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You Paid For It: City Crashes

WVEC Norfolk
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Local cities paid $5 million in the past two years to settle accident claims involving police officers, firefighters and others who operate city vehicles.
Staff, 13News Now 8:40 p.m. EDT October 29, 2013

NORFOLK–$5 million could go a long way to help cash-strapped cities in Hampton Roads. It could buy school supplies, pay for raises for teachers and other city workers.

Instead, it’s how much local cities paid in the past two years to settle accident claims involving police officers, firefighters and others who operate city vehicles.

‘That’s a lot more than I would have thought,’ one taxpayer told 13News.

A 13News investigation found that between 2011 and 2012, cities in Hampton Roads settled more than 500 accidents. That’s an average of one incident every weekday by someone driving a city-owned vehicle.

‘To think that during the work-week, that every single day an accident is happening, that’s costing taxpayers money because a city employee does something with an automobile,’ one frustrated young man told 13News.

There were settlements for as little as $145 for a damaged windshield.

When a Norfolk parking enforcement scooter hit a passing car, that cost taxpayers almost $7,000.

Portsmouth taxpayers shelled out $16,994 to cover the cost of city vehicles simply backing into unoccupied cars.

13News investigators also found a number of more serious accidents. When a Chesapeake city vehicle rear-ended a driver on Battlefield Boulevard, that cost taxpayers $180,000.

But by far, the largest settlement we found resulted from a police pursuit in 2008.

A Chesapeake police officer, joining a chase of a vehicle with a brake light out, hit an innocent 19-year-old driver coming home from work, leaving him permanently injured.

‘So, we’re going to put the public at risk for an expired tag, or a broken tail light,’ asked attorney John Stepanovich who represented the victim of the crash.

While he would not talk about the case itself, records obtained by 13News from the city of Chesapeake show the victim received a settlement of more than $3.25 million.

‘You can easily measure the cost to the public pocketbook. The city paid ‘x’ amount in a judgment or settlement. But how do you measure the loss of a life,’ Stepanovich asked.

Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright defended the pursuit to a point. ‘Sometimes people run for a variety of reasons. The actual pursuit, not the officer responding to it, the actual pursuit, under those circumstances, was a valid pursuit,’ said Wright.

A number of cities said with hundreds of vehicles out on the roads every day, accidents are going to happen, but steps are taken to limit accidents and the cost of settlements to taxpayers.

‘I’m not making excuses, we make mistakes,’ Newport News Police Chief James Fox said, adding that all accidents in his department get a top to bottom review.

Citywide, Newport News had 84 accidents over the two-year period. We found a number of police department incidents were rear-end accidents. ‘I think most rear-end accidents for the general public and for us, is probably not paying attention,’ Fox said.

Norfolk, which is talking a tax hike in this year’s budget, paid $300,000 to settle 150 accidents.

Virginia Beach spent more than $900,000 to settle claims.

Hampton had one of the best overall performances, citing up-keep on vehicles and driver training as keys to their success.