The first time Donald Bell ran a red light in a city-owned vehicle and crashed into another motorist, the 83-year-old Senior Services Division employee told Santa Fe police “the sun was in his eyes and he did not notice the red light.”
The November 2016 accident, which happened on Cerrillos Road near Second Street around 4:30 in the afternoon, cost the city $1,000 to settle after the other motorist, a 38-year-old Santa Fe woman who was “extremely shaken” by the event, filed a claim alleging negligence.
Less than two years after the first crash, Bell again ran a red light. This time, he slammed a city-owned senior services transport van into a driver who had a green left-turn arrow. The June 2018 crash on St. Francis Drive and San Mateo Road was much more serious than the first.
Bell had three passengers, including Patsy Herrera, a 75-year-old disabled and legally blind woman who suffered internal bleeding and other injuries in the crash. Police said Bell shouldered the blame, admitting he was driving so fast “he just drove through the red traffic light.” The city paid a combined $50,000 to settle claims filed by Herrera and the other driver.
The three separate settlements involving Bell, who the city is still allowing to drive on the job, are among dozens of so-called tort claims the city and its insurers have paid since 2018. The total cost: nearly $2.9 million, according to documents obtained under a public records request.
While government liability is limited to some extent by the Tort Claims Act, a city such as Santa Fe can be sued or threatened with litigation for a wide range of causes, from police shootings and wrongful arrests to people tripping on uneven sidewalks or blowing their tires on massive potholes. Sewage backups and garbage trucks damaging private property also trigger claims against the city, many of which are less than $10,000 but add up to huge chunks of money.
“I’m not aware of a way to inoculate the city from being sued,” said Erin McSherry, the city attorney. “We can mitigate liability in many ways, but there’s no way to completely inoculate the city.”
It’s not just the cost of settling tort claims, which are precursors to lawsuits, that the city has to account for.
“It had to happen sometime,” an insurance brokerage and risk management consulting firm wrote in a PowerPoint presentation to the city Finance Committee last week. “Massive catastrophic losses are pushing insurers to raise rates.”
The global firm, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., described the situation not as a hurricane but a “storm of premium increases and tightening terms and conditions in property and liability insurance.”
Since 2015, the city and its insurers have issued some $8.3 million in payouts to settle a wide variety of tort claims.
According to the consulting firm, the vast majority of “liability losses” for the city since 2016 were for $10,000 and below.
But the drip, drip, drip of settlements eventually splashes into a big number.
In fiscal year 2018, the city forked over $3.125 million to settle tort claims — more than double the amount from the previous fiscal year.
City spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said it’s difficult to correlate the dollar amounts of settlements to a specific year or trend.
“There is often a gap of up to two years between the time an incident occurs and a lawsuit is filed and then there is no limit regarding how long a lawsuit can last or when it is settled,” she wrote in an email.
Chacon also said one big settlement can skew the numbers disproportionately for a single year, such as a $400,000 settlement last year with the family of Anthony Benavidez, a mentally ill man fatally shot by Santa Fe police during a SWAT standoff in July 2017.
Though she couldn’t explain why Bell is still driving for the city after two accidents in which he ran a red light, Chacon said tort claims and associated settlements can lead to change at City Hall.
City workers, for example, started cutting weeds much earlier in the morning after a steady stream of motorists filed claims alleging their windows or windshields had been broken by weed whackers spitting rocks.
“Good city government is always learning from its mistakes, whether those mistakes generated a lawsuit or not,” Chacon said. “These are the course corrections that improve results and mitigate risk.”
The New Mexican reviewed tort claims and settlements since January 2018. The review turned up about 166 settlement agreements between the city and people — and at least one other government agency — claiming various degrees of negligence or wrongdoing.
• In March 2016, Phillip Armijo was arrested by Santa Fe police officers serving a warrant on his deceased brother, John.
“Phillip tried numerous times to present three different types of valid identification to the arresting officers but was not allowed,” according to the claim, which also states that Phillip Armijo was “held against his will [at the Santa Fe County jail] for several days.”
Phillip Armjio, who also claimed he was denied proper medical care, settled for $10,000.
• In March 2013, Robert “Bobby” Dominguez, a Korean War veteran and former police officer, was shot by a city officer at an east-side home where he had served as a caretaker for about 10 years. Both had responded to a burglar alarm.
“Officer [Charles] Laramie claims that Mr. Dominguez ‘pulled a gun’ on him, but this is in dispute,” attorneys with the high-power law firm of Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg and Bienvenu wrote in a tort claim notice.
Dominguez pulled through initially but died about 10 months later on Jan. 3, 2014.
The city settled the case for $212,500.
• The Texas city of Burleson filed a claim against the city of Santa Fe after a local motorcycle officer in training struck a motorcycle belonging to that city. Santa Fe cut the city of Burleson a check for $4,356.
• A Santa Fe County woman received a $77,500 settlement after she fell through a manhole cover outside an apartment complex in February 2016. Alyiah Doughty, who “has suffered and will continue to suffer physical injury and impairment and other consequential damages,” claimed the manhole was “negligently placed, constructed and/or maintained.
• Loa Ryan, a Bremerton, Wash., artist participating in the Santa Fe Indian Market in August 2015, fell and tripped on an uneven sidewalk downtown. Ryan, who “landed on her face and body” in the fall, was paid $125,000 to settle her claim.
In all, settlements since 2018 ranged from $48 to $518,250.
The costliest settlement since 2018 was with a woman in her 80s who was seriously injured during a high-speed police pursuit. The fleeing suspect T-boned Arlena Jackson’s vehicle on a residential street at speeds of over 70 mph. Jackson suffered a broken left leg, a pelvic fracture, kidney injury, fractured sternum and head injuries, according to her claim.
Though the city signed an agreement her, not all of the $518,250 went to Jackson. Settlements involving personal injuries usually include the cost of medical care, as well as attorneys’ fees, which are typically one-third of the total payout.
City officials said legal claims and the cost to settle them are part of doing business.
“While some claims and lawsuits have merit, many others do not,” Chacon said in an email. “We live in a litigious society, fueled in some cases by opportunistic lawyers and clients. Even in a perfect world, people will find a reason to sue.”
McSherry said the liability against the city is limited by the Tort Claims Act.
“We don’t face the same type of liability,” she said. “For example, there’s caps [on the settlement amounts], but it’s also causes of action are limited, and they’re limited to those expressly stated in the act.”
Cases involving police, as well as property owners dealing with sewage backups, are among the most expensive settlements.
But the most frequent involve garbage trucks damaging property and vehicles being damaged by potholes or weed whackers.
Motor vehicle accidents also generate a high number of claims, which are also among the most expensive.
Bell, the Senior Services Division employee who ran a red light and hit another motorist twice in less than two years, did not return a message seeking comment.
“He’s out driving,” an unidentified co-worker said by phone when asked for Bell.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.