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Lawmakers demanding answers from Caltrans about freeway damage claim denials

VIDEO: Lawmakers demanding answers from Caltrans about denied freeway damage claims
CA lawmakers demanding answers from Caltrans about freeway damage claim denials 04:06

California lawmakers are responding to a CBS News California investigation, which found that Caltrans damage claims from potholes and debris on California highways tripled in the first half of last year, as approval rates dropped by half. 

Now, lawmakers also want to know why Caltrans is denying so many damage claims and some are proposing legislation to fix the Caltrans damage claims process.  

CALTRANS DAMAGE CONTINUING COVERAGE:


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INVESTIGATION: Pothole damage claims on California freeways triple while Caltrans payouts drop by half. Why?

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SEARCH TOOL: California freeways with the most potholes and car damage claims

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Lawmakers demand answers from Caltrans following CBS California Investigation

Shattered Windshields I-80

Placer County Assemblymember Joe Patterson reached out to CBS News California Investigates almost immediately after watching our last report.  Patterson has been fighting for accountability from Caltrans for over a year.  

Back in February, he introduced Assembly Bill 2848. The bill would have forced Caltrans to pay for specific claims for hundreds of windows cracked and shattered by loose gravel over a four-month period on a busy stretch of I-80 in his district. 

At the time, according to Steve Nelson, a public information officer of Caltrans District 3, Caltrans did not pay those claims because they said they "were aware of the situation" and were "working to fix it." 

The department also said in April 2023 that the stretch of road took so long to fix because putting down hot asphalt requires temperatures of at least 45 degrees.   

"They knew it was a problem and the fact that they continue to not pay is crazy," Patterson said. "It's mind-boggling."

According to California law, if the state knew about a dangerous condition and didn't fix it, the state is responsible to pay for the damages.   

Trying to get answers 

Patterson's bill died earlier this year, but then he saw our investigation which revealed statewide concerns. 

"I think the bottom line is that they don't pay claims. And I want to have a better understanding of what claims they do pay and why they're not paying these other claims," Patterson said.  

He said he wants to craft public policy "that actually makes sense." 

"We don't want frivolous claims going out there...We want them to pay legitimate claims," Patterson explained.  

CBS News California Investigates found that Caltrans claims approval rates have dropped. 

Between 2018 and 2021 Caltrans approved roughly 1 in every 10 damage claims. The approval rate suddenly dropped in 2022 to just 1 in 25 damage claims and Caltrans approved even fewer claims last year. 

	

Similarly, Caltrans told Patterson's office they approved 1 out of every 27 claims between August 2022 and August 2023. That means more than 96% were denied.  

"[It] took me over five months to get a response from them and I'm a legislator," Patterson said, identifying with Angie Rubin, the woman featured in our last report.  

As our investigation revealed, Caltrans waited seven months to provide Rubin with the pothole records she requested after a freeway pothole popped her tire. When Caltrans denied her damage claim, Rubin requested records of previous reports of her pothole under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). 

She needed the records to prove Caltrans knew about the pothole, which could have made them liable for the damage. But month after month the agency delayed giving her the evidence she needed until it was too late for Angie to take Caltrans to court. 

Similar to Rubin's denial, Caltrans Director Tony Tavares told Patterson that the reason Caltrans denied the shattered window claims on I-80 last year was because the ongoing issue of projectile roadway debris "did not constitute a dangerous condition of public property." 

He added that the department denied the claims, "in accordance with the government claims procedure." 

"To me, it sounds like the government claims procedure says deny claims," said Patterson. 

Notably, shattered windshields are considered dangerous enough that state law requires drivers to fix cracks within 48 hours.  

CBS News California asked Patterson how it is possible that roadway debris repeatedly shattering windshields at freeway speeds is not considered "a dangerous condition."

"Well, it's definitely a good question for Caltrans," Patterson responded. 

And it's one of many he's determined to get answered.  

Enhancing transparency and accountability 

Patterson brought our investigation to the Assembly Transportation Chair Lori Wilson. She's now demanding answers from Caltrans, providing the following statement to CBS News California Investigates:

 "As Chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, I take these concerns very seriously. The safety and well-being of the public are our top priorities, and it is troubling to hear about the increasing number of damage claims and the challenges drivers face in receiving compensation.

Assemblymember Patterson and I have agreed to draft a letter to Caltrans to request detailed information on their claims process and the apparent inconsistencies in the outcomes of these claims. We must understand the criteria and procedures leading to such decisions. We hope that through cooperative efforts with Caltrans, we can enhance transparency and accountability to ensure that the claims process is fair and responsive to Californians' needs.

I appreciate your coverage on this issue and ensuring that state agencies remain committed to serving the public effectively."

Patterson is also considering new legislation to protect people like Angie Rubin, who may lose their opportunity to sue the state, simply because Caltrans won't give them the necessary records in time.  

"If it takes them that long to actually provide the records, then maybe constituents should have that much longer to actually sue," Patterson said. 

CBS News is still waiting for the public records that we requested, which should help shed light on Caltrans's inner workings.  

In the meantime, several lawmakers told us they are considering requesting a Joint Legislative Audit of Caltrans's denied claims.  

Stay tuned! 

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