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Caltrans window damage process a rocky road for some Auburn claimants

State department doesn’t require contractors to report number of claims, results
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Caltrans has $10.3 billion in road construction projects taking place around the state. But it has no way of monitoring the impact of sloppy cleanup procedures by contractors that can leave motorists with chips, dings, cracks and other damage to their windows and vehicles. And a Caltrans spokesman said Tuesday that private contractors control the claims process, with no requirements in place on reporting to the state how many claims have been handled and what the outcomes of those claims are. “We expect them to handle claims in a professional and timely manner,” spokesman Mark Dinger said. “What we tell people is to provide as much information as they can.” Caltrans defines professional and timely responses as returning calls in a reasonable time, Dinger said. But he added that claim processing can take time. “We do ask people to be patient – it can take from three to six months,” Dinger said. While Caltrans doesn’t keep figures on damage claims, the Journal asked the contractor on a recent project to resurface a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 80 through Auburn what numbers it had. During one stretch of grinding in August, several people reported chips and cracks from I-80 rocks and road debris and Caltrans took the step of adding an extra sweeper in response to safety concerns. Knife River’s Chico office is handling claims from the Interstate 80 work. Spokeswoman Pam Link, at Knife River’s corporate office in Bismarck, N.D., said the California office is still processing claims and doesn’t have figures on the number – and how many were accepted or denied. “We’ve received about 170 calls,” Link said. “We don’t have a final number on how many claims we’ve received. It’s an ongoing thing and we hope people will correctly fill out the form.” Link said Knife River does not have to report the number of claims to Caltrans. And the claims themselves are not handled by Knife River. Instead, Liberty Mutual insurance company deals directly with claimants and “has the final word on whether their claims are accepted or not.” Motorists speak out Michelle Paris said she has traveled I-80 in Auburn for 11 years without a problem and then had two damaged windshields in a matter of days during resurfacing work. The first time, she slowed through the construction area to give more space between the car in front of her. “But it really didn’t matter when a big truck blew past me on the left,” Paris said. Paris said she heard the “ping” noises and discovered four chips down the driver’s edge of the windshield when she arrived at work. Four hours later, the four chips had become a large crack that extended across her vision line. With insurance, Paris said she had the window replaced the next day at a cost of $100 out of her pocket. Paris said she contacted Caltrans and learned that Knife River would handle claims. But on her way to work the next day, another rock struck her window. She spent another $50 to repair the spot the rock hit, she said. Paris found however that the claim form states that photos are needed of the damage to the vehicle. “I sent the claim in anyway and of course, they denied it because there was not a work crew actually doing work on that day,” Paris said. “I told them that this is ridiculous – that this is about the gravel and rock left on the roadway.” Paris said that Knife River is shirking responsibility for gravel and rock that was left on the road one day and still on the highway the next. Paris said she had to take responsibility to keep her vehicle safe and also avoid receiving a ticket from law-enforcement for having a windshield with a crack along a sightline. “I’m fighting them and won’t give up on this one,” Paris said. For Henry Hoyer, an Auburn resident with a damaged window, his claim was denied before it reached the insurance company. In a letter from Knife River’s Chico-based safety administrator, Hoyer was told that his claim was denied because the location he said the rock struck his windshield on I-80 at was not an area that the company had performed any work on at the time. Granite Bay’s Tom Fischer, another motorist whose vehicle was damaged on Interstate 80, said a Knife River employee “seemed testy and petulant” but agreed to resubmit his denied claim to “the foreman.” Fischer said he wrote a detailed claim and included two photos of the damage, as well as two estimates for windshield replacement, the cheapest being around $187. “They’re lucky I didn’t claim paint or body damage as well but I’d be happy to just get my windshield covered,” Fischer said. Fischer said he learned this past week that his claim was accepted. If they had not settled , he said he was prepared to take Knife River to small claims court, if necessary. Nevada County’s Dale Lazon, another claimant from the Auburn resurfacing project, said he submitted a claim Sept. 6 after Caltrans told him they weren’t responsible for damages and Knife River was handling them. Knife River informed prospective claimants that it would 30 days or less to process a claim. “I still haven’t heard a word from them,” Lazon said. Link said she couldn’t comment on individual cases but that claimants have a process that needs to be followed and some forms have been filled properly. When asked about an appeal procedure if a claim is denied, Link said the “final word” on whether to accept or deny a claim is with Liberty Mutual.