Mara Divis was driving home from work in February 2018 when she hit a pothole near the intersection of Western and North avenues in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“It was pretty dramatic, pretty loud and it just destroyed my tire right away ... I just had this range of annoyance and anger,” she says.
And she wasn’t sure if there was anything she could do about the $120 bill she’d racked from the damage to her car. So, she wrote in to Curious City:
The city says it’s possible to get compensated for pothole damage to a car. Is that true, and what does it take to make this happen?
Well, in 2018, the city approved 1,106 claims submitted for vehicle damage from potholes. So yes, it’s true that drivers can get reimbursed (although not necessarily for the full amount). But to get that money, you’re going to need a whole lot of information coupled with some patience. And the number of reported potholes is up 20 percent over last year, so here’s what you need to know about how the city decides whether to approve or deny a claim and what drivers need to do to make a case for reimbursement.
The more evidence, the better
So, if you’re like Mara and your car got damaged by a gnarly pothole, it’s important to provide the city with as much information as possible, says Kate LeFurgy, chief external relations officer for the Office of the City Clerk.
"Just like you'd want to have as much information for a case in front of a judge," LeFurgy says.
This means people should take photos of the pothole and the damage to their car and get contact information for any witnesses. If possible, call 311 to file a police report for the incident, she adds. Along with reporting the damage, the city highly recommends drivers also report the pothole and its location by calling 311.
Once drivers have gathered their evidence, they can file a claim form at chicityclerk.com. Then comes the waiting.
The city of Chicago has an online pothole tracker showing potholes patched by the Department of Transportation.
How does the city decide whether to approve or deny your claim?
If the form has been adequately filled out, the City Clerk’s office will pass the claim along to the City Council’s Finance Committee. Finance Committee media liaison Donal Quinlan says that staff members receive on-the-job training on how to assess the claims, and it’s a judgement call based on the evidence provided including the photos, the estimates or repair receipts.
Along with a review of the evidence, the Finance Committee also asks Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to review the claim and confirm that a pothole existed at the location of the incident. Once the Finance Committee receives that confirmation, staffers make a final determination on the claim.
If the Finance Committee votes to approve the claim, it then asks the Revenue Department to check whether the claimant has any outstanding parking tickets or other debts to the city. These amounts would be deducted from any potential settlement offer.
How do you get your money?
If a claim is approved, a settlement offer will be mailed out to the claimant.
Finance Committee media liaison Quinlan says the city rarely pays a full reimbursement for the damage because officials believe the driver bears some responsibility for the damage. If a claim is denied, a letter is mailed out explaining the grounds for denial.
Finally, the full City Council must vote to approve payment for bundles of recommended payouts, but aldermen rarely ever look at specific individual claims. According to people familiar with City Council, this vote is almost always unanimously passed.
If you’re unhappy with the outcome, there’s no appeals process. The only way to contest the decision is to go to court and sue the city.
More about our questioner
Mara Divis lives in Humboldt Park and works as a family medicine doctor. She says after her car was damaged by a pothole, she eventually went through the city claims process for the sake of the greater public good.
“I sort of felt like I was taking this cause on on behalf of the hundreds and hundreds of other people who had pothole damage that week or that month," she says.
Mara received $60 dollars from the city. She says it was a relief to eventually receive a reimbursement check from the city seven months later, but that the process was arduous.
"I think what I was really surprised at was how much I had to do, like all the legwork and hoops I had to jump through,” she says. “And I thought, 'I don't think that that many people would bother to do this.’”
So, would she file a claim with the city again if she hit another pothole this spring?
“I would — I know what the process is and I could get myself together, I think, a little bit more efficiently than last time,” she says. “But I keep my fingers crossed every day I don’t have to.”