August 30, 2002

Family of Evans '01 Loses Court Battle

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A Tompkins County Supreme Court Judge dismissed two claims of punitive damages against Cornell University on June 4. The claims were part of a civil lawsuit filed in August 2000 by the family of Michelle Evans ’01.

Evans was killed by a Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) bus on March 16, 2000 as she crossed the intersection of Wait and Thurston Aves. on North Campus. On the rainy afternoon, the overcrowded bus hit Evans and crushed her legs and upper body.

The Evans’ attorney, Robert E. Lahm of Syracuse, filed a Summons and Complaint naming the bus driver Timothy Stranger, TCAT and its founding partners–the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University–as the parties responsible for causing damages due to their negligence.

Kevin Hulslander, the attorney for all the defendants, filed a motion requesting that punitive damages claims be dismissed. The first claim had to do with Cornell’s employment of the bus driver, who had a history of substance abuse, and the second regarded the design of the intersection where the accident occurred. The family sought $2 million, according to Nelson Roth, associate University counsel.

State Supreme Court Justice Walter J. Relihan Jr. dismissed the punitive damages claims for all defendants except Stranger.

According to the judge’s decision, “Stranger’s own conduct, given his guilty pleas to a number of serious charges, would appear to permit a jury to consider the award of punitive damages against him, individually. That issue must await the evidence at trial.”

Stranger, who admitted to using marijuana and alcohol between shifts on the day his bus hit Evans, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to one year in jail.

The City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Cornell formerly each operated their own separate bus services, but when they combined to form TCAT, employees became subject to the “supervision, direction and control of the TCAT general manager.”

Relihan stated in his decision that neither CU Transit nor TCAT “intentionally continued to employ a driver known to be unfit and, thus, that either of the two organizations showed a conscious indifference and utter disregard for the safety of passengers or others upon the highways in respect to the employment of Stranger.”

Each of the defendants, including Cornell, remains subject to paying compensatory damages. The damages awarded depend on the result of the civil lawsuit, which is expected to begin in early 2003, according Roth.

“We are still the subject of a civil lawsuit by the Evans family,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

Roth added, “The only claim that was dismissed in this lawsuit was the punitive damages claim. All of the defendants are still in the case in regards to the compensatory damages.”

Compensatory damages claims pertain to wrongful death and pain and suffering.

The punitive damages claims against the city and county were dismissed last spring because, “by New York law, you can’t seek punitive damages claims against a municipality,” Roth said.

Because TCAT is similar to a public-benefit corporation, the punitive damages claims against TCAT were also dismissed.

Cornell was excused from paying punitive damages on the basis that TCAT, not Cornell, “was responsible for the direction, control and supervision of Timothy Stranger at the time of this accident.”

Relihan also dropped the punitive damage claim against Cornell regarding the design of the intersection where the fatal accident occurred.

“The design claim against Cornell was dismissed. Cornell does not own or control that intersection,” Roth said. The City of Ithaca, which owns the intersection, was not dismissed from claims of negligence for the design of the intersection.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder