January 14, 2002
Dust-up over traffic mishap
by Jeanette Knutson
Car accidents are almost always a hassle. Even if there isn't personal injury involved, claim forms have to be filled out, occurrences need to be documented, witness statements collected, repair estimates gathered, car repairs arranged, rental cars leased until the reparations are made. Sometimes letter-writing and phone-call-making and posturing are part of the process. The ordeal can be exhausting, if not exasperating.
Ty Balascio, of Monroe, for instance, is knotted up in the bureaucracy of an insurance claim with respect to a car accident that occurred here in Woodinville.
His wife, a Woodinville native, had a single-car collision on the dark, rainy evening of Oct. 12. It happened at a traffic island under construction at approximately 157th Street and 124th Avenue Northeast. The island, husband and wife (et al.) contend, was unsigned - there were no barricades, no barrels, no reflectors, no tape, nothing.
Mrs. Balascio, driving her father's car, struck the alleged unmarked island and totaled a 1991 Pontiac Grand Am. The car jumped the curb of the island and landed in the unfilled center portion of it. Personal injury does not seem to be an issue. But in the year prior to the accident, significant investments were made in the Pontiac, including a new engine and suspension work. Mr. Balascio, basically, seeks recompense for the losses.
So he contacted the city of Woodinville about filing a claim for damages to the vehicle. A city employee informed him that he should deal with Tydico, the construction company who built the speed control island. It was Tydico, he was told, who was liable for the project.
A loss prevention officer for Tydico made it known - after thorough investigation, he said - that his crew did not remove any of the safety barriers surrounding the traffic island and that Tydico was not liable for any damages to the vehicle.
Mr. Balascio turned once again to the city of Woodinville. He submitted a formal claim for damages, assuming the city was ultimately liable for the work of its contractors. The claim, as fate would have it, sat in the in-basket of a city employee for at least a week and a half. The employee was on holiday. After the claim was forwarded to the city's insurer, the Washington Cities Insurance Authority (WCIA), an adjuster on behalf of WCIA informed him that no, the city of Woodinville was not liable for the damages. Tydico was. WCIA would do what it could, though, to "grease the wheels with Tydico," he was told.
In the meantime, Tydico threw Mr. Balascio a bone, a settlement offer that he refers to as "insulting," a settlement offer he refused.
On Jan. 7, he brought his frustration to City Hall. At the podium before the City Council, at the first council meeting of the new year, Mr. Balascio laid out his story, saying, "The claim I filed was met with apathy. ... The city has an obligation to its citizens. ... I have repeatedly asked for the city's assistance. ... Either the city agree to arbitration or we will settle the matter before a judge."
City Manager Pete Rose explained to the council that the city was a member of an insurance pool, Washington Cities Insurance Authority. It would be the WCIA that would handle the claim's management, he said. The city's role would be one of input, he said; the city could not agree to arbitration.
Newly elected Mayor Scott Hageman said, "We want to see that we do everything possible to make our citizens whole."
A council member asked what the city attorney thought about the situation.
Mr. Rose interceded, saying it would be best if the city attorney did not comment since the WCIA was the city's insurance authority.
Council member Don Brocha said, " ... We're in this insurance pool. We want to make sure we get our money's worth."
Council member Charles Price asked Mr. Rose if the city had a general information sheet for the public regarding claims filed against the city. "May be we need one," Mr. Price said.
Mayor Hageman said, "We will assist you in any way we can to help you get a more reasonable offer. ... It sounds like you should have been taken care of a long time ago."
Gary Werner, whose car was totaled, also addressed the council. "Shouldn't the city engineering department go out and check on its (public works) projects? ... Are we (as citizens of Woodinville) at the whim of the people we hire?" said Mr. Werner.
Mick Monken, public works director, said due to inclement weather, the city's contract with Tydico was inactive at the time of the car accident. He said that the city tries to ensure safety in all its projects. The city has a field engineer who checks on projects several times a week. This project, however, was on a side street, and the field engineer doesn't check every single street, he said. Mr. Monken reiterated that the city was collecting information, that he had spoken with the city's insurance authority, that he was in contact with Tydico's insurer.
Mayor Hageman said, "We encourage citizens to call City Hall if something is amiss or awry. Let us know - don't be shy - if a traffic light is not working, if there are potholes. We need to look after one another."
In a phone conversation subsequent to the council meeting, City Manager Rose said, "We have a lot of sympathy for the person who has suffered the loss. ... All the city needs is justice. The WCIA will step up and do their part.
"The insurer for Tydico made (Mr. Balascio) a (settlement) offer, one that was ridiculously low. The making of such an offer is (tantamount to) an acceptance of liability. The way I understand it, once they've tendered an offer, it has an affect on the clock (so to speak), ending the loss-of-use damages. It's a tactical game.
"... (But Mr. Balascio) is asking the city to do something it can't (do)," said Mr. Rose. "... The city has signed an interlocal agreement with the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, a creature of state law that allows for risk pooling. WCIA has 103 members and the interlocal agreement requires them to turn all claims over to them. They (handle the claims) on our behalf. ... They do everything in a uniform way. They make sure the claims are handled by professional personnel."
"If the city has some contributory role, ... if the case has merit," Mr. Rose said, "we're not first up. ... (But) if we're second up, we may still have (some) liability. It's up to them (the city's insurers)."
"We're taking the claim very seriously," he said.