Bucks County lawyer Niels Eriksen blew two tires in potholes Wednesday.

The first was en route to a district court in Bristol to defend a man in an assault case.

He called the judge from a nearby bar to say he was going to be late.

"Isn't it a little early for that?" the judge joked.

Two hours later, the temporary spare on Eriksen's Acura was shredded on the Route 1 Superhighway, effectively canceling an appointment with a client at Bucks County Prison.

"I paid $250," Eriksen said of two new tires and installation. "I didn't even fix the spare."

After this month's deep freeze, pothole season came early this winter. And like Eriksen, most Pennsylvanians will foot the bill for pothole-related damage.

Pennsylvania, which owns about 23 percent of the area's roadways, is protected by state law from pothole-related damage claims. And although local governments lack such blanket immunity, it is difficult to prove they are liable for a flat tire, lawyers say.

Insurance companies may be of some help if a driver has collision coverage. But those plans usually carry a deductible of $250 or more, which is often higher than the cost of repairs, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Think twice

Nationwide, motorists file about 500,000 insurance claims each year for pothole damage and spend nearly $4.8 billion on repairs, according to Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America Inc. The Automobile Association of America warns that insurance claims could affect rates.

"Before you file an insurance claim for damages, consider the repair costs and the deductible you have," Mary Ann Dalpezzo of AAA Mid-Atlantic said in a news release.

Lenny Salvato, owner of Main Line Tire & Service in Paoli, said he had sold an unusually high 52 tires and four rims last week because of potholes.

"There are some nasty ones out there," he said. "We've even had some mechanical damage, where the tie rods are bent."

Tire City in Bristol has sold nearly 300 tires since last Saturday to pothole-suffering drivers. The average cost was $95 a tire - $200 with a rim.

"People say they'll go after the state," said manager Ray Busket, "but they don't get anywhere."

That's because a 1978 state law prohibits Pennsylvania from paying any claims for vehicle damage caused by potholes or similar conditions created by "natural elements."

Still they try

Despite that 36-year-old ban, about 275 people each year still file claims, said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, which serves as the state's insurance broker. The state, Thompson said, hasn't paid out a penny.

Other states, such as New Jersey, allow drivers to at least attempt to make a claim for pothole damage, although an investigation is required first, said Jenny Robinson, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. In New Jersey, motorists can file claims through the Department of Treasury's Office of Risk Management at 609-292-4347.

About 500 claims were made against the state last year. How much money was paid out was unavailabe.

Ryan Torres, a service adviser at the Pep Boys in downtown Woodbury, said five customers came in last Sunday for repairs after hitting the same pothole in nearby Deptford.

"Ninety percent of the time, the tire needs to be replaced," Torres said. When a tire "hits a pothole, the hole is too big for a patch, or it punctures the sidewall."

In Camden County, crews have worked round the clock and put down an average of 10 tons of asphalt daily to fix potholes, said spokesman Dan Keashen. He said the county has a 24-hour hotline - 856-566-2980 - to report the tire-blowing menaces.

"If people see them, we encourage them to call them in," said County Freeholder Ian K. Leonard. "The sooner we know about them, the sooner we can fix them."

To make a successful claim against a town in Pennsylvania, someone has to prove its officials knew about a pothole and failed to fix it in a reasonable amount of time, said Jeff Garton, who practices municipal law in Bucks County.

"Obviously, it's difficult because the person can't always prove that the municipality knew about the pothole," Garton said.

In Philadelphia, drivers have successfully filed pothole-damage claims, although most involve injuries, city spokesman Mark McDonald said. Last year, Philadelphia settled 24 of 78 pothole-related claims for about $16,000, he said.

But for someone like Eriksen, a busy criminal defense lawyer, the process sounds like too much of a hassle.

"I wouldn't know where to file a claim," he said. "My priority is getting back to work. And from a legal standpoint, I probably shouldn't have been on the Superhighway going as fast as I was on a temporary spare."