Pothole Primer 3.28

Crews fill potholes in March on Nebraska 2. The city has filled more than 60,000 potholes this winter.

Just after pothole season ends, after the city gets done putting asphalt mix in thousands of rim-busting holes in city streets, the claims start arriving at the city's Law Department.

Last year, a modest pothole season, the city received just eight pothole claims.

But this year, a year when the city filled more than 60,000 potholes, there have been far more claims.

There were 32 pothole claims on the April 16 report to the Lincoln City Council, claims ranging from $124 for a tire to $1,141 for damage to a car.

One person sought damages after he hit a frozen pile of snow while trying to avoid a pothole.

Few of those drivers, probably none of them, will get a check from the city for damage to their cars. Instead, they will get a letter from the Law Department denying their claim because the city has no liability.

Just losing your tire, or your rim, to a pothole on a city street isn’t enough to trigger city liability. The city must have known about the pothole and had time to repair it, based on state law.

In the past 13 years, the city has paid three of the 202 pothole claims submitted, according to Elizabeth Elliott, an assistant city attorney who handles the claims.

Elliott says she talks to street maintenance staff to see if the city has received a notice of the pothole involved in a claim. If so, she looks into whether there was time for the city to have repaired the pothole before the driver making the claim hit it.

Elliott looks at the weather during that period — were conditions suitable to making repairs? — and whether it included a weekend or holiday. Then, she makes a decision about whether the city had time to handle the pothole repair.

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“It really is a case-by-case basis”… “and a lot of facts go into the determination,” she said.

Last year the city paid none of the eight claims. This year, so far, the city has rejected all claims.

Two of the three claims paid during the last 13 years, in 2013, were for the same pothole in a construction zone on Cornhusker Highway, which likely had been reported about two weeks before the incidents, Elliott said. 

The third clam was a 2010 case, and the city no longer has the file, so staffers don’t know the specific reason for paying it, Elliott added.

In Omaha, the city had paid none of the more than 500 pothole claims over the past five years until Mayor Jean Stothert decided the enormous number of potholes this year deserved a different approach.

Omaha had 59 pothole claims filed by mid-March, when the mayor announced the temporary policy of paying claims if the pothole had been previously reported.

If all those claims were valid, Omaha would pay more than $28,800 to vehicle owners.

Within four days, more than 600 additional claims had been filed.

By April 10, 646 claims had been assigned case numbers and there were more awaiting that initial review, according to Carrie Murphy, with the Omaha mayor’s office.

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Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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