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Jury says MBTA owes passenger $1.2m

’09 texting-related crash left woman with injuries

Ex-MBTA operator Aiden Quinn.

Ex-MBTA operator Aiden Quinn.

A jury has awarded a judgment of $1.2 million to a Scituate woman hurt when a Green Line trolley crashed while the operator was texting, the first jury verdict to stem from that 2009 accident.

The rear-end crash destroyed $10 million worth of Green Line vehicles, sent 49 people to the hospital, and prompted the MBTA to impose the nation’s strictest cellphone policy, banning drivers even from carrying them on the job.

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Operator Aiden Quinn, who confessed to police from his hospital bed and was fired immediately, pleaded guilty the following year to negligence and was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

Twenty-four lawsuits have been filed against the T for the crash, and nine have been settled for an average of about $31,000 each, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. Colleen Fyffe’s case is the first of the others to go trial.

Fyffe, who was left unable to work as a Delta Air Lines ticket and gate agent after her neck snapped back into the metal bar atop a rear-facing trolley seat, turned down a $100,000 settlement offer from the MBTA, her lawyer said.

At trial, the T admitted fault for the crash while disputing the severity of Fyffe’s injuries. But a Suffolk Superior Court jury found in her favor June 19, awarding her $1,228,000.

“I think the jury gave some serious consideration to the evidence, which included testimony from Colleen Fyffe’s neurosurgeon, and considered the fact that she’s not able to return to her job, that she’s at serious risk for further problems and further injury,” said Michael Rezendes, her lawyer.

Pesaturo said the MBTA plans to appeal and will file motions within a week.

“The T will make a very strong argument in its post-trial motions,” he said via e-mail.

Coming from work at Logan International Airport, Fyffe was en route to meet her husband and three children at Fenway Park on May 8, 2009, when the trolley she was riding in struck another, slamming to a halt, and sending passengers flying.

Quinn, who could not be reached for comment Monday, admitted he breezed past stop signals in the tunnel between Government Center and Park Street while texting his girlfriend.

Fyffe, 46 at the time, said she suffered a herniated disc and other traumatic neck injuries that left her unable to return to the job she loved with Delta, where she had worked for 21 years, because she could not lift the required minimum.

The pain varies day to day but is always present, she said, while the risk of worsening her injury has limited her life.

“Every aspect of my life has changed in some degree,” said Fyffe, who cannot pick up her infant niece, tend to her garden, or receive the bear hugs she once loved from her oldest son, now 23. She could not help when her daughter, 20, moved into her college dorm and is unable to toss a baseball easily with her younger son, who is 15.

Though she still works one night a week with friends as a manager at a local tavern, she is reluctant to venture into crowds, return to Fenway, or ride the T because the memories come flooding back, she said.

“Not the pain aspect but the whole traumatic experience of being underground, the actual accident, not knowing what it was and wondering if it was going to get worse before it gets better,” Fyffe said.

She expressed thanks for her lawyer and the jury decision but said the sum would be reduced by medical bills and only cover part of her emotional and physical distress and lost wages.

The 14 pending lawsuits include the case of Samantha Mattei, a college student from Salem who was riding the Green Line to a concert to celebrate the end of freshman year when she was launched from her seat. Her head struck a metal pole, opening up a bloody gash, and fractured her back.

Mattei continues to suffer postconcussive vertigo, fatigue, and emotional stress, with memory loss and speech impediments. Unsteady, she has had a series of additional falls and concussions that have compounded her condition and caused seizures, leaving her reliant on a cane, walker, or wheelchair to get around safely, lawyer Paul E. Mitchell said.

“It was her plan to go to graduate school and become a research scientist or medical doctor, and clearly she won’t be able to complete those goals,” said Mitchell, who expects to go to trial later this year in Essex Superior Court.

In Mattei’s case as with Fyffe’s, the MBTA has not contested that it and Quinn and were responsible for the crash. “The issue to be tried or determined by jury will be what amount of money fairly compensates her for the injuries she sustained,” Mitchell said.

The Fyffe decision comes while Governor Deval Patrick’s administration is seeking to cap the unlimited potential damages in MBTA injury lawsuits at $100,000, consistent with the maximum damages against municipalities and other government agencies. The administration has said this would save the financially strapped T — which, like many transit agencies, self-insures for all but the largest claims — about $4 million a year. Lawmakers are reluctant, saying the T’s rare but severe accidents should be viewed differently.

“I think the public really does not favor that” cap, Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said in an interview after the measure was filed in April. “When something goes wrong on the T, it goes very wrong.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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