By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
"My mom felt very pressured by them," Larsen says. "They made me feel like I did something wrong."
Larsen later retained attorney Scott Humphries, a personal friend, to represent her. In a letter dated August 22, 2000, Humphries chastised Metro's former senior liability claims adjuster Mary Frances Parker, writing, "I sincerely hope that you did not invade Ms. Larsen's privacy, while she was injured and in bed, to ask for a release for Metro not two weeks after Metro ran over her with a bus."
This letter is contained in Metro's investigation file on Larsen. The file is enormous. It comprises several thousand pages and fills a large cardboard box.
Throughout the file, Humphries accuses Metro of dragging its feet in settling the claim. Three years after the accident, Metro still hadn't paid Larsen a penny.
Metro initially offered to compensate Larsen just $13,000, less than half the medical expenses she had incurred. Humphries demanded $100,000, to cover therapy and future medical expenses.
"If you break a finger it's zero dollars, if you die it's $100,000," Larsen says a Metro claims adjuster once told her attorney. "Your client is somewhere in the middle."
On April 2, 2003, three weeks before the case went to trial, Metro senior attorney Frazier sent an 800-word internal e-mail to Kriner, Mitchell, Salazar and Metro attorneys Jakki Hansen and Paula Alexander, which casts a bright light on Metro's priorities and how it regards its victims.
Frazier admits that Metro was completely at fault:
"Liability is undisputed, our bus hit Ms. Larsen when she was well into the crosswalk and it should have yielded to the pedestrian...In this case Ms. Larsen was definitely physically injured by the bus...The larger part of her injuries are going to be psychological."
Frazier indicates Metro's penchant for exploiting less-dedicated attorneys:
"...Our exposure in this case exceeds our cap by a large degree. The Plaintiff's attorney is generally more skilled than most of the other attorney's [sic] we see. His wife is a very good friend of the Plaintiff (listed as emergency contact) so his motivation is not just pecuniary."
Frazier frets about how going to trial could sully Metro's public image:
"In my opinion, it's possible that she could get an award from the jury of up to $200,000 (includes medicals, lost wages, past and future pain and suffering). Ms. Larsen will present physically well to the jury and is very smart...At this time there would be very negative political ramifications to a substantial verdict..."
And, finally, Frazier advises settling before trial and suggests a dollar amount:
"I recommend that reserves be increased to $90,000 and that another offer be extended to the Plaintiff's attorney. I believe that he will accept an offer of between $80,000 to $90,000."
Metro offered $75,000. By this time, Larsen was emotionally spent and reluctant to relive the accident at trial. She wanted to move on with her life. So she accepted the offer.
And that's how Metro put a young woman through hell, and saved itself a few grand in the process.
Black rings encircle David Avila's caramel-colored eyes. The baby-faced 25-year-old speaks in a whisper, as though sapped of all energy. His freckled hands keep brushing across his eyes and face. He isn't crying. There are no tears left in him.
Avila sits forward in a back booth at a Whataburger located on Main Street just outside the 610 Loop. His older brother and sister are at a nearby table. Their impromptu, weeklong trip in Houston is over. In a few minutes they will caravan back to Chicago.
Avila and his siblings got a late-night phone call that their mother was hit by a bus a couple of blocks from her home. They packed their bags and left early the next morning. By the time they arrived, it was too late.
Like so many other Metro victims, 43-year-old Domitila Leon-Herrera was in the crosswalk, with the "Walk" sign, and was more than halfway through the intersection when a turning bus struck her.
Driver Romain Alexandre was accelerating at more than 30 miles per hour. The bus's left front corner clipped Leon-Herrera, whose head cracked a spiderweb into the driver's-side windshield.
The bus trapped her beneath its rear left wheels, crushed her legs at mid-thigh and dragged her 20 feet.
She spent several minutes lying in the street, clutching her limbs and crying for help.
The next day doctors amputated her legs. She died hours later.
At the wake Avila couldn't believe his once-attractive, boisterous mother, who every night would cook enough to feed an army, was the person inside that box.
Her face was flattened, her legs "wrapped like meat in a wrapper" and separated from the rest of her body.
"I know we born, we grow up and we die," Avila says, "but to die like thisÉ"
Just six months earlier Avila and his wife had buried their three-month-old daughter, who died from sudden infant death syndrome.
"First my daughter, then my mother," he says.
The day after the January 20, 2006, accident, Metro went into full-blown damage-control mode. Smalley, a senior manager, led a press conference in which he defended Metro's safety record by claiming that Metro drivers are involved in 0.68 accidents per 100,000 miles. This statistic includes neither accidents involving First Transit drivers nor less-serious crashes that Metro classifies as "incidents."
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