MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Just before 9 o’clock one night, Marcus Mills took his usual route leaving Walmart in Whitehaven.
“I was making a left turn in the turn lane going on to Craft Road off of Elvis Presley,” he said.
He stopped at the traffic light until it turned. Then, he was about to keep going when something startled him.
“A lot of noise just hitting my truck. I thought somebody had hit me at the moment,” Mills said.
He soon realized that the middle part of a hanging traffic light had actually fallen onto his car.
“I was kind of in shock. I jumped out of my vehicle. It was an officer on the scene that dispatched a police officer to the incident happened,” he said.
He showed WREG where it caused damage to his SUV.
“I noticed my side mirror was torn off my vehicle, along with the shielding around my window,” he said.
Police took down his information, but told him he’d have to file a claim with the city. In order to do that, he took his car to get estimates.
The lowest estimate came in at nearly $4,000 for work needed on the front fender, the front door, the rear door and the roof.
Mills said he was between jobs and couldn’t afford to pay for insurance at the time.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t afford to pay for this. Who’s fixing to pay for this?’” he said.
He submitted the estimate with his claim and waited. He thought he had a good case.
He couldn’t believe it when he got back a letter from the city of Memphis denying his claim. In the letter, city officials state “there is no proof of negligence on the part of the City.”
“They ended up denying it because they’re saying they see the light was damaged, but it wasn’t reported before the damage happened,” he said. “I said, how does that make me responsible to get something fixed that it did happen?”
That’s when he called the WREG Problem Solvers.
WREG found out the city wouldn’t be liable for what happened unless Mills could prove they knew about the broken traffic light before the accident happened.
“Based on how the law is, people struggle to make a recovery against the city,” attorney Drew Davis said.
Davis is a civil litigation attorney who often handles claim cases. He’s talking about the Tennessee law called the Governmental Tort Liability Act, which favors government entities rather than individuals.
“Under the law you have to be able to show the city knew or should’ve known of this defective condition,” Davis said.
The WREG Problem Solvers gave him all the information obtained in Mills’s case via an open records request. In the documents, officials said they “suspect that an oversized vehicle snagged the signal wires, breaking the tether and damaging the signals. There was no report of this documented because the vehicle probably kept driving.”
WREG also followed up with the city attorney’s office who sent us a statement saying in part, “The accident occurred around the same time the City got notice.”
Davis, the attorney, said that designation was too vague and pointed out Mills’s legal challenge.
“We’re kind of having to rely on their word at this point,” he said.
But the only way around it would be litigation, and that can get expensive.
The Problem Solvers asked Davis if the city could still pay the claim even though the law says they don’t have to.
“Nobody would prevent that but I think the obstacle would be allegations down the line of unequal treatment of different people,” Davis said.
WREG took that question to the city council members who represent the Whitehaven area.
Martavius Jones said there was nothing he could do because legal claims don’t go through council.
“If I were an administrative function, I would pay the claim. That’s just me individually. I just speak for me,” he said.
Councilwoman Cheyenne Johnson agreed, but said she would do something for Mills.
“I will be talking to the responsible parties who made that decision to see if we can find some reconsideration under the circumstances,” she said.
Mills and the Problem Solvers are still waiting to find out how the city responds.
Meanwhile, Mills has been driving a damaged SUV for nearly four months.
“I just want my vehicle taken care of. I work hard. I pay city taxes,” Mills said.
The father of five said he hoped the city would do what’s right, no matter the law.