Pothole, sinkhole, crater or just simply a bumpy road — they all have potential to damage your vehicle. But, when it comes to a pothole eating your vehicle, it can be tricky finding out who is on the hook for paying for the damage.
Whether potholes are caused by water freezing between cracks in the road, or the soil under the road subsiding, potholes are a fact of life on roadways across the country.
Your first instinct when it comes to vehicle damage caused by poor roads is to blame the people responsible for maintaining those roads. Whether it is the city, county or state, it is tempting to just send them the bill after hitting that monster bump in the road.
Cities can reimburse you for pothole damage
And, depending on where you live, that can be a winning strategy. Some cities have a formal process for filing a pothole damage claim. For example, Chicago will pay for some pothole damages if you go through their paperwork process and submit your receipts or written estimates. New York has a similar process.
Other cities say they will only pay in certain circumstances, such as if they had been notified of the pothole but failed to repair the street before you hit it.
Fine. If they won’t pay for your damage voluntarily, then maybe it’s time to see them in court. Filing suit in small claims court can be a valid avenue to pursue after bottoming out on a particularly gnarly road.
In general, for the government to have to pay for your pothole damage, the government must be negligent in some way.
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That means that they had to have acted unreasonably by either not maintaining the roads, or not repairing the roads after being notified that something was amis.
Simply having “bad” road conditions, such as an icy road or a puddle from a rainstorm that cause you to hydroplane are generally not considered the government’s fault, and so they aren’t negligent.
And having damaged roads is also not enough. For example, if a sinkhole opened up earlier that day, the city couldn’t reasonably be considered negligent if you sustained damage after hitting it in the afternoon.
They have to have had enough notice and time to do something to have prevented your damage in order to be found negligent and responsible for your repair bill.
There is also the fact that you were behind the wheel when you smashed into the pothole. The legal theory here goes that you also share some negligence by not avoiding the pothole, and so the city’s liability might be reduced by some percentage.
Say a jury found that you were 50 percent at fault, then even if the city has to pay up, it would only be responsible for half of your damages.
Every state’s laws are different and many of them offer very short windows for you to take legal action — some as few as 30 days from the incident. So, if you do want to bring a lawsuit, time is of the essence.
The other tricky thing is determining who was responsible for maintaining that particular roadway — was it a state highway, a city street or a county roadway? The difference matters when it comes time to file your claim.
And if you send your notice to the wrong government agency, you may run into a statute of limitations that says they aren’t responsible for paying your claim.
Claiming pothole damage on your car insurance
OK, so maybe the city is the wrong route. You have insurance, right? Are potholes covered by your insurance?
Yes. To a point.
Everyone has to have liability coverage, and the only time that would come into play is if the pothole caused your vehicle to injure someone or damage their property. In that case, your liability insurance would step in and pay for their damage.
For your insurance to pay for your damage, you need to have collision coverage (which is different than comprehensive insurance).
Collision coverage protects you if your vehicle hits something and then sustains damage — be it another car, a tree, a pole or, yes, even a pothole.
Keep in mind that your collision coverage comes with a deductible. So, if you have a $500 deductible and your broken axel cost $1,000 to repair, you would only get a $500 check from the insurance company.
That said, whenever you hit a particularly nasty pothole, you should get it checked out. Your damage can range from damaged to your steering and suspension system getting out of whack — which can be especially dangerous — to visible damage to your tires or wheels.
In the worst cases, you could bottom out, damaging your undercarriage or oil pan, or in the case of the biggest potholes and sinkholes, need a wrecker to pull you out of the hole.
Regardless of what damage your vehicle takes, make sure filing an insurance claim is worthwhile.
If it is relatively minor damage, such as a bent rim or blown our tire, you probably are better off leaving your insurance company out of it. That’s because your insurance rates are set according to complicated formulas that try to determine how much risk you represent. If your company sees a lot of small claims and think that means you are likely to file more claims in the future, they are libel to raise your rates.
Paying out of pocket often makes the most sense for some of the smaller cases that the city refuses to pick up.
Keep in mind, the damage we are talking about here has to be caused by a single incident. Wear and tear on your vehicle from months of driving on bumpy streets is almost never recoverable by anyone.