A joint investigation by KPCC and NBC4 has found that the city of Los Angeles rarely approves claims seeking compensation for damage caused by potholes, and that the claims process seems stacked against people seeking money.
Nicole Swain navigates her car down Aviation Boulevard near LAX, maneuvering around the many potholes. She recalls the crater she encountered last year, as she was driving with her 6- year-old-daughter.
"I was terrified," she says. "You could actually hear the tire pop, and I immediately felt like I was going to lose control of the steering wheel."
RELATED: City of Los Angeles unveils app to report potholes, pay bills
She spent $500 on a new tire. Swain, who works in business development with a bank, filed a detailed claim with the city. She sent pictures of the pothole, of the damage to her car, and she included a letter from her tire shop certifying that her tire had been in excellent condition.
Six months later, without explanation, the city denied her claim.
Swain is hardly alone.
KPCC and NBC4 analyzed about 6,600 such claims from 2003-2012. The average claim sought $785 for repairs. The L.A. City Attorney's office rejected nearly 70 percent of them. It never ruled on another 20 percent — so after two years, they expired by law. The city approved just under 10 percent of the claims.
For the 627 claims that were approved over that 10-year period, the city paid out a total of just over $350,000; the average payout was $558.
"It says to me that this is a system that needs to be changed," says newly-elected City Attorney Mike Feuer.
Presented with the data, Feuer says he looked into how his office handles pothole claims. He says his investigators ask the Bureau of Street Services to verify the existence of a pothole and determine whether the city's had time to fix it.
But that communication is by paper through the city's mail system, and Feuer says the information often doesn't come back fast enough to beat a legal deadline under which claims are automatically denied after 45 days.
Feuer promised to fix that problem by making sure his investigators have access to the street services database. But he declines to say how long the city should have to fix a pothole — by law, it has a "reasonable amount" of time.
"It's impossible to specify a particular time frame for the repair of a pothole," says Feuer.
Feuer says the city tries to fix potholes within two days of finding out about them, but he adds that ongoing budget deficits often make that impossible.
In Swain's case, the city had received dozens of complaints over the past three years about the pothole problem on Aviation Boulevard, where convoys of heavy delivery trucks pound the pavement.
Flat tires and bent rims are only the beginning of the damage potholes can cause, says Koko Bakahajian, who owns Hi Tech Automotive in Silver Lake. He points out that potholes can damage control arms and ball joints on a car's undercarriage.
Late model cars
He says he has seen a lot more cars damaged by potholes, because a lot of late model cars have low profile tires — which means their rims are closer to the road.
John Mares also hit a pothole on Aviation Boulevard and filed a claim with the city earlier this year. It too initially was rejected. The 50-year-old architect received the standard letter telling him he could go to small claims court against the city if he chose. Instead, he called the investigator from the city attorney's office who signed the letter. Mares says he received a surprising response.
"He told me he'd never even seen my file before," says Mares. "He said, 'Oh, they just sign my name to these letters.'"
Within a week, says Mares, the inspector reviewed his case and approved a payout of $400 for a tire for his late model BMW.
City Attorney Feuer says he cannot comment on Mares' accusation: "I can't speak to what's happened before my tenure here in the city attorney's office."
Feuer promised a full and fair evaluation of all claims under his administration.
Attorney Farid Yaghoubtil represents drivers who've suffered physical injuries from hitting potholes. He says L.A.'s current pothole payout strategy is unfair.
"It's a deny and see strategy," says Yaghoubtil. "Deny and then wait for the citizen to react. But most of the time they won't."
Nicole Swain, who describes herself as a "fighter," did go to small claims court. But in the end, she didn't have the time or energy to follow the fight to the end. "I just gave in," she says.
That's exactly what thousands of LA drivers have done over the past decade: filed a claim for pothole damage, been denied, and then thrown in the towel.
Potholes: How to file a claim
If your car has been damaged by a pothole or bad stretch of road, consider filing a claim with the City of Los Angeles. A "Claim for Damages Form" is available online at the Office of the City Clerk. Be sure to read the post Getting the City to Pay for Damages.
- Some advice on pursuing a pothole claim.
- Frequently asked questions about potholes.
- How potholes form.
If you want to report a pothole or bad stretch of road, you can call 1-(800)-996-CITY, or visit the Online Services Request Form on the Bureau of Street Services site.
L.A. now has a free app to report non-emergency issues to your local government, such as potholes, graffiti, missed trash collections, abandoned vehicles, downed trees, broken traffic lights, broken sidewalks, etc. There’s one for the Android and one for the iPhone.
Potholes in surrounding cities? Here are contacts:
- Beverly Hills: Public Works (310) 285-2467
- Culver City: (310) 253.6420
- Santa Monica: (310) 458-2252 or (310) 458-8505 or
POTHOLE COMPENSATION CLAIMS IN L.A., 2003-2012
About the data
"Closed Not Paid" refers to claims that were denied. "Closed Paid" refers to claims that were approved, and compensation was paid. "Statute Expired" refers to claims that expired by law after two years, because they had not been resolved.
The Los Angeles City Attorney's office responded to our public records request for pothole claims by providing a dataset containing 6,855 records. Each record represented a claim of an injury or vehicle damage because of an unrepaired pothole.
Following a cleanup and analysis process we were left with 6,599 records. Here's an accounting of how we arrived at that number.
Narrowing the scope
We eliminated 70 records filed in 2013 as the year has not been completed. In addition we eliminated three records because of exorbitant claim requests totaling $2.557 billion.
Normalizing the data
We eliminated 143 records because of discrepancies in the data regarding their status.
We eliminated 18 records that were duplicates. We eliminated another 22 records (11 duplicates) because each contained a conflict: differences in amount paid, claim status or occurrence date. Further inspection did not yield a method of determining which record was correct.