The state this week paid $3.2 million to a woman injured in a 2013 train crash in Bridgeport as part of the settlement in a federal lawsuit filed against the Metro-North Commuter Railroad.
The payment was noteworthy beyond the significant amount: The state was not a defendant in the suit but had to pay based on a little-known, longstanding agreement with Metro-North that requires the state to contribute 65 to 100 percent of the rail company's costs — including the settlement of lawsuits.
Since the agreement went into effect in the mid-1980s, it is likely that the state has paid close to $20 million just in lawsuit claims, all settled without involvement from lawyers for the state Department of Transportation.
Exactly how much taxpayers have paid is unclear because, state officials contend, they haven't kept track of the lawsuit payments. After The Courant questioned DOT officials, they contact the Metropolitan Transit Authority to get a breakdown. The MTA reported that in the past 10 years, the state has paid out more than $12.8 million in claims.
The largest claim is the one paid last week to a Mystic woman injured in the May 2013 crash. The state has paid just more than $4 million from the Bridgeport crash to settle nearly 60 claims, according to Metro-North records.
More than 70 people were injured in the May 17, 2013, crash on the New Haven Line in Bridgeport, which happened when one Metro-North train derailed and hit a train headed in the opposite direction. Most of the cases were settled during mediation sessions with U.S. Magistrate William Garfinkel involving attorneys for the plaintiffs and a Stamford law firm representing Metro-North.
"The contract doesn't require that Metro-North inform us of any claims, although in the Bridgeport case there was considerable conversations with Metro-North that some large payments would needed," DOT Deputy Commissioner Anna Barry said.
"It doesn't feel good, but we do have to follow the contract," Barry said.
The state Attorney General's office, which typically represents the state in legal matters, is also not involved in any of the train lawsuits. Officials in that office were unaware of the $3.2 million payment until informed by The Courant.
"We do not, in the normal course of business, receive notice of MTA-related settlements, claims or judgments, and the DOT has generally not opted to consult with our office on such matters," Assistant Attorney General Perry Zinn-Rowthorn said. "The manner that those claims are litigated and/or settled, including any obligation by the state to indemnify MTA for personal injury claims, is dictated by DOT's contract. While we do have staff attorneys who provide legal assistance to DOT on some matters, those attorneys have not been assigned to work on MTA-related claims or settlements."
Since the state must pay at least 65 percent of the all of the Bridgeport claims under the agreement with Metro-North, the Courant was able to determine the total settlement by identifying the $3.2 million payment by the state through state records.
The state pays 65 percent of all claims on the New Haven Line and 100 percent of all claims on the three branch lines — Danbury, New Canaan and Waterbury. In the past 10 years the state has paid out about $2.4 million in claims on the three branch lines.
DOT attorney Alice Sexton said that lawsuit settlements are not broken out as a separate budget item. The claims are included in the monthly bill the state gets from the MTA. A separate check was cut in the case of the Mystic woman because it was an "unprecedented" situation, Sexton said.
The 67-page indemnity agreement between the state and the Metropolitan Transit Authority was approved in 1983 and was basically a carryover of the contract with CONRAIL, the company that ran the commuter rail before the MTA, Barry said. It covers everything from who pays for repairs to the 337.8 miles of track between New Haven and Grand Central Station to setting fare increases.
The initial agreement called for a 50/50 split of all costs. In the 1990's the DOT tried to change that percentage through arbitration and lost. The percentage was bumped up to 65-35 with the state paying more.
"The DOT has been reticent to try and reopen the contract once again since then," Barry said. "Instead we have tried to improve the communications with the MTA. Overall it appears that Metro-North is doing a good job in managing claims."