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Mike Jensen of Piñon Pines is determined and angry about the cracks to the windshields, like this one, of his family cars.
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By Gary Meyer and Patric Hedlund
“It irritates me when the county or the state tries to bully you, it is just wrong,” a retired Los Angeles Police Department senior lead officer now living in Piñon Pines said in an interview Tuesday, Jan. 3.
Mike Jensen was expressing a frustration heard widely throughout the Mountain Communities in the past few months. Over a hundred vehicle damage claims have reportedly been submitted to Kern County, all attributed to county roadwork on Frazier Mountain Park Road and Cuddy Valley Road.
The dialogue gained momentum with a letter to the editor titled, “Road Grump,” in which Al Fleming of Lake of the Woods complained about the chip seal resurfacing this fall. He claimed it is substandard, creating a hazard to drivers and vehicles.
Jensen has been methodical in documenting evidence. When reporters asked to take a photo of him with his broken windshield, he said, “Which one do you want? I have three of them…and my daughter (who also lives in Piñon Pines) has two.” He said he has a $1,000 quote for replacement of a sensor- bearing windshield on their newest car.
Some of the incidents occurred when Jensen—and his daughter, separately—were stopped at the Piñon Pines intersection with Cuddy Valley Road. Jensen said the roadwork is so poor that the wheels of passing vehicles hurl stones that crack windshields, chip paint and scratch headlights.
He photographed “about a ton and a half” of loose gravel being swept up by the county after they had received complaints, he said. But those who have submitted claims to Kern County for the cost of repairs have uniformly received rejections.
There is an eerie parallel to reports in the archives of The Mountain Enterprise from 1984, in which a reported 300 residents filed claims with Kern County for similar damage after roadwork on Frazier Mountain Park Road. The claims were denied by the county and contractors until residents got a lawyer and threatened a class action lawsuit.
In the present event, Sue Canaan of Pine Mountain said her own insurance company had fixed the windshield on one of their cars, but within three weeks of the repairs, as they traveled Cuddy Valley Road, it was damaged again.
On December 28, 2011 the county reportedly had a contractor with two large sweepers working on the roads again, but Kern County’s adjuster was continuing to deny claims.
On October 15, 1984 more than 130 people gathered at Frazier Mountain Park Community Center to discuss a possible class action lawsuit against Kern County and its contractor J. L. Denio Construction Company. J. L. Denio had completed a “chip seal” treatment of Frazier Mountain Park Road several weeks earlier.
More than 300 vehicle owners at that time reported damage to their windshields, car paint and headlights they claimed resulted from particles coming loose from the roadway, during and following completion of the road work that had been performed between late August and mid September that year.
The story published in The Mountain Enterprise on October 19, 1984 described how the contractor’s insurance company, United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company (USF&G) had refused to pay claims filed by vehicle owners.
At the 1984 meeting, Attorney Tom Frankovich fielded questions for two hours, explaining that victims had only 100 days to file claims in court against a government entity [laws are different today]. He explained the costs of filing a class action to represent all victims in a single case and the differences in cost according to the number of people who joined the class action.
Within 30 days of the community’s meeting, the insurance company decided to pay the citizens’ claims.
On November 16, 1984 The Mountain Enterprise reported, “This week, most of those same individuals received checks for the full amount of damages.”
On October 3, 2011 Kern County Roads Department began a “chip seal” project on Frazier Mountain Park Road from Interstate 5 to the “Y” at the western end of Cuddy Valley.
Just days after the first sections of roadway had been treated, The Mountain Enterprise began receiving calls and and in-person complaints about damage to windshields and vehicle paint caused by particles from the new road surface coming loose and shooting onto passing vehicles.
Mike Jensen said he filed a claim on October 6, after his vehicle was damaged just three days into the county’s project. Jensen said when his second vehicle was damaged he filed another claim on October 30.
Jensen received a letter from Kern County’s General Liability Claims Adjuster Tom Newell on November 22 rejecting his claims.
Jensen called Newell on November 24 and asked “On what basis are you rejecting my claims?” Jensen said Newell responded, “Because I don’t feel you have a claim.” Jensen asked, “What are you basing that opinion on?”
According to Jensen, Newell replied: “All I need is my opinion.”
Jensen immediately called Newell’s supervisor, Risk Manager Susan Orr, who he says never returned his call.
When The Mountain Enterprise made fact-check calls to confirm Jensen’s statement, Newell said, “It was my opinion that payment wasn’t warranted… because the investigation was still ongoing.”
His supervisor Susan Orr said she couldn’t remember receiving the telephone call, but that it sounded as if we were working on an interesting story that she looks forward to reading.
On December 6 Jensen wrote a letter to County Supervisor Ray Watson who referred the matter to Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations. Nations responded to Jensen in a letter dated December 14 and, according to Jensen, took an interest in seeing photographs of the damaged roadway, which Jensen sent to Nations.
Jensen has spoken several times with Nations who told him that the problems appear to be more serious than roads department personnel had suggested.
Nations said the county was short on staff due to the holidays and that he would go through the claims, one by one, after the first of the year.
As of Tuesday, Dec. 27 when Jensen requested to see the claims at the county counsel’s office, he counted 103 claims filed for damage, allegedly due to the county road project.
What a Difference 27 Years Can Make
The Mountain Enterprise contacted Nations on January 3 for an update. He explained that the county had subcontracted the application of the emulsion to a private company.
Kern County Roads Department’s Todd Wood said the county has a purchase order with Environmental Concepts (subcontracted to Western Oil Spreading Services, Inc. for asphalt binder spreading services.
County workers applied the rock to the emulsion.
County Counsel Nations says there is no need for a class action lawsuit and asks that people be patient.
“It’s going to take a while to go through all of the claims,” he said. Nations said he will also be reviewing the claims which were rejected by county claims adjuster Tom Newell.
Some claims, he said, may be rejected if they were not properly filed, for example if someone files a claim for damage to another person’s vehicle.
“Those who have damage which presents a safety problem should go ahead and have repairs done,” Nations said. Those cases, he said, would involve reimbursement for the repairs.
Nations said the county pays these types of individual claims directly, rather than going through an insurance company.
The Ticking Clock
Under California Government Code Sections 910, 911, 912 and 915, if the county board of supervisors does not commence action on a claim within 45 days of its presentation, the claim is deemed to have been rejected. The claimant would then have 180 days from the date the claim was denied to file against the county in Small Claims Court.
That means that those who filed their claims in 2011 and have been denied, or ignored, have until roughly May or June to file in Small Claims Court.
Individuals should calculate the dates relevant to their specific case themselves, and seek legal advice specific to their situation.
The Mountain Enterprise will continue to follow this story. Those who have received compensation from the county and those who believe they have not been treated fairly in the process are asked to send an email with dates, facts and your contact information to email@example.com.
Thanks to Fred Kiesner for his assistance with this story.
This is part of the January 06, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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