Hundreds of Houstonians are waiting months, even years, for the city of Houston to pay for damage to their vehicles caused by city employees.
Just imagine if you ran into someone’s car on a busy freeway. You’d be required to show your insurance immediately and promptly pay up.
KPRC 2 Investigator Amy Davis investigates why, when the city of Houston is at fault, they’re not playing by the same rules.
Driver rear-ended by city truck
“I saw the truck coming behind me and I thought like, ‘oh man, he’s not stopping,’” said Chris Barkhurst. “Then he hit me.”
Stuck in traffic at the busy 45/ 610 interchange, a city of Houston water truck rear-ended Barkhurst. He was literally stopped in traffic when the truck hit him. From that moment everything Barkhurst knew about Texas law and what’s supposed to happen after an accident went out the window.
“First police made the scene, then left,” explained Barkhurst. “I thought they would do more of a police report but they don’t do one. They just give you a number and then you get the paperwork from the city.”
Since the city of Houston is self-insured, a claims team is called out to accidents involving city property.
Barkhurst got papers explaining how to file a claim and a number to call with questions.
“The woman that I spoke to said, ‘Well, I’m going to be real honest, If you don’t go through your insurance company, it’s going to take a lot longer.’”
That didn’t sound good. So Barkhurst, who was unemployed at the time, paid his $1,000 deductible to Progressive Insurance to get his car repaired. Then he waited for Progressive to get the money back from the city. That was 14 months ago.
“I just get a letter every three months with an update from Progressive,” Barkhurst showed us the letter.
It’s the same message every time. In part, the letter says:
“We’re working hard to collect your vehicle damage deductible from the party responsible for your damages. We have not yet received payment.”
“If you’re an insurance company, you have to pay claims in a timely manner. And being self-insured, they bypass all that,” said Barkhurst.
Two weeks after this story was first broadcast in July 2020, the City of Houston sent Progressive its payments for damages to Barkhurst’s vehicle. Progressive then sent Barkhurst a check. Instead of the $1,000 he was told he would be reimbursed, Barkhurst only received $455.63. A letter from Progressive explained it used the remainder (approximately 55%) to pay for legal fees. KPRC 2 Investigator Amy Davis followed up, emailed Progressive’s media relations representative, and asked that Barkhurst get the full amount of his deductible. No one from Progressive responded, but within two to three weeks, Progressive mailed Barkhurst a second check with the remainder of the money he paid in 2020.
KPRC 2 Investigates wants to know: Who is regulating the city?
“They are completely autonomous and on their own out there; and they make a decision if they want to fight the claim, deny the claim, whatever, they just send you a denial letter,” explained personal injury attorney Paul Cannon.
Cannon said it’s exactly why so few lawyers take these types of cases against the city.
“There’s no duty of good faith and fair dealing that your own insurance has with you,” he said. “Because you don’t have a policy with the city of Houston, you don’t have a contract with them.”
Other claims for damages caused by the City of Houston
The KPRC 2 Investigates team did some checking; and we discovered Chris isn’t the only victim waiting on money for damages caused by the city.
Since 2019, 1351 people have filed claims after car accidents with city vehicles. The city denied nearly half of those. (47% or 633 claims denied).
They paid out 32% of the claims (433).
But right now, 275 people (21% of those who have filed claims) are waiting to find out if they’ll get their money.
“Is it fair?” Amy asked.
“I don’t know that it’s fair, but the government’s not fair and life is not fair and it is what it is,” said Mike Knox, Houston City Council At-Large 1.
Speaking of fairness, you should know Knox is a Houston city council member. He makes no decisions on claims against the city. But he agreed to talk with us on camera when the mayor’s office refused our request.
“When you’re dealing with bureaucracies like government and large corporations, often there’s a miscommunication between the two and I think that’s what happened in this case,” explained Knox.
But wait - we found out the city DID respond (but late)
Back to Barkhurst and his waiting game for answers. When we started asking questions we learned some new information. After his accident in May, Progressive filed a claim with the city of Houston for $2,296 in July. The city said they sent an offer to Progressive in October, only $34 less than what the insurance company was asking for. Unfortunately, the city sent the offer went to the wrong office in California and Progressive never got it.
Eleven months after the accident, Progressive filed a lawsuit against the city to collect the money they were due. Instead of saying, “Hey - wait! We offered to pay!” The city filed an answer with the court in May denying every allegation and claiming the city is immune from liability.
“There’s a standard boilerplate denial of everything to protect the interest of the taxpayers in these kinds of lawsuits,” said Knox.
Knox says the general denial protects taxpayer dollars from frivolous lawsuits in cases where the city is protected by governmental immunity. But who’s protecting Barkhurst and hundreds of others like him?
“If it was reverse, if it was my fault, it would have been taken care of within probably a month at the most. They certainly have a lot more resources than I do,” said Barkhurst.
“Just looking at it as a microcosm of just one incident,” said Knox. “You would think it would be a no-brainer, but it’s part of the larger system. There’s a process that has to be followed and that process takes time.”
KPRC 2 Investigates gets answers
There is some good news. When we contacted the city, they reached back out to Progressive with the original settlement offered in October. Barkhurst should be getting his money any day now.
Knox said had Barkhurst called his office or his own city council person the city would have likely noticed the error earlier and gotten his claim paid. You can easily find out who your city councilperson is by checking this website.
For more information on how to file a car accident claim in Texas, you can download this Property Damage Claim Guide from Simmons & Fletcher.
For specific details on filing a property damage claim against the city of Houston, click here.
We are working to find answers to this and other problems you are sending to our KPRC 2 Investigates team.