Marlowe Berg was driving to a doctor’s appointment on Eastgate Mall near its intersection with Genesee in La Jolla when she said that she saw what appeared to be a giant red wall flash before her eyes.
A fire truck, driven by a San Diego Firefighter, allegedly drove through a red light, directly in front of Berg, sending her car spinning into a 180-degree turn and completely crushing the entire front end of Berg’s black Lexus sedan.
“There was no sound, and then all of a sudden I saw a blaze of red in front of me,” Berg told NBC 7 Investigates. “I tried to stop but then all I remember is the sound of the collision. The next thing I remember is that all of the airbags deployed in the car had spun around apparently and there was smoke coming from the engine.”
The sedan’s engine had crushed Berg’s foot. She suffered a concussion from the impact from the airbags. Berg’s sternum was broken, as was her wrist, and a vertebra in her back.
She spent the next year in and out of surgeries and was forced to live in an assisted living facility and undergo extensive rehabilitation.
Now, nearly two years after the October 2018 crash, she will have more waiting, this time in a San Diego courtroom to try and recuperate the cost of medical expenses and other costs from the city. In April 2019, the city of San Diego denied the claim Berg submitted to try and recoup those expenses, forcing her to hire an attorney and take the city to court.
Berg is not alone. She, like hundreds of others each year, is involved in a vehicle accident with a city worker. And, like so many others, Berg hit major road-blocks when trying to receive insurance claims to cover property damage and medical expenses from the city when those accidents do occur.
According to data analyzed by NBC 7 Investigates, from May 2015 through July 2020, the city of San Diego paid more than $18.8 million to settle claims filed by those who were hit by city vehicles or employees. Of that, $8.1 million were for accidents involving police, fire, or lifeguard vehicles. The remaining $10.7 million was for accidents involving other types of city vehicles, including trash trucks, and parking enforcement vehicles.
Of the 634 vehicle accident claims submitted to the city of San Diego from May 1, 2015, through July 2020, the longest time it took to process a claim was nearly 4 and a half; the amount was only $22,000.
Payments include a $5.85 million to pay the family of a 62-year-old motorcyclist who was killed in Clairemont when an officer’s patrol vehicle collided with him while making a U-Turn.
Brett Schreiber represents Marlowe Berg in her case against the city.
Schreiber has represented dozens of those who have been involved in accidents with city employees. He says the city acts as their own insurance adjuster and in doing so, drivers and pedestrians who are involved in accidents with city employees are forced to wait months, even years to get claims processed and to get reimbursed for property damage and medical expenses.
“Unfortunately, for the people who have their vehicles hit by city employees, unlike typical private insurance, it can take months or even years for the claims to ultimately resolve,” attorney Schreiber told NBC 7 Investigates.
Schreiber says the problem is often due to private auto insurance companies expecting the responsible driver’s insurance, the city of San Diego, to pay claims directly instead of the company paying it and waiting to get reimbursed from the city.
“It starts with the fact that the driver’s insurance company is not obligated, even though they may be fully insured and even though they may have underinsured or uninsured motorist coverage, because the city does have insurance,” said Schreiber. “It's just an incredibly and exceedingly slow pay.”
“For anyone to ever actually hold the city responsible for anything, it often requires full-blown litigation. And this can even be in the context of a property damage claim. That had this individual been hit by a private person with private insurance could have been resolved in a matter of weeks,” said Schreiber.
Added Schreiber, “Unfortunately at the city level, it's just business as usual. And so it's not uncommon for them to just delay and deny claims without really appreciating the impact that this has on people's lives.”
That can be seen in the case of Ladrita Hunter. Hunter’s 17-year-old son took her car and during his drive, he was struck by a police officer on Logan Avenue in Logan Heights. The impact totaled Hunter’s car and left her and her family without a car for months as she tried to navigate the often confusing city bureaucracy,
Hunter said her insurance company told her that because her son was not at fault that she would have to get the city to pay her for her totaled vehicle.
“As soon as I said the collision involved a San Diego Police officer, my insurance company told me that I needed to get in touch with their insurer,” Hunter told NBC 7. “I was like, ok, I don't know exactly how to do that”
Hunter says she reached out to the police department but never received a response.
“No one ever reached out to offer help. Instead, I was left without a car.”
After more than two months, Hunter received a check for $20,000 to pay for her vehicle.
A spokesperson for the city of San Diego told NBC 7 that the city’s Risk Management Department acts as the city’s de-facto insurance company. Risk Adjusters in the department are tasked with investigating the vehicle accident claims submitted to the city.
“Risk Management is successful in resolving a majority of claims where liability on behalf of the City is established and where the City is provided evidence to substantiate the damages sustained by the claimant,” read the statement from the city.
“The City Attorney’s Office and Risk Management have a duty to ensure that any settlement or judgment is based on a review of the facts and the evidence. Because plaintiffs and their attorneys frequently seek far more money than is justified by evidence, we must perform our due diligence to protect taxpayers.”
But for those such as Marlow Berg and Ladrita Hunter, the process only adds more stress to the typically stressful experience of getting into a vehicle accident.
“I have disfigurement. The foot will never be the same. I have loss of mobility and I also then have a loss of some joy of life,” says 81-year-old Berg. “I am an avid traveler, or I was. I loved to go to different parts of the world but that’s not going to happen again. It has dramatically affected my life and I am sure that is the same with a lot of other people.”