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A pair of RTD buses are parked on Lincoln Street past the RTD downtown terminal in Denver on Oct. 2, 2020. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Denver Gazette)

A transit agency is not entitled to immunity for a rider's injuries, regardless of whether the vehicle operator acted negligently, the Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday in a case involving the Regional Transportation District.

“We are mindful of the potential burden our interpretation may place on RTD to ensure that its buses are diligently maintained,” wrote Judge Ted C. Tow III in the opinion issued on Thursday. “But to hold differently would have consequences of equal import, as it would effectively allow RTD to escape liability wherever its lack of maintenance, rather than a bus driver’s action, is a primary cause of injury.”

Maria Teran was a passenger in 2016 on an RTD bus when another vehicle nearly caused a collision. Although the bus driver braked just in time, Teran was holding onto a railing at the time as a standee. She alleged the handrail came loose and contributed to her fall. Teran received back and shoulder injuries as a result.

Teran sued the agency for negligence, both for its failure to properly maintain the handrail and for the bus driver's alleged negligence in stopping suddenly. A jury delivered a verdict in her favor for the handrail claim, but found no negligence on the driver’s part.

After trial, RTD argued the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act shielded it from liability. However, the Denver District Court judge decided that was not so, citing the exception for the “operation of a motor vehicle, owned or leased by such public entity, by a public employee.”

The agency countered that the faulty handrail contributing to Teran’s injuries did not qualify under the "operation" of the vehicle. But the three-member Court of Appeals panel dispelled that notion, deciding that RTD’s interpretation of the law was too narrow.

The public vehicle exception “may waive immunity even where, as here, the operation of a motor vehicle is neither the most direct cause of an injury nor the basis for the [lawsuit],” wrote Tow. He added that the key question was whether Teran’s injury was sufficiently connected to the vehicle’s operation.

Marisela D. Sandoval, an attorney for RTD, advised the panel at oral argument that interpreting the waiver so broadly "leads to the unreasonable result of subjecting public entities to extensive liability and jeopardizing their ability to provide these essential public services."

If that were correct, "it will create a massive risk to the public," responded Teran's lawyer, Mark Malone. "To be honest with you, they do a great job [with maintenance]. But that does not mean they should not be held liable when they do not."

Even though the jury found the bus driver had not caused Teran’s injuries, the panel decided that was immaterial: the law did not require the operator’s negligence to trigger the waiver of immunity for RTD.

"Where in that language does it say it has to be that driver's negligence?" asked Tow to Sandoval at oral argument. She responded that prior interpretations of the law suggested the person operating the vehicle must be the one acting to cause an injury. Sandoval added that while bus drivers are supposed to check equipment, "they have no physical control over the maintenance of those handrails."

Malone on Thursday said the jury awarded Teran $200,000, and that rather than creating a financial burden for RTD and taxpayers through future lawsuits, the ruling ensures passengers injured due to bald tires or failed brakes would have their day in court.

"RTD is notorious for fighting tooth and nail against these types of claims instead of simply compensating passengers injured due to their negligence," he said. "Initially, all our client wanted was her medical bills covered and RTD refused and used all its resources fighting Ms. Teran in different courts. Taxpayers should be more concerned about funding RTD’s litigation than compensating injured citizens."

In a statement, RTD said that safety "is RTD’s top priority, and we are deeply committed to maintaining the strong vehicle maintenance and quality control program we have in place.”

The case is Teran v. Regional Transportation District.

This story has been updated with a statement from RTD.

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