Lawsuits After Collision Could Cost Muni Millions

Saturday afternoon incident sent dozens to hospital

The collision between two Muni light rail trains in San Francisco Saturday is a big topic of discussion in cafes and bars.

"People are talking about how Muni is probably going to raise the fares again because of the upcoming lawsuits from the crash," Scott Aguiar, a cafe manager in the area said.

The collision injured 47 people.  If it turns out that Muni is liable for the accident, the transit agency could have a significant legal challenge on its hands.

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting the driver is claiming he blacked out prior to the crash.

NBC Bay Area has learned some of the injured passengers have already contacted lawyers.

Douglas saeltzer is an attorney who has multi-million dollar cases now pending against Muni for other reasons. He said cameras on board the light rail train should clearly show if the operator was at fault.

He also said that if a court finds that the city was liable for the West Portal crash, it could cost the transit agency tens of millions of dollars.

"If one or two of the victims have severe injuries that prevent them from ever working again or from taking care of their children," Saeltzer said, "then one case alone could be $5 or $10 million."

Ironically, just last week, the Municipal Transit Agency board decided to start the process of buying accident insurance after it paid $21 million to the family of a four 4-old-girl who was killed in a Muni accident in 2003.

But as it stands, the agency still has not purchased that insurance and legal claims are still paid out of Muni's budget.

Saeltzer said there are circumstances that would help Muni avoid liability in this case. If the train operator suffered some kind of medical emergency, the agency would not be liable but if the operator simply made a mistake, they'd have to pay.

"Muni owns the actions of its employees who are on the job," Saeltzer sais, "and if the operator made a mistake then Muni is responsible for its employee."

Last fiscal year, the MTA paid out nearly $20 million in legal claims and the agency is currently dealing with a $130 million budget shortfall.

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