SEPTA itself is responsible for some of its woes.
The transit authority was criticized two weeks ago by state Auditor General Don Bailey for its cumbersome and outdated system of managing claims. And SEPTA records show thousands of incidents, ranging from bus doors closing on passengers to serious rail collisions, that prompt legal action.
But SEPTA officials, local lawyers and judges say the transit authority is also a juicy target in a society where people often view injury as opportunity.
"I've never seen so many herniated discs, bulging discs or other disorders in my life," said James J. Rooney, director of SEPTA's claims department. ''An accident here is akin to bank night back in the Depression."
Merely scratching at the intersection of the legal system and the SEPTA system turns up evidence that Rooney may be right.
On Dec. 10, one of SEPTA's Airport High Speed trains bumped into a loaded Chestnut Hill West train during rush hour at Suburban Station. Nearly four dozen people were sent to hospitals with scrapes, bloody noses and bruises. Only one person was hospitalized.
To date, 111 people have filed claims against SEPTA in that accident, and three have filed lawsuits.
No lawyer to file the lawsuit? No problem.
Gail Strafford, 19, of Glen Mills, was dragged between 50 and 100 feet along a platform at 30th Street Station in mid-January of last year, after her foot got caught in the door of a SEPTA train. Within days of the accident, she had been contacted by several lawyers.
"They were just interested in having my case. They said maybe they could get us some money, blah, blah, blah," Strafford recalled. She had already contacted a lawyer recommended by her family's attorney and is pursuing a lawsuit against SEPTA.
WANTS AT LEAST TWO HOUSES
A SEPTA passenger involved in another accident also is pressing a claim and hopes for a settlement large enough to pay for at least two houses.
Lessie Chisholm, 29, was thrown to the floor of a Norristown trolley Aug. 24 when it smashed into the wall of the 69th Street Station. Chisholm was treated at a local hospital for head and back injuries, and released. She was out of work for six weeks.
"It really was terrifying. One guy died later," Chisholm recalled. "I was knocked on the floor; people were trampling over me. People's feet were all on the top of my head and my back."
Within 24 hours of the accident, Chisholm said, she had a "lawyer that's taking care of everything." Neither she nor her lawyer would reveal how much money Chisholm is seeking, other than to say it would be more than $20,000.
"If SEPTA would come here with a checkbook and wanted to pay me, after the laywer got his and the bills were paid, I would want enough to maybe buy me a couple homes and two cars," Chisholm said. "So you can estimate from that."
"Ten thousand dollars? No, I wouldn't be happy with $10,000," she added.
According to records at City Hall, 267 new lawsuits were filed against SEPTA in May. SEPTA general counsel James Kilcur estimates that 6,000 lawsuits are outstanding.
SEPTA receives about 1,250 complaints for damages each month. A third of these turn into lawsuits, and another third are settled without any cash payment, Kilcur says. The remainder are settled before they become lawsuits.
LIABILITY OF $142 MILLION
Though the average amount - $4,000 - paid to cover individual claims is relatively small, SEPTA's total liability for outstanding claims is a staggering $142 million.
Settling those claims is a legal game.
Edward Chacker, plaintiff's counsel and head of the Philadelphia Bar Association's arbitration committee, says SEPTA attorneys play the game as well as any lawyers.
"I think there is a misconception that SEPTA is a sitting duck," Chacker said. "On major cases, they have some of the most experienced trial laywers. On minor cases, they foul up as often as any firm with a lot of volume.
"They know which lawyers will go to court and try a case. . . . They know which one will go to court, pick a jury and call a first witness, a second, a third and a fourth, and try the whole case and wait for the jury to come into the room before they settle."
SEPTA has been criticized both publicly and privately, though, for some of its legal practices.
Former Court of Common Pleas Judge Stanley Greenberg sums up most of the criticisms when he outlines two reasons SEPTA is being sucked down the liability drain.
"People don't like SEPTA, most especially the people who ride the lines or people who drive on the same streets - and that's a lot of people," he says. ''And SEPTA just doesn't recognize their exposure as a target defendant. They don't take into consideration that they start off behind."
That blind spot, Greenberg says, leads SEPTA to allow too many cases to proceed to trial, where jurors are willing to "come down with a vengeance" on the transportation agency.
OUT OF COURT
SEPTA lawyers, according to Greenberg and other critics, don't move aggressively enough to settle out of court with plaintiffs. By the time SEPTA realizes that the case is bound for trial, particularly if it decides to hire an outside attorney, the preparation time is often extremely short.
Greenberg and Chacker both said that jurors seemed willing to give the benefit of the doubt, if there is a doubt, to plaintiffs rather than to SEPTA.
And Philadelphia juries are particularly generous in civil cases. According to an Ohio research firm, during the last two years, Philadelphia juries returned verdicts that were between 13 and 21 percent greater, in dollars awarded, than the national average.
"We operate in a very negative environment," says Kilcur, SEPTA's chief lawyer. "We try to personalize SEPTA if we can, by bringing the operator and sitting him at the defense table, so they can see that we're not just an impersonal institution. We're people."
TRYING TO STAUNCH THE FLOW
Kilcur, Rooney and other SEPTA managers are trying to staunch the flow of claims money, with improvements both major and minor.
They have aggressively pursued new legal interpretations to cut SEPTA's liability.
Early this month, the state Supreme Court reaffirmed a ruling that SEPTA is a state agency. That means that no one person can collect more than $250,000 in damages from an accident, regardless of the injuries. And no matter how many people are injured in an accident, SEPTA won't have to pay more than $1 million to those people as a group.
"As soon as the first case came down (imposing the $250,000 cap), SEPTA stopped paying," said Chacker, who thinks his recent $750,000 settlement - for a boy who lost a leg in an accident - was one of SEPTA's last big payouts. "Their standard offer now is $250,000."
Within the last year, SEPTA enlisted medical experts to examine the treatment records of 1,000 plaintiffs.
The auditors revealed an average of $1,000 in excessive or inappropriate medical treatment in those cases. They found hospital bills for stays that took place before an accident. They found prescriptions for excess narcotics. And, in one case, they found a prescription for 50 condoms.
In the last 18 months, SEPTA has hired 10 more attorneys. One of SEPTA's insurers insisted on the move, saying that future insurance depended on the transit authority's ability to defend itself.
Record-keeping at SEPTA is being computerized. Two years ago, SEPTA's only central record of legal claims was a catalog of index cards that provided scant information and could not be cross-referenced.
Using the computer system created a year ago, SEPTA managers soon will be able to compare claims, identify repeat plaintiffs and look for patterns in injuries that result in big awards. The program can be manipulated to determine the most dangerous intersections or accident-prone bus routes.
Operators can cross-check records by name and incident while a person is still in the midst of reporting a claim, to see if a previous claim or a similar complaint has been made.
But fighting the rising tide of claims sometimes seems fruitless, especially in what Rooney called "probably the most litigious spot in the world."
Despite a decrease of 19 percent in the number of accidents between 1979 and early 1985, the dollar volume of claims against SEPTA rose by 39 percent.
Judith Harris, one of two Philadelphia representatives on the SEPTA board, recalled recently riding on a city bus that stopped abruptly in an
intersection to avoid hitting a car.
When the bus stopped, a frail old woman with a cane fell over in the aisle. Immediately, Harris said, the rest of the passengers began shouting, ''Sue. Sue."