Pennsylvania doesn't pay pothole damage claims
On the daily commute to his auto repair shop in Lawrenceville, Marco Imbarlina found himself headed toward a pothole on the 40th Street Bridge, hemmed in by traffic and unable to swerve.
"I could feel the car bottom out. I could see the hubcap fly off," said Imbarlina, 64, of Allison Park, whose right rear tire was useless when the wheel bent and cut through the sidewall. "If I could get paid back for it, that would be wonderful."
Imbarlina won't get back the $50 he spent on a replacement tire, and neither will many who bend rims and blow out tires after hitting potholes. The state of Pennsylvania will not pay for damage potholes cause, and counties and municipalities only have to pay if officials knew the pothole was there and didn't fix it.
Since 1978, the state has not been held responsible for damage caused by "potholes, sinkholes or other similar conditions caused by natural elements," said Ed Myslewicz, spokesman for the Department of General Services, which handles the state's insurance. He estimated between a few hundred and 1,000 drivers a year try to file claims anyway.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission accepts pothole-related claims, but reimburses few people for them. None of the 17 claims filed in 2009, nor the four filed this year, were reimbursed, turnpike officials said.
State law holds counties and municipalities responsible, but only if officials knew about the pothole and didn't fix it within a reasonable amount of time — which isn't defined in the law, but generally is accepted to be 7 to 10 days, said Allegheny County Risk Manager Karen Womack.
"If we don't fix it in a reasonable amount of time and a car is damaged, we will compensate for that," said Kevin Evanto, Allegheny County spokesman. "In those cases, we typically reimburse a driver's out-of-pocket expenses, like their insurance deductible."
Twenty people filed claims with Allegheny County during the 2008-09 winter and the county shelled out $1,211 to reimburse four of them. So far in the 2009-10 winter, the county has received 14 claims and paid $200 on one.
In Pittsburgh, motorists filed 26 pothole claims in 2009; the city reimbursed 15 of them, spending $3,572. So far this year, 12 claims have been filed.
City Solicitor Dan Regan said this year's large number of potholes might give the city wiggle room in determining whether Public Works crews had a reasonable amount of time to fix them all. More potholes might mean more time before the city is held responsible.
"(The number of potholes) would be taken into consideration. The statute is written the way it is because claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Regan said.
Ross Manager Wayne Jones said the township gets complaints each winter, but most are for damage sustained on county-owned Babcock Boulevard or state-owned McKnight Road.
"They call us up and are often very angry," Jones said. "We get the pleasure of passing them on to someone else."
Repairs aren't cheap, but Progressive Insurance spokeswoman Susan Rouser said drivers who have a deductible of $500 or more usually skip filing an insurance claim and pay themselves.
"If you have an aluminum wheel, you can get a refurbished one for about $200, and a tire is going to be another $100," said Joe Ober, assistant manager at J&T Tire in Allison Park. "You're looking at three or four hundred dollars for one wheel."
Solicitor R. Mark Gesalman said Westmoreland County could be liable for damage motorists incur as a result of poor road conditions.
"You have to show a municipality was negligent in its approach to maintain the roads," Gesalman said. Motorists first would seek damages from their insurance companies, then try to recover their deductibles from local governments. So far, the county has received no complaints about road conditions and no claims for damages.
Westmoreland County has 52 miles of roads, and for the past three days work crews have attempted to fill potholes and improve road conditions.
Ted Kopas, chief of staff to Commissioner Tom Balya, said the public works department has fielded some calls about potholes, but few complaints were registered.
"Road crews have been out there every day just checking," said Tarentum Borough Manager Bill Rossey. "They're doing the best they can."
Until then, motorists should do their best to avoid potholes because they likely won't get any reimbursement for tire damage.
"That's what insurance is for," Rossey said.
Butler County only maintains one mile of road, but oversees about 140 bridges in the county, said Dave Johnston, director of the county planning commission. The rest of the roads belong to PennDOT or local municipalities.
"One of our highest priorities is to make roads safe to pass and not do damage to vehicles," said Shawn Houck, PennDOT safety press officer. "We ask that people help us by calling 800-FIX-ROAD as soon as they see a pothole."
Potholes that have been given a temporary fix are then put on PennDOT's list for permanent repair. Once asphalt plants open in April, a hot mix is used.
"A cold patch doesn't hold very long — it could be one to two days or a few weeks," said Houck.
"It depends on the size and how much water gets under it," Houck said. "It's more difficult at this time of year because the potholes are filled with ice. Water is the biggest enemy. That's what expands and pops up the asphalt."
The more successful PennDOT is with its fall program of sealing pavement cracks, Houck said, the less potholes there will be after winter. Once the thaw begins in late March and early April, there will be a lot of potholes erupting, he said.
"It's been a hard winter," Houck said. "People are going to see a lot of potholes."Additional Information:
If a pothole damages your car:
• On Pittsburgh-owned roads: Call the city's Claims Division, 412-255-2031.
• On Allegheny County-owned roads: Contact the Risk Management office, 412-350-5592.
• On the Pennsylvania Turnpike: Call 717-939-9551, ext. 96, for instructions on filing a claim.
• PennDOT does not compensate drivers for damage caused by potholes on state-owned roads.
Sources: Allegheny County, City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, PennDOT