INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The city of Indianapolis repeatedly left Hoosiers to foot the bill for damage done to their cars from potholes last winter. A monthslong I-Team 8 investigation about pothole damage claims raised new questions about whether the city’s process is fair to residents.
About 1,000 people filed claims that the city was responsible for damage to their cars and should have to pay for it. And roughly 99 percent of the time, the city denied those claims and refused to pay.
Anyone traveling through the city can fill out a tort claim to try to prove to the city that it should pay for that car damage from an unfixed pothole.
This past winter, News 8 extensively covered the city roads. Drivers reported tens of thousands of potholes from Dec. 1 to June 1. At one point, Mayor Joe Hogsett declared a state of emergency.
- SEE THE NUMBERS: News 8’s Eric Feldman collected data on potholes from December and January here and February through May here.
Many complained about blown tires and bent rims. Some Hoosiers said the damage broke not just their cars but also their bank accounts.
“Just under $300 may seem small to some people, but to a single mom with kids in college, that’s the cost of a textbook,” said April Westcott, an architect who lives in Avon.
Westcott said she vividly remembers the night of Feb. 28.
“It sounded like my car broke in half,” she said about a pothole she said she hit on 7501 W. 38th St., near Dandy Trail.
She said the pothole destroyed her rim and tire.
“It was a devastating, large pothole to be sure,” she told I-Team 8.
Westcott said she thought the city was responsible for paying the $262.40 in damage to her car.
“These claims are intended for people like me,” she said. “They’re intended for people who can’t afford to make repairs on things that they normally would.”
According to the city, people can include receipts and photos to help make the case in their tort claim applications.
- See April’s tort claim, which was denied.
Westcott added receipts and photos, as well as proof that the pothole she hit had been reported to the city nearly two weeks earlier.
Yet the city denied her claim.
“This seems like a form letter,” she said about the city’s mailed response.
Westcott is not alone. Michael Mercho told I-Team 8 the city denied his claim of more than $1,000 in damages.
“Honestly any amount of money that I’m out for no fault of my own is not fair and unjustifiable,” he said about the $1,144.48 cost to repair damage from a pothole he said he hit at the intersection of 38th Street and East Fall Creek Parkway North Drive.
Someone had reported that pothole to the city about a month before Mercho said he hit it.
“All it takes is a 45-cent stamp and a 10-cent piece of paper to say you’re denied,” he said. “They saved $1,200 to do whatever the hell they want.”
Out of nearly 1,000 tort claims I-Team 8 reviewed, the city settled just 10 — close to 1 percent.
- See Michael’s tort claim, which was denied.
I-Team 8 wanted to find out why the number of settled claims was so low.
First we looked into the city’s rules to settle claims:
- The pothole that caused damage had to have been reported to the city before the damage was done.
- Crews have a week and a half after it’s reported to fix a given pothole.
- If the weather prevents the Public Works crews from working, an extra day is added to that 1.5 weeks.
I-Team 8 looked at every pothole damage claim for the first five months of 2018 and matched those claims to the potholes people reported to the city. I-Team 8 also looked back at weather forecasts to see when crews were stopped from working due to the day’s outlook.
We found about 20 claims that seemed to meet every criteria, yet all 20 were denied.
“What you see in the sampling so far is disturbing,” said Richard Hailey, an attorney in Indianapolis with 40 years’ experience, including tort claim fights with the city.
“These claims, most of them were not dealt with very seriously,” Hailey said.
He said what may be more confusing than those denials is trying to understand why the city does pay out certain claims.
“There’s no matrix. There’s no criteria you can identify,” said Hailey.
I-Team 8 went line by line through the 10 claims the city settled.
“I want to know what 10 people did, what did those 10 people do,” said Westcott, when told about the city totals.
One woman received about $140 from the city; her claim showed she hit a pothole on East 75th Street, east of Shadeland Avenue. This woman gave the city a mile-and-a-half stretch where the damage could have happened. By contrast, Mercho and Westcott gave specific locations where they hit potholes, but they were denied.
Another man got $150 from the city for damage from a pothole I-Team 8 couldn’t even find reported previously.
Westcott and Mercho both hit potholes that had been reported with adequate time, based on the city’s own rules, to have been repaired by crews.
“When you look at the facts, I don’t think it’s a fair system to the citizens of Marion County,” said State Sen. Jim Merritt, who is chairman of the Marion County Republican Party.
Merritt said I-Team 8’s reporting shows the city is not paying attention to the details of tort claims for pothole damage.
The city attorneys who consider pothole damage claims work in the Office of Corporation Counsel. Despite multiple attempts to schedule an on-camera interview, I-Team 8 did not get answers from the office, which said the attorneys could not speak about their defense of city agencies.
Mayor Joe Hogsett appoints the head of the city legal department. However, his spokeswoman sent I-Team back to that legal team when reached for comment.
Merritt, who frequently called out Hogsett for road conditions last winter, said it’s up to the mayor to take a hard look at the entire tort claim process.
“It always goes to the top. The mayor is in charge. He’s the CEO of the city; he’s the CEO of the county, and he ought to make a decision,” he said.
For most people, it doesn’t make sense to pay a lawyer to fight for these repairs. As for April Westcott and Michael Mercho, they’re out a lot of money and don’t know where to turn.
“Honestly if they had a legitimate reason for why I was denied, then fine! I didn’t follow the rules, or the pothole wasn’t there long enough. Or whatever other semantics they want to dig into to figure out why. Just tell me why,” said Mercho.