Consultant for woman suing RFTA criticizes agency’s safety standards

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The transportation consultant hired by a woman who is suing the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority over the death of her daughter criticized the agency for not having a “well-defined safety department” and also said the bus driver in the accident should not have been driving.
Larry Vassos of Wheat Ridge prepared the report as part of the civil lawsuit filed by Joanne Borell, a Kansas resident whose daughter, Joanie Kocab, 29, was run over by a RFTA bus in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2012.
The negligence lawsuit was filed eight months later against RFTA and its driver, Vijita Evans. It seeks more than $400,000.
Vassos’ report, which is included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, is “highly critical of defendant RFTA’s policies and procedures, particularly with respect to the hiring, training and supervision of defendant Evans,” Ongert wrote in the motion.
Vassos wrote that there is no documentation in the case that alludes to RFTA having a safety department “under the direction of a qualified safety director, disciplined in the field of transportation safety and risk management.”
Also among Vassos’ criticisms is that Evans was apparently involved in six accidents while driving for RFTA between 2009 and 2011, and that these did not raise a “red flag” for the agency. The mishaps were minor, according to Vassos’ report, which cites Evans’ employment file.
In March 2009, the report says, Evans tore off a bus mirror; damaged a bus after scraping a guardrail in February 2010; and struck a ski rack on another vehicle while making a left-hand turn in January 2011. The other incidents involved a backing-up accident, a mishap involving overhead clearance and sideswiping a parked car.
“Most importantly all of these issues were (from a professional risk manager’s perspective) foretelling of disaster to come,” Vassos wrote.
The circumstances leading up to Kocab’s death near Buttermilk remain murky. She was new to the valley and had been out drinking on New Year’s Eve before taking a bus with her boyfriend to Basalt, where they had lived.
After the couple bickered, Kocab got off at a bus stop in Basalt while the boyfriend rode to the next stop.
Instead of walking home, however, she somehow returned to the Aspen area. The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office established that Kocab did not get back on a bus to return upvalley, and it remains unknown how she came to be walking in the middle of the bus lane near Buttermilk at 2:25 a.m.
A toxicology report showed Kocab, who was clad in dark clothing and had only her cell phone with her at the time, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.298, more than three times the limit considered too intoxicated to drive.
Evans told police she never saw Kocab, who was run over and declared dead at the scene. The 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to charge Evans.
Evans had been working for more than 10 hours before the accident, Vassos wrote, citing the driver’s summary of her shift that night. He questions whether RFTA took measures to ensure she was watchful.
“All night drivers should be especially alert during hours when liquor establishments close and should take these considerations for night driving into account for ‘high alert,’” the report says.
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship on Wednesday defended his agency, saying Vassos’ allegations are not substantiated by the facts.
“We have safety managers and staff who are certified as trainers,” he said. “Mr. Vassos is an expert hired by the plaintiff. He is not in possession of the facts.”
RFTA’s attorney in the case, Hugh Wise, will have the opportunity to ask Vassos about his background and expertise during a deposition next month, Blankenship said.
Wise also filed court papers earlier this month stating that John Hocker, RFTA’s co-director of operations, can testify that the hours worked by Evans on the day and night of the accident met all applicable requirements. John Filippone, the agency’s safety manager, can offer expert opinions on procedures for hiring, training, ride-along observations and driver hours, Wise wrote.
Borell’s attorney, Trent Ongert of Denver, on April 3 filed a motion to withdraw from representing his client. It’s unclear why Ongert withdrew from the case. Attorney-client privilege prevents him from disclosing the reason, the motion says. Judge Gail Nichols of Pitkin County District Court on Wednesday approved the withdrawal motion.
“Plaintiff has created a direct conflict with her counsel that prevents [me] from representing” her, the motion says.
Borell, in an April 8 letter to Nichols, objected to her former lawyer’s effort to withdraw.
“All of a sudden I have been left without counsel and any time to find new and good representation,” Borell wrote. She also didn’t allude to why her attorney withdrew.
Efforts to reach Ongert and Borell were not successful.
Nichols stayed all proceedings in the case for 30 days to allow Borell to find a new lawyer.