Who pays for car damaged by potholes?

by: KIRO 7 STAFF Updated:

SEATTLE - Jason Tingle is reminded just how bad the roads are every time he gets in his car.

His Chrysler 300 has a shudder, and he feels every bump.

Both his left tire rims are bent.

"It's bent right in here and the tire's not creating a good seal," Tingle said, pointing at his tire.

One night in early February, Tingle drove his girlfriend to the Space Needle for an early Valentine's Day dinner.

"All of a sudden I hit something," Tingle said.

It was a pothole, unavoidable in the lane as he merged from 405 to Interstate 5 at Southcenter.

"It shook the steering wheel and jolted the whole car. It was bad," Tingle said.

It was also expensive.

"(It cost) $1,100 to replace both the rims and the tire," Tingle said.

Tingle faced a problem shared by thousands of drivers in the state: What do you do with a big bill caused by something that isn't your fault?

One option is to request compensation directly from the state, county or city, whoever owns and maintains the road that broke your car.

"If we are liable, we try to make you what we call whole," said Bruce Lemon, senior case manager with the Washington Department of Enterprise Services, which handles claims against the state.

If you go to the department's website and follow the links to file what's called a tort claim, you'll see a form that you call fill out online.

That claim will end up in Lemon's department, where an investigator will figure out if the state was at fault.

"We're more like the other guy's insurance that's going to want to take some time and look at it and see if they're responsible or not before they agree to pay anything," Lemon said.

That means that it can take awhile.

The state has a goal of resolving claims within two months.  

That's about how long it took for Tingle to get the check to fix his rims.

"A lot of my coworkers and friends and stuff said, 'You're wasting your time (with) the state -- they're not going to do anything,'" Tingle said.

But in the end, the state sent him a check for the full $1,100.

KIRO 7 reviewed records and found that several other drivers hit that same pothole.

Those multiple cases likely helped prove that the Washington State Department of Transportation was aware of the problem and therefore liable.

"It can be difficult to go after the city or the county or the state because you have to demonstrate, as always with insurance, some negligence," Karl Newman of the Northwest Insurance Council said.

Newman suggests that drivers who carry collision coverage file a claim with their insurance companies.

"Insurance is there to take care of things like that for you," Newman said. "You pay your deductible, you get your car fixed and away you go, and you don't have to hassle."

 Newman said the company can then fight with the state and try to get back your deductible.

You also have the option of filing a state claim just for the deductible.

If you can't decide whether to file an insurance claim or a claim with the state, you could do both.

But don't expect to be paid twice; the state will deny your claim if insurance covers it.

An insurance claim will likely get you back on the road faster than waiting for state reimbursement.

Also, there's no guarantee that the state will pay your claim if the state finds that it isn't liable.

The downside to an insurance claim is that if you have a bad driving record, your premiums could go up.

"One claim in a three-year period of time typically isn't going to raise your rates. If you have tickets, accidents, other claims, that's when it starts to become an issue," Newman said.

Tingle didn't think his insurance company would cover damage to his after-market rims, so he commuted with a friend.

Now that the check has come from the state, Tingle can fix his car and return it to Washington's rough roads.

"I find myself constantly dodging potholes. They're getting pretty bad," Tingle said.

KIRO 7 requested records from King County, Snohomish County and the City of Seattle regarding damage claim payouts dating back to 2010 related to roads.

Our analysis found that it's most likely that you'll get a payout in Seattle.

Snohomish County has not paid out pothole-related damages since 2013, and the likelihood that you'll get paid for pothole damage there is about 13 percent.

King County has paid out 14 of 120 pothole-related claims, making the likelihood for a payout about 12 percent.

Seattle has paid out $435,495 in pothole claims, paying out 859 of 1,355 claims, making the likelihood for a payout 59 percent.

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