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Magic Bus

A few months back, Clevelanders were shocked to learn that the county's Regional Transit Authority had won the award for being the best public transportation system in North America.  This was no mean feat, considering that the city's previous awards had been limited to Place Where You're Most Likely to Be Shot for No Reason, or Top Hellhole on the Great Lakes.  After reading the 8th District's decision last week in Coleman v. RTA, whoever finished in second place in the transportation system voting might want to demand a recount.

Diane Coleman decided to take the No. 6 RTA bus home on the night of September 5, 2005.  For those unfamiliar with Cleveland, the No. 6 is not one of the premier routes: in addition to stopping what seems like every twenty feet, it runs through some of the worst parts of town.  I rode it exactly once; halfway through the trip, I happened to glance toward the back of the bus, where one of the riders was displaying a very impressive handgun to several others.

Ms. Coleman's journey featured even more Odyssian travails, with two of her fellow passengers spending most of the ride threatening her with physical harm for some imagined slight.  Coleman pleaded with the bus driver to call the police, or 911, to no avail.  When she got off the bus to meet her boyfriend and her 11-year-old son, her two assailants got off, too, and one pulled a knife, cutting the boy before fleeing.  Coleman subsequently sued the RTA, and the records demonstrated that the bus driver had never contacted the transit police or anyone else about the developing incident.

The trial court kicked it out on summary judgment.

The 8th District reversed in a 2-1 vote.  The first issue raised by RTA was the "public duty doctrine."  If your home is being burglarized, and you call the police but they don't come in time, can you (or your heirs, if things turn out really badly) sue?  If your home is burning down, and you call the fire department, can you sue them if they don't get there in time to save it?  The public duty doctrine says no:

when a statute imposes a duty upon a public entity which is intended for the public good, the failure to adequately perform the duty does not permit a private right of redress for injuries caused by that failure.

The 8th District, at least, has held that the public duty doctrine has been superseded by the sovereign immunity statutes, so that was where the court looked next.

Good luck with that.  As I've suggested before, the labyrinthine complexities of Ohio's sovereign immunity laws makes string theory seem like child's play.  The court noted that running a transit system was a "proprietary function," and that... oh, hell, read the opinion if you really want to give a go at figuring it all out.  The bottom line is that the court came to the common-sensical conclusion that if you're a bus driver and you've got people threatening passengers on your bus and all you have to do to alert the police is press a button -- which, the court notes, was "an act that placed the driver himself in no jeopardy" -- your failure to do so, indeed, to do anything, doesn't satisfy a common carrier's heightened duty to protect its passengers.  And least not sufficiently so to entitle it to summary judgment.

Interestingly, that wasn't the only 8th District case last week involving the RTA.  State v. Melton involved a charge of assaulting a police officer, which the appellate court upheld against a claim that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct, the court determining that there was no impropriety in the prosecutor's recounting of the events leading up to defendant's arrest at a bus stop.

And what were those events?

A man whom [Officer] Fankhauser knew as Melton stood near the intersection with "four RTA fare passes in his hand." Fankhauser stated he became acquainted with Melton from previous interactions with him. Fankhauser further stated he witnessed Melton exchange two of the passes for money from other persons nearby.

According to Fankhauser's testimony, which [Officer] Wilson corroborated, Melton's actions constituted a violation of the Ohio Revised Code. Therefore, the officers proceeded to inform Melton that he was under arrest for "unauthorized use of property."

In light of what happened to Ms. Coleman, I'm not sure that selling RTA passes is a viable business model, even for the RTA, let alone for an individual.  What I am sure of is that this is the most bullshit charge I've encountered in quite some time.


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