State won’t pay woman’s claim after car damaged on highway

Woman's car damaged by open manhole, NCDOT says it's not responsible

LENOIR, N.C. (WBTV) – The North Carolina Department of Justice has denied a woman’s claim after her car suffered extensive damage when it hit an open manhole cover on Highway 321.

Donna Catone was driving on the highway in Lenoir when she hit the open manhole.

“All of a sudden, I heard this, it sounded like an explosion,” she said.

“It was a very violent crash,” Catone recalled in an interview. “It was so violent that it caused my husband’s tooth to chip off when his jaw hit.”

Catone provided WBTV a copy of a medical bill showing her husband had to be treated for a chipped tooth at the dentist.

She also provided repair bills showing she had to pay nearly $500 in charges to have her car repaired. The wheel and tire had to be replaced.

“The top was not on that storm drain and it tore up my car really bad,” Catone said.

Catone and her husband filed a claim with the North Carolina Department of Transportation soon after the incident. NCDOT forwarded the claim to the North Carolina Department of Justice, run by Attorney General Josh Stein.

The department sent the Catones a letter denying their claim.

“After a review of your claim, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has determined that it is not responsible for your property damage,” an investigator with the NCDOJ wrote the Catones.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Stein said state law requires an agency to have notice of a problem before it can be held liable.

“The state denied the demand letter regarding the potential claim because the state was not aware of the hazard,” spokeswoman Laura Brewer said. “By law, if an entity is not aware of a hazard the entity is not legally responsible.”

When asked for the specific law imposing that requirement, Brewer sent a list of cases that she said established “a long-established principle of North Carolina case law that in order to establish negligence against a property owner for an alleged hazard that causes injury or damages, there must be evidence, whether actual or constructive, that the owner had notice of the alleged hazard.”

But a review of the case law shows a requirement placed on government agencies to maintain streets and sidewalks, too.

One of the cases cited in Brewer’s email as justification for denying the Catone’s claim was Waters v. Roanoke Rapids, 270 N.C. 43, 48, 153 S.E.2d 783, 788 (1967).

But that case, citing others, says a government agency must ensure its streets and sidewalks are safe.

“It is the duty of the city to exercise a reasonable and continuing supervision over its streets and sidewalks, including the inspection thereof in a manner and with a frequency reasonable in view of the location, nature and extent of the use of such street or walk,” the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled.

A spokeswoman for NCDOT said the agency receives claims for damage incurred on state roads but hands them over to NCDOJ.

Brewer, the NCDOJ spokeswoman, did not respond to follow-up questions asking to justify the claim in her first email with the holding from the case law and for details on what process, if any, the agency undertook to determine whether the Catone’s claim should be paid.

For her part, Donna Catone can’t believe the state denied her claim.

“Oh my gosh! I was stunned!” she said. “Even the police officer said if it had been a front tire instead of a rear tire, my car probably would have flipped.”

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