On March 1, 2010, Petaluma resident Corliss Harris was walking on D Street, when she stepped into a groove between the sidewalk and street that caused her to trip and fall. The injury caused fractures to her leg and required multiple surgeries, which have cost more than $60,000.
On September 16 of the same year, 80-year-old Ellynda Duncan tripped over a pothole near the Petaluma Historical Museum, breaking her kneecap in three places. Both women filed claims and then lawsuits against the city over their injuries, arguing that properly maintained streets would have prevented the accidents.
The city has settled with Harris for an undisclosed sum, while Duncan is still fighting to be compensated for her injury that resulted in surgeries and forced her to stay home from her job at a school cafeteria.
“The city said it’s not their fault, but I think that’s just an excuse,” said Duncan, whose claim was denied and who has now filed a lawsuit. “To me it seems that it’s cheaper to fix the sidewalks than to deal with claims from people. It’s not like they don’t know about it.”
Claims against the city have risen by 70 percent in the past year, according to Petaluma’s Risk Manager Ron Blanquie, many of them for "trip and falls." In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, 63 people filed claims against the city. That’s compared to just 37 the previous year and 48 the year before.
See the number of claims against the city going back to 2005 on the right.
According to Blanquie, people are more likely to be watching their money closely in times of economic uncertainty.
“Public attitudes during a recession change,” said Blanquie who investigates claims filed against the city of Petaluma. “People who otherwise would not file a claim sometimes do so during a recession.”
Another reason for the increase in claims is there are just fewer resources available: there are less workers to pave over potholes and less money to spend on street repair, he said.
“There is a general weakening of the city infrastructure, the ability to do maintenance, to make repairs and respond to conditions,” Blanquie said. “If we had the money to fix everything, we’d love to do that, especially from a risk management point of view. But there are limited resources.”
Indeed, Petaluma streets (and sidewalks) are among some of the worst in the Bay Area and received a failing grade from the Metropolitan Transportation commission last year.
Also, while the city is responsible for potholes on city streets, property owners are the ones responsible for maintaining the sidewalk outside their home or business, Blaquie said.
And lest anyone be tempted to frivolously sue the city thinking they can collect a tidy sum, Blanquie wants to remind residents that all claims are paid for with taxpayer dollars.
“Many people in the public are confused and think the city is an insurance company,” he said. “But it’s important to note that the city is self-insured, so these are actual Petaluma taxpayer dollars that are being spent.”
Should the city of Petaluma allocate more funds for street repair as a way to reduce claims? Would you be willing to pay a tax that went to road repair?