Pothole ruin your car? Cities, states can help pay for repairs but good luck with that

Stuart Hall is still livid over the Kansas City pothole that ate his car — blew two tires, bent one rim — and left him with a $410 bill, towing not included.

“I’m still pissed,” he said.

That was over a pothole not from today, with thousands of them in the wake of a harsh winter still pockmarking roads from Liberty to Olathe, turning the Kansas City area’s streetscape lunar. It’s from six years back, when a crater-like pothole opened at Brookside Boulevard and 50th Street, rattling the bones of his then wife, Christina, along with the undercarriage of their Mazda 6.

Equally rattling is what happened when Hall tried to get the city to pay him back for the damage: Nothing.

Even after a formal appeal, he received not a dime. Not a penny. But applicable to every pothole-pounded driver thinking of holding their city accountable, he did receive a valuable lesson:

“This year and every year since,” said Hall, 48, and now of Grain Valley, “I feel 100 percent certain that if we hit a pothole and we’re damaged, we are on our own. ... I would love to know how often they (a city) would pay out a claim.”

Answer: Hardly ever.

To be sure, every city in the metropolitan area has a process for drivers to file claims for pothole damages to their vehicles. But the law benefits states and municipalities. In Kansas City the legal department notes that the city has “state sovereign immunity.” If city officials don’t have ample notice that a pothole exists before it wallops a car or truck, and if they’ve had little time to fix it, they’re not responsible.

“Under state law, the city must have had notice of a dangerous condition (a pothole) and sufficient time to repair it before the city would be liable,” Kansas City spokesman Rod Richardson told The Star. “This past winter’s persistent snow and ice storms did not allow sufficient time for the city to make repairs in most of the claims.”

It’s no different driving on a highway.

“A flat tire or other damage caused by an unpatched pothole is not eligible for reimbursement, unless KDOT had prior knowledge of the pothole and failed to make a timely repair,” according to Kansas Department of Transportation policy.

Cities on both sides of the state line haven’t been writing many checks for car repairs.

Up to the end of last week, Kansas City received 483 pothole damage claims from drivers, more than five times the number in 2018. So far, the city has paid out a total of $2,750 on an undetermined number of claims.

In 2018, it received 89 claims and paid out on four, for a total of just under $2,550. In 2017, 82 claims were filed. The city paid $1,058.14 on an unspecified number of claims.

Lugeni Dukovich was one of the lucky ones.

“I hit a pothole on a side street in the Northeast area that instantly flattened my two front tires,” she said in an email to The Star last week, “and the city replaced them after I took pictures of the pothole and damage to my vehicle.”

The event was at least four years ago. The city paid her $800, but she said in a telephone call that it was hard work getting paid, forcing her to trade multiple emails. She even offered to walk city officials out to where her car was damaged. Now living in Oklahoma, Dukovich was shocked at how bad Kansas City’s pothole problem was on a recent visit to her hometown.

“There are potholes everywhere,” she said. “It’s like playing dodge-the-pothole.”

It took Teresa Counts of Topeka more than a year to be paid. The damage wasn’t to her car. It was to herself. This month the capital city agreed to pay her $2,500 after she fell into a pothole outside of her home and suffered what was described as “permanent and serious injury.”

Counts had complained four times to the city about the hole in the road. She filed a lawsuit after her injury in April 2017, but had been complaining of the hole long before.

Such payouts are unusual. Overland Park officials said they have received only three pothole claims in the last year. It paid out in none of them. Lee’s Summit has received 10 claims this year so far, and paid out on zero. Last year, it paid $481 on one of three claims. Olathe paid on one claim in 2018, out of 12 in the past three years.

Daniel Greenamyre of Lenexa said he did all he was asked to get reimbursed by the state this winter after his BMW plunged into a pothole on Interstate 435 off of Midland Drive. Repairs cost him $1,200. He spent hours filling out forms, conversing with state officials, working to prove his case.

“I jumped through all your hoops, KDOT,” Greenamyre said last week. “I filled out the forms, sent them in and they simply said we have no knowledge of those potholes and thus will not reimburse me. ... I certainly don’t think I’m going to get paid ever. Basically, I’ve just written it off.”

Uncontested is the fact that the potholes this winter in the region have turned so deep, wide or plentiful — Kansas City has filled 27,000 so far, with many more in need of it — that they’ve become a running joke. Memes on social media include photo-shopped images of people fishing in area potholes, scuba diving in a pothole.

Peter Obetz

“Given the current state of I-35,” one Twitter user posted, “I was considering asking them if the 2 bedroom / 1 bath pothole south of 95th street was up for rent.”

Lee’s Summit has filled 7,400 potholes so far, twice the number it did last year at this time. Independence is at 5,000, another doubling over last winter. Last winter, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, used 200 tons of asphalt by this time to fill potholes. This year the municipality is at 450 tons.

On Twitter, user Luke Hammontree posted a photo of a massive crater, as if from a nuclear blast site. Title: “Missouri roads potholes.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners notes that three out of four insured motorists have policies that cover pothole damage. Collision insurance takes care of it. But most deductibles are no lower than $500. If the damage costs are at or lower than the deductible, it may make little sense to file an insurance claim.

How can you get a state or local government to cover your damages? A Kansas City law firm, Fowler Pickert Eisenmenger Norfleet, offers this advice online:

Document the damage and date of damage to your vehicle; take photos of the road and pothole; document the pothole’s location and its approximate depth and width, talk to witnesses.

Owners are advised to have their vehicle repaired as soon as possible.

“It’s the same principle as seeking medical attention for an injury,” the website notes. “If you wait a long time to have the damage inspected, then the city could say that it must not have been that bad, or claim that it was something else that caused the problems.”

The incident and damage should immediately be reported to the city, the state department of transportation, and/or the police.

Find out if the city or state knew of the pothole in advance and had ample time to repair it. That could require talking to neighbors who might have reported the pothole already, or requesting survey records of the road. Survey records are publicly available and might already have cited the road for poor conditions.

Kansas City has an online pothole map that refreshes every half hour showing where potholes have been reported. Red dots are potholes in need of repair. Green dots are potholes that have been patched.

Public works crews across the Kansas City area said they are doing their best to repair the area’s pitted roadways. Tending to potholes is a year-long job. Many that were repaired over the winter with temporary cold asphalt may, as the weather turns warmer, need to be patched again with more permanent hot asphalt.

Recent rains can also cause problems.

“The rain will seep into the potholes and pop them back,” said Maggie Green, Kansas City public information officer.

Michael Bell can only wish the repairs had been made early, before St. Patrick’s Day weekend when the 28-year-old Uber driver was taking passengers both north and south along Ward Parkway, gouged with ruts and holes.

All winter, his 2006 Acura TL had been taking a beating. But on this night he hit one pothole in the southbound middle lane of Ward Parkway that so deeply hammered the car, “people in the car were screaming,” Bell said.

Then on the return north, he took to the far right lane on Ward Parkway, thinking it might be smoother. Terrible mistake.

“I hit a cluster of them, no exaggeration, 15 or 20 in one spot. One really big one, full of water. I couldn’t see it,” Bell said.

His Acura’s steering began shaking as he drove toward the Country Club Plaza, down the hill north of 55th Street. Suddenly his car slammed into yet another pothole. The car sunk and lurched. A hunk of metal tumbled from the back end. The car stopped dead.

Underneath, his front axle lay in pieces, snapped in half.

Cost: “As of right now, it’s getting fixed, that’s $2,000,“ Bell said last week.

He’s taken photos. He has the repair bill and may soon be talking to Ward Parkway residents to gather evidence of how long the potholes existed. Certainly, he figures, they had been reported before and the city knew about them. Certainly, he figures, the city had ample time to patch them, or at the very least mark them with orange cones, metal plates or a warning sign to avoid the lane.

Last week, crews began to repave the boulevard. Too late for Bell.

“For two months they have been talking about the potholes on Ward Parkway,” he said. “I really would like to be reimbursed.”

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.
Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738