Shortly before 8 a.m. Aug. 18, Ian Williams was getting ready for work when his phone rang. On the other end was a Roanoke city police officer. Could Williams come out to the parking lot at his Old Southwest apartment building?
Williams discovered a Roanoke city garbage truck had backed into his legally parked 2008 Subaru Forester, damaging the vehicle’s front bumper and hood.
According to the police report, the officer estimated the repair cost at $1,000. The driver of the truck profusely apologized, Williams told me. Also on the scene was a supervisor with the city’s Solid Waste Department.
“I said, ‘These things happen.’ We filled out the police report and it was over with pretty fast,” Williams said. “I can’t say that the supervisor said exactly, ‘we will claim responsibility and get this fixed on our dime,’ but in being apologetic, he heavily implied that it was their fault and they would get this resolved.”
But the Forester remains unrepaired. The claims servicer for the city subsequently told Williams — in writing — that Roanoke would not pay a cent.
“After a review of the facts of the accident, we have determined that the Solid Waste employee was performing his governmental function at the time of the accident,” says the Sept. 20 letter to Williams from the Virginia Association of Counties Self-Insurance Risk Pool, aka VACORP.
“Since the employee’s actions arose out of his governmental function, we must respectfully deny any liability for any claim arising from this incident. No payment will be issued to repair your damaged vehicle.”
The letter went on to suggest that Williams make a formal claim with his own insurance company — Geico — via his uninsured motorist coverage. But Williams is reluctant to do that. For one thing, he told me, his policy has a $500 deductible that he believes would apply. So he would still be out that much, he said.
Although Williams said Geico initially told him it would not cover such a claim, the company changed its mind after at least five phone calls, Williams said. Geico, he added, also contacted the city and asked if it would at least pay Williams’ deductible “but they denied even that,” Williams told me.
Besides that, Geico “could not tell me whether or not this would raise my insurance [premiums],” Williams said. “I pressed and pressed and finally they said, ‘It may.’ ”
The Forester has fewer than 118,000 miles on it, Williams told me. He bought it used two years ago. He’s still able to drive the car, but the damage is unsightly.
The collision left small but deep gouges in the front bumper on the driver’s side and scrapes to the bumper on the passenger side. The worst damage occurred to the top of the hood. It has 16 or so long white scratches in the center. Those are clear in the Forester’s red metallic paint.
Also, the very front of the hood was dented into a crease that Williams doubts a body shop can easily repair. He might need a new hood, he said.
I contacted Tammy Windle, the Virginia Association of Counties Self-Insurance Risk Pool claims specialist who signed the Sept. 20 letter to Williams; Jackie Clewis, the city’s risk manager; City Attorney Dan Callaghan and Geico.
Windle declined comment and said she would pass my name and number onto someone else at VACORP (she refused to give me that person’s name). “They’ll make the decision whether or not to contact you,” she said. They didn’t.
Clewis didn’t return voice mails I left Tuesday and Wednesday. Callaghan told me the city uses VACORP “to handle claims like this and advise us on how they should be treated.”
State law grants immunity to localities in situations like this, the attorney added.
“Immunity is given to localities because localities are required to perform functions that others don’t perform, and in exchange for performing that function, you’ll be immune from liability,” Callaghan said.
Roanoke, by the way, is self-insured and maintains a risk management fund. According to the current budget, that will have $17.3 million in it this fiscal year.
Wednesday morning, I contacted Geico. I wanted to know if, under the circumstances, the company would require that Williams pay the $500 deductible, and whether such a claim could result in a premium increase.
Spokesman Mike Young said he would refer my questions to the company’s Virginia’s claims manager. But Young could not guarantee I would get some answers by the end of the day Wednesday. (I didn’t.)
“I’m not one to get angry, but what the hell?” Williams said. “In what world can someone hit your legally parked car and not be responsible for damages?”
The answer to his question is: in Virginia.
State law expressly says that when an at-fault motorist is uninsured or immune from liability, the other driver can seek to collect damages through his uninsured-motorist coverage. But that can put him in the strange position of having to sue his own insurance company to collect. Even more oddly, in such circumstances the insurance company would represent the at-fault motorist rather than its own customer.
Ian Williams isn’t the first person to feel outrage at Roanoke city hall denying liability in a vehicular accident with a city-owned vehicle.
As for immunity while performing a “governmental function,” I asked Callaghan how that would work under far more serious circumstances.
“What if the garbage truck had backed over and killed a small child?” I asked.
“I’m not going to speculate with regard to that,” Callaghan replied.