Fulton County delivered a post-apportioned award of $18.7 million to an elderly woman left permanently brain-damaged after falling as she attempted to step off a MARTA Mobility bus.
The panel awarded a total of $25 million in damages but apportioned 25 percent to the injured woman, Jaccolah Johnson, who has been in a vegetative state since the fall nearly three years ago, according to plaintiffs attorney Michael Goldberg. The mobility bus is one of the smaller MARTA vehicles used to serve disabled individuals who are unable to use its regularly scheduled buses.
MARTA turned down an offer to settle for $5 million a few months ago and “never offered a penny,” said Goldberg, who tried the case with Fried Rogers Goldberg partner Joe Fried, Alpharetta solo Donald Singleton and Melanie Eyre of Eyre Law and Mediation.
The jury delivered its verdict Thursday afternoon.
Goldberg said the jurors were largely convinced the compact bus’ design—which they were able to experience by boarding one of the buses brought to the courthouse for a demonstration—was a key element of the elderly woman’s fall.
“They were able to see that the lack of a handrail at the angled, interior step was really a design flaw with this type of bus,” Goldberg said.
MARTA’s lawyers, James Scarbrough, Dawn Pettigrew and Rachel Reed of Mabry & McClelland, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
According to Goldberg and court filings, Johnson was 66 years old and suffered several physical problems that required her to use the Mobility services at the time of her fall. MARTA requires a doctor’s certification of disability to use the service, according to court filings.
“She had some heart problems, diabetes, pain and swelling in her legs—anything requiring walking or mobility,” Goldberg said.
Johnson had been using the service for about six months in January 2016 when she was leaving a MARTA Mobility bus at her home.
As Goldberg explained, MARTA has two types of Mobility buses: an older, 26-foot model with handrails on both sides of the steps leading out the front door, and a newer 21-foot model with an angled step at the top leading to three more steps down.
There are handrails alongside the three straight steps and vertical poles at each side of the top step.
According to MARTA’s portion of the pretrial order, as Johnson stepped to the front of the bus, driver Tylica Taylor asked if she needed assistance.
“Ms. Johnson cut Ms. Taylor off and declined any assistance or help,” it said.
Holding onto the right-side pole, Johnson stepped down and lost her footing on the angled step.
“She loses her balance, and hanging on that pole causes her to swing out the door to the right, falling on the pavement and hitting her head,” Goldberg said.
“She was knocked unconscious, then she came to and was talking to people when she started getting dizzy,” he said.
Johnson was rushed by ambulance to Grady Memorial Hospital, where she was found to have bleeding on the brain and underwent emergency surgery. She never recovered and remains in a facility requiring 24-hour care, Goldberg said.
Singleton filed suit on behalf of Johnson and her daughter and guardian, Rachel Taylor, in Fulton Superior Court in 2017.
MARTA never expressed any interest in resolving the case, Goldberg said.
“I think MARTA thought it was all our client’s fault for losing her balance, because her hands were full of bags, her Bible and her purse,” he said.
Goldberg’s firm became involved in the case a few months ago as trial neared, he said.
Trial began Monday before Judge Todd Markle with a potential problem: The bus driver, Taylor, had just given birth to twins and could not be present.
Rather than postpone, the plaintiffs agreed to let the defense lawyers write up a narrative of what Taylor would have said and read it to the jury.
“We stipulated to it,” said Goldberg, noting that the bus’ onboard video system had recorded the entire incident.
Goldberg said there were two issues at play: the Bus’s design and the failure of the driver to assist Johnson, even though her help had been declined.
“MARTA had a written policy that the bus driver has to stand up and escort each passenger down the stairs, even if they refused assistance,” he said.
“Our theory was that the driver was a safety net for the disabled passenger,” Goldberg said. “If the safety net had been there, this tragedy never occurs.”
Oakland, California, transportation expert Doug Cross offered key testimony that industry standards required bus drivers to assist disabled passengers, Goldberg said.
“MARTA tried to claim it was just a guideline and the bus driver didn’t have to follow it. The jury was not buying that argument,” Goldberg said.
On Thursday, the jury took about 2.5 hours to reach their verdict, he said.
Afterward, he said, the jurors all agreed that being allowed to board the Mobility bus allowed them to “really appreciate the danger of just having the pole to hold on to.”
Singleton said the verdict sent “a strong message, not only to MARTA but to all carriers nationwide who provide paratransit services to our most vulnerable population, and that is, go back and look at your training and make sure you are following the best practices of the industry.”
“How difficult can it be to require your drivers to stand up every time when disabled passenger is exiting the bus and be available to offer assistance before a passenger finds themselves in a dangerous or precarious position?” he asked.
Goldberg hailed lead defense counsel Scarbrough, as a “great lawyer who kicked my ass in a wrongful death case against MARTA a few years ago. I remembered all the mistakes I made last time against him and changed my approach to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.”