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MTA driver crashed before; Suits over accidents in '80s were settled out of court


The operator of the light-rail train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport Feb. 13 was the transit driver in at least two accidents resulting in suits against the Mass Transit Administration, according to Baltimore City Circuit Court records.

Records show a suit resulting from a 1981 accident in which Sam Epps Jr. was driving an MTA bus was settled before it went to trial. But the case file detailing the accident was not available, nor was the amount of the settlement.

Several passengers on a bus driven by Epps sued him, the transit company and the driver of a car involved in a crash on July 27, 1986, at Gay and Saratoga streets. The suits said Valerie F. Whittaker, of the 300 block of Maude Ave., failed to yield to the bus, causing the accident. The suits also contended Epps was negligent because he didn't avoid Whittaker's car.

Those suits also were settled before going to trial with defendants ordered to pay costs. The amounts of the settlements, however, are not available.

At least three passengers on the light-rail train -- which broke through a barrier at the airport station in Linthicum, then slammed into a bumper and derailed -- say they have retained lawyers.

Sharon King Dudley, representing passenger Vernon Wright, said she is investigating, and it is "a bit premature" to decide whether her client will file suit.

Wright, of the 2900 block of Dedham Circle in Baltimore, was treated at Harbor Hospital Center after the accident and released.

No criminal charges have been filed in the crash. MTA police have completed their investigation and are expected to forward their report to Anne Arundel County police Monday, according to Anthony Brown, an MTA spokesman. Anne Arundel has jurisdiction because the airport is in the county.

Epps, 53, a 25-year transit veteran, was injured in the accident along with 22 passengers. Most suffered minor injuries, including fractures and cuts, and were treated at local hospitals and released. Three passengers were taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and have since been released.

MTA spokesman Frank Fulton said yesterday he has not heard of any suits being filed or anyone threatening to sue.

Plaintiffs in such cases generally try to reclaim medical expenses and seek money for issues such as pain and suffering, lost wages, future lost wages and loss of ability to have sexual relations with their spouses.

Epps, of Forest Park Drive in Baltimore, who tested positive for cocaine after the accident and was taking the powerful painkiller oxycodone, had had problems with drugs before and was seen falling asleep at the controls, according to MTA documents and state sources.

He was fired Feb. 17 because he did not tell his supervisor about the oxycodone. MTA drug policy requires employees in positions such as light-rail operators to tell their supervisors if they are taking prescription medication.

MTA officials didn't know about the positive cocaine test until Feb. 18.

Epps, who became a light-rail motorman seven years ago, also tested positive for cocaine during a random drug test in 1994. He completed an employee rehabilitation program and was returned to his job, according to sources. He could not be reached to comment yesterday.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said Thursday he had ordered a "top-to-bottom review" of the MTA's drug policies and promised he would develop "a series of recommendations to strengthen our operations within 30 days."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is "concerned" that a transit driver who tested positive for cocaine was allowed to return to the cab of a light-rail train after completing a rehabilitation program, said Mike Morrill, the governor's communications director.

"He has asked the transportation secretary to look at that, along with the entire drug policy," Morrill said. "The governor believes there are other jobs [operators who have tested positive for drugs] can do without jeopardizing the public."

Nationally, proponents of stronger drug-testing policies argue that rehabilitation programs don't work. A 1988 study cited by the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace in a U. S. Supreme Court case found that 79 percent of drug users were on drugs within five years after going through an intensive rehab program.

Others point out that positive drug tests in transportation related jobs have hovered at less than 1 percent, compared with 5 to 10 percent in other businessess since drug testing programs were instituted in 1987. Neither Amtrak nor any of the commercial passenger airlines have had accidents resulting from drug or alcohol use since 1987.

The MTA has conducted 2,000 drug tests over the past year, in which 10 have tested positive.

Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Neal Thompson and William F. Zorzi contributed to this article.

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