On the daily commute to his auto repair shop in Lawrenceville, Marco Imbarlina found himself headed toward a pothole on the 40th Street Bridge, hemmed in by traffic and unable to swerve.
"I could feel the car bottom out. I could see the hubcap fly off," said Imbarlina, 64, of Allison Park, whose right rear tire was useless when the wheel bent and cut through the sidewall. "If I could get paid back for it, that would be wonderful."
Imbarlina won't get back the $50 he spent on a replacement tire, and neither will many who bend rims and blow out tires after hitting potholes. The state of Pennsylvania will not pay for damage potholes cause, and counties and municipalities only have to pay if officials knew the pothole was there and didn't fix it.
Since 1978, the state has not been held responsible for damage caused by "potholes, sinkholes or other similar conditions caused by natural elements," said Ed Myslewicz, spokesman for the Department of General Services, which handles the state's insurance. He estimated between a few hundred and 1,000 drivers a year try to file claims anyway.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission accepts pothole-related claims, but reimburses few people for them. None of the 17 claims filed in 2009, nor the four filed this year, were reimbursed, turnpike officials said.
State law holds counties and municipalities responsible, but only if officials knew about the pothole and didn't fix it within a reasonable amount of time -- which isn't defined in the law, but generally is accepted to be 7 to 10 days, said Allegheny County Risk Manager Karen Womack.
"If we don't fix it in a reasonable amount of time and a car is damaged, we will compensate for that," said Kevin Evanto, Allegheny County spokesman. "In those cases, we typically reimburse a driver's out-of-pocket expenses, like their insurance deductible."
Twenty people filed claims with Allegheny County during the 2008- 09 winter and the county shelled out $1,211 to reimburse four of them. So far in the 2009-10 winter, the county has received 14 claims and paid $200 on one.
In Pittsburgh, motorists filed 26 pothole claims in 2009; the city reimbursed 15 of them, spending $3,572. So far this year, 12 claims have been filed.
City Solicitor Dan Regan said this year's large number of potholes might give the city wiggle room in determining whether Public Works crews had a reasonable amount of time to fix them all. More potholes might mean more time before the city is held responsible.
"(The number of potholes) would be taken into consideration. The statute is written the way it is because claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Regan said.
Ross Manager Wayne Jones said the township gets complaints each winter, but most are for damage sustained on county-owned Babcock Boulevard or state-owned McKnight Road.
"They call us up and are often very angry," Jones said. …