May 28 2011
It seemed like a generous gesture: The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa offering R10 000 to each passenger injured in last week's Soweto train crash.
But lawyers have labelled it a cynical ploy to head off a class action that could cost the rail operator R1 billion.
Prasa has put together a war chest of R20-million as its officials approach 1 057 commuters injured in two different train collisions – in Pretoria last month and Soweto last week – offering them up to R10 000 for serious injuries in a once off payment, providing they sign a waiver preventing them from suing Prasa in court.
On Friday, the President of the South African Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and former head of the South African Law Society Ronald Bobroff accused Prasa of a cynical public relations ploy in a bid to avoid paying out up to R1-million per claim.
“The bottom line is that the law stipulates that any person injured in this country in the hands of another person has the right to claim what is conducive to them. Setting up kiosks near train stations and misleading uninformed people to giving up their rights is unacceptable,” Bobroff said.
The SA Rail Commuter Corporation had to pay R320 000 in damages to a Sebokeng resident who suffered serious injuries when he fell out of a moving train. Mzondeni July Nhlapo, had claimed R484 000, but the rail company settled before the case went to court.
Nhlapo was on the train on May 23, 2007, when he fell through an open door and landed between the train and the platform.
The train was at Houtkop station and on its way to Vereeniging. Nhlapo injured his right knee and shoulder, chest, ankle and foot.
Bobroff said the train commuters equally had the right to claim more than what Metrorail or Prasa offered.
“If 50 percent of the commuters each claimed anything between R500 000 or a R1m, this would far outweigh Prasa’s money. So you can’t put an amount of R7 000 or R10 000 on a person’s life or livelihood.”
Bobroff urged commuters not to accept the money or be coerced into thinking they were getting a wonderful gift.
Prasa’s proposed compensation has also angered Lindeni Shange whose husband, Samuel Shange, is still recuperating at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital.
“Is my husband’s life really worth R10 000 or R1 000 000?”
Shange said she was unhappy about the attitude of Metrorail and Prasa.
“You would never hear of such incidents in the olden days. What frustrates us further is the little money the victims are offered.
“What is R10 000 going to do especially if your husband is a bread winner who has to feed almost 10 mouths?”
Shange said young and inexperienced drivers were hired by the rail entities.
“Their attitudes and the desire to speed these trains shows that they have no respect for commuters.”
Joburg personal claims attorney Michael de Broglio said his firm had already been approached by some of the injured victims.
De Broglio said it was unwise of Prasa to think that a head injury or a leg amputation could be worth R10 000.
“It won’t cover the pain and suffering, the loss of income and not to mention the cost of future medical treatment.”
Prasa has revealed that between 1 800 to 2 000 passengers were on board train 9432 on May 19 when it collided with the Soweto Business Express train carrying 42 passengers.
The trains collided between the Mzimhlophe and Phomolong train stations and 857 people were injured.
Train driver Musa Phakathi was fired this week for speeding – and he was already on a warning for going too fast.
On Friday Phakathi was still too distressed to comment.
The SA Transport and Allied Workers Union, which is angry at how Prasa handled Phakathi’s dismissal, said they would help him appeal against the dismissal.
The Soweto train crash occurred a month after train driver Anna Maseko died and 200 people were injured when two Metrorail trains hit into each other in Pretoria due to signal failure.
Prasa spokesman Nana Zenani said the injured were not forced to accept the payout.
“We have given them two options. One is to make claims or consult their lawyers.”
Zenani said it was important for commuters to know that once they had accepted the claim, they would not be compensated further.
Meanwhile, the Railway Safety Regulator launched its far-reaching, SA Bureau of Standards-developed national guidelines on railway safety yesterday.