Hard road: A South Carolina couple’s ordeal after hitting a pothole

March 20, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

It was supposed to be a routine trip home.

Phyllis Elliott and her husband, Cecil, had visited their daughter in Rock Hill last Sept. 8, and were heading back to their Lancaster home that Sunday night when their 2010 Buick LaCrosse she was driving struck a large pothole as she was turning off U.S. 21 onto S.C. 5.

“All of a sudden, I hit this huge pothole that I didn’t seek in the dark,” the 82-year-old Elliott said in a recent interview with The Nerve. “When I hit the pothole, the car almost slammed to a stop because it was so much damage.”

Elliott said she submitted a formal damage claim – $1,087.20 in out-of-pocket repair costs – to the state Department of Transportation. She finally got her answer last month.

Denied.

“SCDOT’s investigation into your claim determined SCDOT did not have knowledge of the defect that you allege caused your damages prior to your incident,” Amanda Turbeville Taylor, the agency’s assistant chief counsel, said in the Feb. 12 letter, a copy of which Elliott provided to The Nerve.

Taylor cited a state law in justifying the department’s denial, explaining that DOT is “not liable for paying a claim unless it had notice of the defect prior to the incident and failed to make a repair in a reasonable time.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I heard out of anyone’s mouth,” Elliott told The Nerve, pointing out that two days after her incident, she saw a work crew repairing the pothole that their car had hit.

Although motorists can make pothole damage claims against DOT, the agency doesn’t publicize the provision in state law that allows the department to deny claims if it didn’t have prior knowledge of the potholes in question.

Whether DOT knew, or should have known, in advance about the pothole that damaged Elliott’s car – or how many other similar cases there have been statewide recently – is an open question.

The Nerve earlier this month submitted written questions to Linda McDonald, DOT’s chief lawyer, about Elliott’s case and related issues, but was instructed to submit a formal records request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

In its fiscal 2019 annual report, which was released in January, DOT claimed it had patched about 514,000 potholes statewide during the year, or an average of 11,173 potholes per county, though The Nerve revealed earlier that those numbers were just estimates.

In passing the 2017 gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gas tax by 12 cents over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the revenues would be used to fix South Carolina’s failing roads and bridges.

The Nerve in September – two days before Elliott’s incident – reported that in fiscal 2019, DOT, through the state Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF), paid 569 claims totaling nearly $2.2 million in damages and about $747,000 in legal expenses in an IRF category labeled “Manhole, Pothole, Drain.”

McDonald, DOT’s chief lawyer, did not answer The Nerve’s question earlier this month about the total number of denied pothole-damage claims in 2019. In its fiscal 2019 annual report, DOT said there were 3,541 claims statewide in 2019, and that it paid – outside the IRF – a total of $650,880, though it didn’t specify how many of those cases involved potholes.

Motorists who want to file a damage claim against DOT must submit a damage claim form – which has to be notarized – plus two repair estimates or a paid invoice to the DOT maintenance office in the county where the incident occurred, according to the agency’s website.

Claims must be filed within a year from the date of the incident. By law, DOT or the IRF has 180 days after a claim is filed to decide whether the claim will be paid or denied.

“I sent them the four pictures (of the damages to their car) and all the information about what happened,” Elliott told The Nerve, noting that besides a destroyed tire, there was extensive damage to the vehicle’s suspension system.

But the couple endured more than the damages to their car.

Elliott said after she hit the pothole, a young motorist stopped, put a spare tire on their car and followed them to their Lancaster home to make sure they arrived safely. The next day she drove with her 89-year-old husband in their damaged car to a Rock Hill auto repair shop to get an estimate.

The following day, however, on their return trip to the repair shop, the spare tire “shredded” as they were heading on Riverside Road near the York County line, Elliott said.

“We sat in the hot boiling sun for a couple hours. … I felt like I wanted to pass out,” she recalled.

She said she eventually was able to get a tow truck to take them back home. Their vehicle was towed the next day to Rock Hill, where she rented a car for a couple of days while the repairs were being made.

“When I tell people they (DOT) denied me, they can’t believe it,” Elliott said, adding, “We’re losing, and we can’t win.”

The Nerve is encouraging readers whose damage claims were denied by DOT to contact news editor Rick Brundrett at rick@thenerve.org.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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