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Mother of blind man killed in train accident wins $17 million

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By: Correy Stephenson Published: August 11, 2011

The mother of a blind man who was killed after falling into a gap he mistook for a train doorway was recently awarded $17 million by a California jury.Cameron Cuthbertson was attempting to board a train on Los Angeles’ blue line when he mistook the gap between two cars for an entryway to the train and fell to the tracks. Although he attempted to climb back onto the platform, the train began to move, crushing him.

Transit systems have been aware of the hazards posed by gaps between train cars for over 100 years, said Cuthbertson’s attorney Brian Panish, an attorney at Panish | Shea | Ravipudi LLP in Los Angeles.

“There is a long history of having guards or barriers between cars that are coupled together to protect blind or visually impaired people,” he said.

Protective barriers between the cars were installed on all of the train’s other lines, Panish noted. But the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority only installed barriers on the blue line
after Cuthbertson’s death. James Reiss, a partner at Reiss & Johnson in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who represented the defendant, did not return a call requesting comment. But in a statement, the Transit Authority said that Cuthbertson’s “accidental death” was “a great tragedy.”

“However, Metro disagrees with the jury verdict and will appeal. Metro maintains it was not negligent or otherwise responsible for Mr. Cuthbertson’s death, and there are strong grounds for appeal. The accidental death of Mr. Cuthbertson, a blind man with learning disabilities, who walked off the platform … is the only fatal incident involving a sight impaired passenger on any Metro Rail line in two decades of operation.”

‘Turned his body in half twice’

Forty-eight year old Cuthbertson, a lay minister, was on his way to a church in Long Beach when he tried to board the blue line in Compton on Jan. 28, 2009. Cuthbertson developed glaucoma in his 20s and was legally blind. Mistaking the gap between the second and third cars for a doorway, Cuthbertson stepped from the platform and fell onto the tracks. Cuthberton would have been able to climb back up to the platform, Panish asserted, if the train conductor had waited the required 20 seconds at the station. Instead, she pulled away early, crushing and severing Cuthbertson’s body in the process. “After falling down six feet, he had jumped back up and was halfway out,” Panish said. But when the conductor took off early, “it basically turned his body in half twice.”

The entire horrific accident was captured on several videotapes and was played for the jury, Panish said. L.A.’s blue line opened 12 days before the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1990, Panish said, and the defense took the position that the line was grandfathered in under the law.

“They said the ADA didn’t apply to them and that 96 million passengers had ridden this line since it opened and there hadn’t been any other deaths,” he said. The defense also tried to place some of the blame on Cuthbertson himself, Panish added, by arguing that he wasn’t properly using his cane. To help explain the dangers of the transit system to individuals with visual impairments and to establish that Cuthbertson “did everything right,” Panish presented expert testimony from a mobility and orientation expert. Using the videotape from the station, the expert showed jurors, step by step, the proper caning techniques and how Cuthbertson had followed them to the letter, Panish said.

Panish also had an expert on ADA compliance and an accident reconstructionist testify, breaking down the different videos from multiple cameras in the station for the jury. In one of the videos, the conductor’s rearview mirror was visible, and Panish was able to demonstrate to jurors that if she had been paying attention she would have seen Cuthbertson trying to crawl out from the tracks.

“She was inattentive,” Panish said of the driver, who failed to hear passengers shouting for her to stop and continued driving for seven additional stops. Cuthbertson’s mother, Mary, testified at trial, as did his brother, Colen, and a young girl who witnessed the accident. No opportunity to settle The defense believed strongly in its case and made no settlement offers, Panish said.

The six-week trial was composed mainly of the plaintiff’s presentation, with the defense taking less than a week for its case. Panish had some concern about dealing with jurors’ potential bias against the handicapped, as well as the proposition of awarding damages to the mother of an adult son who had not been financially supporting her. He suggested to jurors that they award damages of $15 million or more. The 12-person jury awarded a total of $17 million in general damages after deliberating for roughly a day and a half. After the trial, Panish spoke with some of the jurors, who said the plaintiff’s case was “overwhelming.” “Jurors said that the problem [of not having barriers to protect the visually impaired] existed and the defendant chose not to fix it,” Panish said.

Plaintiff’s attorneys: Brian Panish and Deborah Chang of Panish | Shea | Ravipudi LLP in Los Angeles.

Defense attorney: James Reiss of Reiss & Johnson in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

The case: Cuthbertson v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit

Authority; July 29, 2011; Superior Court of Los Angeles County; Judge Yvette Palazuelos.

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