Payouts in pothole claims against SCDOT total hundreds of thousands

September 6, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In January 2016, a driver swerved around a pothole on Bate Harvey Road in York County, crossed the center line and hit an oncoming vehicle, court records show.

The S.C. Department of Transportation last year paid, through the state Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF), $150,000 in damages and $26,592 in legal expenses to defend the agency in that case, according to IRF records.

Another motorist in February 2016 hit a pothole on S.C. 544 near Myrtle Beach, causing him to lose control of his pickup truck, which crossed the center line and hit an oncoming vehicle head on, court records show.

In that case, DOT last year paid $150,000 in damages and $11,407 in legal expenses through the IRF, according to IRF records.

In January 2017, a bicyclist was riding with a group of cyclists on Greenpond Road near S.C. 417 in Spartanburg County when one of the cyclists called out a warning about a large pothole, according to a lawsuit. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries when she was thrown from her bicycle after swerving to avoid the pothole and striking the tire of another bicycle, the suit alleged.

That case against DOT was closed this year, with paid losses and legal expenses through the IRF totaling $162,500 and $123,982, respectively, IRF records show.

In all three lawsuits, the drivers alleged, among other things, that DOT was negligent in failing to maintain the roads and warn the public about the pothole hazards.

The Insurance Reserve Fund, administered by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, pays damage claims against state and local government agencies, and covers public property losses.

The Nerve’s review of IRF records from last fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2018, through June 30 of this year, found that the fund paid at least $5.4 million in collective damages for all types of claims in 1,017 DOT cases, plus more than $2 million in legal expenses.

That included 569 claims totaling nearly $2.2 million in damages and about $747,000 in legal expenses in a category labeled “Manhole, Pothole, Drain.”

Paid losses in that category ranged from $164 to $300,000, records show. Out of the 569 claims, 449, or about 79%, paid less than $3,000 in damages. No damages were paid in 90 cases, though legal expenses were covered in more than a third of that number.

DOT claimed in its fiscal 2018 annual report that it had filled about 411,000 potholes statewide that year, though The Nerve in April revealed, citing agency records, the figure was an estimate based on the amount of asphalt that the department said was used to fill an “average” size pothole measuring 3 feet long, 3 feet wide and 4.75 inches deep.

The agency also contended it had patched about 43,000 potholes statewide in January and February of this year as part of its heavily promoted “Pothole Blitz,” though department director Christy Hall acknowledged the number was an estimate, not an actual count, as The Nerve reported then.

In passing a 2017 law that raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, legislators promised that the revenues would be used to fix the state’s pothole-riddled roads and crumbling bridges.

But The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out DOT has spent relatively little from revenues generated under the law, and that the agency plans to use a big part of those funds for widening interstates.

On its website, DOT says motorists who want to file vehicle damage claims against the agency can fill out a claim form and submit it to a DOT maintenance office along with two repair estimates or a paid invoice. The claim has to be filed up to a year after the date of the incident, and the department or its insurance carrier has 180 days after receiving the claim to decide whether to pay it, according to the agency.

The Nerve’s latest review found that of the 479 paid damage claims through the IRF last fiscal year under the “Manhole, Pothole, Drain” category, 30 involved circuit court lawsuits. Paid losses in those cases totaled more than $1.5 million.

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has launched “Project Road Repair” to encourage citizens to contact their lawmakers about getting their bad roads fixed. To learn more about the project, go here.

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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