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Cleveland Water has paid out more than $1 million in negligence claims since 2014

Posted at 8:20 AM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-18 08:21:21-04

The Cleveland Water Department has paid more than $1 million in lawsuits that detail reckless and negligent actions by the utility.

RELATED: Drowning in Dysfunction — our ongoing investigation into the Cleveland Water Department

From missing manhole covers to vehicles crashing and water lines rupturing, Cleveland Water has reached settlements in 49 lawsuits that resulted in $1.3 million paid from 2014 to 2017.

In one case, a passerby accidently fell into an unprotected manhole in 2013. The unprotected manhole had been reported to the water department months earlier.

“You send someone out to check on it as early as possible, so what happened to the guy who fell into the hole – it won’t happen again,” said Desmond Robinson, who initially reported the manhole.

The case, which was recently settled, sought $59,000 in medical and lost wages.

The victim’s attorney blamed the department’s negligence for causing his client’s injuries.

“This is a situation where the city had notice of a problem in advance, and they had time to fix it,” said attorney Colin Ray, “but for whatever reason, when they don’t do that, they put the public at risk.”

According to lawsuits obtained by News 5, other cases include:

  • The department repeatedly failed to detect a leak for three full years, beginning in 2011, eventually leading to $75,000 in damage when the home flooded.
  • In 2011, a city employee struck a pedestrian as he was walking in a crosswalk. A settlement was reached for $75,000.
  • Department crews destroyed underground utility lines in three different incidents – one in 2011, another in 2012 and the third in 2013 – during construction work, causing more than $200,000 in damage.
  • In 2015, a city employee was driving, struck a car and injured the driver and passenger. The complaint said the employee “failed to adequately ensure he had the right of way and/or failed to yield before exiting.” A settlement was reached for $27,500 total, between two parties.  

Cleveland operates the largest water department in the state, and at $1.3 million in payouts since 2014, the utility far exceeds other cities across Ohio.

We found less than $200,000 in payouts by water departments for the following Ohio cities:

  • Cincinnati ($195,000)
  • Dayton ($168,000)
  • Toledo ($144,000)
  • Columbus ($138,000)

Experts in both risk management and civil litigation said municipalities should have well-defined risk management programs to reduce exposure to expensive settlements and payouts.

Vincent Capaldi, president of Bay Oaks Wholesale Brokerage, works with municipalities across the country with risk management and insurance claims. He said cash payouts are just the beginning of how much cities ultimately have to pay as part of a settlement.

“So, if you have a $100,000 award, there might be $500,000 or $600,000 in costs that go with it,” Capaldi said.

He said it’s impossible to eliminate risk, but municipalities can reduce it through training and inspection programs that can be costly, time consuming and stretch manpower.

“To some extent it may be easier to simply handle the claims — settle the claims — than it would be to correct the problem,” Capaldi said. 

RELATED: Ratepayers have helped Cleveland Water spend $1 million promoting itself

Andrew Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, emphasized the role of risk management to determine what is causing liability.

“One aspect of risk management is to implement safety measures or other liability-controlling measures that will help reduce the incident of events,” Pollis said.

So how does Cleveland Water reduce risk?

We requested an interview with Cleveland Public Utility Director Robert Davis to learn more.

Davis earns $200,000 a year and is responsible for managing both Cleveland Water and Cleveland Public Power.

We did not receive a response for a week.

We eventually found Davis at City Hall during a recent city council meeting. He declined to explain what, if anything, the department is doing to reduce risk and costly settlements. He instead referred us to his team of public relations and media spokespeople.

In this case, Dan Williams, Mayor Frank Jackson’s director of media relations; Latoya Hunter, assistant director of media relations; and John Goersmeyer, public information officer for Cleveland Water, were all on the scene before we arrived.

A Cleveland Police officer was also present.

Collectively, taxpayers pay them nearly a quarter of a million dollars to provide information to taxpayers and the news media about how government works.

After making our initial request for an interview a week earlier – and then going to city council to talk to Davis – we were told once again to submit a request that they would consider.

It’s a tactic Davis and his media relations team have repeatedly used when asked for interviews that are ultimately never granted to News 5 investigators.

That final request for an interview was also denied.

Instead, Goersmeyer provided this statement on behalf of Davis the next day:

At Cleveland Water, the health and safety of our 1.4 million customers and employees is our number one priority. Our Safety and Risk Management team work daily to ensure conditions throughout our service area are as safe as possible. With more than 5,300 miles of water mains, 74,000 fire hydrants, and 440,000 service connections some incidents will occur during the normal course of operations, but we work to minimize the personal and financial impact these incidents have on our community and residents. Over the past four years, we spent 0.17% of our annual expenses – well below one percent – on judgements, damages, and claims, and we are continuously looking for ways to improve safety.  

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