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IndyGo claims take their toll: Payout for injuries, damages hit 3-year high, a big financial hit for cash-strapped system

April 10, 2006

"If it had been a bigger bus, I'd have been dead," said Williams, who was injured and his car totaled. IndyGo settled his case out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Williams filed one of 20 tort claim notices with the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. last year. Those, and 10 lawsuits, seek a total of more than $2.6 million in damages.

IndyGo attorneys estimate the company's total potential liability is more like $784,350, according to records obtained by IBJ. The self-insured IndyGo shelled out nearly $1.5 million in 2005, the highest amount since 2002, to settle some of those claims and some incurred in previous years.

While relatively small, the amount is still notable for a transit system with a $44 million budget-especially since it nearly equals a $2 million emergency loan IndyGo obtained from the city in 2004 to make up a portion of a $4 million budget deficit.

Looked at another way, the $1.5 million in personal-injury and property-damage claims last year is roughly the same as what IndyGo saved recently by cutting 25 jobs among other reductions to shore up this year's deficit.

That begs the question of whether a transit system that cannot sustain its annual needs despite millions in taxpayer subsidies-let alone pay for rosy growth plans including service in nearby Hamilton County-is doing enough to curb its risks.

Or is that level of damage claims just par for the course for a firm threading 43,000-pound buses carrying 7.8 million passengers through 9 million miles of a congested urban area each year?

"I don't know that it's so much a 'cost of doing business,'" said Dennis Hinebaugh, transit program director at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "Certainly, you've got to address the preventable" accidents.

Previous studies by the center found that new bus drivers, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to have more accidents. After that, there's typically a lull for three to five years and "then the accidents start creeping up" as drivers adopt bad habits, Hinebaugh said.

"Senior drivers definitely need a refresher course," he added.

IndyGo came to that conclusion 18 months ago, said Jan Kreuscher, chief legal counsel for IndyGo.

Its "refresher" training includes four hours of general instruction. Safety personnel may ride along with drivers who've had issues such as running too close to cars. Also, "if anyone has been sick and off work, on any kind of extended medical leave, they have retraining before they are back on the bus," Kreuscher added.

Has the effort worked? It's hard to say for sure, but damage claims incurred declined last year by $277,735 to $784,349, from $1.1 million in 2004

Not just driver issues

Still, the union representing the company's 260 drivers contends that management could make relatively simple scheduling changes that would go a long way toward reducing risks.

Too many buses are scheduled to arrive and depart downtown transfer points at the same time, often making it difficult for passengers to get off one bus and grab another, according to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1070.

When that happens, people run off one bus and onto another. Drivers held accountable for meeting on-time guidelines may wind up hurrying-increasing the chance a rider is going to lose balance or jump in front of a bus. Changing the schedule to stagger stops would give riders more time to transfer.

"It doesn't cost anything other than a little time and patience," said Clifford Brown, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1070.

The union also said the company isn't supportive of drivers who are involved in mishaps. IndyGo is too quick to charge them with a reportable accident even though "probably 90 percent of the people who are claiming injuries are [doing so] just to sue."

In Kreuscher's three years on the job, none of the cases have gone all the way to a court decision, but many have wound up in mediation.

"Usually these are not big settlements," she said, estimating they start at about $500. On the upper end, "I've not hit $200,000."

Some of the most serious incidents are those involving elderly riders who fall on the bus. One Indianapolis man filed a claim in March 2005 alleging that the driver took off before he could find a seat, throwing him down and injuring his back, ankle, knee and leg and damaging his pacemaker.

"These are not necessarily frivolous cases," Kreuscher said. "They may be wrong. We may be wrong. The facts are sometimes difficult to determine."

Some of the more questionable cases are shot down before an attorney can file a tort claim. A couple of months ago, a woman ran up to a bus in a shopping mall parking lot, accusing the driver of striking her child with the bus.

"It turned out that the mall had a security camera in its parking lot. When they went in the mall and looked at the tape, it was obvious it was a scam," Kreuscher said.

But there's usually no denying a busvehicle collision, and there were at least 95 of those in 2005, according to IndyGo records. These generally are handled without tort claims or lawsuits.

Then there are the more serious incidents, such as the case of Brookville, Ind., resident Sarah Alig.

On a sunny morning in January 2005, Alig was walking across Delaware Street when an eastbound IndyGo bus on Maryland Street turned left and struck her in the crosswalk. The driver told police he didn't see the pedestrian; they cited him for failure to yield the right of way.

Alig was taken to Methodist Hospital with injuries to the back, face and neck.

Neither she nor her attorney will elaborate, but a tort claim filed with IndyGo last March indicated that they were "seeking damages in an amount in excess of $300,000" for "serious personal injury."

Indianapolis attorney Timothy Rowe said he sees a common thread: drivers not spending enough time looking out for the needs of passengers.

The bus line could have avoided a claim he brought by a wheelchair-bound passenger who fell off a ramp if the driver had taken more time to observe his progress. Even being more careful about taking off before a passenger is seated could go a long way, Rowe said.

Will cameras shoot down claims?

Soon there will be less doubt as to who is at fault.

Earlier this year, IndyGo began installing cameras aboard its buses as part of a $1.8 million federal grant. It hopes to have the entire fleet equipped this summer. "Those cameras should have an impact on claims, based on what's happened with other [bus] companies and our own experiences where, 'By gosh, I wish we could have had a camera,'" Kreuscher said.

Drivers have often pointed out that they have a difficult job.

"You're driving a 12-foot-wide, 55-foot-long vehicle on city streets. You have so many blind spots," Clifford said.
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