BAM! A Pothole Damaged Your Car! Now What?

It takes a lot of information and a lot of patience, but here’s what you need to know to get reimbursed by the city.

Potholes Money Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Potholes Money Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

BAM! A Pothole Damaged Your Car! Now What?

It takes a lot of information and a lot of patience, but here’s what you need to know to get reimbursed by the city.

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Editor’s Note: A version of this story was first published in 2019. It’s been updated to reflect current policies in 2021.

As winter tries to make way for spring, the freeze-thaw cycle Chicago undergoes this time of year means one thing for the city’s streets: potholes! Lots of them. As pothole season kicks in, the questions and complaints about these holes in the streets come into Curious City. So we’re revisiting a question we first answered in 2019.

That’s when we heard from Mara Divis, who had 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 said.

And she wasn’t sure if there was anything she could do about the $120 bill she’d racked up 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 2021, the city approved 94 claims submitted for vehicle damage from potholes. So yes, it’s true 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 because it’s not necessarily a speedy process. (In fact, in 2021, the city approved 376 claims that had been filed in 2019). 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.

Curious City Pothole
Motorists traveling on Chicago’s Austin Ave. dodge potholes. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

The more evidence, the better

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 Alyssa Goodstein, chief external relations officer for the Office of the City Clerk.

This means people should take photos of the pothole location and the damage to their car, get contact information for any witnesses and gather insurance information. If the damage is over $500 dollars the city also requires you to obtain a letter of experience (that’s a letter from your insurance company that states you are insured and confirms whether you’ve filed an insurance claim).

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 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 claim 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 chief of staff Anne Emerson says that staff members receive training on how to assess the claims and it’s a judgment call based on the evidence provided including photos, proof of insurance and the estimates or repair receipts.

Along with a review of the evidence, the Finance Committee also asks the 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.

“The majority of pothole claims are approved because they are a fairly simple investigation. It’s easy to fact check whether or not a pothole existed at a certain place in time, ” Emerson said. And oftentimes the city will receive multiple claims for the same pothole, she added.

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.

According to Emerson, the Finance Committee usually takes about 90 days to complete its review process, although that’s not always the case, especially when people don’t submit all the necessary documents when they first submit a claim.

How do you get your money?

If a claim is approved, a settlement offer will be mailed out to the claimant.

Emerson says the city rarely pays a full reimbursement for the damage because officials believe the driver bears some responsibility. 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

Questioner Mara Divis 2
Questioner Mara Divis holding her settlement offer letter for $60 from the city. (Courtesy Mara Divis)

Mara Divis lives in Ravenswood 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 said.

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 said. “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 said. “But I keep my fingers crossed every day I don’t have to.”