Investigation: City auto liability claims, payouts costing taxpayers

AUSTIN (KXAN) – If the value of liability claims paid out by the City of Austin continues at the fiscal year 2014 pace, a KXAN Investigation reveals taxpayers will have funded more than $800,000 for mistakes city employees made behind the wheel of city-owned vehicles.

An examination of finance department records show in FY 2014 (October into April) 158 property damage and related claims cost the city more than $431,000.

Compare that to the total fiscal year 2013 when city lawyers cut settlement checks for 374 claims worth nearly $778,000.

The year before 293 claims ended up costing the city a whopping $860,490, Finance Dept. records show.

Since 2009, auto liability claims cost Austin $4.5 million.

Compare Austin’s last couple years to a similarly-sized city like Jacksonville, Fla., which boasts a slightly smaller vehicle fleet. The dollar amounts the Florida city paid out are between half and a third:

Auto Liability payouts
Jacksonville, Fla. Austin, Texas
FY12 $818,382.48 FY12 $860,490.30
FY13 $428,997.82 FY13 $777,984.75
FY14 $138,493.69 (into April) FY14 $431,237.39 (into April)

Personal Account: collision with city dump truck was ‘like a movie’

Late morning last Sept. 3, Austinite Kimberly Langston was traveling down South First Street headed to South Park Meadows.

As she sat in the left turn lane at Slaughter Lane, a City of Austin dump truck driver ahead of her decided to back up.

“I was like, why is he backing up? what the hay,” Langston told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.

Langston’s auto claim payout

Repairs $4,276
Attorney fees $10,500
Attorney fees $16,500
$31,276

Not a laughing matter were Kimberly Langston’s medical bills for back and neck injuries she says the collision caused.

“It was kind of like a movie where you’re trying to move and things are happening so fast and you’re like ahhh!” she said.

The City of Austin’s legal department receives up to 800 property damage and personal injury claims every year, according to city staff.

KXAN’s analysis of the numbers shows the average payout so far this year is more than $2,700.

Langston’s case was one of the bigger ones. Austin’s law department wrote Langston and her attorneys checks totaling: $31,276.

The driver of that city dump truck who hit Langston was a 27-year-old operations technician who had been with the city’s streets and bridge division for less than five months.

“This was his first accident, he was terrified. I felt bad for him to be honest,” Langston said.

But forgiveness doesn’t fix a crunched car.

City employee records show the $31,000 payout is more than what the worker earns in a year.

Austin tracks employees’ driving mistakes by assessing points. Rack up 10 or more in 36 months and you lose your driving privileges.

We found out the driver who hit Langston was assessed four points for improper backing up.

A month prior, in August 2013 city staff say he had already been tagged with a single point after a parking collision. Since then, KXAN found out he re-did the department’s defensive driving course and reported no more crashes.

And that’s just one worker on public streets driving one of the city’s 4,000 vehicles that includes the zippy hybrid Parks and Recreation cars to the big dump and concrete trucks.

Safety solution comes in driver retraining

So what is Texas’ fast-growing Capital City doing to lessen liability pay out amounts as streets become congested with more vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians our public workers can potentially collide with?

KXAN discovered staff at one city department have quietly ramped up driver retraining after the number of preventable accidents have kept increasing along with Austinites’ frustrations.

Excluding Police, Fire and EMS, records for 2012 show Austin city workers were involved in 461 collisions

Last year that fell to 409 wrecks.

For this fiscal year so far it’s 139 collisions, public works vehicles were involved in 30 of those.

“I think our numbers are fairly constant. I’d like to see them go down more,” admitted Howard Lazarus who heads up Austin’s Public Works department. “I think the biggest challenge we face is the need to move along and get things done.”

Lazarus says he knows busy workers get complacent about safety. So in addition to linking promotions to safe driving records and limiting operating hours on job sites, Austin’s Public Works staff recently underwent their first-ever, day-long driver refresher training.

The day includes basic backing up skills, the root of many collisions, like one in 2013 where a city garbage truck backed into a homeowner’s garage. Repairs to the stone façade and frame cost the city $12,600.

Other skills the city’s public works crews are reviewing:  looking out for others around a safety zone on our increasingly congested roads.

“More people are distracted. And we stress to our staff it’s not enough to control your own actions, you have to watch out for what other people are doing,” Lazarus said.

Public works has also been having its newly-acquired vehicles painted a bright orange color for better visibility.

Lazarus says they also serve a reminder for his public works crews to be as safe as possible on our roads.

To put this investigation into further context, here’s a look at which city department – outside of our emergency services is reporting the most accidents.

Collisions by City department:  (FY 2012-2014 end Q2)
Austin Resource Recovery 281
Austin Water 166
Public Works 140
Austin Energy 103
Parks and Recreation 50
Transportation 46
Watershed Protection 42

Collecting a claim takes time

As for the pace of resolving city liability claims, the City’s legal team responded by email saying they aim for a 30-day resolution. External factors are at play too: such as a claimant’s outstanding medical bills, filing of all documentation and the speed of an insurance company’s filing.

“As a public entity we owe it to our taxpayers to fully investigate each claim and ensure all of the proper documentation is provided so we can be certain the City of Austin is paying what it is supposed to be paying, not more and not less.”

 -Megan Riley, City of Austin

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