NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A Norfolk, Virginia, woman was left in disbelief after a trash truck trashed her car. Five months later, she said the city still won’t pay for repairs.
On Oct. 12, 2022, Chavonne Grant had her car, a 2007 BMW 328, parked outside her house. A neighbor came running to her door after watching a city trash truck slide into her vehicle and get stuck.
“There’s a gaping hole right here, the whole tire rod, the tire was flattened,” Grant said. “The bumper was pushed up, but the bumper was on the ground. It’s completely cracked through here. The hood had to be pushed down.”
The driver was “extremely apologetic,” she said. “He came out, he explained that he was covering a shift and he was moving too fast and over or underestimated my car.”
Grant said the driver told her the city’s insurance would cover damages and a police report was filed. After weeks of no response and reaching out to her city councilman, a third party adjuster was sent to survey Grant’s car. Two weeks later, she received a letter stating that the city of Norfolk has sovereign immunity and would not be paying for repairs.
Sovereign immunity “refers to the fact that the government cannot be sued without its consent,” explains Cornell Law School. It makes it harder for citizens to sue governments.
“I was extremely frustrated,” Grant said. “I’m a single mom. I was overwhelmed. This car is supposed to be my teenage daughter’s car. If I hit your car right now, I would be liable. It just makes it seem they can do anything to our property and I’m sure people are not aware of this.”
Attorney Tim Anderson, who is familiar with cases like this, explained the law dates back to the 11th amendment, which says people can’t sue the federal government.
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“The courts have said that applies to states, and the states can say if that applies to localities, and in Virginia it does,” Anderson said. “If the government is performing a core function, administerial act, like picking up trash, then if they damage your property, you can’t sue them. That’s the law.
“There’s not insurance companies that cover damages to the government. They self-insure. If cities want to allow themselves to be sued for negligence, it’s the taxpayers that are going to have to pay that. They have to raise taxes to make enough money to pay for all of the claims,” Anderson explained.
The office of Norfolk’s city attorney issued a statement, which read in part, “The City of Norfolk is committed to safety and ensures that employees operating City vehicles and equipment are trained accordingly. However, given the nature and extent of the City’s operations across numerous Departments and throughout the City, there unfortunately are situations where property damage occurs.”
The city said when it receives a claim for property damage, they investigate and determine if the city has legal liability. The city said their investigation of the trash truck incident found that since the driver was actively picking up trash when the collision occurred, the city has immunity.
“Many times, claimants present sympathetic cases for losses, but the City, like other local governmental entities, can only pay damages when it is legally liable,” the city said. “If the City simply accepted all claims asserted against it without consideration of the defenses legally available to it, public funds would be drastically impacted.”
The city suggested Grant file a claim with her insurance company, but Grant said doing so would cause her insurance premium to double.
“I’m just really disappointed at the city,” Grant said.
Anderson said the only exception to sovereign immunity is if you can prove gross negligence.
Grant said she is considering hiring an attorney.