Updated: 5:00 p.m.
SEPTA’s fleet of transit vehicles contains about 1,400 buses, hundreds of rail cars for the subway lines and Regional Rail and still more trolleys. Last year, passengers took a total of 330 million trips on all those vehicles.
Add up all the people and all the rides and you get a lot of lawsuits, too. Probably more than you would expect.
So far this year, 305 lawsuits have been filed against the transit agency, according to court records. There have been more lawsuits against SEPTA than days this year (278). That was also the case in 2014, when 408 lawsuits were filed. And SEPTA general counsel Gino Benedetti says the number is actually even higher than those in the court system. He says in the 2014-15 fiscal year SEPTA was sued about 1,400 times.
Why does SEPTA get sued so often? Motor accidents, mainly. On Monday, for instance, a car struck a trolley bus, leaving the driver of the car dead and 20 people injured, including 19 on the bus. Lawsuits from this summer ranged from routine, minor accidents to a time a when a man claimed a bus driver closed the door on his foot, causing him to be dragged for several yards.
When accidents happen, multiple passengers will likely file injury claims or lawsuits against the transit authority. SEPTA received 3,400 claims in 2014-15, Benedetti said, a number that has been decreasing in recent years. Claims from any individual accident are capped at a maximum of $1 million for the whole accident and $250,000 for any one person. Some claims are also faulty, but SEPTA must look through all of them. Most of the lawsuits are settled or go to arbitration.
These legal disputes cost SEPTA about $43 million in 2014. That’s a total of about 3 percent of its overall $1.6 billion budget. It’s less than the amount spent from 2010-2012, when the total ranged from $46 million to $58 million, but more than the $34 million spent in 2006 and 2007.
It’s apparently a lucrative industry. Certain lawyers specialize in helping people file lawsuits or claims against SEPTA. There’s even a domain septainjurylawyers.com.
The good news for SEPTA is that it could be worse. In 2011, a new law called the Fair Share Act ensured that SEPTA wouldn’t be on the hook for large payouts unless it was ruled liable to a much larger extent. Now, if a lawsuit goes to trial, the jury or judge must decide that SEPTA is responsible for at least 60 percent of an accident. In the past, it only had to be 1 percent.
“It’s really a different world with the Fair Share Act,” Benedetti said, “and we have a lot more resources that we can use to defend and beat these claims.”
People who seek claims either call or mail SEPTA directly or have their lawyer do it. They generally ask for a certain amount. A staff led by Frank Conerly sifts through all of them. If the amount is less or equal to what SEPTA would probably have to pay in court, they’ll settle it. If the amount is more than SEPTA thinks it would have to pay or if SEPTA believes it is not in the wrong, it will deny the request, and the claimant may consider filing a lawsuit. Sometimes SEPTA believes claims to be faulty and turns the cases over to the Philly District Attorney’s office.
Though lawsuits and claims are still challenging and costly, they’re nothing like they used to be for SEPTA. In the 1980s, SEPTA’s legal problems severely impacted its financial health. Back then, casualty claims took up 11 percent of the transit authority’s overall budget, about $64 million. When you account for inflation that amount would be about $116 million today. SEPTA’s general counsel at the time, James Kilcur, once said SEPTA would have probably have gone out of business if not for the mandated $1 million cap for accidents.
Lawsuits were also filed more regularly. According to court records, at least 405 lawsuits were filed against SEPTA in the month of January 1988 alone. Remember, court records show the year 2014 featured 408 lawsuits for the entire year.
Back then, SEPTA was bogged down by a combination of too many accidents and too many faulty claims. People saw SEPTA as an easy target. The director of SEPTA’s claims department at the time, James J. Rooney, summed up the situation to the Inquirer:
“I’ve never seen so many herniated discs, bulging discs or other disorders in my life. An accident here is akin to bank night back in the Depression.”