SWAMPSCOTT (CBS) — Andrea Lincoff was returning to her Salem home after a substitute teaching assignment in late May.
As the retired kindergarten teacher drove her brand-new BMW convertible through Swampscott on Essex Street, she heard a dreaded noise.
“It was a very loud popping sound,” Lincoff recalled.
Lincoff had hit a pothole, which opened a gash on her front driver’s side tire.
“It’s scary,” she said. “And it’s definitely something you don’t want to have to deal with for the cost and inconvenience.”
After the accident, Lincoff and her husband, Nate, went back to the intersection to investigate.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of potholes and how deep they were,” he said.
So the couple filed a claim with the Town of Swampscott, hoping to have the $300 repair work covered.
But when a letter arrived from the town’s insurance provider a few weeks later, the claim had been denied.
“Our investigation reveals that our insured was not made aware of a pothole in this area until after your accident,” the letter stated.
Surprised by the decision, the Lincoffs decided to reach out to the WBZ I-Team, figuring they could not be the only drivers to navigate the frustrating claim process.
WBZ filed a public records request, asking for all online pothole reports submitted to “SeeClickFix” about the Essex Street location.
It turned out someone had complained several days prior to Lincoff’s accident, describing the stretch of roadway as “like a rumble strip” from all the potholes. The document also indicated the site had already been assigned for repair work.
“Someone dropped the ball here,” said John Morrissey, an attorney with the Massachusetts Bar Association. “What’s troubling to me is I think the vast majority of consumers, if they’d received that response from an insurance company, would’ve walked away from an otherwise viable claim.”
Morrissey said the state’s street defect statute makes municipalities liable for up to $5,000 of property damage if they receive prior notice of a condition or have the reasonable opportunity to discover and repair the condition.
One important distinction: the law does not allow for property damage claims for defects on state roadways.
In the Lincoff’s case, the online pothole report served as notice to the Town of Swampscott.
“But for the fact that these consumers had the resources of the WBZ I-Team, they never would’ve realized that,” Morrissey said.
Town officials took the blame for the initial rejection. Gino Cresta, the director of public works, said the online system is still relatively new and staffers were not in the habit of providing the “SeeClickFix” reports to the insurance company.
“We learn from our mistakes,” Cresta said, adding the reports will now be included in future claims.
Andrea Lincoff’s vehicle has been fixed, the potholes are patched, and the $300 check has arrived in the mail.
“It felt like vindication,” said her husband, Nate. “I sum it up as a success because of the I-Team saving me a lot of aggravation.”
In light of what’s happening in Texas, the Lincoffs says their struggle seems relatively trivial. As a result, they are donating the settlement check to victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.