In 2009, Sarah Pailet was blind-sided by a New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board truck when the driver ran a stop sign while driving on Prytania Street. The force of the accident spun her around, injuring her spine.
“He crushed my car,” Pailet said. “If a car had been coming in the other direction, I wouldn’t be here.”
The Sewerage & Water Board agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a lawsuit over the accident, but seven years after the agreement was finalized, Pailet is still waiting to get paid.
“I am beyond frustrated,” she said. “I am beyond angry. I am beyond confused that this city could be run in such a haphazard way.”
Pailet is not the only person waiting to be paid by the Sewerage & Water Board. A list obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News shows that Pailet is 125th on a list of 227 plaintiffs who have unpaid judgments against the agency. Most of the lawsuits are from accidents, while others are from sewage contamination, construction damage and other mishaps.
The agency owes more than $7.7 million from the lawsuits, not counting interest. Some of the lawsuits go back to the early 1990s.
City Council President Jason Williams, seeing the list for the first time, said the amount owed could weigh heavily on a troubled agency that recently admitted it is in financial straits.
“That's not just problematic, it's egregious,” Williams said. “There is a moral obligation to paying a judgment once you've agreed that you owe it.”
Williams should know, like the Sewerage and Water Board, the City of New Orleans is self-insured, and behind on lawsuit payments. But last year, Williams helped draft a policy to gradually pay off city plaintiffs, putting aside $2 million a year from the city budget to plaintiffs and reduce the debt.
With the Sewerage & Water Board, some names have dropped off the list since 2012, but only a tiny percentage. The agency did not respond to requests for comment, so it is not known if plaintiffs fell off the list because they were paid, deemed unable to be located or discovered to be deceased without heirs.
Attorney Edwin Shorty Jr. is still waiting on a six-figure settlement he won on behalf of four clients involved in an accident with a S&WB vehicle in 2010. The settlement was for $113,000, but interest has pushed the total to more than $160,000.
“I've looked at that list for some time, the outstanding list of judgments, and there's been no movement there for several years,” Attorney Edwin Shorty Jr. said.
Meanwhile, more settlements are added each year, increasing the amount of money owed. The total jumped from $5.3 million to $7.7 million in the past year, mainly due to a $2.125 million settlement of one of the lawsuits over SELA construction damages to homes Uptown.
An even bigger blow could come from lawsuits filed over last year's July 22 and August 5 floods. Court records show at least eight lawsuits stemming from the flooding, including one seeking class-action status.
“We have no idea when anybody's going to pay. At all,” Shorty said. “It is a black hole of information.”
Attorney Darleen Jacobs has clients in seven unpaid lawsuits totaling more than $407,000 going back 20 years. Some of Jacobs' clients have died waiting to be paid.
“There are injustices that are being done and nobody's getting paid for it,” Jacobs said. “Mr. James Jolly passed away. This judgment, $87,700, was rendered in the year 2000. He has heirs, but I told them to make a will because they’re getting up in age also.”
Yet when it comes to debts owed to the Sewerage & Water Board, the utility is pressing forward with its own debt collections.
After a 10-month pause because of systemic problems that led to thousands of erroneous bills, the agency resumed water shut-offs on Aug. 1 for delinquent customers. Accounts are considered delinquent once more than $50 has been owed for more than 60 days.
The S&WB has not responded to a unanimous resolution from the City Council to stop the shut-offs until the utility can straighten out its billing mess.
“Certainly, an entity that is not willing to pay judgments and settlements from the '90s, should not be so holier than thou they are going to demand payment for an erroneous bill in 2018,” Williams said.
Shorty noted that municipal agencies can’t be forced to pay state judgments through property seizure or garnishment.
“And I don't have the option of cutting off any of their utilities,” he said.
The situation is not lost on activists who have protested the water shut-offs.
“Practice what you preach,” said Mike Howells, a member of a grass-roots group called the No Shut-Offs Committee. “You're expecting people to pay their bills on time when you're, like, 20 years behind in your payments. I mean, c'mon, it's so hypocritical.”
For plaintiffs like Sarah Pailet, the inability to collect her settlement adds insult to her injury.
“They want the people who they have overcharged by mistake to pay up or they're turning off their water. Really?” Pailet asked. “What about me? What about all the other people on this list who they owe money to?”
Mike Perlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.