Waiting on a check for that flat tire? Don’t hold your breath
Waiting on a check for that flat tire? Don’t hold your breath
Mindy Schroeder, of Wallingford, is one of several residents that filed a claim with the town for pothole and construction damage to their vehicle, Thursday, June 12, 2014. Schroeder says a pothole at the corner of Barnes Rd. and Sterling Dr. caused her vehicle a flat tire which cost her over $100 to repair. | Dave Zajac / Record-Journal
June 15, 2014 01:00AM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — After watching her son’s basketball game the evening of Feb. 20 at the Parks and Recreation Department on Fairfield Boulevard, Mindy Schroeder and her family headed home down Barnes Road. Shortly into the trip, Schroeder hit a pothole near the corner of Sterling Drive, causing damage to her tire.
“It was the first thing that happened to it,” Schroeder said of her car, purchased only months prior to the incident. “That was the only time it’s ever happened to me in my life. It was a really big pothole.”
Schroeder had to purchase a new tire that cost her just under $110. Feeling as though she wasn’t at fault for the damage, Schroeder filed a claim with the town on Feb. 24 in hopes of being reimbursed. A receipt for the repair was enclosed along with an explanation of the incident. Weeks later, Schroeder said, she received a letter from the town’s insurance company with bad news.
“They couldn’t do anything for it,” she said. “They said that because it was not previously called in, they couldn’t reimburse me.”
The denial came through a letter from Trident Insurance Services, which handles vehicle damage claims for the town. Schroeder said the explanation was that the town is only liable if the pothole was previously reported and the town didn’t fix it. Vehicle damage claims against the town are handled by Risk Manager Kurt Treiber, who did not return a request for comment. The insurance company and the Public Works Department also didn’t return a request for comment.
“It’s been frustrating,” Schroeder said. “You can’t prove if anyone called it in or not.”
She’s not alone. Through the first half of 2014, there have been 13 claims filed with the town for damage caused by potholes or road construction, according to records in the Town Clerk’s office. In 2013, there were 15 claims, and just eight in both 2012 and 2011.
Sheila Hoffman damaged two tires and rims after striking a pothole in January driving on Yale Avenue near the Route 15 underpass. A short time later, she learned that the town was not liable for the pothole because “they weren’t aware of it,” Hoffman said.
“How do I know that it hadn’t been reported?” asked Hoffman, a Meriden resident. “I don’t have access to that information. If I had the time to report every pothole, I’d be on the phone all day.”
Some of the incidents involving vehicle damage occurred on state roads — Route 150, Route 68 and Route 5 — so they were referred to the state. The town is not responsible for maintenance of state roads. Of the 13 people who filed claims this year, seven agreed to comment for this story. None of the seven have been reimbursed.
Six of the 13 claims filed this year were for incidents that occurred on a state road.
“There’s almost never a case where the public will be paid by the state for pothole damage,” said state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick. With road construction claims, “there’s a very slim chance that you’re going to be paid,” he added.
Michael Siegel said he spent $720 replacing his rim and tire after hitting a pothole on Feb. 21 beneath the underpass on Route 68 near Duchess restaurant. A state claims specialist sent Siegel a letter denying the claim weeks later, explaining that the pothole hadn’t been reported. It’s hard to believe no one else had trouble with the pothole, Siegel said. When his car hit the deep pothole, “it sounded like a gunshot,” he said. A week after he filed his claim, the pothole was fixed.
“I was a little upset about it, because it’s one of those things where you hope the state will help you out,” Siegel said.
After hitting a raised manhole cover last September on a portion of Route 150 being repaved near Hosford Bridge Road, Derrick Stec incurred $930 worth of damage to his car. He filed a claim with the state last year and another with the town in March after hearing back from the state that his claim was denied. The state denied the claim, he said, because there was a sign at the work site that excused them from all liability. But Stec said he didn’t see the sign, as he came from a side street. The manhole he hit was marked with white paint that was barely visible, Stec said. In his claim, Stec mentions that the work was being done by a contractor hired by the state.
“We bring on contractors and they have their own insurance company,” Nursick said. “The contractor assumes liability.”
The sign referred to in the denial letter to Stec is used in construction zones to let people know the state has limited liability because contractors are performing work, Nursick said.
In essence, the state has “sovereign immunity,” meaning it is not liable for anything, Nursick said. The only way immunity can be waived is through an act of the legislature. Through Sec. 13a-144 of state statute, the legislature has identified the state can be liable for defective highways, he said, “but the bar by which the state can be held liable is very high.”
Claims must be filed within 90 days of the incident, according to statute. There are often too many variables for a motorist filing a claim to sufficiently prove the state has been negligent, Nursick said. For example, motorists may have been speeding, or their tires weren’t inflated properly. The tire could have been old, or a motorist could be following too closely so that they can’t see the pothole in front of them.
“A prudent driver driving at speeds reasonable for conditions should have opportunity to not damage a vehicle on a pothole,” he said.
The same goes for a construction zone, Nursick said. “There is no excuse for a motorist who is obeying the reduced speed in a work zone as well as observing signs.”
Potholes are a fact of life, and often, damage has to do with excessive speed, Nursick said. “That’s what gets lost in all this. People think the big bad state just doesn’t pay, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
But the DOT handles claims objectively, and if liable, “we pay,” Nursick said. While a high bar is set for claims, it needs to be so the process can’t be abused, he said. “If anyone doesn’t like the process, petition the legislature to change the rules and make the state more liable.”