But unlike some accident victims who accept a woefully insufficient insurance payout, Marion Rideout refused to take “that’s all” as a final answer. She joined battle with Tutunjian — a battle that would continue for two nightmarish years.
In her desperation and determination, she has some company — others who refused to accept the company’s terms and went to court to fight Boston Cab. Among them:
■ The family of Anna Makrokanis, a 79-year-old woman who was killed getting out of a Boston Cab taxi in 1997 when the driver allegedly took his foot off the brake.
■ Mariano C. Lozano, a taxi driver who lost both his legs when the Boston Cab taxi behind him in line at Logan rolled into him, also in 1997.
■ Daniel Fitzgerald, a Boston police officer who allegedly suffered neck and back injuries when a Boston Cab taxi struck him while he was directing rush-hour traffic in the Financial District in 2009. The cabbie said his foot slipped from the brake onto the gas pedal. A trial is scheduled for May.
■ Dr. Merton Bernfield, who said he had his hand on a Boston Cab taxi as he spoke to the driver outside Children’s Hospital in 2001. When the driver sped away, Bernfield alleged, he fell and dislocated his shoulder. The 62-year-old professor of pediatrics and cell biology at Harvard Medical School had Parkinson’s disease, and his widow believes the fall led to a cascade of medical setbacks that hastened his death 13 months later.
It is legal and common for business owners to form corporations to limit their liability, but lawyers for accident victims contend that Tutunjian exploits corporate protections to put his assets out of reach. They say he uses the power of his deep-pocketed corporations to solicit riders and attract taxi drivers, then denies those corporations have anything to do with his small medallion-owning companies when a cab is involved in an accident.
“It would be as though I called American Airlines and booked a flight, and then something horrible happened on the plane, and they said, ‘We don’t own it. It was Ralph’s Plane Inc.,’ ’’ said the Bernfields’ attorney, Jonathan Karon.
Several state judges and court officials have assailed Tutunjian for trying to conceal how his corporations are interconnected and for failing to turn over evidence to plaintiffs hurt in taxi accidents.
“After living with this case over the past few months, I cannot help but conclude that Mr. Tutunjian has either a practice and policy of withholding documents in discovery or disposing of business records an ordinary businessman would maintain for years longer,’’ a court-appointed master wrote in 2007 in the case of a South Boston woman who broke her neck in the back seat of a Tutunjian cab hit by another car.
Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Connolly was even more withering two years ago. He wrote that Tutunjian’s tactic of distancing himself from his drivers and walling off his assets into myriad small companies were “shams.’’
Tutunjian was asked about Connolly’s comments and the Rideout case, which, according to court files in an unrelated suit against him, he ultimately settled for $1.5 million. He wrote that the Globe’s “choice of one large settlement over 25 years and the comments of one judge suggest the negative slant of your upcoming article and your willingness to accept the biases of a small number of unhappy drivers and litigants.”
Tutunjian then declined to discuss further personal injury cases filed against his firms. In fact, juries have ordered Tutunjian to pay, or he has agreed to pay, a total of $6.2 million in four personal injury cases just since 2004, including Rideout’s and that of the man killed in the same accident.
Even so, the taxi magnate’s practice of self-insuring his fleet has proved a remarkable bargain for him.
Instead of paying insurance for nearly 400 cabs, he keeps $10,000 on deposit with the state treasurer for each of his cabs as security in case of an accident. His taxis currently account for two-thirds of all the cars in the state-run self-insurance program. With almost $4 million on deposit, he has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest over the past decade.
Being self-insured means that Tutunjian, not an insurance company, decides what — if anything — to offer an accident victim. His taxi operation handles 500 to 700 insurance claims a year, Armen Mahserejian, Tutunjian’s nephew and top manager, testified in 2005.
Tutunjian hires a company that provides professional adjusters for the claims, but a longtime adjuster testified in 2008 that “I take my marching orders from Armen.”Continued...