At $27M, Oakland’s pothole payouts are the priciest of any Bay Area city

John Gilbert was riding with the Grizzly Peak cyclists one afternoon when he turned a blind corner near the Chabot and Science Center in Oakland.

"I saw this huge pothole," he said.

The 74-year-old Berkeley biomedical engineer and semi-professional timpani player was thrown off his bike. 

He ended up fracturing his skull, broke his scapula, chipped a vertebra, injured his leg and bled profusely out of his right ear.

Gilbert sued Oakland and was awarded $1.75 million in 2021.

He's far from the only person who has filed a lawsuit against Oakland for the injuries and loss of income that potholes have caused them.

In fact, Oakland has paid the most in pothole lawsuit payouts out of any major city in the Bay Area over the last five years, a KTVU analysis of public records shows.

The revelation not only shows the financial burden the city has had to pay but also shines a light on the fact that potholes can be much more serious than someone driving over a bump in the road and ruining a tire. In some cases, potholes have altered people’s lives forever.

"It took away my ability to hear the way that I heard before the crash," Gilbert told KTVU in a recent interview. "Other than my wife, the two things I love in my life were riding my bike and, you know, playing music and engineering music. And it pretty much took them away."

Oakland has paid the most in pothole damage suits

Oakland, population 400,000, paid $27 million to those injured by potholes from 2018 to 2023, data from the city attorney’s office shows.

San Jose has paid $8 million. And San Francisco paid out $26 million in the same time period for all street maintenance lawsuits; the city doesn’t parse out what is owed for pothole damages. Both cities have about 1 million people and are roughly three times the size of Oakland.

Fremont, population 250,000, paid out $100,000 during that same period.

Oakland’s pothole payouts are so high because of two recent lawsuits, both of which were settled within the last year.

One record $6.5-million settlement was paid in December 2023 to Bruno Van Schoote, who injured his spine while riding his bike over a crack in the road along MacArthur Boulevard. The other $6.5-million settlement was paid in January to Lynne McDonald, who crashed her bike riding over a pothole on Grizzly Peak Boulevard causing serious injury and paralysis.

Neither bicyclist wanted to be interviewed, according to their attorneys. 

The Oaklandside was the first to have reported about their cases. 

In an interview with KTVU, Josh Rowan, the new director of Oakland’s Department of Transportation who was hired in April, said he feels awful about the injuries that the city’s potholes have caused.

"We certainly don’t want those injuries to take place," Rowan said, calling some of the city’s potholes "catastrophic failures."

These failures were caused, Rowan said, by more than a half-century of not taking care of the roads.

Until recently, some streets in Oakland hadn’t been paved for 80 years. Winter rains just exacerbate the issue.

"So there was a lot of decay in the infrastructure," he said. "A lot of crumbling, falling apart."


Oakland paid out more for potholes that police force cases

Oakland has paid out far more to settle pothole injury cases than excessive force and wrongful death police cases in the last five years, according to a data analysis by KTVU.

200 miles of paved road, completion estimated in 18 years

Oakland voters passed Measure KK in 2016, providing $350 million over a 10-year period to fix the roads. In 2022, voters also passed Measure U, which extends some of the paving funding.   

Rowan said that money allowed paving to begin in earnest six years ago. 

Since then, Rowan said 200 miles of road have been paved in Oakland.

He estimated that half the city will be paved in another five years at an estimated rate of filling 25,000 potholes a year. 

Oakland will be fully re-paved in 18 years, Rowan estimated.

"If I could pave it all in a year, I would," Rowan said. "But we don’t have the resources to move that fast."

In 2019, Oakland created an "equity-focused" paving plan, injecting $100 million over three years into underserved neighborhoods in East and West Oakland first. 

This summer, crews were told to direct their focus on repaving 60th Avenue between Tevis Street and International Boulevard, which Rowan called Oakland’s worst street right now.

"And that’s really, where we’ve been investing a lot of the infrastructure dollars," Rowan said. "And so we can’t hit everybody at once."

Rowan said that Oakland relies on the 311 system to learn about problems in the first place. They then look at the condition of the street and add an "equity score" to prioritize what potholes to fix first.

Many residents have complained that they do post their problems in 311, yet the city does nothing to fix them.

Rowan acknowledged that issue but also implored residents to provide better information in the system when they list their complaints.

Oakland's Department of Director Josh Rowan talks about repaving the city. June 2024 

Equity score 

Ycela Petla likes the idea of the equity score.

She tripped on a pothole while attending a memorial repast for her brother’s friend who was killed in Oakland.

She was carrying several glass bottles on the way back to her car and sliced her hand open. She now has a permanent disability in her left hand.

As a less-affluent Latina woman, she said that she has to type to work and this injury has severely impacted her life.

She won a $200,000 settlement from Oakland, noting the disparities not only in how streets have been chosen for paving but also in the amount of legal settlements.

Pelta said it’s about time that Oakland focused on poorer neighborhoods, where potholes have been unattended for years.

Damages from potholes – big and small – often affect underserved communities more than others, she said. 

"I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blown a tire in Oakland driving down East 14th," she said. "I lost a ball joint on one of my old cars. I paid for it out of pocket. It’s a real problem."

After a serious bicycle injury in 2018 involving a pothole, John Gilbert of Oakland only rides inside. June 2024 

Bicyclists and potholes 

Gilbert, the bicyclist, said that he reluctantly sued Oakland in the hopes that the city would see it has a real pothole problem and do something about it.

For him, it’s a shame that Oakland has miles of wonderful bike paths, though many of them are too dangerous to ride. 

The city is indeed aware of these dangerous bike routes. 

In 2022, the former Department of Transportation director wrote a memo to the city council underscoring the rising price tag of bicyclists' personal injury lawsuits against the city.

The memo recommended prioritizing pothole service requests on some of Oakland’s 145 miles of bike paths.

Gilbert would like that.

But since his pothole accident in 2018, his wife won’t let him ride outside anymore.

He limits his bike riding to a stationary bicycle in his garage.

Gilbert said he’s not a litigious person. But he filed a suit to force change.

"I was hoping that I at least sued them," Gilbert said, "it would convince them to fix the roads."

Oakland has paid the most in pothole lawsuit payouts out of any major city in the Bay Area over the last five years, a KTVU analysis of public records shows.

 Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez