Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Portland judge throws out $1 million lawsuit by MAX passenger who was hurt by teens

Written by  Aimee Green

A Multnomah County judge has thrown out a $1 million suit filed against TriMet by a 30-year-old woman who said the transit agency failed to protect her from being assaulted by an obnoxious group of teens on a Yellow Line MAX train.

The highly publicized June 2008 incident in which a group teenagers attacked Staci Lynn Smith, a Vancouver woman taking her first ride on MAX, stirred widespread outrage and calls for greater transit security.

The teenagers involved were prosecuted for assault or lesser crimes. While some of the teenagers' parents said the teens were wrong to strike the woman and take her purse, they contended she wasn't the innocent bystander portrayed in some initial media accounts.

After 1 1/2 days of trial, Judge Michael McShane ruled Tuesday that Smith and her attorney had failed to present a case that could convince the jury that TriMet was negligent  The judge also chastised Smith's attorney, Victor Calzaretta, for his lack of preparation, noting Calzaretta couldn't say when his next witnesses would show up.  

Two jurors interviewed after being dismissed said they weren't inclined to award any money to Smith.

The Oregonian's continuing coverage of the June 2008 attack on the Max Yellow Line.
Smith's attorney had contended that TriMet had a policy of not telling passengers that police were on the way because TriMet didn't want assailants to get away.

"My God, they're not telling them the police are coming," Calzaretta told jurors. "In the meantime, this lady gets beat up. ...She had to fight by herself. She has over two years of damages. ...She lost her job. ...She has these pains."

But TriMet's attorney, Jana Toran, said the transit agency didn't have such a policy. Toran played an audio recording between the MAX operator and TriMet's operations-dispatch center in which a controller tells the operator to announce over the public-address system that the train had stopped because it was waiting for police to arrive.

Toran also told jurors that although the teens assaulted Smith, Smith played a role in the altercation by stretching her legs across the vacant seat next to her and refusing to allow a 15-year-old girl to sit down. Toran played a security video showing Smith repeatedly shoving the girl when she sat down anyway.

After one of the girl's 14-year-old male friends punched Smith, she is seen standing on the seat and hitting and kicking the girl and her 15-year-old friend. They, in turn, strike back.

During about two hours of testimony, Smith said the teens were rowdy before one of them sat next to her -- vandalizing a seat and swearing at passengers. She said the teens turned their attention toward her after she told them to calm down.

"Everybody turned their back, which I couldn't understand because all I was trying to do was stick up for those other (passengers)," Smith said, between heavy sobs.

Smith said she suffered a broken nose, a head injury, muscle spasms in her shoulder and neck, kicks to her back and a deep cut above her lip, which has turned into a scar. She said her injuries have kept her from earning a living.

TriMet's attorney, Toran, said she would call on a doctor who examined Smith but could find no sign of extensive injuries that she claimed.

"She has a tendency to overstate what happened," Toran said.

At one point during Smith's testimony, the judge asked the jury to leave the room. He then told Smith she needed to stop being so emotional and answer questions without arguing with Toran.

"I'm sorry if I don't have much sympathy," McShane said, but "if you're going to ask this jury for $1 million, you need to stop crying with every question."

Toran also questioned Smith's claim that she's suffered $45,000 in lost wages. Toran noted that the single mother of three has held few jobs, and has largely been living off child support and unemployment.

Smith also has been benefiting from the generosity of a Camas man, Gerald Bjorklund, 67, who befriended her days after the incident. Bjorklund has paid her car insurance and rent. Bjorklund also testified that he gave her a weapon and taught her how to use it, because she feared for her safety.

After the judge threw out the case, Smith quickly left the courtroom and Calzaretta declined comment.

-- Aimee Green

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