Legal Claims against S.C. DOT Reveal Poorly Designed, Maintained Roads

August 5, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Hole in RoadIf you want to know how bad South Carolina’s roads are, you could just get in your car and start driving in any direction.

You also could look at legal claims made against the S.C. Department of Transportation.

From July 1, 2008, through March 31 of this year, the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF), which insures state and local government agencies, paid a total of nearly $4.8 million to individuals and businesses that filed legal claims against the Department of Transportation, The Nerve found in a review of IRF records.

IRF records from July 1, 2012, through March 31 recently were made available on the S.C. comptroller general’s website. The Nerve obtained records for earlier years through state Freedom of Information Act requests to the S.C. Budget and Control Board, which oversees the IRF.

The Nerve’s review found that:

  • A total of 1,046 payments were made to claimants in closed claims during the 57-month period, most of which were labeled “defect/maintenance” or “manhole, pothole, drain.”
  • From March 1, 2012, through March 31 of this year, there were 390 damage claims caused by potholes, most of which resulted in payments to claimants. Payments for those claims typically were less than $1,000; The Nerve’sreview found a total of $204,334 in payments less than $1,000 was made during the period, with an average payment of $507.
  • From March 1, 2012, through March 31 of this year, nearly $2.7 million was paid to claimants, compared to slightly more than $1 million paid during the previous 44-month period.
  • The paid claims ranged from $100 to $450,000. Of the total 1,046 payments during the entire 57-month period, the median payment – the point at which there are an equal number of payments above and below it – was $692.

The state’s Tort Claims Act generally limits awards against public agencies to $300,000 per plaintiff or an aggregate $600,000 per case.

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to the DOT about the agency’s policies on settling legal claims and related issues, but DOT spokesman Pete Poore said legal staff wouldn’t be available until Wednesday at the earliest to respond.

The largest recorded payout during the 57-month period – $450,000 – was awarded in connection with a May 2010 traffic crash in York County in which a car driven by Chelsey Mossburg, who reportedly was on her way to pick up her 2-year-old son from day care, was struck by a pickup truck at an intersection. She suffered multiple serious injuries, including a life-threatening brain-stem injury, according to media reports.

A separate $50,000 payout was made to Mossburg’s husband, IRF records show. Chelsey Mossburg filed a lawsuit against DOT in York County in August 2011; the case against DOT was closed in May last year, IRF records show.

Contacted by The Nerve, Columbia attorney John Kassel, who represented Chelsey Mossburg in the lawsuit, said his client contended in the complaint that DOT failed to maintain a proper sight distance, per its policy, at the intersection where the crash occurred.

“It was a bunch of trees and a fence,” Kassel said. “It was not on a private individual’s land. It was on DOT’s right-of-way.”

Kassel said the crash illustrates why it’s important for DOT to have regular inspections of intersections that the agency maintains.

“They don’t want to pay it up front, so they have pay on the back end,” he said.

Failure by the DOT to establish an adequate sight distance at an intersection was alleged in a 2010 lawsuit in Charleston County filed by Shirley Jean Bratcher, who was injured in July 2009 when her vehicle pulled out from a stop sign Savage Road and Henry Tecklenberg Drive and was struck by another vehicle.

The suit contended, among other things, that there was less than a 350-foot sight distance from the stop sign, contrary to “accepted professional practices and standards, and regulations of Defendant SCDOT,” which resulted in “an extremely hazardous condition at the intersection.”

IRF records show that $125,000 was paid to Bratcher – one of the largest payouts over the 57-month period – and the case against DOT was closed last October.

Bratcher’s attorney, Mark Tanenbaum of Charleston, told The Nerve when contacted last week that there were private defendants in the suit.

“We did have a settlement with the private parties,” he said, though he declined to discuss specifics.

Nerve intern Emily Dawes contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.