The investigations that resulted in the denial of 71 percent of damage claims related to the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project have been handled with careful attention to documentation and responsibility, according to a spokesman for Kiewit Construction, the main contractor for the $1 billion project.
Last week, the Metro Board of Directors appoved Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's motion calling for the inspector general's office to audit Kiewit's claims since the project began in 2009.
Dan Kulka, community relations manager for Kiewit, said 90 percent of the 338 claims filed are vehicle related, while the remaining have come from homeowners abutting the project.
"We have a very thorough investigative process," Kulka told Patch on Friday. "We'll deny a case if we see it's justified."
The inspector general's office has already contacted the contractor and the company sent along several different logs, essentially 10 three-inch binders full of documentation showing how it keeps track of claims, Kulka said.
Kulka said the payout for 98 approved claims totaled at least in the six figures. In the three years since the project began, Kulka said Kiewit averaged about three claims a day. He said with the 300,000 vehicles traveling through the Sepulveda Pass every day, "that's not too bad."
Yaroslavsky said last week that he wants the inspector general's office to review every damage claim sent to Kiewit to see whether each had merit, and whether Kiewit treated each claim equitably before denying it.
"I'm sure he heard the worst and he's doing the right thing," Kulka said of the county supervisor. "We welcome that. The audit will show we have a very solid process and that we treat people fairly and [we're] glad it's coming to light."
Documenting motorists' claims
Each claim is taken on a case-by-case basis and Kiewit follows insurance industry standards, Kulka noted. He said the company keeps a spreadsheet, called the "play of the day," which includes every piece of I-405 construction activity, such as the type of work, where it's occurring and if it needs traffic control.
"It's pretty much a diary," he said. "We can go back through and know exactly what we did and where we were working."
So if a driver says he or she drove by and hit a cone, Kulka said, the company can look at the spreadsheet and see when and what lanes were targeted for cone placement.
Also contained in Kiewit's daily records are photographs and video taken each day of every closure, and where every cone was dropped. Kiewit references the images and returns to those records four times a shift, Kulka said, and the records are signed by workers indicating they looked at them.
Documenting nearby homes
Kulka said Kiewit did preconstruction surveys of hundreds of homes abutting the I-405 Sepulveda Pass and sent letters to those homeowners asking to document their homes' condition with photographs and a written report. For many homes that were denied their claims, Kulka said, all the company had to do was take out the earlier survey to show damage existed prior to the work beginning.
Kiewit also conducted geological engineering monitoring to examine the ground vibration impacting nearby homes produced from 405 construction.
"And then they analyze those results, and in those cases, we are below the threshold that can cause damage," Kulka said, noting that a person will feel vibration many times lower than what it takes to cause damage. He also said houses go through temperature and pressure changes throughout the year.
Some claims and commonly denied claims
Kulka said Kiewit had an incident where several cars hit a street plate while driving over it. The plates are welded together so they are flush with the roadbed, but larger vehicles traveling over the plates over time cause them to bend. Kiewit might pay for car damage if it turned out the plate belonged to the company.
In another case, Kiewit was pouring concrete on a bridge and a vehicle driving underneath got fresh concrete on its hood. In that case, the owner was compensated.
"We work so hard to secure the roads every day and every night," Kulka said. "The bridge is literally sealed so nothing falls."
In another case, Kiewit was building on a slope by a nearby home and, due to heavy rain, the homeowner said his sewer became clogged because of the construction work. Kulka said the company paid that claim.
Another homeowner claimed his water bill increased because of Kiewit, even though the contractor was working a quarter of a mile away on the opposite side of the freeway from the home. Kulka said another homeowner claimed Kiewit ruined his air conditioning, even though upon examination, the unit was all rusted out. Both claims were denied.
People have tried taking advantage as well, Kulka said, like one man who said he heard about a pothole on the I-405 while listening on the radio and later claimed he drove over it and it damaged his car. When asked where he found the pothole, Kulka said the driver was two miles from the location.
The most commonly denied claims involve hitting a street cone, an object hitting the windshield and less frequent occurrences like hitting a pothole.
"I'd say it's typical to have a dozen we're in the midst of investigating," Kulka added. "It's really case by case. Sometimes it takes a while because we want to do a good job of investigating, like with a road plate. We want to see the plate.
"Sometimes Kiewit has subcontractors involved, so then we have to send the claim to subcontractors, who have to do their own investigative job and get the insurance company involved," Kulka said.
The 405 project's status
Kulka said the problems that delayed the project four to six months were logistical and are now behind the company.
"We're heading into rainy season," he noted. The Wilshire ramp area is getting busier and the company is prepping for closures at the end of the month.
"Kiewit's paved, more or less, the Getty Center off-ramp over the pass and there's a few gaps with bridges there," Kulka said. "Soon we’re going to be able to move the traffic over there and work in the center of the freeway. The Mulholland half is going up fast."
Kiewit is also about to move Sepulveda Boulevard 30 feet or so between Montana Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, making it wider.
"Looking ahead, it's really exciting," Kulka said. "A year from now we’ll be driving on the new stuff."