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In today's world of Rambo litigation, in which lawyers fight to the death over every pretrial motion and discovery request, it's not often when a relatively minor traffic accident results in a lightning-quick six-figure settlement.
But the company that runs Metro's privatized bus routes moved with alarming alacrity recently to pay $700,000 to a woman whose leg had been injured when a slow-moving bus rolled over it.
"We never filed a lawsuit -- they called us up almost right away and said, 'Don't file anything, let's go to mediation,' " says attorney Marty Weber, who represented the injured woman. "We took that to mean that there was stuff they didn't want us to discover in the discovery process. I don't know what, but you could speculate about stuff like accident rates and training procedures and so forth."
Ryder/ATE Inc., a subsidiary of the $5 billion Cincinnati-based company known best for truck rentals, has been operating bus service for Metro on 21 routes on the northwest side of town since January 1997. Unless passengers are exceptionally sharp-eyed and know what to look for, they would be unable to distinguish which buses are Ryder's and which are Metro's.
Reports compiled by Metro show that Ryder's buses have almost twice as many accidents per 100,000 miles driven, almost twice as many complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings, and significantly worse on-time performance when compared with Metro's regular fleet.
Metro's unions have consistently criticized the five-year, $76.6 million contract and claim that Ryder drivers are insufficiently trained and supervised. "Ryder's been a dismal failure, even though Metro won't admit it," says John Bland, a representative of Transport Workers Union of America Local 260.
Of course, it's impossible to determine whether Ryder officials moved so quickly to settle Weber's suit because they preferred to keep a lid on their operations or because they sensed they would eventually lose at trial. The company's attorney, Mark Flanagan, of Houston, refused to comment on the case.
In some ways, Ryder would have been in trouble at trial. The plaintiff was a lawyer's dream: a soft-spoken 81-year-old retiree who's a Sunday School teacher and active in her church choir. On the other hand, in the cold, calculating world of personal-injury law, defendants have been known to take advantage of the actuary tables of an elderly client, painstakingly drawing out the litigation until the plaintiff's death makes the suit moot.
Whatever the case, it was less than five months from the time Bertha Schroeder was injured until Ryder agreed to pay the impressive amount.
Schroeder was carrying groceries and trying to board a bus near the intersection of Gessner and Hammerly in May when she stumbled backward, according to her story and that of an eyewitness.
The bus driver, 31-year-old Pamela Sanchez, had initially tried to pull the bus closer to the curb before Schroeder got on, fellow passenger and eyewitness Arit Ekpro told lawyers.
"[Schroeder] fell and then the bus driver pulled up on the curb some more," Ekpro said in a transcript of the interview she gave to Schroeder's lawyers. "And Bertha started screaming, 'My leg, my leg, you ran over my leg!' The bus driver got off the bus and looked at her leg, and then got back on the bus and then pulled off her leg."
In her handwritten statement to Ryder investigators (no police report was filed), Sanchez said this: "I stopped to pick up Mrs. Bertha and she maid it to the second step. When she fell backward I put the bus in park and got off to see about her. She was under the bus. That's wend I saw her legs was hurt and I moved the bus up on the curve to get her from under there and I went to call for help."
Schroeder was taken to Hermann Hospital. Local TV celebrity Dr. Red Duke was working the ER that day and treated her injuries, which included skin scraped away down to the bone. Schroeder spent 64 days in two hospitals and underwent seven surgeries, but no bones were broken and permanent damage will not be major.
In terms of injuries -- and at a time when Harris County jurors have become increasingly skeptical of personal-injury plaintiffs -- a lot of people have gone to the courthouse with more medical problems and come away with less money.
In the mediation, Weber presented a brief version of the case he would put before a jury and asked for $2 million. Ryder opened with a $250,000 offer, and the two sides quickly came to terms.
If Schroeder had been hit by a regular Metro bus, state law would have prevented her from being awarded anything more than $100,000. In Dallas, where Ryder also subcontracts some bus routes, that $100,000 cap also applies to the private company.
In Houston, there is no such damage cap for a subcontracting company, perhaps because the state law creating Metro was passed a few years before the law creating Dallas's DART system, and no one had thought about such issues.
In any case, it's a situation that Ryder might be seeking to change: Weber says that during his initial research into Ryder, he heard the company was planning a lobbying effort to bring its Houston operations under the damage cap.
Metro board chairman Robert Miller says he is unaware of any such effort, and Metro's attorneys say that such a change would have to go through the state Legislature. (Miller, by the way, says Ryder's overall performance has improved since start-up "glitches" have been addressed.)
The transportation authority hasn't taken any official position on whether it would support such legislation, but plaintiffs' attorneys would no doubt oppose the move.
"It just offends me that a multibillion-dollar company would come into Houston and claim that they don't have to purchase insurance like every other company," says Weber.
His law partner John Davis is more melodramatic. "They get a license to maim and kill and want to cap their exposure at $100,000," he says. "That doesn't seem fair or right to me."
E-mail Richard Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.