What to do when a bus runs into you

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When Brad Tahon's story about his run-ins with the Port Authority -- both literal and figurative -- was published in early January, I got a deluge of calls and letters.

Among them were e-mails from at least a dozen people who have, like Mr. Tahon, been on the losing end of a close encounter with a bus. I lost count of the phone calls, but there sure is a lot of Port Authority-inspired anger and resentment out there.

I also heard from two or three helpful people who know of an all-too-secret weapon that will enable the region's dented Davids to do battle with our Goliath.

The reason the fight is rigged in Goliath's favor is that the Port Authority is self-insured. That means, among other things, that there's no independent investigator looking into claims like Mr. Tahon's. If you accuse a bus driver of causing an accident or damaging your vehicle or person, a Port Authority employee investigates the matter and decides whether you're right. If the Port Authority decides that the Port Authority has done nothing wrong, the Port Authority's off the hook. It's great being the Port Authority!

That's why, in addition to immediately filing a claim with the Port Authority, a victim should go straight to his magisterial district judge.

This information may come too late to help Mr. Tahon and the many readers I heard from, but it's the kind of thing you should file away in the back of your mind, in case the back of your car ever bends under a Port Authority bumper.

It was actually the front right wheel well of Mr. Tahon's car that took the brunt of the hit, he says. He was idling on Greentree Road at 7:36 a.m. Nov. 3, when, he said, the driver of the 38C decided to squeeze past him rather than wait and let him finish the merge that traffic had forced him to stop half-way through.

Heather Albert, Mr. Tahon's colleague at a Downtown engineering firm, was sitting in the passenger's seat. She said she saw the bus do its damage and wrote down its ID numbers. (As witnesses go, Ms. Albert, a geologist, is, well, rock solid.)

Mr. Tahon did everything he knew to do. He called the police and the Port Authority, filed a complaint, gave his account repeatedly and consistently, and got an estimate of $1,600 to repair the damage to his car.

What he didn't know he could do -- because the Port Authority doesn't exactly advertise this -- is to sue the authority in magisterial district court.

"What the district magistrate can do is get you money," explains Nancy Galvach, manager for Allegheny County's magisterial district judges.

Magisterial district judges typically handle civil claims of up to $8,000, and a small filing fee varies according to the amount of the suit, Ms. Galvach says. The district judge schedules a hearing, at which both the Port Authority and the plaintiff produce evidence and witnesses, and the judge -- as opposed to a Port Authority employee -- will try to determine where the truth lies.

Mr. Tahon eventually heard of this option on his own, but not until after he'd filed a claim with his own insurance company. Once he did that, his agent later informed him, he forfeited the right to sue the Port Authority.

But District Judge Gary Zyra, whose district includes the scene in Scott where Mr. Tahon said the incident occurred, disagrees. He says Mr. Tahon can "still file a claim because he's still out the [$500] deductible."

An avenue to justice that bypasses the Port Authority's investigators would have helped the woman I heard from who said her right rearview mirror was removed and tire mangled three years ago when the bus next to her at the Beeler Street/Forbes Avenue intersection in Squirrel Hill decided to get a head start on his right turn. She had a passenger and witness, she said, but her claim was denied.

A magisterial district judge might have helped Kathleen Gallagher, who said she was thrown into the rear steps of a bus when the driver closed the doors on her as she was exiting at an East Liberty stop. Ms. Gallagher said the Port Authority directed her to file a claim through her own auto insurance company. Despite having witnesses and fighting through her insurance company, she said, she received nothing from the Port Authority for her physical injuries.

Though I can't know whose stories are true or to what extent, I have nothing at stake in the matter. Neither does a district judge. It's reassuring to know that we don't have to give the Port Authority the last word on its own conduct.

Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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