Tennessee Guardrail Accident Brings Cruel Service Charges to Light

If you’re a driver, you regularly sail past them without a thought, but guardrails are a critical safety measure that can save lives — except when they don’t.

In November of last year, 17-year-old Hannah Elmers drifted into a guardrail while driving, but instead of crumpling, the railing went through the driver’s side door and killed her instantly. In a bitter twist, the state had just removed the guardrail model that killed Elmers from its approved list, knowing that it sometimes failed at high speeds.

This would be an ordinary tragedy but for one thing: Several months later, a bill arrived at her house, addressed to Hannah, demanding nearly $3,000 for the costs of replacing the guardrail.

The state swiftly followed up, claiming the bill was an “accident” and indicating that her father wouldn’t be on the hook for the balance. Even so, he’s not happy — and who can blame him?

The interesting — and troubling — part of this case is that it’s actually not unique. In car accidents where a driver is deemed at fault, first responders and government agencies may send bills for the cost of responding to the accident, sometimes known as “crash taxes” or “first response fees.”

In this instance, a rather complicated paperwork mix-up must have been involved to bill the deceased for the cost of replacing the guardrail that killed her, but it likely wasn’t the first time.

And it’s not just car accidents that are subject to these kinds of service charges. In some states, people may be required to pay a “fire service fee” that can climb into the tens of thousands when fire crews respond to their houses. Coroners may also charge fees for picking up and storing bodies. In 2015, for instance, police shooting victim Tamir Rice‘s family was charged for the costs of storing his body at the coroner’s office for six months.

Understandably, many people object to these insensitive and cruel fees — but especially because they feel they are being double-billed — aren’t they already paying for these services with taxes?

Publicly-funded entities that respond in the interest of society as a whole, like fire departments that prevent fires from spreading, ambulance crews that help victims in traffic collisions and, yes, road crews that replace damaged highway infrastructure are all funded by the public, as are their supplies.

But, as it turns out, budget shortfalls can become very problematic, especially in small towns that may actually be unable to pay for their public services. As a result, some have turned to billing people, a practice that’s entirely legal.

Often, the cost is borne by insurance companies — and they aren’t too happy about it. They argue that this amounts to double-billing, while advocates insist that people who cause incidents should be forced to bear financial liability for them.

This practice is quite old, but it appears to have gained new ground in the recession, when austerity measures were common across municipal budgets and tax collection revenues were down. It’s hard to determine how many cities have instituted such taxes, but they appear to be active in at least 26 states. And some, like Arizona and Kansas, ban them.

Many people don’t know that accident service fees are present in their area until something terrible happens and they receive a bill. Be proactive: Find out if your municipality assesses such fees and ask to see a fee schedule so you can understand the nature of the charges. If you’re opposed to this practice, contact city council members or the board of supervisors to ask for a repeal — and consider going to your state legislator to ask that your state as a whole address the issue.

Photo credit: Jon Carr

48 comments

Margie F
Margie FOURIE10 days ago

Thank you

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Marie W
Marie W29 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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JT Smith
JT Smith5 months ago

After I had the stroke that so far has left me unable to work, I received a bill not only from the ambulance company that took e to the hospital, but also for the helicopter that airlifted me from Doylestown Hospital to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, nearly 50 miles away. The only thing that saved me was that by the time I got the bill I was on Medicaid, and Medicaid in PA covers all those kid of bills. And those bills in my case combined together to come to near $10k+.

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Philippa P
Philippa P5 months ago

So totally reprehensible on so many levels.

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william Miller
william M5 months ago

thanks

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Debbi -
Debbi -5 months ago

I agree with Sherri. It's nonsense and sounds like another way to dodge responsibility.

The 'possible' new fees, from coroners, etc., sounds like a republican ploy to minimize what our government is doing with our taxes.The GOP likes to hoard our taxes as if that money was being deposited into their own personal accounts. We need to _minimize the GOP__ until they grow the balls and control the extremists in their party.

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Vivianne M

So the cuts of money to save the people more tax's....is showing up in the death of people.
So what are we saving here?

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Jenn C
Jenn C5 months ago

Yeesh. Isn't maintenance of public roads etc. part of what our gas and registration taxes are supposed to pay for?

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Brad H
Brad H5 months ago

thanks

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Anne M
Anne Moran5 months ago

"knowing that it sometimes it failed at HIGH SPEEDS" ??

Hmmmm,, with all do respect to the victim,, too many young people/teenagers speed like bats-outta-hell,, resulting in accidents and most of the time,, death..- How many times,, how many times,, have/do we see this happen,, year in, and year out...

I'm happy I don't drive,, as they could easily lose control, and kill someone else, let alone themself... - RIP Hannah,, so young, so tragic...

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