Watch CBS News

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

VIDEO: Why is Caltrans denying so many damage claims on California freeways?
Why is Caltrans denying so many damage claims on California freeways? 04:25

A CBS News California investigation found damage claims from potholes and debris on California freeways tripled in just the first half of 2023, while Caltrans cut damage payouts in half. 

Our analysis of one recently denied damage claim revealed Caltrans likely knew about the "dangerous condition" months before the damage occurred yet denied the driver's claim and did not provide the evidence she needed to sue Caltrans until it was too late for the driver to use it in court.

CALTRANS DAMAGE CONTINUING COVERAGE:


web-image.jpg

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

popped-tire.jpg

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

shaterered-glass.jpg

Lawmakers demand answers from Caltrans following CBS California Investigation

CLICK HERE to see the California freeways with the most potholes and damage claims and use our interactive search tool to find the worst roads in your area.

Which California freeways had the most damage claims? Click the map to find out.
Which California freeways had the most damage claims? Click the map to find out.

Angie's Story: A pothole kept her from her mom 

Angie Rubin was driving south down the 101 freeway one April afternoon on her way to visit her 95-year-old mother in a retirement home when she hit a pothole. 

The pothole, which was in the middle lane of the highway, "ripped the tire to shreds," Rubin explained. She never made it to see her mother that day. 

Angie Rubin's tire after she hit a pothole on the 101 South freeway.
Angie Rubin's tire after she hit a pothole on the 101 South freeway. Angie Rubin

After "wobbling" her car to the side of the freeway, dodging cars speeding by, a tow truck brought her car to a nearby dealer for repairs. There, one of the mechanics told her she wasn't the first to hit that pothole. 

"He's like, 'Oh yeah, we know that pothole,'" Rubin recalled. 

The pothole that Angie Rubin hit on the 101 South freeway in April 2022.
The pothole that Angie Rubin hit on the 101 South freeway in April 2022. Angie Rubin

Rubin submitted a claim to Caltrans for damage reimbursement. Hers was one of 30,000 claims submitted between 2018 and mid-2023. She was also one of the many drivers whose claims were denied.  

CBS News California Investigates also identified that Caltrans likely knew about the pothole that Rubin hit, months before the damage occurred. Then, Caltrans delayed giving Rubin the records she requested of previous reports of the pothole until it was too late for Rubin to use the evidence in court. 

According to Caltrans data obtained by CBS News California Investigates, the number of damage claims submitted to Caltrans tripled in just the first half of 2023 compared to the full years' worth of claims during the previous five years.  

According to Caltrans data obtained by CBS News California Investigates, the number of claims submitted to Caltrans tripled in just the first half of 2023 compared to full years' worth of claims during the previous five years.

The reason for this increase might be due to more potholes. A larger share of these claims mentioned potholes than in any previous year. In the first half of 2023, about three-quarters of claims mentioned potholes, compared to less than half between 2018 and 2022. 

As pothole damage claims increased, Caltrans claim approvals decreased 

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. 

Drivers can sue the state, but for damages under $12,500 (previously $10,000), Caltrans offers an early resolution claims process

If drivers are denied, they have six months after they are denied to file a court action on their claim. 

When Rubin filed her claim with Caltrans, she said she thought, "This is a no-brainer. Like, of course, they're going to take care of it." 

Caltrans requires "clear proof, such as time, location, and photos, of the dangerous condition of the roadway and show it happened on the state highway system," which Rubin provided.  

"I showed them the pothole. I showed them the tire with the huge chunk taken out of it," she said. 

But Caltrans denied her claim stating the agency was not liable. 

"If they denied my claim. Are they paying any claims?" Angie asked. 

Overall, between 2018 and mid-2023, Caltrans approved about 7% of claims, for which the status information was available.

Over time, the share of claims approved has dropped. In 2018 Caltrans approved 1 in every 10 claims. But data through mid-2023 show Caltrans only approved 1 in every 25 claims. (This does not include claims that did not have status information or that were still pending.) 

It feels like "David and Goliath"

Caltrans denied repeated interview requests from CBS News California to answer questions about the claims process and why so few claims are approved. 

Instead, Caltrans' public affairs chief, Edward Barrera, pointed us to this statement on their website. 

The statement, in part, notes that the driver must prove that "the road on the state highway system was in dangerous condition, Caltrans knew about the dangerous condition, or should have known, and that Caltrans had sufficient time to fix the problem before the damage occurred." 

CBS News California asked Barrera over email how drivers are expected to prove what Caltrans knew and how much time is "sufficient" to fix a known pothole on a freeway. But he refused to respond. Instead, he suggested that we file a "CPRA" or California Public Records Act request to get the answers to those questions.  

Back in August 2022, Rubin filed her own CPRA. She asked Caltrans for any reports of the pothole she hit in April 2022. 

caltrans-inquiry.png
A screen shot of Angie Rubin's original California Public Records Act request to Caltrans in August 2022, asking if there was a pothole reported for repair on the 101 South - where she hit a pothole in April 2022. Angie Rubin

State law gives agencies 10 days to respond to CPRAs, but allows them to delay releasing records. 

"Month after month after month, I would get these emails saying, 'We'll get back to you in another two months,'" Rubin said. 

Caltrans eventually gave Rubin an answer. The documents the department sent her suggested a pothole in the same area where she hit her pothole had been reported in January 2022, more than three months before Rubin's accident. But records show Caltrans didn't complete the work on the pothole until June 2022, several months after Angie's accident.  

Angie Rubin's pothole timeline 

  • January 2022: A pothole is reported to Caltrans on the US 101 South freeway near the CA 134, CA 170 split. 

  • April 23, 2022: Rubin hits a pothole, which damages her car, on the US 101 South freeway near the CA 134, CA 170 split.

  • May 2, 2022: Rubin files the claims with Caltrans. 

  • June 14, 2022: Caltrans completes work on the reported pothole on the US 101 South freeway near the CA 134, CA 170 split.

  • July 13, 2022: Caltrans sends Angie a notice of denial claiming the state is not liable for the damages. The letter includes a footnote that says she has six months from the date the letter is mailed or delivered to file a court action. 

  • August 17, 2022: Rubin files a CPRA, searching for evidence that Caltrans knew about the pothole before her accident. 

  • January 13, 2023: Six months after the date on Rubin's denial letter, which would be the deadline to file a court action on her claim, Caltrans continued delaying providing the requested records. 

  • March 7, 2023: Caltrans provides Rubin with the requested records seven months after she filed her CPRA, and two months after the deadline for her to use them to file a court action against Caltrans. The records suggest that Caltrans did know about the pothole that damaged Rubin's car (or a pothole in the same area) several months before Rubin's accident but did not compete work on it until several months after Rubin's accident.

Above: One of the documents Caltrans released to Angie Rubin after she filed a Public Records Act request to see if a pothole had been reported on the 101 South. It shows there was a pothole reported in the same area as Angie's accident in January 2022.
Above: One of the documents Caltrans released to Angie Rubin after she filed a Public Records Act request. It shows Caltrans finished patching potholes on the 101 in June 2022 in the same area as Angie's accident.

"They make it so hard. I really think they want you to go away," Rubin said. 

Rubin didn't get her answer – proof that Caltrans knew about the pothole – until March 2023, seven months after she requested information on the pothole and two months after the deadline for her to appeal her denied claim in court. 

A screenshot of the email Angie Rubin received from Caltrans in March 2023, explaining that records responsive to her request were available, seven months after she made her request.
A screenshot of the email Angie Rubin received from Caltrans in March 2023, explaining that records responsive to her request were available, seven months after she made her request. Angie Rubin

"It does feel a little bit like David and Goliath," Rubin said. 

But, Rubin's mom taught her not to give up. 

"Caltrans needs to be held accountable," she said. 

Rubin has turned to CBS News California Investigates to find out if the California Department of Transportation is intentionally denying valid damage claims. 

However, we won't know for many more months as we now have to wait for the agency to fulfill our Public Records Act requests. 

The department waited nearly six months to release data reference in this story - and here in our sidebar

We're now waiting on Caltrans to respond to several more records requests that should give us insight into why Caltrans is denying a higher share of claims and how drivers can increase their success rate.  

Stay tuned!  

In the meantime, CLICK HERE to see the California freeways with the most potholes and damage claims and use our interactive search tool to find the worst roads in your area.

Which California freeways had the most damage claims? Click the map to find out.
Which California freeways had the most damage claims? Click the map to find out.

For more information about how we did the data analysis for this story, click here.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news