AUSTIN (KXAN) - Joyce Thompson had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and was receiving radiation treatments when her only method of transportation was destroyed.
A city light pole fell on her car while it was parked in her driveway.
"I had to get one of my kids to take me and wait for me, pick me up, take me back home, take me back for radiation," said Thompson, recalling her ordeal that was three years in the making. "And it's just been really hard."
Thompson and her family thought the city would take responsibility for the falling pole, which photographs show was clearly rotted at the core.
"We've been at this address 20-plus years," Thomson said. "And the whole time that we have been there, that pole has never been changed."
Her son Bryan added, "We thought they were going to take a good position and say to themselves, 'OK, let's do something right.' But nothing. Nothing but a 'Go away. Go buy another car. You're a little person,' and 'Get over it.'"
By the numbers
- 200,000 light poles are in place citywide
- 1,700 complaints about street lights have been logged with the city of Austin since 2009
- 144 of the complaints were for poles that had already fallen
- 2,500 light poles were replaced around the city
When the city officials made clear they would not take responsibility for the damage to Thompson's Buick Roadmaster, she and her family sought out attorneys Ifeoma Ibekwe and Holly Claghorn.
"This case, it's just a matter of right vs. wrong," said Ibekwe. "It pulls on your heartstrings, and it's just one we couldn't walk away from."
Ibekwe and Claghorn took the case to court, where the justice of the peace ruled that the city was not liable for the damage. The reason is because lawmakers, as part of the Texas Tort Claims Act, have said that cities are not liable for damage caused while performing certain government functions, such as providing lighting for safety.
The pole that fell on the Thompson's car was a light pole and had no utility lines attached to it.
Immune from liability
"They're saying, 'We're not going to touch that. That's not our area. We're immune from liability,'" said Ibekwe. "However, if it was a utility pole and not just a light pole, they would have paid for that.
"And we can't find a way to distinguish why it's OK for a utility poll to fall down and for them to receive compensation," she added. "And yet if it's a light pole -- same type of pole maintained by the city except it just provides lighting -- they call it safety and security."
Meghan Riley, an attorney for the city of Austin, said the city is only following the law and trying to protect taxpayers from frivolous lawsuits.
"Its a sympathetic situation, but it's something the Legislature has made a determination on," Riley said. "And so it's something that the city doesn't have a choice to determine.
"I'm really sorry for her situation," she added. "It's certainly unfortunate that it happened."
But the Thompsons are not the only victims of this kind of situation.
KXAN News uncovered seven cases since January 2009 where light poles have fallen and damaged someone's property. In each case, the city has denied responsibility.
In a case from December 2010, a couple was driving near the Arboreteum in North Austin when a metal light pole fell on their car. Photos of that pole show rust at the base.
The couple was told the city was not responsible.
What about inspections?
"The city has an inspection program for the light poles that run electric wires but not for the ones that have lighting on them. But if you're a citizen walking around the street and you see a light pole, that's a distinction that doesn't matter to you and if it falls on your car it doesn't matter what kind of wires were connected to it," said Claghorn.
The Thompson family and their attorneys want the city to do a better job of inspecting the poles, but that presents a challenge for the city.
"It's similar to the city sidewalk. We have, however, many miles of sidewalks, and we can't possibly inspect them in an organized way to take care of all that, so we rely on the public to let us know when they see something," said Riley.
That's small comfort to Joyce Thompson and others who found themselves having to pay for damage that was caused by city equipment. Thompson was finally able to replace her car about a month ago, nearly three years after the city's pole fell on it.
"I just really want them to do their job," she said, "not, not just -- you know -- not do anything about it."
What can you do?
If you see a dangerous light poll, call 311, and advise the call-taker of the pole's location and condition
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