Hail a taxi in Phila. - at your own risk Most cabs carry only minimal insurance policies.

Posted: October 19, 2003

Herbert Alcott rode around Philadelphia in taxicabs for 50 years and never gave a thought as to what sort of insurance the cars were carrying.

But after he was hit by a cab in Center City a few months ago, Alcott learned a stunning fact: The 1,600 state-licensed taxis that zoom along city streets day and night carry only the minimum level of insurance to operate legally - $15,000 in liability coverage per person [with claims capped at $30,000] and $25,000 in medical coverage.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION, PUBLISHED OCTOBER 20, 2003, FOLLOWS: A story about taxicabs in Sunday's Inquirer dropped some lines of text between Page A1 and Page A16. This is how the story should have read leading into the first quote on A16: The premiums are staggering because it is a crack-up derby out there. Reckless driving is almost a part of the culture. Industry experts say that cabs in Philadelphia are involved in an average of 1.5 accidents per year. District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham was so upset when a cab nearly crashed into her city car last month that she filed a complaint with the state Public Utility Commission, which regulates cabs.

Cab owners do not carry more insurance because it is expensive. Even for such nominal coverage, premiums cost more than $6,000 a year for a Philadelphia taxi. For some cabs, the rates are as high as $10,000.

The premiums are staggering because it is a crack-up derby out there. Reckless driving is almost a part of the culture. Industry experts say that cabs in Philadelphia are involved in an average of 1.5 accidents per year.

District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham was so upset when a cab nearly crashed into her city car last month that she filed a complaint with the state Public Utility Commission, which regulates cabs.

"If it hadn't been for my driver's quick reaction time, there might have been a horrible accident," Abraham wrote the commission. "This cab driver was driving very recklessly, endangering the safety of drivers as well as pedestrians."

Asked if, in her view, $15,000 liability insurance was enough, Abraham said: "Obviously, the answer is no. That guy could have killed somebody. It's absurd to have $15,000 in insurance."

By contrast, New York City taxis are required to carry $100,000 per person in liability insurance. In New Jersey, the minimum requirement is $35,000, but municipalities can set higher requirements within their borders.

Most taxicab accidents are minor. Many people file injury claims no matter how slight the mishap. That pushes up insurance costs and makes higher levels of coverage unaffordable for many cab owners.

"I'd say in one out of 100 accidents somebody is hurt," said Ronald Winkelvoss, president of Quaker City Cab. "But they all run to the lawyers."

The minimum insurance levels for taxis are set by Pennsylvania law. They have not been updated since 1987. Many people in the taxi business agree that the levels are too low to cover a serious injury.

In July, through an act of the General Assembly, the Philadelphia Parking Authority will take over the regulation of Philadelphia taxis from the Public Utility Commission.

Joseph M. Egan, executive director of the authority, said taxi insurance is an important issue, but it is too soon to say whether coverage requirements will be raised.

"If the public knew how little coverage they had when they're riding in these cabs, they'd be horror-stricken," said Mark A. Berenato, a lawyer and insurance broker for the cab industry. "Nobody would get into a taxicab. . . . It's really like having no coverage."

No one knows that better than Alcott.

Alcott, 78, a retired banker who lives in Center City, suffered a shattered right knee when he was knocked down by a Victory cab as he crossed the street at 18th and Chestnut on July 8.

He underwent surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital and spent 11 weeks in hospitals and at a rehabilitation facility. His right leg is in a brace. He must use a walker. His medical expenses are expected to exceed $100,000. And he is not sure whether he will regain full use of his leg.

Alcott had no idea taxis carried such low insurance.

"I never even thought of it," he said. "I thought taxicabs were covered like everybody else."

Alcott's lawyer, George Bochetto, contends that the fragmented nature of the cab industry - a hodge-podge of hundreds of owners, countless drivers who lease cabs by the day or week, and 28 independent radio-dispatch companies - enables cab companies to evade liability.

"In no other industry that I can think of are the actors allowed to break their business down to the smallest common denominator and escape financial responsibility," Bochetto said. "Why are cab companies allowed to expose the public to huge risks?"

As of last week, it appeared uncertain whether Alcott would be able to collect even the minimum coverage carried by the cab that hit him.

The owner's insurer, Prime Insurance Syndicate of Chicago, refused to pay any claim because the cab driver, Terris Sterling, was not covered under the vehicle's policy until 14 days after the accident.

Sterling, who leased the cab on a shift-by-shift basis, said in an interview that insurance was the owner's responsibility.

The owner, Everett Abitbol, whose company E.A. Cab is licensed to operate 15 taxis, said drivers who lease his cabs are covered with insurance. He declined to discuss the Alcott accident.

Abitbol and his father, Simon Abitbol, are major figures in the cab business in Philadelphia. Simon Abitbol also is a prominent financier in the cab industry in New York. In Philadelphia, the Abitbols control Victory Cab Association and are licensed by the Public Utility Commission to operate about 150 cabs.

Everett Abitbol acknowledged that cabs are not adequately insured.

But it is difficult to raise the coverage, he said, because many dubious injury claims are filed in minor accidents and many cabbies are reckless drivers.

"You know," Abitbol said with a chuckle, "sometimes when I'm driving, I almost get hit by my own cabs. I say, 'These guys are crazy.' "

Bochetto has filed suit against Abitbol, his father, several of their companies, and the Victory Cab Association.

Bochetto contends that the Abitbols' businesses are multiple components of a single enterprise that should be held accountable for Alcott's injury.

Eli Gabay, lawyer for the Abitbols, could not be reached for comment.

"They need to find a solution," said Bochetto, speaking generally about the cab industry. "They can't just go on ruining lives and then, when the day of reckoning comes, say 'Oops, sorry. Got nothin.' "

Contact staff writer L. Stuart Ditzen at 215-854-2431 or sditzen@phillynews.com.

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