I-Team: $50 Million Claim in Subway Door Death Adds to MTA Legal Woes

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The parents of a man who died after being dragged by a subway train are planning to file a $50 million lawsuit, a claim that threatens to increase the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s already ballooning legal bill.

Speaking exclusively to the NBC New York I-Team, parents of 20-year-old Joseph Ancona accused the public transit agency of negligence after their son got caught in a subway door and dragged by a 1 train as it left the Columbus Circle platform during rush hour in October 2022. At the time, the NYPD said the victim was dragged onto the tracks and killed when another oncoming train hit him.

"How does a train leave with somebody being dragged?” said Jack Ancona, the victim’s father. "He had nothing but a bright future ahead of him that got taken away unfortunately through things that could have been prevented."

According to a notice of claim filed by Ancona’s parents, the subway operator "should have never set the train car in motion with the Claimant being stuck between the doors of the train car."

Citing the pending litigation, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan declined to answer specific questions about the accident.

"This was a tragic situation with a terrible result that led to thorough internal and outside independent reviews," Donovan said.

The MTA did not share results of those internal and external accident reviews, nor did the transit agency indicate whether the investigations are complete. The MTA did say all subway trains have redundant safety features and protocols designed to prevent trains from moving when the doors are not fully closed.

Rosemarie Arnold, an attorney representing Ancona’s parents, characterized whatever safety features were present as insufficient.

"What you’re dealing with here is one of the top 10 subway stations in Manhattan during rush hour," Arnold said. "How is it possible in 2023 that a conductor started a train with a man trapped in between the doors? It’s unheard of."

After the death underground, Janno Lieber, the MTA Chair and CEO, stressed the there was no criminality in the accident, saying subway fatalities like Ancona’s are "exceedingly rare."

"Every loss of life in the mass transit system breaks my heart. This one is a little extra," Lieber said.

But Ancona’s parents say the MTA’s soaring legal bill – much of it paying for personal injury settlements - suggests safety gaps have become too common.

According to an I-Team review of 20 years of financial statements, MTA expenditures on legal claims surged from $140 million to $509 million in the ten years between 2002 and 2011. In 2012, payouts for claims dropped steeply back down to $155 million. But since then, legal bills have steadily risen again, reaching $426 million in 2021, a 175% increase over the last decade.

"The fact that there is more litigation. The fact that there are more settlements, that should be eye opening to everyone," said Paige Butler, another attorney representing the Ancona family. "That means there continue to be issues. There continue to be incidents. There continue to be individuals who get harmed as a result of a negligent authority."

The MTA disputed the notion that safety gaps are driving the higher claims payouts. The transit agency says increase in legal costs over the last decade are better explained by trends in liability lawsuits impacting lots of public agencies and departments across New York City.

"Like the City, over time we’ve experienced an increasingly litigious environment and higher jury awards," said Tim Minton, the MTA’s Communications Director. "The MTA needs new strategies to limit exposure for taxpayers’ dollars."

Jack Ancona’s said his legal claim is intended to hold the transit agency accountable, and to make it less likely another family will experience the loss of a loved one.

"I don’t want my son to go away without an opportunity for his part to be heard or some kind of correction to be made in his name," Ancona said. "I don’t want my son’s death to be in vain."

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