munipiece2.jpgOn November 20th, 2008, David Wheeler was biking along the Great Highway. He was riding through a crosswalk from the adjacent bike path when a Muni 16AX Noriega Express bus driven by Roy Timmons turned off Noriega, without stopping at the stop sign or using its turn signal, and smashed right into Wheeler.

Wheeler suffered serious brain damage from the accident and was left significantly disabled. Under the conservatorship of Wanda Clinton–a position generally taken if an individual is physically or mentally unable to make legal decisions on their own behalf–Wheeler sued the city for damages. Earlier this week, SFMTA’s governing board agreed to pay Wheeler a $5.36 million settlement.

Even though the agency recently took out a catastrophic insurance policy covering settlements between $5 and $25 million, that policy didn’t go into effect until the year after Wheeler’s accident occurred. As a result, Muni will be forced to pay the settlement out of its own operating budget.

Timmons was dismissed from his position as a Muni bus driver late last year.

This settlement is the second most expensive Muni has paid out over the past decade. The only one more costly stemmed from a 2003 incident where a maintenance truck driven by a Muni employee ran up on a sidewalk killing three-year old Elizabeth Dominguez as she walked home from pre-school. A jury initially awarded Dominguez’s family $27 million but the City Attorney’s Office got the final dollar figure down to $21 million.

While the overall $7 million bill the agency received after operator Henry Gray blacked out while driving the L-Taraval in 2009 and crashed into the K-Ingleside in West Portal injuring nearly 50 people was higher, the amount SFMTA paid out in damages to Wheeler was higher than what it paid to any of those injured in the West Portal accident. Luckily for SFMTA, the agency took out its catastrophic insurance policy a few short weeks before the West Portal accident occurred, so they didn’t have to pay for that one out of pocket.

Dealing with the payouts from all these incidents is likely one of the reasons why, when asked for one job in city government he didn’t want, it didn’t take Mayor Ed Lee long to come up with running the SFMTA.

“Of all the agencies, they have probably the toughest job in the city, and you’ve got thousand of people everyday depending on a perfectly working system,” he told the Chron.

“There are other departments that aren’t held to that kind of high standard…We can make a few mistakes at DPW and get away with it. You can come back and do a pothole, but you can’t come back and save peoples’ jobs because they were late for work.”

On a related note, now that SFMTA Deputy Executive Director Carter Roahn has resigned and taken his name out of consideration, DPW chief Ed Reskin has emerged as the clear front-runner to take over Nat Ford’s job running SFMTA.

Maybe that statement was just mayor’s way of telling Reskin, “don’t screw this up.”

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