Data shows the unpaid claims by Caltrans in the Central Valley

From Mariposa County down to Tulare County, between 2018 and 2023, drivers filed more than 1,300 claims with Caltrans.

Data shows the unpaid claims by Caltrans in the Central Valley
Data shows the unpaid claims by Caltrans in the Central Valley
Brianna Willis Image
Thursday, February 15, 2024

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Across California, drivers are told to file a claim with Caltrans if a state freeway or highway damages their vehicle, but only a small percentage of those are getting approved.

Now, our ABC-owned stations are taking action by looking into the numbers, and finding out what it takes for drivers to actually get paid for their damage.

"I just remember thinking, I'm going to die," said Jennifer Sowers, who filed a claim with Caltrans.

In August of last year, Jennifer Sowers and her family were driving back to Visalia from Kingsburg on southbound Highway 99.

"Something flew up and we saw it flying up, and thankfully my husband reacted. He knew there were people on either side of us, but what came flying at us was a 4 foot by 4 foot, board of plywood, oriented strand board," said Sowers.

She tells Action News a chunk of wood caused a lot of damage to their Toyota 4Runner.

"You can see the hood was all screwed up, so this whole hood needed to be replaced," said Sowers. "It hit the front grille of our car first, and that kind of chopped it in half, and only a 2-foot by 2-foot section of the board came back and hit our windshield and shattered all of the glass on my side."

She learned the board came from a horse trailer like this one driving down the freeway.

Sowers says the damage to her SUV was estimated at more than $8,000. Since it happened on a California highway, she filed a claim with Caltrans.

"We didn't hear back from them until January 18," said Sowers.

That response nearly six months later from Caltrans read, "Based upon the Department of Transportation's investigation, the department is rejecting your claim."

Sowers is not alone -- the ABC Owned Stations data team crunched the numbers across Central California.

From Mariposa County down to Tulare County, between 2018 and 2023, drivers filed more than 1,300 claims with Caltrans.

Of those, around 1,000 have been resolved.

Caltrans only approved under 140 claims, just 14 percent.

In 2023, when back-to-back atmospheric rivers rocked the entire state, the number of claims skyrocketed.

The vast majority of claims are due to potholes, including 85 percent of those filed in 2023.

Darryl Hosepian with A-1 Auto Electric says the pothole problem is nothing new.

"The wear and tear with the potholes on our California highways is pretty bad," said Hosepian.

The front-end work can get costly.

"You could go up to $1,000 easily. Just with a minor pothole, if you're going too fast and hit it at the right speed, you're going to do damage to all your tires on the front in and then possibly, you're doing damage to your custom rims or wheels on the vehicle also," said Hosepian.

Action News took our findings to Caltrans. The agency said it tries to respond to issues as quickly as possible.

"We investigate when the pothole is reported, and then we investigate our Caltrans Maintenance responses to the potholes and when the pothole was repaired," said Marc Bischoff, Caltrans Public Information Officer.

Spokesperson Marc Bischoff explained why many of the claims get denied.

"If the circumstances after the investigation do not meet the criteria set in government code 835, then we're not liable to pay for it," said Bischoff.

That government code reads, "A public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury."

He suggests going through your insurance to pay for the repairs, something Sowers did.

"We, of course, made our claim to the insurance company and, of course, had to pay our deductible, and that is all we are asking Caltrans for," said Sowers.

Now, not only has her insurance gone up, but she still has to decide if she will get a lawyer or not to sue Caltrans for the damage.

"It's frustrating and infuriating," said Sowers. "We pay a lot of fuel taxes in this state, and that is what is maintaining our roads, and that is where Caltrans gets their budgets and their money to fix and repair. Yes, the debris that flew off someone's vehicle is not their problem, but the problem is that the debris was on the road for hours."

Sowers says she tries to drive even more carefully now, but doesn't believe her family should pay the price for a situation that only someone else could have prevented.

"I feel if you do the right thing, then the right thing should be returned to you, and I feel like Caltrans isn't doing the right thing," said Sowers.

Sowers is still trying to decide if getting a lawyer will be worth it -- for her $500 deductible. She only has six months from the date in the letter to decide.

Caltrans says the most crucial thing you can do is submit roadway damage to them as soon as possible so they know about it and can fix it. You can submit damage here.

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