Crash victims question treatment by State of Ohio

EATON, Ohio (WDTN) – When you look at what the State of Ohio pays in claims to victims of accidents, the Ohio Department of Transportation stands out.

Hundreds of accidents a year, hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to victims, and that’s not including the cases that end up in court.  But some victims say they’ve had to pay as if they were at fault.

2 NEWS Investigates started asking questions after hearing from an Eaton schoolteacher who had been rear-ended by an ODOT truck.  She was frustrated that after several months she still couldn’t get answers from the state.

Laura Combs was on her way to school on October 15, 2013 when she was hit from behind. She called 911 and while doing so, was hit again by the same driver.

Combs told 2 NEWS Investigates, “He just pushed me in the intersection and just left.”

Surveillance video obtained by 2 NEWS Investigates shows the ODOT driver pulling up behind Combs’s car and hitting it, then hitting it again and turning left and driving off.

Eaton police used the video to identify the ODOT driver. He was cited for failing to maintain assured clear distance. ODOT reprimanded him for “Carelessness with tools, keys and equipment or vehicle resulting in the loss, damage, or an unsafe act.” He got nothing for leaving a motorist in a busy intersection.

Eaton Police Chief Chad DePew explained why there was no other charge. “What we have to prove on the law enforcement side is that they knowingly caused damage to another vehicle. In this case we can’t prove that he knew that he did it. His statement was he didn’t know he struck another vehicle,” DePew said.

Chief DePew added, “He said he sat up in his vehicle so high he just frankly didn’t see the car in front of him and I believe that to be a possibility.”

2 NEWS Investigates found that troubling since similar trucks have been out in force this winter.

I asked ODOT’s spokesperson for the Eaton area to address questions about the driver and the safety of the truck itself since he claimed he didn’t see Laura Combs’s car.

She responded with, “He is exemplary employee with 32 years of dedicated service to the state of Ohio and ODOT.” “…we believe an on-camera interview is not necessary.”

But that didn’t address why the driver couldn’t see the car in front of him and how ODOT handles such incidents. So 2 NEWS Investigates went up the chain of command. I even reached out to the man in charge of ODOT.

Director Jerry Wray never responded, but hours before this report was to air and two months after I started asking ODOT questions about the Eaton crash, I received several emails from ODOT. One indicated the department conducts an independent investigation of each accident. Employees are interviewed and they’re drug tested if there are injuries, but they are not necessarily pulled from duty. The vehicles are inspected but not necessarily taken off the roads.

Last month in Champaign County, an ODOT driver failed to stop at a stop sign and hit a car injuring himself and sending a woman and her 1-year-old son to the hospital. Police cited the ODOT driver.

If that had been an accident between two regular drivers, the insurance company for the driver at fault would more than likely have reached out to the victims by now, but the state does things differently. It insures itself with your tax dollars.

The family told 2 NEWS Investigates, “ODOT has been invisible.”  The victims and their insurance company are paying for medical care and damage to their vehicle.

“I think the scariest thing for me was my foot was on the brake and I pushed hard and it didn’t make any difference, he just pushed my car like it was nothing,” said Laura Combs.

I showed her a copy of the reprimand given the driver. She just sighed and shook her head.

“The whole thing’s been watered down and pushed away and that’s been hard,” Combs said.

If Laura’s story sounds familiar, it might be because Corey and Amy Waldman have been treated much the same way. A state trooper hit their motorcycle, sending them flying. That crash was August 17, 2013 and they say they still haven’t received any financial help from the state to cover their injuries and losses. Analyzing data 2 NEWS Investigates obtained from the state, the Department of Public Safety is second only to ODOT in the number of accidents it causes.

Laura has now received a payment of a little more than $1,900 to cover the damage to her car, nothing for the rental she needed while repairs were being made. She and her health insurance provider have paid for her medical care.

There is evidence that the state is paying accident victims for injuries and property damage. State data shows payments due to ODOT accidents totaling nearly $789,000 during a four year period . Those are claims that didn’t end up in court.

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