CITY HALL — Lawrence Powell had just gotten off the Big Blue Bus and was crossing Santa Monica Boulevard at Ocean Avenue. As he stepped into the crosswalk, the bus he’d been riding on started to turn right, cutting into the crosswalk. Pedestrians yelled at the driver to stop but it was too late. The bus ran over Powell, breaking his leg and toes and causing severe abrasions on his arms.
The accident, which happened in September 2007, was one of the most severe for the bus system in recent years, resulting in a $1.5 million settlement.
But It was just one of hundreds of claims stemming from the Big Blue Bus that together make the popular transportation service City Hall’s biggest liability.
In the past two fiscal years, incidents involving the Big Blue Bus have accounted for 44 percent of the $7.4 million City Hall has paid out in claims, documents provided by the risk management department show.
Deb Hossli, Santa Monica’s risk manager, said that’s in part because the highest profile, most expensive claims in the city tend to be bus related.
In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, 14 out of the 20 most expensive claims were the result of incidents involving the bus system. And the trend appears to be continuing.
“I think it’s fair to say the Big Blue Bus has the most expensive litigation in the city right now,” Hossli said.
Traffic collisions, hit pedestrians and bicyclists, passenger falls, and bus doors closing on riders all regularly result in claims. Many claims, like minor collisions with parked vehicles, typically cost City Hall less than $1,000. But incidents that result in injuries, like the collision that put Powell in the hospital, represent a substantial dent in city finances.
While City Hall is always looking at ways to improve safety, Hossli said the fact that bus operations generate a high volume of claims isn’t surprising.
“I don’t think that’s unexpected in light of the fact that we run a really busy bus system in an urban environment,” she said.
“Clearly we want to operate a safe bus system,” she added. “We want to spend our money on services to the public … it’s in our best interest to put as much energy [into safety] as we can.”
Stephanie Negriff, director of the Big Blue Bus, said while safety is her top priority, claims are inevitable.
“When you run a transportation system that operates 5 million miles a year in some of the most congested streets in the world, you’re going to get claims,” she said.
In 2004, City Hall began installing camera systems in every bus. Negriff said the cameras have helped managers better assess liability when accidents happen and have enabled the bus system to improve its training by incorporating real-life examples.
“It’s really helped us to strengthen our training program and as a result I think that we have a really solid process,” she said.
The last fatality involving the bus system was nearly five years ago, and Negriff said accidents were down 14 percent in December compared with the year before.
“Liability is a cost of doing business but I always want that cost to be as low as possible,” she said. “It’s very difficult to say what the right amount is. Our goal is always to pay out zero.”