Evanston officials maintain the City has tort immunity after a street light tore loose from its moorings on a windy March 29, crashing through a resident’s fence on the 2800 block of Elgin and landing in his yard.

Evanston resident Barry Minerof owns an impressive-looking cedar fence that runs along the front of his home on the 2800 block of Elgin Road – or at least it did so, that is, until March 29.

That’s when Dr. Minerof, a podiatrist, and his daughter, sheltering at home on the windy day, heard a loud crash. They came out to find a 700-pound City street light lying across their lawn, after ripping out a section of the fence and also denting and scratching Dr. Minerof’s  Crown Victoria car parked in the driveway.

Taking note of the damage, Dr. Minerof called the City’s 311 Center that day and was directed to make a police report, “which I did,” he said.

Summarily, a police officer came out, snapped a several pictures of the lamp post lying on top of Dr. Minerof’s fence.

Dr. Minerof took photos himself from different angles, including those of the rusted base and jumble of wires exposed in what was now a large foot-and-a-half hole with the lamp post torn from its moorings.

He said he then attempted to file a claim with the City, but numerous calls to the City’s Legal Department went to voicemail and his messages initially were not returned.

When he was finally able to reach someone there, the person requested a description of the incident as well as photos, which he supplied, Dr. Minerof said.

 He received the same request from Cannon Cochran Management Services, Inc. (CCMSI), the outside adjuster used by the City. He said he responded to that request too, sending along the pictures and police report of the incident.

“The adjuster asked me to obtain a quote from the same company that installed the fence originally and email that to him,” Dr. Minerof said. He did so, contacting the Rustic Wood fence company, whose estimate to replace the section of the fence came to $882.27.

The fence stretches the length of the home, and separates the property from Elgin/Golf Road where cars speed down the long straightaway. The doctor said it was installed about five years ago and he hand-stained the wood himself.

Asked to obtain two outside quotes on damage to the automobile,  Dr. Minerof said that he would not be able to leave his home to do so during the pandemic. He reminded the adjuster that he had previously sent close to a dozen photographs that detailed damage to the car.

 “I also advised him that he was welcome to send an adjuster to my home to evaluate the damage, or that I would participate in a video/interactive evaluation of the damage, but I never received a response in that regard,” he said.

Following many emails and telephone calls to the adjuster, Dr. Minerof said he received a letter from CCMSI on May 11 – approximately six weeks after he had notified the City of the incident, informing him, that “the City of Evanston is not responsible for damage from an object that falls because of heavy winds.”

The adjuster cited tort immunity and further stated that “if there was a rusted out base for the light pole, the City of Evanston was not aware of this condition.”

Further, the adjuster explained, “records with the City of Evanston show no complaints or calls to repair the light pole. Based on the language of the Illinois Local Governmental and Government Tort Immunity Act, and the fact that wind is not something that the City of Evanston is responsible for, we must respectfully deny your claim.”

Responding, Dr. Minerof said that it is unreasonable to expect a citizen “to have the expertise and ability to assess the structural capability of a street light.

“Any reasonable citizen would expect that the City maintains their lamp posts as a matter of routine, such that they don’t fall down when it is windy outside,” he argued.

Dr. Minerof sought help from his alderman, Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin, on the case. Mr. Suffredin said he was sympathetic to Dr. Minerof’s concerns but that he did not have the power to unilaterally overturn the City’s decision.

 He did, though, forward the matter to Interim City Manager Erika Storlie and Kelley Gandurski, the City’s Corporation Counsel, asking for the City’s view, so he could relay that perspective to his constituent.

In her email response, Ms. Gandurski said she believed that CCMSI made the right determination that the City has tort immunity, noting that the Law Department had approved denial of the claim.

“The claimant’s only remedy at this time would be to file suit against the City, but I am confident that the City would prevail based on the facts,” she said, in the opinion which Ald. Suffredin shared with Dr. Minerof.

Dr. Minerof took from that, that the City was essentially telling him “tough luck, if you want to get a lawyer, we’re going to win anyway. How is that a way to treat a home owner in the City who has been damaged by a lamp post that fell on his property?”

“I’ve heard that ‘You can’t fight city hall,” and the City’s Legal Department knows that it will likely cost me more than the cost of repair to do so,” he said, “but it would also cost the City more to defend this sad case. This is nothing less than the City of Evanston acting like the big, rich bully, knowing that it can simply say ‘no’ when they have hurt the little guy.”

Neither Ms. Gandurski nor Ms. Storlie responded to a request for further details on the City’s position.  “The City does not comment on claims or potential litigation,” said Patrick Deignan, Evanston’s Communications Manager.

Meanwhile, the base of the street lamp with exposed wiring was still uncovered when the RoundTable visited the property on May 18. Dr. Minerof said a metal cover was placed over the hole sometime on, May 20 after he had e-mailed the City expressing concern about the situation.

“I’m not surprised after all that has happened that it took an email from a homeowner to motivate the City to address an obvious hazard,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.