I feel like I’ve been paying city taxes in Youngstown for the last 15 years, and it’s a decent amount of money,” said Austin, who lives in Niles but works in Youngstown. “I feel like they were unresponsive and the conclusion of the matter was unsatisfactory.”

Then-Youngstown Law Department Deputy Director Anthony Farris sent a letter denying Austin’s claim March 12. Farris has since become the law director in the city of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but was interviewed by WKBN prior to leaving his Youngstown post April 23.

While winter has passed, Mahoning County Engineer Pat Ginnetti said that rainy weather can be almost as hard on the roads as snow, as water can wash away loose material. Even Jim Tressel noted the pock marks in the road when he spent a day on YSU’s campus May 5 interviewing for the school president’s job. “I swear some of the same potholes are here that were there in the past,” Tressel said.

Austin’s story is not the only one of her kind. According to public records data obtained from the Youngstown Law Department, of the 43 pothole damage claims which were filed in Youngstown and resolved between 2012 and April 30 of this year, 39 were denied. The claims which submitted included dollar amounts cost drivers, on average, $442.65. April 17 was the date on which WKBN spoke with Youngstown Deputy Law Director Anthony Farris.

Youngstown law department officials said that two law directors were in charge during the time span of the records request. Due to differences in filing systems, some pothole claims may have been lost. The 43 claims reported here represent all the records made available to WKBN.

According to an article on the Ohio Insurance Institute (OII) website, most collision coverage auto insurance pays for pothole damage. However, since the average pothole damage claim is between $300 and $700, according to the article, oftentimes it does not exceed the driver’s deductible.

That leaves two options: pay the cost out of pocket, or try and get money out of the government.

While some people may be frustrated, paying out more than 10 percent of damage claims is more than most Ohio cities do. According to the OII article, most cities cite “sovereign immunity,” and do not pay for pothole damage. OII Spokeswoman Mary Bonelli said that with many communities facing budget difficulties, claimants should not hold their breath waiting for reimbursement.

Farris said his department takes the time to investigate whether or not each individual pothole claim is legitimate.

He says that if pothole damage occurs between the dates when the street department assigned a crew to fix the pothole and when the crew fixed it, the claimant has a case. The driver would then have to show that the city did not fix the pothole in a reasonable amount of time, a question that would be open to debate in a court of law.

“There are potholes every year,” Farris said. “With the money that we have and the severity of the climate, there is no likelihood that there’s not going to be any potholes…It is nothing extraordinary, it is nothing that is a reflection of any lack of effort or interest on the city.”

Farris says investigating each individual claim takes time, and that it would have been much quicker and easier to simply deny the requests.

“It’s just the state of the law as it is that it is very rare that you are going to prevail in one of these pothole claims,” Farris said. “The fact that the majority of people do not prevail is not an indication that they are being ignored or that no one is concerned, it’s just, it would be something to be suspicious of if we were paying out most of the pothole claims.”

Any of those claims that ends in payment relies on paperwork that comes to the desk of Youngstown Street Department Construction Foreman David Vinion.

Vinion said the calls come in to his office, at which point he or a coworker writes up a slip of paper documenting the hole. Then, he works to divvy them up among his crews for fixing. Potholes that are a damage threat or are in a school zone receive priority. Vinion says the gap between a high-priority pothole being reported and being fixed is about one to two days.

Potholes typically form when water enters cracks in the road. The water expands when it freezes during the winter, eventually popping pavement lose and forming the holes.

Vinion added that the city is looking at sealing cracks as a method of preventing potholes. But fixing the problem comes down to money and manpower, Vinion said, and limitations in those two departments, combined with a rough winter, make for inevitable pothole problems.

“You feel for people. Obviously, anybody that damages a vehicle, you don’t want that to happen to anybody,” Vinion said. “I live in the city, I drive the city every day.”

Farris said the fact that Youngstown investigates the claims gives the city more credibility than if it were to deny all claims.

“If they know that they are not going to do anything about it, don’t have them submit a claim and give them false hope,” Austin said. “I’d rather them just say, ‘You know what, there’s nothing we can do.'”

One thing that is for certain, according to Mahoning County Engineer Pat Ginnetti, is that the problem is not going away any time soon.

As WKBN first reported April 18, repairing all the roads in Mahoning County would cost about $500 million.

That figure comes from the 500 miles of roads in Mahoning County, at a cost of $1 million per mile, Ginnetti said, and is just not feasible at a time when the office’s budget is already scraping for every loose dollar.

The county engineering office is funded by the sale of license plates and gas tax revenue. Ginnetti said money from the gas tax is declining as older cars are replaced with more gas-efficient models and people make an effort to spend less on gas.

“My goal is to fix everything, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of money,” Ginnetti said. “I don’t know anybody that could fix this problem in one year. Donald Trump couldn’t fix this problem in one year.”

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For further pothole statistics, see the interactive chart below, or click here to download the full data spreadsheet.  To use the interactive chart on a mobile device, click here.

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