Categorized | Money, Morrisania

Struck By a Subway 14 Years Ago, Still Waiting for Justice

On March 13, 2005 Luis Rodriguez got up in the early hours of Sunday morning to catch the subway from the St. Lawrence Avenue Station near his Morissania home to travel to Pelham Bay for a fishing trip on his day off.

Luis Rodriguez sits in front of his Morissania home.

The then-35-year-old HVAC technician and father of two was standing on the edge of the subway platform at around 6 A.M. when the No. 6 train pulled into the station. He recalled being in front of the empty space between the fifth and sixth cars as the train came to a stop and then turning towards the left car.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Nearly a month later, Rodriguez said he woke up from a coma to find himself in the Intensive Care Unit at Jacobi Medial Center in the Bronx. He was told he had fallen underneath the subway cars. His right leg had been amputated below the knee, his skull had been crushed.

Now, 14 years later, Rodriguez, disabled by the accident, is still fighting for a monetary settlement from the New York City Transit Authority. His claim argues that design flaws in the train’s safety mechanisms allowed him to fall between the cars, and then failed to set off an alarm once he had been struck by the train.

Year after year, Rodriguez’s lawsuit against the New York City Transit Authority has dragged on with little end in sight. His medical bills have piled up for occupational and physical therapy, among other expenses.

As of publication time, an MTA spokesperson had yet to respond to emails requesting comment on the status of his case.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez argued that lawyers for the Transit Authority have taken every opportunity to delay. Vital evidence has been repeatedly withheld, and transportation officials have on numerous occasions failed to turn up for depositions, causing the case to be continually postponed.

This game of legal cat and mouse has now spanned nearly 15 years, and 46 adjournments. In the meantime, a loophole in a little known New York State law called Public Authorities Law § 1212(6) allows the New York City Transit Authority to pay a relatively small penalty in the form of a 3% interest per year on any settlements, in contrast to other state agencies which must pay a higher interest rate of 3% per year. This diminished rate means that the Transit Authority pays a smaller price for stringing along lawsuits than other state agencies do.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 2018 report to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, its active inventory as of December of last year was 9,215 personal injury claims, though Transit Authority records. In an internal audit report from 2019, the MTA estimated that in 2018 they had paid out $45 million for injury claims.

Rodriguez, a resident of Morrisania, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, said he has struggled to find work after his accident, and that the $902 monthly disability check he receives from the federal government is not nearly enough to help fund vigorous litigation.

The duration of Rodriguez’s lawsuit might sound uncommon, but it’s not. Two years ago, the city settled a case brought in 2004 by the family of a 12-year-old child who was struck by a bus for $21.6 million. According to Joe Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence, a group that has been involved in three separate civil suits against the MTA for issues related to handicapped access on the subway, 14 years is not an unheard of amount of time for a lawsuit against the state transportation agency.

“It’s a timeworn tactic to delay the release of records,” said Rappaport. A New York Daily News article reported in 2016 that the Transit Authority retained a staff of 48 tort attorneys, for the purpose of fighting lawsuits like Rodriguez’s. Tort law deals with cases where plaintiffs are seeking compensation or to attribute responsibility in civil court for harms caused by others.

Christopher Seleski, a New York City injury lawyer, spent a year as one of those tort attorneys for the Transit Authority before growing disillusioned with the way the agency dealt with injured passengers.

He said that the use of delaying legal tactics is not necessarily a codified doctrine among attorneys employed by the Transit Authority, but it’s definitely a strategy they employ. “As a rule of thumb for the Transit Authority or any other big corporation, it’s in their interest to take as long as possible,” he said.

The city’s willingness to prolong the legal battle,  Seleski said, is partially tied to New York State’s Public Authorities law. This law states that in the case of a verdict favoring the plaintiff, most state agencies have to pay a 9% interest rate on every year it takes to reach a settlement. However, the Transit Authority only has to pay 3%, which means there is a minimal penalty for stringing along injury lawsuits like Rodriguez’s.

“On the other end, you have a person who has been injured, but they still have a family to support,” said Seleski. “They still have credit card bills and rent to pay for. The Transit Authority knows that as time goes on, the person who is suing will likely be more willing to settle for lower and lower amounts.”

For Rodriguez, these past 14 years since the accident have been unbelievably hard.

Formerly an HVAC technician by trade, Rodriguez is now confined to a wheelchair. An HVAC tech needs to be able to go up stairs and ladders to repair heating and cooling systems. Potential employers won’t even accept his resume once they see that he’s in a wheelchair, he said.

Immediately after his accident, Rodriguez struggled with homelessness, and currently lives in an apartment subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He’s frustrated with his current situation. As an HVAC technician, he made good money, but now, forced to survive off his disability check, he’s had to watch his own family members battle homelessness. One of his sons, he said, has been living out of his car. Rodriguez wonders if, if the accident hadn’t happened, he’d be able to help him.

“It’s not about the money. They could give me all the money in the world and it won’t make up for what they stole from me,” he said, sitting outside of his apartment up the block from the No. 2 and 5 trains at the 174th Street Station.

Riding the subway now fills him with fear, he  said, and the sound of the subway at night is a constant reminder of his accident.

A deeply devout Christian, Rodriguez credits his faith with helping him keep the focus necessary to keep the lawsuit going.

Yet it hasn’t escaped his notice that wealthier, whiter plaintiffs with similar injury lawsuits against the Transit Authority seem to get settlements far quicker. He remembered reading in the New York Post about Michael Dion, a 47-year-old Marketing Executive who won a $10 million settlement from the city in 2016, following a 2010 incident where Dion was crushed by the moving subway platform at Union Square.

“You’re telling me a rich white guy like that gets paid, but I don’t?” said Rodriguez. “Why is that?”

Legal records obtained by BronxInk show that one of the reasons that Rodriguez’s case has taken so long is that city and state officials have sometimes taken years to respond to discovery requests filed by Rodriguez’s attorneys, or in some cases simply denied them.

Records show that the NYPD repeatedly refused Freedom of Information Act requests for the 911 call reporting Rodriguez’s accident, despite the fact that the caller represented the only actual witness to the accident.

Rodriguez’s lawyers were eventually forced to get a signed order from the judge to enable them to physically retrieve the records from police headquarters after 10 months of waiting.

Lawyers for the Transit Authority have also disputed how Rodriguez ended up on the subway tracks. According to Rodriguez, lawyers for the Transit Authority have also suggested that he may have been trying to kill himself that March morning.

Legal documents obtained by BronxInk show that Transit Authority lawyers requested Rodriguez’s mental health treatment records, and records of any possible suicide attempts prior to the incident.

Rodriguez scoffs at the accusation that he jumped on the tracks as part of a suicide attempt. “How does that make sense?” he said. “You think I’d kill myself then, but not in the 14 years after I lost my leg? I’ve been homeless, I lost touch with my sons. Every day is a struggle. Why would I kill myself then but not now?” 

A diabetic, Rodriguez said he fell in between the 5th and 6th cars of the No. 6 train as it stopped in the station, and tumbled “either over or under” the low-hanging safety chains.

Rodriguez fell onto the tracks, where said he was struck by the remaining cars of the subway, and then by another No. 6 train that passed through the station shortly thereafter, leaving him with an amputated leg and a crushed skull. His lawsuit also alleges that the subway’s safety alarm system failed to trigger after he was struck by the train, which led to him being repeatedly run over, based on an accident report filed by Transit Authority workers following his accident.

This report says that both trains that hit him were missing a piece called a Snow Block, which according to Rodriguez’s lawsuit, is typically knocked off of the train when the alarm system is triggered, therefore indicating the trains had hit a red signal.

Despite all of the delays, Rodriguez remains hopeful. Another court date has been set for February of next year, and Rodriguez is confident that he will eventually prevail. God is on his side, he said, and it’s nearly 15 years coming.

It’s not the money he wants, but the recognition that he was wronged, and that something was taken from him, he said.

“When I had my accident, my two sons were 7 and 9,” he said. “My family are from South America, so playing sports like soccer was a really big part of our lives. After the accident, I realized I’d never be able to play with my boys again,” Rodriguez said, his voice cracking.

“ I lost so much.”

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