MA: T Seeks to Cap Injury Lawsuit Awards at $100G

April 08--Plaintiffs suing the MBTA after getting injured in bus and trolley crashes, slips and falls, escalator mishaps and other accidents could soon see their damage awards capped at $100,000 if a bill before the state Legislature is passed.

The T is seeking to limit personal injury awards to the same $100,000 cap imposed on similar judgements against all other state agencies, cities and towns — a move the cash-strapped transit agency says will save it an estimated $4 million a year.

"We are singled out. There is an exemption for serious bodily injury claims for the T only," said Jonathan Feltner, chief trial counsel for the MBTA, noting the proposed tort reform would make the T's liability "the same as someone suing the city of Boston for getting hit by one of its police cruisers ... or (suing) the state highway department for getting struck by a snowplow."

The initiative, part of the Patrick administration's transportation "mini reform" act that will go before the joint Transportation Committee for a hearing tomorrow, struck 22-year-old Samantha Mattei of Salem as "really unfair."

In 2009, Mattei suffered a broken back, a concussion, nerve damage and other injuries when she flew into a pole inside a Green Line trolley after its operator, Aiden Quinn, rammed another trolley near Government Center while texting his girlfriend.

The Merrimack College chemistry major now must walk with a cane and says she suffers frequent seizures, chronic neck pain, light sensitivity and fainting spells that have caused her to miss months of college and to rely on her parents and others drive her places.

"It's ridiculous," Samantha's father, Fred Mattei, 63, said of the cap. "I've seen her pain and suffering. No amount of money will make her whole again."

Tim Roche, a Boston personal injury attorney who has represented dozens of clients who have sued the MBTA, said an "artificial limit" will arbitrarily punish those who suffer severe injuries.

"Let's say a trolley runs over 10 brain surgeons on Commonwealth Avenue. Ten thousand dollars to those families would be grossly unfair," he said, adding, "It's not like Massachusetts has runaway jury verdicts. It's extremely difficult to get money from Massachusetts juries."

The bill also calls for stiffening fines for fare evasion and shifting $51 million in motor vehicle inspection fees to help plug the T's $160 million deficit.

richard.weir@bostonherald.com

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