San Francisco losing millions annually to payouts

February 28, 2012 7:27:30 PM PST
Cities and counties across the Bay Area are struggling to make their budgets, and millions of dollars are leaving city coffers each year because of legal payouts.

The city and county of San Francisco gets thousands of claims and lawsuits against it every year. Some never lead to a payout, but others are costing taxpayers millions. One attorney says it's all preventable.

Nadia, Phillip, and Carol... three people, three claims against the city of San Francisco, and three payouts.

It cost $1,900 when a city vehicle hit a car. "We were turning this way when the bus just got off the bus stop and hit us," Nadia recalled.

Roots from city-owned trees growing in the sewer lines costing over $10,000. "The roots get into the waste line and from there, the roots grow into the waste line which, in this case, backed up," Phillip explained.

It costs $23,000 when a piece of city property falls on someone. "It had come down and smashed me in the head," Carol told the I-Team.

These are examples from a long list of payouts by the city of San Francisco, from parking meter issues to the death of a young girl. In less than five years, thousands of claims and lawsuits totaling more than $212 million.

"It doesn't surprise me," Nadia said.

"$212 million is a very large sum of money," Phillip said.

"That's extreme," Carol said.

When asked if that was a lot of money, city attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey told ABC7, "You know, not when you consider that every year, San Francisco spends $6.8 billion to run a government that includes an international airport, that includes a hospital, that includes one of the busiest transit agencies in the nation."

Dorsey says the city gets 3,000 to 4,000 claims a year. Not all resulted in a financial payout. Through open records requests, the I-Team found in just under the last five years, the city paid out nothing in over 10,000 claims and lawsuits, but the city did have to pay to $53 million to fight those cases. Add to that the $212 million from the 8,600 closed claims and lawsuits that were paid, and the total balloons to $265 million.

"You know, it is. It's the cost of... running a major city," Dorsey said when asked if that was just the "cost of doing business." Dorsey says most of the claims and lawsuits stem from the vast amount of vehicles the city has on the streets. "Anything, if it involves DPW, and dump trucks, and Muni buses." With 700,000 passengers a day, Muni has the most claims filed against it, almost 5,000 in the last five years.

"Trolley pole, electric pole came off, swung down, I guess, and got me right in the head; catapulted me right into the street," La Fleur recalled. She believes if Muni would have maintained its equipment, she wouldn't have made a trip to the hospital. "Just like I do maintenance on my car to make sure my breaks are working. I think they should do that with their equipment," she said.

"What other city budget line item of $200 million is completely preventable?" personal injury lawyer Doug Saeltzer asked. He's seen his fair share of cases against the city and especially Muni. He says claims can be prevented. "I think I see what everybody sees. On a weekly basis, I see a Muni operator doing some unsafe movement in a vehicle that surprises me and it makes me upset," he said.

Saeltzer says the city can save money by spending more time on employee training. "I think more effort needs to be put in on the front side of this so that these accidents aren't happening, and nobody needs to come and seek my representation."

"It wouldn't be surprising to say we have one of the highest claim rates," said Muni Chief Safety Officer Reginald Mason. He says because it is the city's largest department, Muni is going to have the most claims against it. "It's not an excuse for things to happen, but things do happen. When you put a 40-foot or 60-foot vehicle, a bus, out on the street, you take the risk of having an incident to [sic] occur."

In just under the last five years, Muni paid out on over 2,400 claims and lawsuits costing the city more than $82 million. Mason says with efforts like their new driver training, Muni is working to cut that number down. "If you don't have operators that are qualified and trained to go out their and drive, operate those vehicles on the street, you will have accidents. You will have those claims that we're talking about," he said.

Still, Mason isn't making any promises. "We can train, train, train until we're blue in the face, but to say we're going to wipe out all of the claims, we won't be able to do that," he said.

That, leaving rider La Fluer anxious when she rides on Muni and the rest of us footing the bill for the next city slip up.

We also did some math -- the amount of money the city spends on these claims and lawsuits each year could pay for about 400 police officers or firefighters or about 1,000 teachers. We also looked at Santa Clara and Alameda counties, but they are set up differently, so the numbers are difficult to compare. We give you the complete rundown in a new I-Team Blog which you can read here.

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