Leaking water in subways costs millions in claims

Water drips persistently from a corroded overhead duct at the SEPTA concourse at Eighth and Market Streets.
Water drips persistently from a corroded overhead duct at the SEPTA concourse at Eighth and Market Streets. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 20, 2013

SEPTA, PATCO, and the City of Philadelphia have paid millions of dollars to victims of slip-and-fall accidents in subways while failing to fix the hazards that cause the accidents.

Leaking ceilings and slippery floors remain, sometimes for years after they have caused serious accidents that injured passengers.

Elana Adams, a church administrator from North Philadelphia, can pinpoint where she fell on a rainy day in November 2011 in the PATCO concourse near Juniper and Locust Streets. Since then, the ceiling grate has been painted, but rust has returned, showing where water regularly drips onto the floor.

The police officers who found Adams lying in a puddle that day told her "it was like the third time this had happened here," she said recently.

Internal PATCO e-mails show the authority was aware of problems; two months before Adams fell, some of the flooring in the city-owned Locust Street concourse had failed a slip-resistance test by PATCO.

A health-care worker from South Philadelphia who asked that his name not be used because his brother works for SEPTA can still visit the site of his March 2011 fall in the City Hall station on the Broad Street subway. The spot on the southbound platform near stairwell six is easy to find because of the wet rust stains on the floor and the leaking, rusting pipe overhead.

Even in a drought

After the man sued SEPTA over his back injuries, SEPTA workers testified they had reported the leak to supervisors for years; one manager said the spot was always wet. "There was a drought, and we still had that leak," the manager told lawyer Thomas Murphy in a deposition.

Janice Potts, a legal-services executive who lives in Center City, fell in PATCO's Ninth and Locust concourse on a rainy day in January. The floor was wet from a persistent leak that has left a permanent rust stain on it.

And the station has two types of floor surfaces near where Potts fell - a rough-textured, skid-resistant floor and a much smoother surface that looks the same but that is less safe.

Scott Moore, a safety engineer from Cherry Hill who tested the two PATCO floor surfaces for The Inquirer, said the deceptively smooth surface creates a "kill zone" for pedestrians.

Costly injuries

SEPTA records show 513 slip-and-fall cases reported in the last five years. The accidents have cost SEPTA $10.5 million.

PATCO and its parent, the Delaware River Port Authority, said they didn't know how many slip-and-fall cases they'd had, but a January audit noted that "for PATCO, both in-station and on-train slip-and-fall type claims were common."

The DRPA and PATCO paid $17.6 million for 46 cases, including slip-and-falls, over the last 10 years, the audit said.

"The most frequent type of litigation to which the authority is exposed is personal-injury cases arising from 'slip-and-fall' type claims related to the PATCO High Speed Line," the DRPA noted last year.

The financially strapped City of Philadelphia owns most of the 500,000 square feet of concourses extending under Market Street from Eighth to 18th Streets, under Broad Street from City Hall to Spruce Street, and under Locust Street between Ninth and 16th Streets. Most were built in the 1920s.

The city is "well aware of the kinds of problems that are out there," Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said. "It's not anywhere near where we'd like it to be.

"But you're talking about a city government and a transportation agency that both have significant fiscal issues," McDonald said.

SEPTA is in long-running negotiations with the city to assume control of the concourses, and general manager Joseph Casey said, "It is our intent to take over the concourse and fix it."

Now, though, despite the frequency and cost of slip-and-fall accidents, the city, SEPTA, and PATCO often just put up orange cones and yellow "wet floor" warning signs, rather than repairing the ceilings and floors.

In the concourse beneath SEPTA headquarters at 12th and Market Streets, stalactites of corrosion hang from a persistently wet ceiling above a sloping pedestrian ramp. A "wet floor" sign is always there, along with white buckets to catch water that regularly drips onto the floor.

"This solution is comical," said Russell Kendzior, founder of the National Floor Safety Institute and author of Falls Aren't Funny, a book about fall prevention. "They've got a problem, and this is the symptom, not the solution. They need to fix the problem."

In the concourse below Eighth and Market Streets, where three SEPTA and PATCO subway lines converge, a gaping hole in the ceiling has been left untended for more than a year. On the sloping red-tile floor below the hole, two buckets rest between an orange cone and a yellow "wet floor" sign.

Nearby, at the top of a stairwell from the PATCO platform, is the floor where Debra Kornberger of Marlton fell on a snowy day in January 2011, breaking an arm, dislocating a shoulder, and injuring her back.

"I couldn't see the floor was wet. . . . It was like black ice," said Kornberger, revisiting the spot recently. She said a doctor and nurse who were passengers on the train stayed to help her while an ambulance was called.

"A PATCO attendant said, 'Can you get up?' I said, 'No,' and that was the last I saw of her," said Kornberger, who hired Newtown lawyer Mel Kardos to sue PATCO and SEPTA.

William Marletta, a safety engineer who tested the roughness and coefficient of friction of the floor where Kornberger fell, said part of the floor at the top of the stairs "is terrible when wet."

The moisture problems inherent in underground spaces are made worse in Philadelphia's subways by their age, a lack of money for repairs, and overlapping jurisdictions that make responsibility hard to pinpoint.

And myriad floor surfaces, some much slipperier than others, can make walking unpredictable, especially when the floors are wet.

Water . . . everywhere

"We're constantly battling water in the tunnels," said Jeffrey Knueppel, SEPTA's deputy general manager, who estimated SEPTA spends $500,000 a year fixing leaks with injections of epoxy and other efforts beneath Center City.

Water is an insidious enemy of subways, Knueppel said.

"It's very important that when you do a capital-improvement project, you deal with water leaks or your improvement doesn't last. Then you're throwing good money after bad."

"Money is scarce right now," Knueppel said. "The tunnel is 100 years old and it's going to have leaks. But you need the capital to make the repairs, or it's going to lead to more claims, slow zones [for trains], and other problems.

"It can be very demoralizing not to be able to address water infiltration."

PATCO spent $9.5 million in the last three years to improve its stations and concourses in Camden and Philadelphia, including installing new floor surfaces.

But water still comes in from above, and the new floor surfaces vary in roughness, creating a hazard of their own.

Around the base of Locust Street stairwells, PATCO contractors added grit to the floor to increase traction. But about 15 feet away, the surface has no grit, and the floor is much slipperier.

"This makes no sense at all," said Moore, who tested the two surfaces for The Inquirer. "This is like the kill zone [for pedestrians]."

Safety engineer Marletta said the rough-textured area "may be the best floor I've ever tested." But the adjacent smooth floor is unsafe when wet, his tests showed.

PATCO spokesman Tim Ireland said the city should make any additional repairs because the city owns the concourse.

"I would say DRPA has done its share. I would say it would not be unreasonable for the city to finish the job if it decides it needs to be done," Ireland said.

He declined to discuss the Elana Adams slip-and-fall case, citing the ongoing litigation, but he said water problems were constant in the subway.

"The battle against water is a perpetual one," he said. "You're fighting against nature. I think we do a pretty good job, but we'll never get it all."


Contact Paul Nussbaum or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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