1945 Law Appears To Unfairly Benefit CTA

Dozens of cases thrown out on technicalities

A little-known law stands in the way of some victims of Chicago Transit Authority accidents.

Some say the 1945 law is also being used to shield the CTA from paying the claims of legitimate accident victims.

In one case, Merle Huckabee said she was in her car in the left lane of a double right-turn-only lane during rush hour. A CTA bus was on her right.

Huckabee took the turn, but the driver of the bus did not.

"I never questioned it," Huckabee said. "He had no intention of turning. I just wish I had known."

The police report from that day confirms the CTA bus, in a right-turn only lane, went straight instead and hit Huckabee, who was six months pregnant at the time.

"I know it's the day everything changed for me," she said.

Twelve years later, Huckabee said she still suffers from the injuries and medical bills related to that accident but never recovered a penny from the CTA.

"We had to file bankruptcy because all the money to cover all the surgeries, all my medical bills, we just did not have it," she said.

What stood between her and compensation was one mistake on the written notice required by law of anyone who claims a CTA-related injury.

Deep inside Illinois' Metropolitan Transit Authority Act lies Section 41, which demands precise details about an incident. One mistake and "the case shall be dismissed" and "the person forever barred from further suing."

"To me, it is a set-up -- a piece of legislation that is set up to victimize victims," Huckabee said.

In Huckabee's case, the mistake was a missing address for the hospital doctor. Because of that, CTA lawyers went to court and triggered Section 41. Huckabee's case was dismissed forever.

"That's the way Section 41 is designed to make it appear that things never happened, over a technicality," said James Huckabee, Merle's husband.

The Huckabee case is by no means an isolated one.

Dozens of other cases have been found where one mistake -- something as simple as a wrong street or missing address -- repeatedly were tossed out of court.

Take the case of a passenger involved in a 2001 CTA crash where more than 100 people went to a hospital.

Dozens of people filed claims, yet one who did submitted the accident location as a southbound "brown CTA line" in "Chicago, IL."

Though the CTA never disputed she was on that train, it argued her description was not specific enough.

The CTA clearly already knew where that accident occurred, but according to Section 41 case law, "actual knowledge" of an accident by the CTA doesn't matter.

Her case was tossed out.

Annette Hargrove learned about Section 41 after a CTA bus rolled backwards, reportedly unattended, down a hill at St. Lawrence Avenue and 95th Street and hit the car she was sitting in.

"I heard something, 'Boom bam, boom bam,'" she said. "What is this, you know? It's a bus!"

Though the CTA didn't deny damage to the car its bus hit, Hargrove said it did deny her a day in court because of three details missing from her complaint.

"You tell people that and they don't believe it. 'That couldn't happen like that,' they'd say, but it did," Hargrove said.

Documented accidents on buses, inside trains, out in traffic followed by slight reporting errors result in cases dismissed from court forever.

Attorneys who've worked on these cases say the Section 41 law routinely spits out claims of legitimate victims.

"It's not fair that the CTA can save a few dollars on the shoulders of people who have been really devastated by these things," plaintiff's attorney Mike Baird said.

"It's beyond extreme. There are circumstances where the information is totally useless to the CTA, yet if you give it to them or give it to them mistakenly, it will wipe out the case," he said.

In some cases, judges have questioned the fairness of this strict-compliance law, but "reluctantly" -- as one put it -- upheld it.

"It's a cop out," Baird said. "It should be changed by the legislature, but the courts are not powerless."

The CTA chose not to answer any of specific questions on the law, but in a statement, said, "Section 41 is a valuable tool that helps protect taxpayer funds" and "clearly states what type of information is required."

The statement continued, saying the "CTA is a target for numerous claims," and this law helps combat fraudulent ones.

Those who advocate a change in the law say one word would do the trick -- from "strict" compliance to "substantial compliance."

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