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‘Pot-hole’ cases overload WV Court of Claims

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Poor conditions of state highways has led to a surge in claims against the Division of Highways filed with the state Court of Claims, creating a dramatic increase in the agency’s workload by more than 600 percent, a legislative audit released Sunday confirmed.

Legislative auditors offered several options to alleviate the problem – including changing the law so that the state would no longer reimburse car owners for vehicle damage in so-called “pot-hole claims.”

“The state of West Virginia is immune from lawsuits based upon pothole claims, and is not obligated to compensate individuals for damages caused by road hazards,” the audit states, noting the Legislature had created the process of bringing vehicle damage claims to the Court of Claims.

“The Legislature could enact legislation that removes DOH road hazard claims from the court’s jurisdiction,” the audit states.

The audit found that the claims paid have gone up significantly, particularly in the past two years, from 175 paid in 2010, to 1,290 in 2014, and up to 1,404 in 2015.

The audit did not give total costs for the claims, but in February, Clerk of the Court Cheryle Hall told the Senate Finance Committee the Court of Claims payment authorization bill (SB515) included a total of $983,000 in payments for vehicle damage claims.

She said that amount was actually kept low, since the court generally awards payment only for the cost of the owner’s auto insurance deductible, not the total cost of vehicle repair.

At the time, Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, suggested drivers were taking advantage of the law, commenting, “We can’t have every pothole fixed everywhere all the time. I can’t see how it’s a burden of the state and the taxpayers.”

On Sunday, Hall told the legislative Post-Audits Committee that it would be unfair to the people of the state to eliminate road damage claims.

“They’re your constituents,” she told legislators. “They’re people you’re taking care of, and they have suffered a loss because of the road conditions.”

 The audit also found that claims processing for vehicle damage claims are “rather inefficient and costly,” taking an average of $872 of staff time to process each DOH claim, with an average award of $343.

It is also a slow process, the audit noted, with claims often taking more than a year to reach the hearing stage, and with awards paid as long as more than 2½ years after the claims were filed.

Other proposals to speed up the claims process, in addition to simply eliminating paying road damage claims, include offering tax credits in lieu of claims payments, as well as establishing an administrative process to approve claims of less than $2,500 without hearings – since more than 98 percent of claims are ultimately approved.

An upsurge in employee workload was raised as an issue in discrepancies in Court of Claims’ employees’ recording hours worked and taking days off without submitting proper leave time, which had resulted in nine current and four former employees allegedly receiving pay for a total of 83 days not worked, totaling $23,597.

Both Hall and Chief Deputy Clerk Becky O’Fiesh disputed parts of the audit, saying some of the employees had simply forgot to file leave time for which they were eligible.

O’Fiesh said the audit and notice Friday by the legislative manager of suspensions without pay for three Court of Claims employees was hurting morale in an office that, among other duties, administers the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

“It’s not something you leave at the office. It preys on you,” she said of dealing with claims by victims of violent crime.

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said the office has an obligation to correct the timekeeping problems.

“Instead of saying, “I work so hard, and have so many things on me,” and 100 other excuses…simply say, “We get it, we were wrong, and we’re going to fix it,” Cole said.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

To see more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, click here. 

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