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Pothole Season: What to Do if You Crash into a Roadway Crater

Pothole Season: What to Do if You Crash into a Roadway Crater

If it feels like Michigan roads have been in rough condition lately, you’re right. Potholes are popping up everywhere as the infamous freeze-thaw cycle takes its relentless toll on the state’s highways. Few places in the country have more problems with deteriorating roads than we do here in the Great Lakes State. In fact, Michigan is among the nation’s worst three states for potholes according to a recent study! The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) reports that it repairs around 400,000 pothole annually – a figure that doesn’t even consider those encountered by county and local road crews.

Given these numbers, it’s only a matter of time before you run into a crater on the road surface, which can result in severe vehicle damage – not to mention unexpected bumps, bruises, and discomfort for anyone who happens to be a passenger in your car. So, how do you deal with this situation? We’re here with some advice that will hopefully “smooth” things out just a bit.

Get Good Collision Coverage with the Lowest Deductible You Can Afford

Unfortunately, whenever a pothole causes damage to your vehicle, it’s usually considered an at-fault collision by insurance companies. Essentially, your insurer will assert that you should have been able to avoid the hole, and that you’ll have to make a claim against your collision coverage to help pay for necessary repairs. But if you have a high collision deductible, it won’t make sense to file a claim, especially since doing so will likely cause your premiums to increase going forward. Of course, if your vehicle has significant damage exceeding your deductible amount, it may be worthwhile to make a claim anyway, especially since replacing a vehicle can be logistically and financially challenging. You’ll have to determine what’s best based on the specifics of your situation.

Wait… Isn’t the State (or the County) Responsible for Pothole Damage to My Car?

Unfortunately, the government (whether state, county, city) has a long-established method of dismissing complaints from people whose cars are damaged by potholes or other forms of road repair negligence. It’s called “governmental immunity,” a time-tested legal concept that lets the government deny reimbursement requests for pothole-related damage, among other possible claims that could be made. This form of protection for governmental entities dates back centuries to origins in English Common Law and is so firmly established that you’ll be unlikely to win a case brought against any part of the government. How unlikely? Very unlikely. In fact, MDOT’s website comes right out and says it with this somewhat foreboding statement: “The majority of defect claims (regarding roads) are denied under governmental immunity laws.” Which is their way of saying that suing the government for damages is generally a waste of time and money.

While we tend to agree, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely impossible to sue the government and win significant compensation, as recent cases like the $626 million settlement in the Flint drinking water crisis demonstrate.  So, before you decide to simply give up on pursuing legal action against the government, discuss your specific situation with a qualified attorney. Even MDOT seems to agree with this suggestion, advising Michiganders that, “if your alleged damage claim is $1,000 or more, you can recover only by filing a lawsuit against MDOT,” and stating that individuals should, “consult a private attorney if you want to pursue this option.”

But what if your pothole damage is less than $1,000? Well, if you’re willing to do some research of your own, you can attempt to personally file a claim against the government.  Here’s some guidance on how to do just that.

How to File a Damage Reimbursement Claim Against the State

If your car was damaged on a road owned or maintained by the state of Michigan, its name will have a letter and number identifying it as such. Examples include M-24, I-75, and US 131, along with most major other highways across the state. To register a claim for a pothole incident that occurred on a state road, you’ll need to identify the specific road, the exact location, the date/time of the incident, and also be required to file the state’s official  Form 3600 to initiate the process of requesting reimbursement for an amount less than $1,000. To help substantiate your claim, you’ll also be asked to provide (if available) a police report, written repair estimates, bills or receipts for repairs not covered by insurance, and pictures of the pothole and your damaged vehicle. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. So, you’ll need to decide if the time and effort required is worth spending, especially since, as MDOT so kindly notes, “most claims are denied.”

Once you’ve assembled this body of evidence, you’ll submit your claim by mail to one of seven regional offices statewide. To ensure your package arrives, we recommend using certified mail with a return receipt requested. The location servicing Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties is the Metro Region Office, at 18101 W. Nine Mile Road, Southfield, MI 48075. You can also identify other branches on the MDOT website. If you have questions concerning the process, you can also attempt to reach someone at 248-483-5100 (but good luck with that!). Regrettably, we believe it’s probably best to simply pay for the repairs yourself in this circumstance, considering your very small chance of success and the limited reimbursement funding offered.

How to File a Damage Reimbursement Claim Against the County or City

This can also be a bit complicated. Each locality has its own process and documentation requirements, so you’ll first need to determine the jurisdiction where the pothole damage took place. And remember, this claims process applies only to roads maintained by localities (which means it doesn’t cover state roads beginning with the letters M, I, or US).

For example, if the pothole you hit is on a road maintained by Wayne County, you’ll need to demonstrate that the county “failed to maintain the actual road in reasonable repair to prove a road defect claim.” You will also be required to show that Wayne County “knew of the condition and had an opportunity to repair it, or that the condition existed for more than 30 days.”

Just like the state, Wayne County also requires you to provide specific evidence when making your claim. To complete their official Vehicle Damage Claim Form, you’ll be asked to supply details such as the accident date and time, the exact location where it occurred, professional damage estimates, and pictures to prove the damage and illustrate the size of the pothole. The county also notes that many of its most traveled roads are actually controlled by the state, including some you might not expect, such as Woodward Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Telegraph Road, Fort Street, and Van Dyke among others.  On the other hand, many of the “Mile Roads” (starting from Ford Road at the bottom and going all the way up to 8 Mile Road) are managed by the county, although some are maintained by the respective cities they intersect. It can be a bit of a hodgepodge, so Wayne County officials suggest contacting their Claim Office at 313-224-7766 to verify which entity is responsible for the exact location where your pothole encounter took place.

Once you’ve figured that out and have fully completed the county’s claim form, you can mail it (remember what we said about certified mail) to the Wayne County Risk Management Claims Division, at 500 Griswold, 20th Floor, Detroit, MI 48226. Then sit back and wait to see what happens. Again, we wish you all the best in making your claim… but don’t hold your breath as you await a response.

That’s not to suggest Wayne County has a monopoly on potholes. But, because there are so many different local jurisdictions (and so many, many, many potholes) across the state, you’ll have to do some digging to find out exactly where to begin your claims process. To help you get started, here are a few county road-related websites: Oakland County Road Commission, Macomb County Department of Roads, Wayne County Road Commission

If we sound a bit pessimistic here, it’s because we’re simply trying to be realistic. Governmental immunity means there’s very little chance that you’ll file a successful pothole reimbursement claim.  As we’ve already noted, for damage less than $1,000, the best course of action is usually to suck it up, pull out your pocketbook, and pay for the repairs yourself, knowing that spring is on the way, and most of those pesky potholes will merely be painful memories … that is, until next winter arrives.

A Final Word for Motorcyclists … and a Note for All Motorists

Up to now, we’ve been talking mostly to drivers traveling on four wheels. But bikers face unique issues with potholes and the treacherous, slippery gravel that can often surround them. A pothole crash while in an SUV can certainly be a nuisance, but a pothole encounter while driving a motorcycle can be life threatening. One thing motorcyclists (and all drivers) can do to help reduce the risk for everyone on the road is to report developing potholes immediately to local and MDOT officials. That way, there will be a written record of the deteriorating road conditions on file if – God forbid – someone is injured by poor road conditions. If you can prove a pothole that damaged your vehicle or caused personal injuries had been identified more than 30 days prior to your accident, you will have a much easier time making a successful claim or even filing a lawsuit for damages. We hope it won’t happen to you but, if you have questions about pothole damage, or you’ve experienced injuries related to a pothole-related incident, feel free to give us a call at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946) or contact us online. We’ll be happy to advise you. And there’s never a cost to you until we win in court!