KSL Investigates: How Often Does the State Pay Out For Pothole Damage?
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Springtime in Utah brings a lot of things with it: Birds chirping, flowers blooming, and for those of us driving the roads each day, potholes. A lot of them.
After an ice-filled, snow packed winter, the freezing and thawing and snowplows have certainly left some deep scars on our roads.
Some of those potholes are so deep, once you hit them, there is instantaneous damage to your vehicle.
While sometimes you get lucky and steer clear, if you don’t, the sheer sound alone is an obvious sign the damage is going to cost you.
Amanda Furuya became the victim of a pothole at 3500 South 5300 West in West Valley City in February. The damage to her car wasn’t cheap.
“It ended up costing me $722 to get it fixed,” said Furuya.
She has the bill and photos to prove it: Flat tire, bent rim, the alignment all sorts of jacked up.
“Oh, the wheel started jerking,” said Furuya, “I couldn’t drive straight.”
Online social media posts show she’s not the only one to hit this pothole, as one victim put it, “the size of Texas.”
The KSL Investigators found pictures and commentary by another victim, the very same day, claiming “at least 8-10 people” also took the unfortunate deep dive along 3500 South in West Valley.
“Anybody who’s had their vehicle damaged on this road should be reimbursed,” said Furuya, “I mean there’s got to be something the state can do.”
So Amanda did something pothole victims have been doing for years – she filed a claim with the state, hoping the Utah Department of Transportation would take some responsibility for the damage.
Well, they took zero responsibility.
Her official rejection letter read in part, “UDOT is not required to maintain the roads in perfect condition, free of potholes at all times… (and) not responsible for every bodily injury claim or automobile physical damage claim that occurs on its roads.”
Digging Through Claims
So is UDOT ever held accountable? Through a public records request, the KSL Investigators discovered in the past five years, only two percent of pothole claims to the state were ever paid out.
That’s seven out of 318 requests.
From least expensive to most expensive, the payouts are as follows:
The KSL Investigators did some digging to find out more about the three largest payouts.
In 2017, a pothole claim that damaged a vehicle but didn’t cause any injuries cost the state $1,507.42.
In May of 2014, a single car accident on Interstate 70 left four people dead and four people injured.
Utah Highway Patrol and court records show the driver of the van hit a pothole and rolled multiple times. The driver later pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for carrying more passengers than available
The state paid out more than $7,000 as a result.
A year later, in June 2015, a motorcyclist and his wife were thrown from their bike in Ogden Canyon after slamming into a hole in the road.
The injuries were serious and the case is still in the courts.
In that case, the state wrote a check for more than $130,000.
But here’s something you should know: Not a penny of those most expensive three payouts went to the victims of the pothole accidents. The money actually paid for the state’s legal fees, which means out of the seven claims approved, the state spent more money trying to fight the victim payouts than paying the victim payouts.
Before we get all upset at the state for not paying out these claims, it should be understood the taxpayer ultimately pays the claims. That’s you and me. And there is a process in shelling out that money.
Process for Payment
We caught up with Marilee Richins, deputy director of Utah’s Department of Administrative Services, hoping to get a better understanding of the process used to determine when a claim is paid, denied or fought in court.
“It’s impossible for UDOT to know where every single pothole is,” said Richins, “so, when somebody files a claim they’ve hit a pothole, the very first thing we’re going to do is, do we have record that UDOT knew about it?”
Simply put, if UDOT doesn’t know there’s a pothole, they can’t fix it, and therefore the claim is often denied.
But when they are aware, Richins says UDOT needs to fix it, or pay up.
“A reasonable amount of time would probably be three or four days,” said Richins.
Remember Amanda Furuya with the flat tire, bent rim and jacked up alignment? After searching state records, the KSL Investigators discovered a report of the exact same pothole causing damage to another car 24 days before Amanda hit it, not the reasonable three to four day window to patch it, mentioned by the state. So how in the world did her claim get denied?
“It looks like it’s the same pothole and it’s been a month,” said Richins, “That wasn’t the case. It was fixed once.”
Records show it was patched up the same night of the original claim.
And that’s the thing about patch jobs – they don’t always last.
In the three and a half weeks to follow, that road saw eight more days of snow and eight more days of road scraping plows.
Somewhere in that timeline, the patch stopped patching and the pothole opened up.
Furuya’s claim was the first they heard of the pothole reappearing in that spot, since being fixed.
The state treated it as they would any first time claim, and denied responsibility.
Richins says the state would love to help every victim of potholes pay for the damage, but it’s impossible to know where every pothole is all the time.
And since the state is using taxpayer dollars to pay for that damage, Richins says they can’t simply pay for every claim crossing their desk.
“As the driver, it makes you mad, right?” said Richins, “But look at it from the other side as the taxpayer.”
Report a Pothole
It’s easy to report a pothole or other traffic problems so the state can get it fixed. Visit UDOT’s Click ‘n Fix website.
One last note: KSL just received information from the state, which was not in the original parameters of the public records request.
On April 11 and 12, three pothole claims were granted with a combined total of nearly $2,000, because it was determined UDOT did not fix the potholes in a timely matter.
Those were the first claims paid out since May 2018.