Pothole Payouts: Motorists File Hundreds of Damage Claims against DOT

June 17, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Pothole

BAD ROADS AREN’T JUST A COSTLY NUISANCE … THEY’RE DANGEROUS

On the morning of March 25, 2013, William Pritchard was driving to the University of South Carolina-Beaufort when his Ford F-150 pickup truck hit a large pothole on Argent Boulevard in Jasper County between Hardeeville and Beaufort, causing the vehicle to lose control and strike a tree.

Pritchard survived but suffered “serious and severe” injuries, according to a lawsuit he filed in October 2013 against the S.C. Department of Transportation.

The case was settled in March for $87,500 – the largest such payment so far this fiscal year involving a pothole claim against DOT, The Nerve found in a review of 585 payments by the state Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF), which insures state and local government agencies.

In its initial written response to the suit, DOT contended, among other things, that Pritchard, of Barnwell County, was “barred from recovery because the alleged depression/defect was open and obvious to anyone using” the road.

The owner of a business located near the pothole called DOT several times long before the accident asking the agency each time to fix the hole, though no one responded, said Allendale attorney H. Woodrow Gooding, who represented Pritchard along with his law partner, Mark Tinsley.

“It’s probably one of the worst road conditions I’ve ever seen,” Gooding told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday.

While S.C. lawmakers can’t agree how to pay to fix the state’s worst roads and bridges, motorists continue to file damage claims against DOT. The Nerve first explored damage claims against DOT in 2013; the latest review covered closed DOT claims from July 1, 2014, through May 21.

The 585 payments so far this fiscal year totaled $628,491. Most of the pothole cases were settled without a lawsuit, IRF records show.

Of the total number of paid claims, 446, or 76 percent, were under $1,000; the median payment, or halfway mark between all payments, was $579, The Nerve’s review found. There were 134 payments between $1,000 and $5,500. No paid losses were recorded in another 109 damage claims.

The locations of the potholes were not specified in the vast majority of the 383 pages of paper records provided by the S.C. Budget and Control Board, which oversees the IRF, to The Nerve. Of the roads that were identified, Interstate 85 in the Upstate was listed 38 times – the most cited road in the provided records.

The Nerve last month reported that a recently failed repaving project on a heavily traveled, 12-mile stretch of I-85 between Greer and Wellford cost taxpayers $5 million. DOT officials at the time said the project had to be stopped after workers discovered that deterioration to the underlying asphalt was far worse than originally thought; a DOT source contacted by The Nerve questioned why soil borings were not taken before the project began to determine the condition of the underlying road surface.

Mitchell Metts, DOT’s director of preconstruction, declined to say when contacted for last month’s story whether the agency had taken soil borings before the repaving work began. On Tuesday, Metts announced in an email to staff that he is retiring effective June 26, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Nerve.

Although not prominently displayed on its website, DOT provides a form for motorists who want to file vehicle-repair claims against the agency. Two repair estimates or a paid invoice must be submitted with the form to “substantiate the amount being claimed,” according to the form.

DOT, which maintains more than 41,000 miles of roads in South Carolina, also provides a online link to report potholes to the agency, plus lists a customer service phone number (1-855-GO-SCDOT).

The Nerve this week sent written questions to DOT spokesman Pete Poore asking how many pothole reports were made during last fiscal year and so far this fiscal year, and how many damage claims were approved by the agency over the same period. The Nerve also asked BCB spokesman Brian Gaines in a written message about the criteria used to determine IRF payments on damage claims against DOT.

Neither Poore nor Gaines responded.

South Carolina Policy Council research intern Danny Morris 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.