SEATTLE -- When Shawn Bouckaert hit a pothole with her car at Third Avenue and Bell Street back in 2012, she expected the city of Seattle to help pay for the damage to her car.
She said she had no choice but to replace all four tires on her 2007 Lexus IS250.
The bill? $476.16.
“I pay taxes. I expect the streets to be in a decent condition so I’m not damaging my car just driving home in the middle of downtown,” Bouckaert said. “It would just be nice to get some sort of financial relief when there’s a gigantic pothole in the middle of the city.”
Bouckaert reported the pothole and then filed a claim with the city. She included a detailed account of the incident, photos of the pothole, and a receipt from Discount Tire.
Several months later, the city informed her by mail that her claim had been denied.
“I really felt like I was getting screwed over by the city,” she said.
While the city acknowledged that it was responsible for the pothole, it claimed it had “no prior knowledge” that the pothole was there.
By law, the city owed Bouckaert nothing.
“The first we knew about it may have been your call. In which case, the city wouldn’t be liable because we had no knowledge of it,” said Rick Eilman, a claims manager for the city.
“(By law), an entity responsible for a roadway must have prior notice and a reasonable opportunity to repair it before they can be held liable.”
Eilman said he understands why the law could frustrate drivers.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to be fair with citizens, but we also have a duty to the taxpayers who pay those bills,” he said. “So if the law says we’re not responsible, we’re not going to pay and burden the taxpayers with what is essentially a gift of public funds.”
Since January 2013, the city has received 454 claims for damage related to potholes. Of those, 269 were settled for a total of $156, 895. Ninety-one claims went unpaid, either because they were denied or the claimant gave up on getting money from the city. The remaining claims are either still open or the city determined another entity was responsible for the pothole.
While Seattle denies plenty of claims, the city of Tacoma rejects a larger percentage. Of 158 pothole claims closed by the city since the start of 2013, exactly half were denied.
The reason Shawn Bouckaert’s claim was denied is among the most common.
Had she known the city might have paid her claim had the pothole already been reported, Bouckaert said there’s a chance she would have waited to file her claim until after she reported the pothole anonymously.
“I don’t want to tell people to lie about when their accident happened,” she said. “But, you know, I followed the rules and it didn’t do anything for me.”
Eilman would not say whether people have tried that in the past, but said each claim is investigated thoroughly.
“We do take fraud seriously,” he said. “We try to be fair. We are honest and we expect people to be.”
He said cases like Shawn Bouckaert’s underline why it is so important to report a pothole when you see it.
Last month, 488 potholes were reported to the City of Seattle and 98% were fixed within three business days, according to information available on the city’s website.
Had someone reported the pothole Bouckaert hit, the city may have fixed it before the accident even happened – or, at the very least, may have helped her pay for the damage to her car.
Kenn Arning, a Seattle resident and once-avid bicyclist, was lucky the city had “prior knowledge” of the pothole he fell into back in 2012, or he could have been stuck with hefty medical bills.
Arning was riding his bike to work at Harborview Medical Center when his front tire hit a pothole, hurling him face-first into the concrete. He suffered a broken finger, lacerations to his face, and two chipped teeth. He was out of work for seven weeks.
With the help of an attorney, Arning settled with the city for $25,000.
“(For) medical expenses, and my lost wages, and my pain and suffering,” he said. “It was a big deal for me. It was serious injury.”
While the money was helpful, Arning would have preferred the city had fixed the pothole before he hit it. After all, the cost of his settlement could have paid for roughly 250 pothole repairs.
[In Seattle, a pothole can be reported by calling 206-684-ROAD (7623), or 206-684-CITY (2489). You can also report it in person at City Hall, or via the free “Find It, Fix It” mobile app.
If you believe you’ve sustained damage or been injured due to a pothole, it is important you document the scene by taking photographs. You should also keep any receipts related to the cost of repairs.]