JTHE GOOD NEWS is that Chuck and Carolyn Westater won’t have to pay the Virginia Department of Transportation $2,440 for cutting down a tree that fell on their car and crushed it. The bad news is that they received an invoice in the first place.
Here’s what happened: On March 7, the Westraters were driving on State Road 53, which runs through the city of Charlottesville and Fluvanna County. While they were driving, the roots of a tree on adjacent private property suddenly tore out of the ground, causing the entire tree to fall and the Westraters’ Toyota sedan to crash.
Shards of glass from a broken windshield cut Carolyn’s forehead. A man in a car behind the couple got out and helped her husband out of the damaged car. A rescue team took Carolyn to the hospital. Fortunately, his injuries were not serious.
Chuck, 80, and Carolyn, 79, considered themselves lucky. They thought they had escaped from a freak accident with a cool story to tell their family and friends.
Only a week later, their story went from freak show to theater of the absurd with the arrival of a letter from the transport department.
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The letter said the accident required a “response” from the VDOT. “It is VDOT’s responsibility to collect such responses,” the letter said. He noted Westraters would be billed for what they owed as soon as the state agency calculated “response costs.” They must send the invoice to their insurance company.
The bill that arrived was for $2,440.36 to pay for “labor and equipment” and “damage to railings”. This seemed odd to the Westraters as there were no guardrails along the road in the area where the tree came down.
Nevertheless, Chuck took the bill to his insurance company. An agent told him he had never heard of anything like this, but would submit the claim.
Meanwhile, the theater of the absurd has turned into a newspaper article.
It turned out that Carlos Santos, editor of the weekly Fluvanna Review, was the one who helped Chuck out of his crashed car. Santos’ dispatch about the freak accident and the ensuing bill caught Del’s attention. Rob Bell, R – Albermarle, who reached out.
Finally, Carolyn got a call from a district highway engineer, who apologized, said it was all a mistake, and the Westraters owed nothing to the state. On the other hand, if it was a real debt, Carolyn was told, only the Attorney General could have forgiven her.
As the Westraters awaited delivery of a letter confirming they were in the clear, Stacy Londrey, business functions manager at the Culpeper VDOT office, told the Daily Progress that what happened to the couple was “a billing error “. She said the error resulted from “someone’s misinterpretation of what was provided”.
State code requires the VDOT to collect the cost of repairing damage to state property or assets, as well as certain cleanup and traffic control costs caused by motorists. In the case of the Westraters, Londrey continued, the uprooted tree fell from private property. No state property or assets were damaged.
“We regret the billing error,” Londery said. “It’s never pleasant. I regret the extra stress it could have caused.
While the VDOT will review its procedures to see if they need to be ‘tightened up’, Londrey said what happened to the Westraters was ‘really a matter of training’, not a policy issue.
This finding calls for further investigation. We know that VDOT has its hands full to service 58,000 miles of roads. We also believe that agency employees understand that they serve the public and are generally successful in that mission.
But the story of the Westraters is one of those sagas that make government seem narrow-minded and bureaucratic. It’s a surefire way to make people forget that they usually drive on solid, safe highways and back roads.
And we can’t quite shake the sentiment that but for Santos’ journalistic instincts and Bell’s constituent service, the Westraters’ checkbook – or at least their insurance company – could easily have suffered a head-on collision with politics. of State.
—Charlottesville Daily Progress