Every now and then, accidents involving the MTA make their ways into the news. Last week, we heard the horrific tale of a man crushed by the platform extenders at Union Square, and over the weekend, a disabled man lost control of his wheelchair and ended up in the tracks. Earlier this year, the MTA lost a $7 million judgment in a case in which the jury found a bus driver at fault in an collision with another vehicle. Eventually, the legal bills mount up.
In his column in the Daily News yesterday, Pete Donohue highlights the MTA’s liability gap. He found that, in many cases, the authority is losing to plaintiffs who were at fault. The piece leads with the story of one Dustin Dibble who fell onto the tracks while “drunk as a skunk,” lost his leg to a train car and won a $2.3 million judgment against the MTA. While plaintiff’s attorneys who are willing to take on these cases may carry some of the blame, Donohue highlights how open-ended liability costs the cash-strapped authority. He writes:
There’s no shortage of culprits behind the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s constant cash crisis, which translates into fare hikes, service cuts and dirtier stations for riders. And somewhere on that list are boneheads who have no one but themselves to blame for being in the path of a subway train – as well as their opportunistic lawyers.
The state Legislature also deserves mention. The MTA has asked for a law clearly stating the obvious: Someone on the tracks because of their own recklessness shouldn’t be able to sue when a motorman doesn’t manage to stop a 400-ton train in time. The Legislature has failed to act. So, the lawsuits keep coming.
In one recent case, a 30-year-old man riding a bicycle on a subway platform crashed into a column and careened to the tracks, where he was struck. In another, a vandal filed a lawsuit after getting hit in a tunnel; he was trespassing to spray-paint graffiti. While the MTA wins a majority of such cases, it can take years of motions and appeals, all of which take money and effort better spent elsewhere. When it loses, the payouts are big – millions of dollars because of the severe nature of injuries.
Donohue sums up the morality behind Dibble’s case. The now-26-year-old deserves “sympathy – but not a seven-figure payday at riders’ expense,” and it sounds as though the state courts agree. The Appellate Division tossed out the $2.3 million award earlier this summer, calling it “utterly irrational.” The law firm of Smiley and Smiley plans to appeal, and the MTA’s legal bills will mount.
But how big of a problem is it? Earlier this year, the MTA released some statistics concerning its legal cases. In 2009, those injured filed 2720 claims against Transit, and only 216 of those went to trial. The agency won 65 percent of those trials, and since 2005, the agency has a similar percentage of the 870 cases to go to trial. Still, NYC Transit paid out $244.8 million in injury claims from 2005-2009 or close to $50 million annually. The bills mount up.
Tort law and personal injury law certainly has its place underground, and riders need protection from the MTA’s potential negligence. But at some point, straphangers have to take personal responsibility. While a jury may find a graffiti artists who wandered into the tracks to tag an abandoned tunnel contributorily negligent, the MTA can’t operate efficiently if it expects to find people illegally in its tunnels. The state should indeed grant the authority this protection. After all, more riders would benefit from the cost savings generated by looser liability standards than would suffer the consequences of their careless acts.