Expert witness says Cat Tracker had several defects that led to fatal accident on Iowa Street

Officers from the Lawrence Police Department investigate the scene of an injury accident at 15th and Iowa streets involving the Cat Tracker bus. John Green was fatally injured and another seriously injured in the accident on Saturday, November 18, 2006.

The Cat Tracker bus that 27-year-old John Green was riding when his head struck an overpass had several design features that were unsafe, according to testimony in the second day of a civil trial stemming from the fatal accident in 2006.

The testimony came from Ned Einstein, who testified as an expert witness Thursday morning for the plaintiff’s side in Douglas County District Court. He is president of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City consulting firm involved in a variety of aspects of mass transit.

Einstein identified design features of the bus as it existed in October 2004. Plaintiff’s attorneys had earlier called a vehicle title inspector who created a report showing a Briggs Auto Group-owned entity had owned the Cat Tracker bus at that time.

Among the unsafe features Einstein identified:

• The “most critical” of the problems was that modifications were made to a school bus chassis, rather than to a bus with a lower-floor chassis. Einstein said such buses — like some transit buses — were widely available for purchase at the time. If a lower-floor chassis bus were modified, it could have been three feet lower in height, Einstein said.

“If this were built on a lower chassis, even with all the other defects, this accident would never have happened,” he said.

• A door to the back deck of the bus was not locked. Einstein said this allowed passengers to move to the back deck of the bus at will.

• On the open-air back deck of the bus, a ladder provided easy access to the roof deck of the bus, Einstein said. He said that ladder should have been secured away while the bus was in motion.

Deadly consequences

Green and another man, Chris Orr, were struck by the Irving Hill Road overpass over Iowa Street while standing on the roof deck of the Cat Tracker bus as it traveled to a Kansas University-Kansas State University football game on Nov. 18, 2006. Green died instantly and was forced over the railing onto the lower deck of the bus. Orr was critically injured.

Green’s widow, Samantha Green, filed suit against nearly a dozen defendants, including the owners, operators and manufacturers of the bus. All but one — Briggs Auto Group of Manhattan — have settled out of court.

An engineering expert called by the plaintiff’s attorneys on Thursday placed the speed of the bus between about 20 to 30 mph at various times as it approached the overpass.

The expert, Steven Schorr, an engineer at DJS Associates in Pennsylvania, said that if John Green, who was 6-foot-1-inch tall, had been standing straight at his full height while on the roof deck, he would have been 10 inches higher than the 15-foot high overpass.

Attorneys for Briggs Auto Group peppered Einstein’s testimony with objections and other questions, which were settled in bench conferences with the judge. The witness, however, was allowed to present his opinions on a range of topics, including whether the seller of the vehicle had a responsibility to ensure its safety.

“The seller has a duty to safeguard the public if design characteristics of the vehicle present a safety issue,” Einstein said.

Other issues

In cross-examination, defense attorney Larry Tyrl asked about Einstein’s compensation from the plaintiff’s side, which paid about $50,000 to Einstein and an associated billing company, according to invoices. Tyrl also questioned Einstein’s education, including a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

Tyrl also asked about a number of others responsible for things Einstein concluded were wrong with the bus.

Einstein agreed that others were at least partially responsible for many of the issues, including people like Robert Pottroff, who owned the bus in November 2006.

Among the witnesses who took the stand late Thursday afternoon, a Briggs Auto Group employee testified about the detailed paperwork regarding the sale and titling of the 1988 bus.

Connie Kipp confirmed the paperwork showed the Manhattan auto dealer owned the bus until Oct. 22, 2004. In opening statements, Tyrl told jurors the bus had been given away as a gift to Pottroff as a 50th birthday gift on Aug. 17, 2003.

Also, jurors watched a videotaped deposition from Steve Johnson, a Lawrence resident who often rode the Cat Tracker to away Kansas State University football games.

Johnson said he had been on the bus on multiple trips to Columbia, Mo., Lincoln, Neb. and Ames, Iowa, and that it was customary to ride on the top level through the streets of an opposing team’s hometown. Johnson described on each trip a “duck man” was appointed to warn others about overhead obstacles. Johnson said every time he’d been on the bus, he had heard someone shout, “duck.”

Testimony in the case resumes this morning.