For years, the City of Salem has held private property owners to a higher standard than it imposes on itself. The issue is one of public safety and recently, a Salem woman paid the price.
Traffic signals and traffic signs that are concealed by trees, shrubs and other foliage can lead to serious automobile accidents. In the case of Mona DeCamara, two crucial traffic lights could not be seen because they were obscured by the limbs of an oak tree growing on City of Salem-owned and maintained property.
In Salem, if a private citizen’s tree makes it impossible for drivers to see a traffic signal, they are sent a letter giving 10 days to correct the problem and advised they may be held liable for damages if they do not.
But what about a tree growing on City property?
On the bright, clear fall morning of October 1, 2014, Salem resident DeCamara was driving eastward on Union St. NE towards Capitol St NE just north of downtown. She was unfamiliar with the streets and was not aware that two traffic signals directed traffic at the busy intersection ahead. The reason? Low-growing limbs of a City tree completely obstructed the signals.
Later, a police officer who was previously the City’s accident reconstructionist for many years testified during a deposition and at trial, that, as DeCamara says, “it was impossible for me to react and stop in time due to the complete vision obstruction.”
On that morning, unaware the light turned red, DeCamara entered the intersection. Her car, a tiny Scion, was instantly T-boned by a Dodge Dakota pickup going north on Capitol. Both vehicles were totaled. DeCamara suffered a traumatic brain injury and remained in the neuro-trauma unit of Salem Hospital for six days.
“I never even knew there was a street there,” DeCamara says. “I never knew what hit me.”
On the same day, the City issued DeCamara a traffic citation for going through a red light.
Ten days later, another motorist sailed through the same intersection and was T-boned at the exact same spot.
A changed life
At the time of the accident, DeCamara worked as a senior circuit board designer for a prominent Oregon network solutions company. The company created highly sophisticated products used by clients such as the FBI.
Her brain injury caused vertigo, seizure-like fugue episodes, critically impaired vision, the inability to process motion, intense head pressure and headaches. DeCamara couldn’t concentrate for months. She suffered severe bruising and hematomas over much of her body.
The injuries changed her life forever. They cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars. She couldn’t return to work for several months; when she got back, she had to ask colleagues how to operate software she had used for years.
Because she could no longer drive a car , DeCamara began to commute to work on a transit bus. The bus shook; due to her injuries, this sickened her. It took many times longer, which exhausted her. She sold her South Salem home so she could move closer to the bus mall, to save two bus ride each day.
She commuted by bus for 18 months.
Today, DeCamara suffers permanent cognitive problems. Her earnings dropped from over $100,000/year to $16.98/hr. today.
Meanwhile, the tree just kept growing
As the months went by, DeCamara’s transit bus drove past the accident scene every weekday. She watched, disbelieving, as the tree got bigger.
It baffled her that the City did not prune it. “I reported it when fighting the citation,” she says, “and two police officers noted the hazard and commented on it.” Also, “one of their officers took pictures and measurements of the hazard and put the photos into police evidence, then both of them reported it to the Public Works Department, although the City tried to contend [later] that one of them did not.”
What about the rule for private citizens , that gives 10-days to correct an obstruction after receiving notice?
In May 2015, more than seven months after the accident, the City did a light pruning – but not enough to address the sight issue.
In fact, t hey focused most of their attention on the next tree over.
The hazard kept enlarging, blocking the streetlights for hundreds of motorists a day. “I watched in dismay,” DeCamara says, “as, month after month, the obstruction continued to grow.”
At one point DeCamara and her wife, Lori Abney, reviewed accident records for the intersection going back five years. “If you talk to people in the Ag Building [the State of Oregon building that oversees the site] they say there are accidents there all the time,” Abney says. Most accidents don’t get reported “but we found some with almost identical circumstances as Mona’s accident, including one that happened two weeks after hers.”
At least 11 accidents in the years surrounding DeCamara’s were similar enough to be considered relevant. They represented at least 11 opportunities for the City to notice the danger and address it.
“There were many times the City was made aware of the hazardous tree,” DeCamara says, “but every month and year it continued to grow and block both of the traffic signal heads even more. I would say to people, ‘Someone is going to get killed. Obviously the City doesn’t care.’”
Tort claim and trial
After some months, DeCamara filed a tort claim notice to galvanize the City to take action. “They denied my claim outright,” she says. “Clearly they wanted to take no responsibility. They didn’t even come out to investigate with the City tree maintenance people until after the tort claim notice was filed.”
DeCamara had “expected the City to inspect the scene, see the obvious danger, own up to their mistakes and do the right thing. I did not expect them to do everything in their power to cover up those mistakes and deny all responsibility.”
In September 2016, almost two years after her injuries, DeCamara sued the City of Salem for $831,004 “because clearly they didn’t care and weren’t going to do anything to keep someone else from getting injured or killed.”
Among other issues, her civil suit argued that the City was negligent for failing to maintain trees so that they would not block the vision of motorists, and negligent for failing to ensure that traffic signals were not blocked.
Several weeks before September 2017 jury trial began – nearly three years after the accident – a City work crew finally cut the tree so it wouldn’t block the lights . They did so in 101-degree heat, pruning five large limbs from the trunk, a significant cutting that Abney calls, “a butchering.”
“I tried for three years to get the City to trim this tree in a responsible manner,” DeCamara recalls, but it did not cut the correct limbs “until they were faced with an impending jury trial.”
In depositions prior to trial and during the 6-day trial, DeCamara’s attorney, Carl Amala of Salem, brought forth evidence from City employees themselves that the City does not take proactive action to keep its traffic signals visible nor does it follow the 10-day code requirements that has ordinary citizens take care of dangerous foliage promptly.
The City’s Senior Engineer Kevin Rottmann for example, acknowledged that the City is responsible for making sure motorists can see traffic signals – but said the City takes action to remove foliage that blocks signals only when it “receive[s] a concern” from citizens.
“People are usually pretty good at letting us know if there’s a concern,” said Hottman, who manages the traffic signal maintenance group, “and we investigate it and make changes, if necessary.”
Hottmann said the City didn’t train any of its employees to notice foliage problems and didn’t do any periodic inspections of foliage in relation to traffic signals.
“The City’s position,” Amala recalls, “was that it has a ‘complaint’ based system and that it [the City] does not take proactive steps to keep motorists safe.”
One of DeCamara’s trial witnesses was Ward 2 city councilor Tom Andersen, a friend who had observed her decline in mental function. “After discussing this with both Mona’s attorney and the City Attorney, and after receiving a subpoena,” Andersen recalls, he agreed to testify as to DeCamara’s damages, though not to the liability, or fault, of the City.
At trial, Andersen provided examples of how DeCamara differed after the accident. “She did not track conversations very well,” he recalls, “she had memory issues, and she tired easily when she was at gatherings. This was in contrast to her before-accident personality and mental abilities. I had examples of her wit, ability to more than hold her own in sophisticated conversations, and to relate easily to individuals… This was not the case after the accident.”
The City spent significant resources fighting DeCamara’s claims. In addition to its using at least one City attorney and hiring three outside attorneys, Abney notes, taxpayers paid for the following;
1) Marcus Pitts, the risk manager who was present all six days of the trial plus some of the depositions
2) Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director who was present all six days of the trial, and who also testified
3) An audio/video attorney technician who was present all six days of the trial
4) Thomas Bradley, a Public Works project coordinator who visited the accident scene multiple times, gave a deposition, and testified at trial
5) Kevin Hottmann, the City Traffic Engineer who studied the documentation, gave a deposition, and testified at trial
.. And at least six other city employees who gave depositions, testified at trial or observed in the courtroom.
The City’s position was that its “citizen complaint” system was adequate and that it did not have enough money to proactively inspect its own trees. It is a position DeCamara found bewildering, since Salem’s Public Works Department has 411 employees, an annual operating budget of $128 million and a capital funds budget of $100 million.
“The city spent an exorbitant amount of time and money defending this case,” Abney notes. “If they had spent that time and money on the same safety measures that they expect of private property owners, this accident and probably many others wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
City of Salem City attorney Dan Atchison estimates the City’s costs for the matter as follows:
Legal Expense: $147,887.05
Expert Witness: $41,928.35
Claim Expense Total (subpoena fees, deposition transcripts, recorded statements): 3,727.20
Recovery Received: -$2,141.97
Net Total: $191,400.63.
The City made 13 motions to exclude evidence brought by DeCamara and her team. Court rules of evidence did not allow them to mention any of the prior accidents they’d discovered at the intersection. They also could not mention the accident that occurred ten days after DeCamera’s. They also could not mention the severe pruning several weeks prior to trial. They also could not show a photo of what the tree looked like before the last-minute cutting.
The jury found that the City was negligent, but that its negligence did not cause DeCamara’s injury. In a handwritten letter to the judge it wrote, “The jury wants to make note that despite the ruling we still believe that the City needs to change some practices to ensure this does not happen again.”
DeCamara hopes the City takes this advice to heart. “My trial showed that the City has a double standard,” she says. It showed “that the City holds private property owners to a very high standard in keeping their trees from obstructing traffic lights, while the City only bothers to inspect its trees for safety problems if someone makes a formal, documented complaint.”
After the trial she reflected, “I want the City to make a change; not just talk about it – but follow through.”
A new policy?
It appears that the City may have finally done what DeCamara hoped for. Three months after the trial, in November 2017, Kenny Larson, Communications and Community Engagement Manager for the City of Salem, discussed City procedures with Salem Weekly.
Although the City’s position that it lacked the
funding to be proactive has been in place for decades, and although Larson did not acknowledge that anything has changed, he said that five City electricians who inspect traffic indicators yearly – also now check “for foliage blocking the signal indications.”
Larson says these five electricians work off a maintenance checklist that “includes checking for foliage blocking the signal indications.”
Despite repeated requests, Salem Weekly was unsuccessful in learning when the system of City electricians assessing foliage hazards began or in obtaining a copy of the electrician’s maintenance checklist.