By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
"Al remains devastated by the accident," says defense attorney Stanley Schneider. "Metro hung him out to dry."
Kao's family members say Sheppard got off easy. Metro, they say, got off scot-free.
"Metro would like to blame it on one bad bus driver," says Edmund Kao, Jeffrey's younger brother.
Edmund Kao suffered from severe depression after his brother's death. He quit his $70,000-a-year job working as a chemical engineer for a small Houston biotech company, and spent several months in therapy.
"I needed to stop doing everything and try to get better or I was gonna die," he says.
Edmund Kao has since become obsessive about monitoring Metro's operations. During Sheppard's criminal trial, he learned that Metro buses are supposed to travel between three and five miles per hour when turning through intersections. The bus that hit his brother was traveling at twice that rate.
Edmund Kao frequently returns to the intersection where his brother was hit. Armed with a video camera, he tapes Metro buses turning south from Walker onto Smith and calculates their speeds. He says he has recorded buses blowing through red lights and reports that all the buses he has taped turned at a rate of speed between seven and 13 miles per hour.
"They drive like they're road-raging motorists in small cars," he says. "They're actually road-raging motorists in 40-ton buses, which are much harder to stop."
For two years after her husband's death, Loan-Anh Kao says, she was hounded by harassing phone calls from Metro. There was never an apology, she says. Only nagging, persistent calls from Metro's claims department. "We would like to close your husband's file," an adjuster would say. "To whom should we make this check?"
Loan-Anh Kao says a claims adjuster once even threatened to sue her for not immediately accepting Metro's compensation offer. Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton denies it.
In 1973, the state legislature passed the Texas Tort Claims Act, which limits Metro's liability to $100,000. That's the maximum amount Metro pays for causing an accident.
Loan-Anh Kao, a Harvard-trained attorney still retained by Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, has lobbied state lawmakers to increase the damage cap or at least index it for inflation and cost-of-living increases, but none has taken up the issue.
For her, it's not about the money. It's about forcing Metro to face consequences.
"Jeff was my soul mate," says his widow, who met her husband when they were both freshmen at Rice University. "To me, he was everything. To Metro, he was only a number."
Metro loves numbers.
In October 2003, the authority issued a sunny press release that began: "Proving that safety remains METRO's No. 1 priority, the transit authority has broken its annual safety record two years in a row by logging 0.89 accidents per 100,000 miles in Fiscal Year 2003."
Metro executives didn't don their party hats for long.
One week later, Jeffrey Kao was killed. Four weeks after Kao's death, a Metro bus struck again.
Just before 9 a.m. on December 3, 2003, a 60-foot-long, 22-ton double-bus knocked 47-year-old certified public accountant Carol Donnelly to the ground and crushed her beneath its left-front tire as she was midway through the intersection of Smith and St. Joseph Parkway downtown.
"The driver never saw her even after he hit her," says Dwayne Newton, an attorney who represents the Donnelly family. "She was dragged for 40 feet, until other pedestrians literally got in front and stopped the bus."
The City of Houston may bear some responsibility for Donnelly's death. The pedestrian signal at her crosswalk did not work despite 14 complaints made to the Department of Public Works and Engineering that year.
Kao and Donnelly were struck by Metro buses a half-mile apart. But the bus that killed Donnelly was operated by a First Transit driver. Since there is no damage cap for a subcontracting company in Houston, the Donnelly family wasn't forced to settle for a measly $100,000. They're seeking millions in restitution. The trial is set to begin next month.
There's another important difference between the two fatal accidents. The Metro driver who hit Kao was fired and later convicted of a felony. Samuel Rivers, on the other hand, didn't just escape indictment. He still drives buses for First Transit.
Rivers could never boast a sterling driving record. In 1992, he spent four days in jail and paid a $500 fine for driving with a suspended license. In 1997, he was charged with reckless driving. In the months leading up to Donnelly's death, Rivers was involved in at least two other crashes while operating a Metro bus, according to First Transit accident reports.
Burleson, the union president, says Metro has a reputation for axing drivers first and asking questions later. During the last couple of years, she says, Metro terminated seven drivers for causing accidents. In each case, she says, the driver filed a grievance and eventually regained his job with full back pay.
First Transit employs a kinder, gentler approach.
First Transit provided the Rodriguez family a $10 million settlement after it was revealed that Kidd lacked prior experience driving a commercial passenger bus. Kidd had lied repeatedly on his employment application.
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