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Jim Kenyon: Insurer gets it wrong

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/11/2021 9:31:11 PM
Modified: 5/11/2021 9:31:09 PM

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns is willing to spend umpteen dollars on lawyers to defend cops accused of wrongdoing in civil lawsuits in hopes that the plaintiffs might eventually grow weary of the legal wrangling and go away.

But when a Hartford woman tries to settle a non-police dispute with the town without getting lawyers involved?

The League of Cities and Towns, which provides insurance coverage to Hartford and other Vermont municipalities, shows little interest in helping.

In March, I wrote about Angelique Benner, a 39-year-old tax preparer whose pickup was towed from the town parking lot behind the former American Legion building in downtown White River Junction.

On March 1, a couple of weeks after a winter storm, the town brought in three private towing companies to haul away vehicles before snow and ice was cleared from the South Main Street lot.

To their credit, town officials — with some prodding from developer and downtown landlord Matt Bucy, a former Selectboard member — recognized they had botched the towing operation.

Usually, Hartford police notified residents about the need to remove vehicles before temporary bans to make room for winter cleanups were invoked. This time, however, the town relied primarily on social media to spread the word. Not everyone got the message.

Hartford, as Bucy pointed out, had also neglected to follow through on a January 2020 winter parking plan that called for flashing signs at downtown intersections to alert people of any upcoming “declared snow removal event.”

Acknowledging the missteps, Hartford agreed to reimburse vehicle owners for towing and up to two days of storage fees — a total of $1,340 in taxpayers’ money.

But Benner had a bigger problem.

In the process of her Dodge pickup being extracted from the snow and ice, the truck’s computerized braking system was damaged. A Dodge dealership estimated the cost of repairs at about $1,800.

Enter the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. VLCT, as it’s known, oversees the insurance funds that towns pay into for liability coverage.

After talking with Hartford Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis, Benner filed a claim with VLCT’s insurance arm. “The VLCT Property and Casualty Intermunicipal Fund (PACIF), established in 1986, provides broad coverage — including workers’ compensation, property, automobile, crime, general liability, public officials’ liability, law enforcement liability, and employment practices liability — in one convenient package,” according to VLCT’s website.

That’s a mouthful, but Benner figured she had gone to the right place for help. It didn’t turn out that way, though.

On April 28, a VLCT claim specialist informed Benner via email that her claim was denied. “In order to consider payment of a claim, it has to be proven that our member (Hartford) is legally liable for vehicle damage and that municipal sovereign immunity would not apply to this case,” VLCT wrote.

And here’s the kicker: VLCT blamed the towing company for the damage to Benner’s truck. Never mind that the towing company was just following the town’s orders to rid the parking lot of all vehicles that it had earmarked for removal.

Benner is left with trying to figure out how to come up with $1,800 to repair her pickup. It’s money she doesn’t have. Benner, who is single, is expecting her first child this summer. With tax season winding down, she’s stopped working.

Benner could try to collect from the towing company, but she’s not interested in going after a Hartford small business. “It’s not their fault,” she said. “None of this would have happened if the town had just stuck to its (winter parking) plan.”

And when it didn’t, VLCT needed to step up. According to its website, the nonprofit organization believes in the “critical role that local government plays in the lives of Vermonters.”

I have trouble picturing VLCT as an organization interested in the welfare of everyday Vermonters. It’s more interested in watching the backs of local officials. Which I guess is understandable, considering its 13-member governing board consists entirely of mayors, town managers, selectboard members and the like.

It might be more palatable if local taxpayers weren’t picking up much of the tab. In 2019, VLCT collected more than $1.1 million in member dues. The organization, which was founded in 1967 and is headquartered in Montpelier, is one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups. With 47 employees, including three staff attorneys, it’s not exactly a mom-and-pop operation.

Over the years, I’ve watched the lengths that VLCT will go to to protect cops — and by extension, their town leaders.

A Hartford case immediately comes to mind.

In 2010, Hartford police mistook Wayne Burwell for a burglar in his own home. Burwell, who is Black, was pepper sprayed and beaten with a baton by two officers before an ambulance took him to the hospital.

Burwell, a Dartmouth graduate, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging, among other things, excessive use of force, in 2012. For five years, VLCT bankrolled lawyers to block Burwell from getting his case before a jury. When the case was about to go to trial, Burwell received a $500,000 out-of-court settlement — an outcome that was long overdue from my vantage point.

The last time I checked, VLCT was setting aside about $16 million a year in its self-insurance fund for claims.

But it couldn’t spare $1,800 to help Benner get her truck in running condition. (On Monday, I left messages for VLCT’s director of communications and marketing director, but didn’t hear back.)

After VLCT denied Benner’s claim, she looked for an attorney in the Upper Valley to take her case. They all wanted $1,000 to $1,500 up front.

Hardly worth her pursuing. I suspect VLCT already knew that.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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