A bus, a cab, a pain in the neck for the MTA

March 17, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the evening of July 13, 1991, on Waterview Road in South Baltimore, a Diamond Cab and a No. 28 MTA bus went bump in the night.

As these things go, it wasn't much to talk about: The bus driver, David Smith, slowed to cross railroad tracks near Cherry Hill Road, at which time the cabbie, Willie McCullough, driving behind him, found his accelerator was jammed. So he slammed down hard on his brake and managed to stop his taxi just as it tapped the bus.

In fact, Smith didn't even know his bus had been hit until McCullough signaled to him to stop. There was no damage to either vehicle -- not a dent, not a scratch -- so soft was their bump.

But Smith, playing by the book, asked the passengers in his bus -- about 75 of them -- "Anybody hurt?"

Two people, perhaps hurt, perhaps sensing grand financial possibilities, raised their hands. OK, Smith said, and called an MTA dispatcher to send a supervisor to the scene. Minutes later the supervisor arrived and -- for reasons still unclear to all parties -- so did four ambulances from nearby Harbor Hospital.

And now, as the ambulances pulled into view, a wondrous thing began to occur, a kind of miracle in reverse, as passengers previously well discovered they were unwell. Some clutched their necks. Some said their backs hurt. Others may have felt faint from the overwhelming smell of fresh money in the air.

In all, 22 passengers inspired by the sight of arriving ambulances discovered various aches and pains and requested medical attention.

Slight problem: Paramedics immediately checked many of them and declared, "There's no injury here," and refused to take them into their ambulances. The MTA supervisor, attempting to keep both physical and financial order, then took matters into his own hands. He hopped on the bus and drove everybody to Harbor Hospital.

"Oh, it's remarkable," said Morton Edelstein, a veteran attorney who represents various taxi owners against personal injury claims, including those from the Waterview Road accident. "A lot of people today simply believe, if one vehicle touches another, it gives them license to say they're hurt, even though everyone knows they're not.

"And they call an attorney, who knows they're not hurt but makes them an appointment to see a doctor anyway. The doctor closes his eyes. The plaintiff gets heat treatment, massage, and the next thing you know it's $2,300 in medical expenses."

This isn't exactly news to the Mass Transit Administration, or to its attorneys. One of them is Pat Perkins, with Turnbull, Mix and Farmer, which handles personal injury claims for the MTA.

"At any given time," Perkins said yesterday, "we have 700 to 1,000 open files of alleged injuries in MTA cases. There are some that are legitimate. But a lot of it is what I call the insidious waltz, from the bus to the attorney to the doctor to the courtroom, where the plaintiffs hope, somewhere along the road, to get paid for the dance."

For what it's worth, a recent survey by Forbes magazine showed that Maryland ranks 14th among all states in concentration of lawsuits stemming from car accidents to medical malpractice. (Washington, D.C., is No. 1.) The study showed that nearly two-thirds of car accidents in Maryland end up involving lawyers.

The other day, nearly three years after that bump in the night on Waterview Road, 13 of the plaintiffs finally brought their cases to court. They were represented by six different attorneys and were claiming medical bills of about $25,000.

It wasn't worth the wait.

In several cases, judgments were granted on behalf of the defendants. Other cases were dropped because the plaintiffs couldn't find any doctors to testify for them. No one collected money.

"In all fairness," says attorney Edelstein, "I'm not saying every accident claim is fraudulent. When there's legitimate injury, then VTC that person should be compensated. But we're dealing with a lot of fraud here, which is killing everybody."

Edelstein takes only momentary relief from his success in the Waterview Road case. There's no time. He's due back in court today, on a case that sounds a little too familiar: A cab and a bus bumped in stop-and-go traffic. Both drivers say it was a soft tap. There were 30 people on the bus. And eight of them are claiming they were hurt.

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