AUSTIN -- Dan Huebner was driving home from work when he had a run-in with Austin police.
“I was going, 'Oh I missed him,' and then all the sudden, he hit me and spun me around,” Huebner said.
Huebner had a T-bone collision with an Austin Police Department officer at the corner of South 1st and Ralph Ablanedo Drive.
“I jumped out of the car, asked him what happened, and he said he missed the brake pedal,” Huebner said.
Huebner says since the officer admitted fault, he thought the City would quickly cover his bills, but Huebner wasn't paid until four years later when the City settled for $56,000.
“It was a genuine accident by the City of Austin, and it did hurt me,” Huebner said.
A joint KVUE Defenders and Austin American-Statesman investigation has revealed that in the last five years, the City of Austin paid out more than $14.6 million to settle claims against city departments.
Austin Energy paid $951,594 in claims, Solid Waste Services paid $1 million in claims, Austin Water Utility paid $2.3 million in claims, and Parks paid $391,983 in claims. Several other departments racked up large payouts too.
“People are able and willing to sue anytime they want to. They just have to go to the courthouse and make a claim,” Morgan said.
Ann Morgan, chief litigator for the City of Austin, says the City handles about 700 claims and 60 lawsuits per year. She says settlements are just part of doing business.
“We own a utility, we own an electric company, and we own the airport. We have every road in the city paved. We have the sidewalks, we have the lights, and we pick up the garbage," Morgan said.
"Everything you do from the time you get up in the morning and turn the lights on, until you wash your face at night before you go to bed, involves the City of Austin.”
APD was responsible for the highest number of claims, paying out $5.8 million in the last five years.
Chief Art Acevedo says he's not surprised by the figure.
“It's high stress, highly critical work we do,” Acevedo said. “The second we drive out that driveway at the police station, the second that call comes in, liability potentially attaches to the police department.”
Liability for APD-involved crashes has cost taxpayers more than $1.6 million.
“They're in the patrol car environment where there is a lot of things going on. You've got the computer going on, you've got the radio going on. They're looking where they're at. They're looking for violations, they're looking for risks,” Acevedo said.
Then there are cases involving “excessive use of force.” Some of those cases include:
· $1 million to the family of Daniel Rocha, who was shot and killed by an APD officer in 2005.
· $1 million to the family of Kevin Brown, who was shot and killed by an officer in 2007.
· Most recently, the City settled with the family of Nathaniel Sanders for $750,000.
“In some cases we settle not because of liability or we feel that we may end up losing the case, but because from a business standpoint, it may be more cost effective to settle a case,” Acevedo said.
Texas Civil Rights Project executive director Jim Harrington has taken on dozens of cases against the City. He says the City doesn't always settle.
“When you're dealing with politics, and politicians, and city officials, I have a feeling so often that they have no sense of responsibility over the taxpayers’ money, that they let other factors come into play when deciding whether or not they're going to settle the case, whether or not they're going to fight it, how hard they're going to fight it or whatever,” Harrington said.
Harrington says the City could often save time and money if it would just say “sorry.”
“If there was that first step where they took the complaint seriously and worked with the people, the City could save a lot of money and everyone would be happy with an apology,” Harrington said.
Huebner learned firsthand how frustrating it can be.
“I'm glad y’all are doing this, because I think the city council will see this, and I think they seem to act somewhat on stuff like this. I hope,” Huebner said.
That $14.6 million in claims is only part of the story. We'll tell you how much additional money the City spends hiring outside legal counsel and why some people say making a few small changes could save taxpayers millions, Monday at 10 p.m. on KVUE.
You can follow investigative reporter Keli Rabon on her Facebook page here.