LA has the worst roads in the country, but the city is dodging its duty to reimburse most drivers for damage caused by unfixed potholes, according to a joint investigation by the NBC4 I-Team and 89.3 KPCC.
"Immediately, I felt like I was going to lose control of the steering wheel," says banker Nicole Swain, after hitting a pothole last year on Aviation Boulevard near LAX, a street riddled with huge potholes. The pothole caused a tire to blow on Swain’s car.
The city of Los Angeles allows residents to file a claim for damage to the car or for injuries resulting from potholes.
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"Absolutely, the city should be responsible" for reimbursing drivers for damage from potholes that it knew about, but didn't fix in a timely way, says attorney Farid Yaghoubtil, whose firm handles pothole claims against the city.
But NBC4's I-Team found less than one out of every 10 drivers who file claims get any money from the City Attorney’s office, which handles pothole claims.
Nicole Swain filed a claim last year for her pothole accident, complete with photos of the pothole and her punctured tire. Six months later, she says she received a form letter from the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office saying her claim was rejected, and her only option was to take the city to court.
"Trying to file a claim with the city, just to have it denied, is a waste of everybody’s time," Swain says.
NBC4 and KPCC did an analysis of the roughly 6,600 claims filed by drivers against city for pothole damage from 2003 to 2012. Our analysis found the City Attorney only reimbursed 627 of those drivers.
"It’s a financial strategy," Yaghoubtil said. "If the city was to adjust and pay out every claim for potholes, it could be extremely expensive for them... millions and millions."
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The investigation found that drivers filed claims asking for over $5 million in damage to their cars and in bodily injury, but the City Attorney reimbursed just over $352,000.
Twelve days ago, NBC4 requested LA City Attorney Mike Feuer to answer questions about the findings of our investigation, but an aide said he wasn’t available until Tuesday, Oct. 8. The I-Team is scheduled to interview Feuer about pothole claims on that date.
The I-Team’s investigation found the City Attorney often rejects claims for damage from potholes its known about for months or years.
Architect John Mares also a pothole on that same stretch of Aviation Blvd this February, and just like Swain, his car blew a tire, costing him $401 to replace it. Also like Swain, Mares' claim for reimbursement was rejected by the City Attorney.
"I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it," Mares said. In fact, the I-Team uncovered 76 pages of complaints the city had received from drivers about potholes on that one stretch of Aviation Boulevard in just the last three years.
"I’m not going to give up" trying to get reimbursed, Mares told the I-Team last month. He called and emailed Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and called the City Attorney’s investigator who signed his rejection letter.
"He told me he had never seen my file before. He said all first-time claims, they turn down," Mares said.
Mares insisted the City Attorney take a second look at his claim, and his persistence paid off. Last week, he received a check for $401 for his blown tire, becoming one of the few LA drivers to get reimbursement for pothole damage.
"It was vindication," Mares told the I-Team. "You can fight City Hall," he added.
(The broadcast version of this story was produced by Phil Drechsler.)