Car on Rt. 53 crushed by uprooted tree; VDOT billed driver for removing it

Car on Rt. 53 crushed by uprooted tree; VDOT billed driver for removing it

By Carlos Santos

Charles Westrater and his wife, Carolyn, were driving east on Rt. 53 when a huge pine tree toppled on to their car on March 7, stopping it in its tracks.  The tree, possibly uprooted by high winds, appeared to have struck the hood first and then ended up on the roof.

The couple, who miraculously sustained only minor injuries, were shocked by the sound of the tree as it crumpled their 2014 Toyota Avalon and set off the air bags. Both were trapped in the car until bystanders and later, Albemarle County responders, helped them out.

They got another shock on March 15 when the Virginia Department of Transportation sent them a bill for $2,440.36 for the labor and equipment used to clear the pine tree off their car and off the road. The tree, about 16 inches in diameter, blocked both lanes of the road just east of the curves near Hillridge Drive.

“It was a windy day and it was ready to come down. We could have been killed,” said Carolyn Westrater, who said a branch came through the windshield and cut her face.

“The tree was just ready to go,” said Charles Westrater, 80, and a retired worker for the federal government. “It all happened in a split second. I was going about 30 miles an hour when the tree hit the car and we suddenly stopped. There were no skid marks.” The couple were on their way home to Lake Monticello from Charlottesville.

“The first thing my wife said to me was ‘at least we’re alive.’ ”

The couple are baffled about the bill from VDOT. “Isn’t that incredible,” said Carolyn Westrater, 79.

 In a letter to the couple, Fran Grimm, a financial services specialist with VDOT Culpeper District Accounting, wrote that “we were advised” about the accident and “It is VDOT’s responsibility to collect” for the response to the incident. They asked the Westraters to pay the bill or to have their insurance company pay.

How the couple, who were simply driving on a public road, could be charged for the removal of a tree that fell on their vehicle, is unclear to the couple. “It’s absolutely unfair,” said Charles Westrater.

After an inquiry from the Fluvanna Review, the VDOT Culpeper office agreed. “We would like it rescinded which is why we sent (the bill)  on to the state Attorney General’s office,” said Sharon Ketcham, a spokeswoman for VDOT. She said the Attorney General’s office was the only state agency that could quash the bill. “It has to go through those channels.” 

“That was a bizarre confluence of events,” she said, adding, “we would have had to remove the tree anyway.”

After the review, the Attorney General’s office will contact the Westraters with the verdict.

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