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Town needs prior written notice of potholes for reimbursements

Deborah Howland with the paperwork for pothole damage

Deborah Howland with the paperwork for pothole damage to her car on Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

The morning after an encounter with a pothole in Central Islip damaged a car wheel -- the rim and tie rod were bent -- Deborah Howland called Islip Town to report the hazard and ask how to file a claim for reimbursement.

She followed the instructions, filled out a claim form and submitted it. So she was surprised when she got a letter denying the claim.

"I followed all the proper channels, did what the town asked me to do," she said, but learned from the letter that "according to town code they need prior written notice of defects to recover damages."

Howland said the town staffer she had spoken with said she would check to see if a written notice about the pothole in question was on file. But, Howland said, the employee did not say that, if there was none, the town was not responsible for damage.

If neither the Department of Public Works nor the town clerk has received a written notice, "then the town is not liable for the damage," town spokeswoman Inez Birbiglia told us. When a claim for such damage is submitted, she said, the town "researches whether it has been given written notice of the defect (pothole) that caused the reported damage."

Howland said she wouldn't have submitted the claim had she known. "When I contacted the town, they never once said they needed prior written notice," she said.

Birbiglia, without commenting on the specific exchange Howland described, said town staffers "do tell them [callers] that the prior written notice is required."

This isn't the first winter we've heard about pothole damage. Here's an explanation that Newsday's Gwen Young wrote in this space three years ago:

Most municipalities require "prior written notice, specific to location. If no one reported the pothole before your vehicle hit it and was damaged, the municipality doesn't have any liability."

Howland said in the evening darkness she and her daughter hadn't seen the pothole, on Lowell Avenue, so the jolt came as a shock. The pothole was filled shortly after she reported it.

So ask if a town has a written notice about a pothole before you file a claim. It will save time, which you could use to send a letter the next time you see a pothole.


For drivers weary of dodging potholes on Hempstead Turnpike: Repair work has begun and is expected to be finished by Wednesday.In recent weeks we've heard that driving that road has been an ordeal -- "It looks like a war zone, a mine field," said one reader, who cited flat tires and broken wheel rims.

Is reimbursement for damage along the 15-mile roadway possible? The answer is no, at least not for damage during pothole season.

That's because the road, also known as State Route 24, falls under a provision of state law that says the state won't consider claims for such damage caused from mid-November until the end of April.

Here's an excerpt: "The state shall not be liable for damages suffered by any person from defects in state highways, except between the first day of May and the fifteenth day of November on such highways as are maintained by the state . . ."

"Although we certainly sympathize with these drivers, according to . . . [state law], New York State cannot be held liable for winter related defects in the highway for incidents which occur between November 16th and April 30th," state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Eileen Peters wrote in an email last week.

She said the road condition had endured because "the same crews that repair the potholes also plow and salt during snow storms." When they're not plowing and salting roads, "they are patrolling and repairing potholes all over L.I. as the weather permits."

By midweek, the department's maintenance crews had used "about 270 tons of asphalt" for pothole repair on Hempstead Turnpike from Bethpage Parkway to the Meadowbrook State Parkway, she said. Work westward to the Queens line is expected to be completed by Wednesday.

When a pothole is reported on a state road at 1-800-POTHOLE, "NYSDOT crews will repair it as soon as possible, weather permitting," she said.

We'll keep that number handy. Jim Doyle, who notified us of the condition of Hempstead Turnpike near his home in Farmingdale, said that "every pothole you see that's patched, [after] the next storm it breaks apart." And we've got three more weeks of winter.

By the middle of last week, the state had spent almost $1.4 million on pothole repairs on Long Island, Peters said, about four times the total spent last year, $354,877.

Even patched, some sections of Hempstead Turnpike are as bumpy as a washboard. The road is scheduled for a "mill and fill" resurfacing project in 2017, Peters said.

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