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Not Our Fault Man Hurt on Bus During East Harlem Blast: Transit Authority

By Rachelle Blidner | May 9, 2016 7:21am
 Two buildings exploded on Park Avenue in March 2014.
Two buildings exploded on Park Avenue in March 2014.
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NEW YORK CITY — NYC Transit says it should not be liable for the medical bills of a high school student who was injured while riding a bus near the site of the 2014 Harlem explosion, according to court documents filed last month.

The authority is asking a judge to overturn an arbitrator’s judgment that it owes more than $8,700 to cover the medical bills for Jose Vargas, who says he was thrown to the ground when the M116 he was riding to West Side High School around 9:30 a.m. March 12 was rocked by the deadly gas explosion.

“The windows of the bus were knocked out” by the explosion on Park Avenue, and the impact sent Vargas falling to the floor of the bus, his attorney, Robert Vilensky, told DNAinfo New York.

Vargas, who was 20 at the time, suffered head, neck and back injuries, as well as torn blood vessels and ligaments, according to Vilensky and court documents. He required physical therapy for at least six months, his attorney said.

Heights Medical Care P.C. of Washington Heights treated Vargas and sought reimbursement from NYC Transit after Vargas assigned the group his assumed rights under the agency’s no-fault coverage, according to court documents filed April 22.

Arbitrator Charles Sloane found the authority owed Heights Medical Care P.C. $8,729.48 for Vargas’ care — a decision that was later affirmed by Master Arbitrator Alfred J. Weiner in January 2016.

However, the authority argues it does not have any obligation to pay for Vargas’ bills because his “injuries were not caused by the use or operation of the motor vehicle,” according to a petition filed in New York State Supreme Court.

Joan Jones, a claims examiner for the Transit Authority, said in an affidavit that only one bus was damaged by the explosion, and it was not carrying passengers at the time. Vargas did not provide proper evidence, such as a copy of his student MetroCard, that would prove he was on a bus at the time, the affidavit said. 

But arbitrators said the Transit Authority waited too long to properly request proof from Vargas, making that argument invalid, according to court documents.

Vargas testified about the bus ride and his injuries in July 2014 for a separate case, and "you don't need more proof than that," Vilensky said, noting the Transit Authority did not provide any proof that Vargas wasn't on the bus at the time.

"It sounds to me like the Transit Authority is just trying to get out of paying," he said. 

Vilensky emphasized that Vargas did not file a claim against the Transit Authority and could have gotten medical coverage from Medicaid instead of the agency's no-fault coverage.

“We are disappointed that the New York City Transit Authority, despite the most recent order from a Master Arbitrator, refuses to reimburse our client for necessary medical services rendered to Mr. Vargas in connection with his March 12, 2014 New York City Transit Bus injuries,” Heights’ attorney, Stuart Israel, said in an email to DNAinfo New York. 

The Transit Authority said injuries not related to bus operations are not covered by the no-fault laws.

The case filed this week is separate from a claim against the city that Vargas filed in 2014, seeking $10 million in damages for the explosion. More than 200 people have also filed claims against the city, according to the comptroller’s office.

Last year, federal investigators said both the city and Con Edison were to blame for the explosion, which killed eight people and demolished two buildings. The National Transportation Safety Board said a gas pipe operated by the utility company had a faulty weld and the site under the pipe, which is operated by the city, eroded.