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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—City officials were well aware that Robert Rawls had a tendancy to get into car crashes while driving various city-owned sport utility vehicles he was given to drive at taxpayer expense.
In fact, the city recieved notices of claims from two victims who were struck by Rawls in two different incidents in the past five years, not counting the families of the three children he struck on May 6.
These documents, obtained by New Brunswick Today through a public records request, call into question statements made by city officials in the aftermath of Rawls’ most controversial crash, where he seriously injured three children crossing Livingston Avenue in a crosswalk on their way home from school.
“Our review of Director Rawls’s driving history that we are aware of has led us up to this point to believe that many or most of the accidents or infractions took place decades ago,” said Mayor James Cahill’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Bradshaw, after the crash.
Bradshaw did not respond to questions about the claim notices, which refer to crashes involving Rawls that occurred as recently as February 2009 and June 2013.
The city has not yet been able to provide copies of lawsuits and notices of tort claims filed before 2008.
Rawls was not charged in the 2004 incident, but sources told New Brunswick Today that a civil case yielded a settlement for the victims, one of whom had her pelvis broken in three places.
Rawls was named Fire Director two years later, and now earns a $155,000 annual salary. Until recently, he was one of about two dozen city employees who enjoyed the use of a “take-home” city vehicle.
Since becoming Director, Rawls has been in at least twelve crashes, many involving city vehicles. But the administration of Mayor Cahill apparently turned a blind eye, only revoking his driving priveleges after the high-profile crash that occurred May 6.
That crash came just six weeks after another one involving Rawls’ city-owned Chevrolet Tahoe, and on the heels of ten additional crashes in the seven years prior. At least two of those resulted in claims against the city.
Last August, city officials received notice that one of Rawls’ alleged victims was reserving her right to sue the city after the Director crashed into her car, injuring her as she pulled out of the parking lot at the AMC Loews movie theatre in New Brunswick on June 9, 2013.
“The lane was clear,” said Caitlin Oduyela who said Rawls changed lanes and struck her vehicle.
“[Rawls] didn’t look. He just kind of like smashed into us.”
Oduyela told New Brunswick Today she still needs to get a surgery done on her shoulder as a result of the crash, and that the filing of a formal lawsuit was delayed because she is still going “back and forth” with her insurance company.
Oduyela sufferred injuries to her shoulder and upper back according to the notice of claim filed by her attorney, Norberto Garcia.
Garcia told New Brunswick Today that the police officer who wrote up a report on the crash put the blame entirely on Rawls for the crash, and did not say that Rawls was responding to an emergency.
Still, he said a legal doctrine called “sovereign immunity,” which protects government workers driving government vehicles, makes these kinds of lawsuits among the toughest to win.
Until this year, only one of Rawls’ crashes resulted in the Director being found guilty of violating the law. After a March 2008 crash, Rawls pleaded guilty to “unsafe operation of a motor vehicle.”
It was one of three crashes for the Fire Director that year, a staggering number that he matched the following year.
In 2009, Rawls was involved in another three crashes, including one that led another citizen to file a notice of tort claim against the city.
“The New Brunswick Fire Dept. vehicle started to make a left and collided into me as I was driving straight,” reads the notice filed with the Middlesex County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (MCMJIF), which provides coverage for the city.
“There was no warning and I could not avoid the left front of the Dodge Durango from hitting the side of my car,” wrote the claimant whose name was redacted from public records.
Rawls also put in a claim of his own with MCMJIF following the February 2009 crash, a worker’s compensation claim.
“The City’s policy is that when driving incidents involving City vehicles occur, our administrations review them on an individual basis. This has been the case with Director Rawls,” said Bradshaw.
According to reliable sources, Rawls had been in a crash just ten days earlier, and got into another one that September.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.