An 89-year-old man died after being dropped by a driver on a Metro Mobility van, according to a lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
Jerome Weinwurm, of Lake Worth, was on his way to a dialysis appointment Oct. 16 and was being transferred from his wheelchair to the van by Metro Mobility driver Fernand Theophile when the incident occurred, according to the lawsuit. Two days later, he complained of severe pain in his chest and was hospitalized. X-rays at Wellington Medical Center showed he had two broken ribs. While in the hospital, his heart stopped and he went into a coma, from which he never awoke.
Metro Mobility had been one of three providers of transportation for disabled and elderly passengers in Palm Beach County, but became the sole provider Aug. 13. As the low bidder at $90 million for five years, Metro promised to save the county $16 million over the next lowest bidder. But customer complaints spiked to four times their normal number almost immediately after Metro took over.
Among those filing complaints was the president of the Braille Club, who waited for several hours outside a doctor’s office for a Metro van that never arrived. A student at Florida Atlantic University suffered a seizure after missing his medication because he was on a Metro vehicle for 2 1/2 hours. From last fall to January, Palm Tran officials assigned one of their own employees to drive the student to FAU.
Since August, Metro ran up more than $1.3 million in fines for not fulfilling a variety of contract provisions, including late arrivals and not picking up some passengers, as well as other issues such as not converting some of its vehicles to better fuel-efficiency.
Palm Tran, which oversees Metro, is recommending that county commissioners waive more than $951,000 of those fines. Palm Tran staff also recommended a deadline of July 15 for Metro to satisfy the vehicle requirements of its contract.
“They had some service issues during the start-up period, and they wanted some consideration for that,” said assistant county administrator Brad Merriman, who oversees Palm Tran. “We believe there should be some consideration for that.”
Metro contends that when it became the sole provider, it did not have enough time to buy vehicles and that it had trouble hiring and training enough drivers to cover its routes.
“Metro said they thought they could do it,” Palm Tran director Chuck Cohen said. “Ultimately it took until the middle of October.”
Cohen said Metro’s service, especially its on-time performance, improved significantly in January, after Palm Tran employees took over scheduling duties. Staff recommended that Metro pay Palm Tran $60,000 a year, the cost of one employee to schedule Metro van rides.
The commission will discuss the recommendation at its regular meeting Tuesday and can reject the staff recommendation or change the amount of fines it will require Metro to pay.
Metro owner Cullan Meathe said he was unaware of the suit. Merriman, Cohen and Meathe’s attorney Neil Schiller all declined to comment on Weinwurm’s allegations. The matter would probably go to Metro’s insurance carrier, Schiller said.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit is that Metro’s drivers may not have been properly trained to handle frail, elderly or sick passengers like Weinwurm, who could walk only a few steps without help, according to his son, Arthur Weinwurm, a Boca Raton optometrist.
“For two years, he was pleased enough about the service. He knew all the drivers and it was social for him, talking to other people on the van,” Arthur Weinwurm said.
But last summer he told his son that van service suddenly got worse.
“There were longer routings and drivers who did not speak English well and seemed unfamiliar with the whole set-up” Arthur Weinwurm said. “Transportation was now taking double the amount of time.”
Jerome Weinwurm told his son the long rides, combined with three to four hours in dialysis three times a week were wearing him out. Finally, father and son agreed that Metro service had gotten so bad that Weinwurm’s health aide would start driving him to dialysis.
On Oct. 16, the health aide was unable to take Weinwurm to dialysis, so he arranged to take Metro. That is when, according to the suit, the driver dropped Weinwurm, who was about 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds, his son said.
When Weinwurm got home from dialysis, he told his son he was banged up, but could move his arms and legs. Two days later he was in such pain he had to go to the hospital.
On Oct. 18, his heart stopped. While hospital staff were able to revive him, he went into a coma. His heart stopped two more times during the coma. He died Oct. 21.
Before he lost consciousness, Weinwurm told his son “how aggravated he was that this had happened,” said Arthur Weinwurm. “He wanted justice to be done because he was so angry and upset. I told him we would deal with it when he got out. We were talking about moving him to rehab the next week.”
Unlike the full-size Palm Tran buses that run on fixed routes, there are no video cams on Metro vans that drive for Palm Tran Connection, said Cohen. That means that Weinwurm’s case may boil down to his version of the story or that of the driver.
Commissioner Shelley Vana, whose office has received a large number of customer complaints about Metro, said that she is still hearing from unhappy customers.
“Just today, I said, ‘Somebody is going to get killed,’” said Vana. “Some people have told us, ‘We just stopped riding.’ They are totally disgusted.”