Last year, Kathleen Liss was out on her morning walk with a friend in La Jolla when her foot hit the lip of an uneven water meter lid. Without any time to react, Liss said she fell face-first on the pavement, breaking four front teeth, busting both of her lips, and breaking her nose.
“I was walking just along a sidewalk with my friend and all of a sudden I was on the ground, face planted,” said Liss. “I couldn’t move. There was blood everywhere.”
Liss said the water meter lid was recessed in the sidewalk. Weeks after the fall, aside from numerous trips to the dentist’s office, Liss said she spent most of her time inside her house.
“I slept for weeks after. I was scared to leave the house, and not just because I looked like some horror victim but because I was so tired,” she said.
Liss is now suing the City of San Diego, in hopes of forcing the city to address the dangerous conditions for pedestrians throughout the city.
“I wasn’t planning on pursuing any legal action until I had heard of another person that had fallen on a sidewalk,” Liss said. “And what finally convinced me to take action is I drove by the sidewalk where I fell months later and seeing the city had not fixed it, they didn’t even have a cone or yellow tape to warn people.”
Liss is the most recent person to sue the City of San Diego for injuries they suffered from falls caused by broken or uneven water meter boxes and lids.
According to public records obtained by NBC 7 Responds, 11 people filed claims for injuries they suffered after tripping on, or falling into, broken boxes.
In May 2018, as reported by NBC 7 Responds, the city paid one Normal Heights homeowner $107,650 after she fell inside a broken water meter box outside of her home.
That’s not all.
From 2015 to June 2017, according to public records, the city paid $392,776 to settle claims filed for injuries and damages caused by broken water meter boxes. Currently, there are also seven unresolved claims, totaling an additional $50,000.
As the city prepares to defend Liss’ lawsuit and others in court, crews in the Water Meter Box and Lid Division are fighting a battle of their own; addressing the backlog of broken boxes and lids in San Diego.
In August, San Diego’s City Auditor released a report that found there are more than 25,000 broken water meter boxes and lids citywide. That report blamed much of the backlog on city crews. According to the report, workers were more concerned with socializing in the yard, in some cases for nearly half of the workday, than they were with replacing broken boxes and lids.
But a longtime supervisor for San Diego’s Public Utilities Department told NBC 7 Responds the city is trying to box in its workers, blaming them for problems caused by a mismanaged department in turmoil.
The former supervisor, who worked for the department for more than 30 years, said the backlog in repairs does not stem from employee performance, rather the fact that water department management had ordered thousands of water meter lids and boxes that were the wrong size, leaving crews to have to cut and jimmy the lids and boxes in order to make them work.
The source said the problem occurred while Public Utilities Department staff was ordering lids that were compatible with its smart water meter project.
The mismatched lids and boxes created imperfections as the one Liss injured herself on last year in La Jolla.
“This is a very dangerous situation and something needs be done,” said Liss. “They should be going out to all the water meters that are a problem. If they don't have time then put some type of warning. If not then someone else could befall today.”
A spokesperson for the city of San Diego confirmed that there are different sized-lids in its inventory.
“Over the years, the city has used several different sizes and styles of water meter boxes,” said city spokesperson, Arian Collins. “Some newer lids don’t fit some older boxes properly. The city has taken steps to update its box and lid inventory to fewer styles and sizes to simplify and streamline the process.”
San Diego’s City Auditor recommended a list of improvements based on their review of the water meter box and lid repair backlog. The deadline for implementing those changes is January 31, 2019.
To see a timeline of NBC 7 Responds’ investigation into the Public Utilities Department, look below or click here.