Angela Sindab was driving along Senator Gasque Road in Mullins when her car went off the road, flipping over in a deep drainage canal.
No guardrails or signs warned of the 12-foot drop off at the edge of the road. Suffering life-threatening injuries, Sindab remained trapped her in car, hidden in overgrown vegetation, for three hours before a cyclist, who had stopped to tie his shoe, saw the car and alerted authorities.
Sindab remembers not being able to move much in the dark. “I just remember hearing the cars and just crying and praying.”
After more than $294,000 in medical bills and a year out of work from the 2011 accident, Sindab won a $250,000 settlement last year against the S.C. Department of Transportation.
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Sindab is not alone. The state has shelled out nearly $40 million since 2010 to settle road claims and lawsuits against the Transportation Department.
And those costs are rising.
In the 2005-2006 budget year, the state paid $4.3 million to settle claims against the Transportation Department. Costs reached $8.2 million in 2014.
Driven by pothole damages, the number of claims has climbed — averaging 2,600 over the past two years, up from 1,600 a year on average during the four preceding years.
S.C. Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said the poor condition of the state’s roads are contributing to a rise in costs and claims against the state. “The declining condition of our road network — of the poor pavement conditions that we have going on — and our huge backlog of deferred maintenance is certainly contributing to the growth in that number.”
S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts is not surprised by how much the state has paid to settle road claims against DOT.
But it is a poor use of state money, he said. “Ask any taxpayer ... they’re going to tell you that’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Claims large and small
More than half of the claims against DOT since 2010 have been for damage caused by potholes.
Pothole-related claims also are on the rise, accounting for roughly 70 percent of claims against DOT — growing to 1,761 in 2015 from 960 in 2010.
Drivers and pedestrians also have sought money from the state for damages caused by a host of other issues, including objects thrown by mowers, painting and resurfacing issues, and drainage and shoulder drop offs.
State law allows drivers or pedestrians who have accidents or are injured on the state’s roads and bridges to file claims at the DOT maintenance office in their county.
The Transportation Department has spent $2.3 million since 2010 settling some of those claims. Larger claims are sent to the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund, which has spent more than $37 million since 2010 settling cases against DOT.
Some have been costly.
A man sued the state after his car hit a pothole in Jasper County, causing its tire to burst and his car to swerve off the road, hitting a tree, said his attorney, Woody Gooding of Allendale. The state paid nearly $117,400 in losses to the man and legal expenses, state records show.
A motorcyclist sued the state after his bike slid in gravel that had washed over a road from its shoulder, where the small rocks were being used to fill a hole, said his attorney, Jason Turnblad of Florence. The driver won an $80,000 settlement.
Sindab’s attorney, George Jebaily, was shocked to learn three people died in a fiery crash at the same spot of her Mullins accident, but on the other side of the road. In that 2007 accident, a Jeep flipped off the road and caught fire.
Sindab said she knew about that accident. The victims were from her town. But she had no idea they, too, had flipped into the deep drainage canal.
After the 2007 incident, no guardrails or warning signs were put in place, Jebaily and Sindab said.
“You had three guys that lost their lives and still nothing was done about it,” Sindab said. “Here I am, with my accident, and, luckily, I’m here to tell it. ... If something would have been done about it in 2007, I could have hit the guard rail and got myself back on the road.”
After Sindab’s wreck, warning signs were put up. However, there still are no guardrails blocking the 12-foot drop into the drainage canal. Jebaily blames their absence on DOT’s financial situation.
“Their answer is money,” he said. “That’s really the answer to everything.”
A DOT official said the site of Sindab’s crash is under contract for guardrails, which should be installed by May.
But, Jebaily said, “Had the money been made available to fix our roads, there’s every reason to believe” guardrails already would have been installed.
“This is just an example of the carnage that’s out there when the the state fails to do what it’s supposed to do.”
Lawmakers weighing roads fix
Lawmakers are debating how best to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley backs a Senate plan to spend $400 million on roads — an amount Transportation Secretary Hall has said would be a welcome start to fixing the state’s roads and bridges.
“Any investment in the road network ... would reduce those numbers,” said Hall, referring to damages paid by her agency.
The state’s roads need work.
Eighty percent of South Carolina’s secondary roads and a third of its interstates are in fair or poor condition. Nearly one in five S.C. bridges either is deficient structurally or functionally obsolete, according to DOT.
But critics say an added $400 million is not nearly enough.
To bring the state’s roads and bridges to excellent condition will cost the state an additional $1.2 billion a year for nearly three decades, DOT says.
The S.C. Chamber of Commerce wants the state to spend at least $600 million more a year on roads and bridges. That additional amount — spent yearly over a decade — would eliminate structurally deficient and load-restricted bridges while also improving interstate, primary and secondary road surfaces, according to DOT estimates.
According to DOT’s estimates, with a one-year injection of $400 million, “you don’t address one single secondary road bridge,” said Pitts, the chamber president.
“You don’t change that at all.”
Claims against the state Transportation Department for damages caused by the state’s roads are on the rise:
$40 million: The amount the state has spent to settle lawsuits and claims against the Transportation Department since 2010
6,725: Damage claims due to potholes filed from 2010 through 2015
83 percent: Increase in pothole claims last year, compared to 2010
13: Claims in the 2014-2015 budget year settled for between $100,000 and $250,000 each in damages, money paid to plaintiffs who sued the state
SOURCES: S.C. Department of Transportation, S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund
Need to file a claim?
If you’ve suffered damage as a result of driving on S.C. roads, you can file a claim with the S.C. Department of Transportation.
Where to file a claim: The S.C. DOT maintenance office in the county where the damage occurred
What to include: A copy of the vehicle’s registration (if the damage is to a vehicle) and either a paid repair invoice or two estimates
What to expect: DOT will pay a claim if the agency caused a condition that led to the damage or knew of a defective condition and failed to repair it in a reasonable time before the incident occurred. Claims handled internally take about 12 weeks to process.
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Transportation