Like many Spokane drivers who blew tires and bent rims by hitting potholes this spring, Dwight Bailey got a letter rejecting his claim for damages.
But the retired Gambling Commission investigator and former military policeman in the U.S. Army didn’t stop there.
“You just say to yourself, you know what? I’m tired of beating my head against the wall,” Bailey said.
Armed with public records from the city’s Streets Department and reports of the city’s road conditions, Bailey represented himself in small claims court against the city. He convinced a judge street crews should have known about a pockmarked stretch of Sunset Highway that damaged the driver-side rim and tire of his 2010 Lexus sedan in March, and received a check late last month for $1,350 – about half what it cost to replace two tires and fix the alignment on his car.
Bailey said his key argument before Spokane County District Court Judge Jeffrey Smith was that the dates shown on his rejection letter from the firm Alternative Service Concepts, which investigates claims against the city independently of City Hall, didn’t match with the maintenance logs showing when the gashes on the highway were reported and when they were fixed. Alternative Service Concepts has a contract with Spokane to evaluate claims made against the city.
“The city knew they had a problem on that stretch of road,” Bailey said.
Tim Dunivant, Spokane’s finance director who oversees risk management for the city, said the outcome showed the legal system working by protecting taxpayer dollars while also addressing the damage to Bailey’s vehicle. The city pays for claims up to $1 million out of pocket.
“At the end of the day, the process worked for everybody,” Dunivant said.
The legal standard Alternative Service Concepts uses to determine liability comes from Washington court decisions indicating the city must have known and had a reasonable amount of time to respond to complaints before being found negligent. The company denied almost all the claims filed in February for pothole damage based on that legal standard.
Bailey’s phone records, which he didn’t present at trial, showed he called the city’s 311 service line on March 17, the day after his car was damaged on the way home from a concert at Northern Quest Casino. Striking the hole, on the inside lane of a bridge spanning Geiger Boulevard, shook his sedan so violently that washer fluid squirted onto his windshield, Bailey said. His rejection letter said the pothole was reported the day of his phone call.
City maintenance logs that Bailey obtained through a public records request showed multiple calls for the 5000 block of W. Sunset Highway, where Bailey estimates he struck the hole March 16. None of those calls were made March 17. It’s unclear why Bailey’s call was not recorded in maintenance logs.
One call was made March 14, which crews fixed the following day, and several more were reported March 22, all of the potholes filled the same day, according to maintenance records.
The maintenance logs kept by the city collect pothole complaints from three sources – online reports, and those made by phone either through the city’s 311 hotline service or directly to the city’s street maintenance department.
Alternative Service Concepts represented the city at the small claims court hearing in June. Attorneys aren’t permitted to represent clients during those hearings.
After the judgment, the city had the option to appeal to a higher court. They chose not to do so and wrote Bailey a check on July 5 for the damage and $14 filing fee. Dunivant said he couldn’t remember the city appealing a judgment in small claims court, and estimated two or three pothole cases had been filed in small claims court this year, including Bailey’s.
The stretch of road that caused Bailey’s troubles has since been repaved with a smooth cover of asphalt. The work was part of the city’s response to crumbling roads in the wake of this winter’s extreme temperature swings and heavy snowfall, infusing an additional $1 million into an already record-breaking construction season.
Bailey said he appreciated the money, but was more concerned about the safety of the road. He also said the city could have done “the right thing” by negotiating a settlement, or putting up rough road signs and lowering the speed limit on the road while it was damaged to protect drivers.
“The city could have saved $1,350 and spent it on something else,” Bailey said.
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