When KC buses hit people and cars, taxpayers foot the bill and victims can’t speak up

Oralee Watkins was walking across Bannister Road on an unusually warm December night in 2013 when a Kansas City bus hit her, rolling her across the asphalt.

Alonzo Williams suddenly fell from his wheelchair when the bus he was riding in turned left and was struck head on by another vehicle at Hardesty Avenue and Ninth Street in August 2015.

And Daniel Matthewson slipped and fell inside of a bus walkway as he headed toward a seat on a rainy April day last year near the Paseo and 67th Street.

Watkins, Williams and Matthewson were just three of the nearly 500 people in the last five years who received settlements from Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

The KCATA paid nearly $3.3 million in third party liability settlements for bodily injuries or property damage from 2012 to 2017, according to claims data. Last year saw the highest number of incidents and settlements in that period.

But even as those numbers go up, little is known about the incidents because the city, which handles the settlements, won’t discuss them. And the recipients are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements barring them from talking about the incidents when they accept settlement money.

The Star obtained videos of three incidents, which were some of the highest payouts in 2017, through an open records request. From the videos, Watkins’ incident appeared to be the worst, as she seemingly shows up out of nowhere in the video and is struck by the bus. She received $100,000. A lawsuit filed before the settlement said her medical expenses — for organ damage and broken bones — exceeded $200,000.

Williams, after falling out of his wheelchair, laid on the bus floor for nearly 20 minutes until EMTs could remove him. He received $60,000.

Mathewson got up quickly after falling and then sat down, so it is unclear how injured he was based on video of the incident. He received $35,000.

The Star tried to contact all three but was unsuccessful. Non-disclosure agreements would have kept them from discussing specifics anyway.

It’s difficult to assess the extent of injuries from those videos, but one thing is clear: Mishaps and accidents involving Kansas City Area Transportation Authority buses cost taxpayers. The KCATA is not a city department, but it is largely taxpayer funded and the city of Kansas City negotiates settlements on its behalf.

About 12 percent of KCATA’s revenue comes from bus fares. The rest of its $94 million budget is taxpayer funded, mostly with local sales tax.

Douglas McMillan, a city attorney, said confidentiality agreements are not unusual in settlements the city makes.

“Confidentiality or non-disclosures are routine provisions in most every settlement agreement I’ve seen since practicing law over the last 34 years,” McMillan said.

But Des Moines, Denver, St. Louis and Oklahoma City do not require non-disclosure agreements for public transit cases as a standard practice, representatives of those cities said. Several said that's because those settlements — and the circumstances surrounding them — are a matter of public record.

“There’s no question it stops the free flow of information,” said Mark Johnson, a Kansas City attorney with Dentons law firm who specializes in First Amendment and employment issues.

“You don’t have the information about what the accident experience is with this government entity, whether drivers are driving safely or if buses aren’t maintained properly and causing accidents. There is information society would like to know, but they just don’t have access to it.”

The Star obtained the names of claimants, amounts settled and dates settled for cases between 2012 and 2017 through an open records request.

However, KCATA did not provide copies of actual settlements from the incidents. The Star was able to piece together some of the narratives based on bus surveillance footage it requested.

“Typically in the resolution of any matter, there is some non-disclosure language, mainly to protect the privacy of the individuals that may be involved,” said Patrick Hurley, an attorney with KCATA. “But second, what one claim is worth may be different than what another claim is worth and that process (outside of court) is much more efficient."

Most companies or organizations don’t want the public to know how much they are settling cases for because it “sets an amount that people can go after,” said Johnson, the First Amendment attorney.

“Confidentiality clauses are, in essence, voluntary waivers of free speech rights," Johnson said. "Parties enter into a voluntary agreement to give up the right to talk about the settlement.”

But the real question, Johnson said, is whether these clauses are actually enforceable, particularly with taxpayer-funded agencies.

“(Claimants) are not interested in upsetting the apple cart. They got the money and don’t want to have to give it back,” Johnson said.

Payouts most commonly come from injuries — among people on the bus, people in other vehicles or pedestrians — and property damage, KCATA data show. It’s uncommon for transit bus crashes to turn deadly.

RideKC had its first fatality incident in five years when a bus drove west on 25th Street last month, crashing into the driver’s side of a car going south on Charlotte. The event led to the death of a 56-year-old Independence man, and injured a woman and 2-year-old child who were also in the car. Eleven people on the bus were taken to the hospital.

It’s not yet clear who was at fault, although the car had a stop sign at the intersection and the bus did not.

Other vehicles on the road — not the buses — are usually responsible for accidents, according to studies by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

The number of payouts by KCATA fluctuates each year, but the number of claims settled hit a five-year high in 2017, with 184 settlements, according to claims data provided by KCATA.

Even cases for smaller amounts can take years to settle. Oftentimes, people choose to settle before ever filing a lawsuit.

“There are claims that get resolved without any dollar amount, there are claims that the claimant no longer want to pursue… bogus (claims) or when there’s a collision between a bus and another vehicle, the person may realize they’re actually responsible,” Hurley said.

For transit agencies, settlements are part of the cost of doing business. KCATA has insurance coverage "to handle most of our situations involving an accident, paid from KCATA general fund," Hurley said.

But the agencies also have to watch for fraudulent claims.

“There is a tremendous amount of abuse," said Stephen Berry, deputy director of Transit Safety, Security and Workforce Development at the Center for Urban Transportation Research. "The amount of cases transit agencies have may be inflated or be high unfortunately due to fraudulent claims from passengers on the bus or staged accidents on the streets of busy roadways.

“It’s important the transit industry grow and help to protect themselves on fraudulent claims.”

One way is through the use of cameras, which also improve safety for drivers and riders. KCATA buses have surveillance video, often from multiple cameras, and it also records bus routes and speeds at any given time.

KCATA also has taken several measures to improve safety in the last few years, said Sam Desue, KCATA deputy CEO.

The system analyzed its slip, trip and fall incidents, for example, and found that it could reduce them with different upholstery and materials inside the bus.

Bus drivers train on two simulators that can put various scenarios on screens.

"We can dial up and have a dog run out or sprint out and just watch (a driver's) reaction as they go through that process," Desue said.

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