In Minnesota, pothole claims rarely get paid

Agencies admit their systems aren’t the best, but that shouldn’t get jarred drivers’ hopes up.

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Lynn Jancik’s claim in 2011 was denied.

Photo: NICOLA LOSIK • nicola.losik@startribune.com ,

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 Heidi Bloom’s Ford Fusion hit the pothole first.

Three days later, Lucille Baugh, Lindsay DeRosia and Kay Peterson all ran into the same crater. Lynn Jancik hit it two days after that.

The five motorists had a rough ride over a single pothole on Interstate 94 near the Huron Boulevard exit in Minneapolis in January 2011. Each filed a claim with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to pay for their bent rims, gashed tires and a blown transmission, which cost a collective $3,566.

One by one, their claims were denied.

As the worst of pothole season approaches, dozens of motorists will file claims with city, county and state agencies after bad roads take a bite out of their cars. An overwhelming majority of them will get the same award: zero.

Over the past three years, about 5 percent of claimants to MnDOT and the city of St. Paul got compensated for pothole-inflicted damage, according to a data analysis by the Star Tribune. Comparable Minneapolis data wasn’t available, but a public works official said very few pothole claims get paid.

“Potholes are everywhere at this time of year,” said MnDOT spokesman T.K. Kramascz. Despite “an army” of workers out patching potholes, MnDOT has other priorities, he said. “We can’t keep people on the freeway all the time or nobody would ever go home.”

The most common reasons state and local agencies give for rejecting claims are that they didn’t know about the pothole ahead of time, or if they did, that they did not have a “reasonable” amount of time to patch it up.

Yet even some governments acknowledge that their standards for assessing pothole claims are nebulous. The Minneapolis City Council is considering a request from its street maintenance managers to put its policy in writing for the first time, to “aid pothole damage claim deliberation.”

Hitting a pothole can wreck a car’s suspension and ball joints and knock it out of alignment. The claims filed in recent years with MnDOT and St. Paul range from $21 to $7,402.

In 2012, 47 motorists filed claims against MnDOT. Only two received compensation totaling $539. In 2011, 243 filed claims and 16 were settled or paid for a total of $7,671. Since 2010, MnDOT has paid 25 of the 490 claims filed by drivers.

The numbers are equally low in St. Paul. Over the past three years, the city has paid on only four of 65 pothole claims.

A review of denied claims shows that most were dismissed because the agencies were either unaware of the pothole or patched it within days of learning about it.

In the case of the five claims for the same I-94 pothole, MnDOT said it had promptly responded to the pothole reports. The state said the pothole that blew out a front tire on Jancik’s Honda Accord had reopened after a repair only two days earlier.

“Their reasoning was laughable,” said Jancik, who lives in Inver Grove Heights. “They knew the potholes were there before I hit it.”

Even if agencies are aware of potholes and don’t fix them promptly, they still deny many claims.

Sheila Ellis of St. Paul was one of three motorists who hit a pothole on Lower Afton Road and Morningside in St. Paul in March 2010.

“I had seen it before, but I was able to avoid it,” Ellis said. “This time there was someone behind me and I couldn’t move.”

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