Families who lost loved ones in the VTA rail yard shooting earlier this year are trying to obtain workers’ compensation payments—and lawsuits may be on the horizon.
In closed session at a board meeting earlier this month, VTA officials discussed existing and anticipated litigation related to the May 26 shooting at the Guadalupe Light Rail Facility in downtown San Jose. VTA faces significant exposure to litigation from eight cases involving relatives of workers killed in the shooting, according to the agency’s meeting agenda.
The family of Timothy Romo, one of nine workers killed in the shooting, filed a claim with the Workers Compensation Appeals Board on June 9. The attorney who submitted the claim, Guy Medford, did not respond to a request for comment.
Romo’s wife, Annette, told San José Spotlight she believed other families were looking into filing civil suits, but wasn’t aware of anyone who filed yet. Ana Romo, Timothy’s daughter-in-law, said she is angry with VTA.
“VTA is not really helping, in my opinion,” Ana said.
Workers’ compensation generally limits the ability of employees or their families to bring civil suits against an employer. But families may sue the employer or claims adjustor if there is a denial of benefits or a dispute over payout. Prolonged litigation could be a problem for VTA, an agency hounded by money woes for years that anticipates net losses over the next decade.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union are covered by assault insurance, according to VTA’s website. ATU Local 265, which represented eight of the employees killed on May 26, stipulated in its collective bargaining contract with VTA that the agency will provide a $50,000 insurance policy for all represented employees who die as the result of a criminal act of violence while at work. It’s not immediately clear what union represented the ninth worker.
John Courtney, president of ATU Local 265, said families of the victims should get paid as long as they turned in their paperwork on time. But he said the process is slow, and VTA’s third party claim administrator, TriStar Risk Management, is notorious for denying claims.
“VTA has the worst workers’ compensation administrator that I’ve ever come across,” Courtney told San José Spotlight. “They’re horrible, they deny most of our claims, a lot of times we have to take them back and we have to refer our members to basically sue VTA and TriStar for the claim.”
VTA officials told San José Spotlight it can’t provide information regarding workers’ compensation and litigation. A spokesperson for TriStar did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not immediately clear if all of the victims’ families have filed for workers’ compensation. According to the California workers’ compensation database, relatives of at least two workers have filed claims—Timothy Romo and Adrian Balleza.
The attorney for Balleza’s family, Douglas Jaffe, told San José Spotlight he filed an application at the San Jose Workers Compensation Appeals Board on behalf of Balleza’s wife and child, and that he will negotiate with the defendants to resolve the claim.
Alex Ward Fritch’s wife, Terra, told San José Spotlight she received a letter from Tristar Risk Management that said her claim was accepted. Workers’ comp covered the cost of her husband’s funeral, but Terra said she hasn’t seen additional money or heard anything further from TriStar or VTA.
“Nobody seems to know about it specifically,” she said, adding that she isn’t willing to comment on whether she was considering civil litigation at this point.
Terra previously criticized VTA for failing to give her a straight answer about benefits and financial help for her husband’s funeral. VTA officials say they tried to help her “navigate a complex set of resources and benefits.”
VTA suffers from longstanding financial challenges that have only worsened in the pandemic.
In 2019, a civil grand jury found that VTA’s operating performance steadily declined for a decade. It also criticized the VTA Board of Directors for failing to seriously address the financial problems overtaking the agency. In 2020, VTA officials said the transit agency considered painful cuts to its operational budget for the following year due to declining ridership in the pandemic. The agency anticipated a $100 million budget deficit for the year.
The agency did receive $20 million in state funding to provide mental health resources to employees and their families, and to upgrade the safety of its rail yard.