A NJ Transit train enters the Hamilton station on Feb. 21, 2022. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)
Fourteen train crew members have sued NJ Transit for negligence, claiming the agency failed to protect them from abusive passengers.
In a 36-page complaint filed in federal court, the conductors, fare collectors, and other crew members described encounters with irate passengers who assaulted, insulted, spat at, and threatened them with guns and knives.
Incidents detailed occurred since the start of the pandemic and often erupted after train crews acted to enforce the agency’s mask mandate for passengers and other rail rules, according to the complaint. In some cases, the abusive passengers were fare-dodgers who became combative when caught.
Crew members who called supervisors and transit police for help often were left waiting, according to the complaint. In a June 29 incident, a crew member said an “angry mob” formed around him at New York Penn Station after a Raritan line train became disabled, but no one responded when he called for help, forcing him to flee to an empty railcar and lock himself inside for safety, according to the complaint.
Other employees recounted incidents where passengers hurled hot coffee on them, threw them over train seats, and wrestled them on platforms.
Crew members consequently suffered injuries including concussions, torn tendons, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the complaint.
NJ Transit “required its train crew employees to assume the role of first responders/law enforcement officers with respect to passengers and others on board its trains, at its stations, and at its station platforms,” the lawsuit states. “Violent passenger behaviors escalated as the pandemic continued.”
Agency officials were well aware of increasing abuse against train crews because they supported legislation that Gov. Phil Murphy signed in January to toughen penalties against abusive passengers, said Robert Myers, the Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based attorney who filed the lawsuit.
The complaint accuses the agency of failing to put enough security staff on trains and at stations and platforms; train staff in self-defense and equip them with defensive tools like pepper spray and stun guns; prevent overcrowding on trains and platforms and provide safe spaces on both for staff to escape dangerous passengers; and install and monitor security cameras and communications systems on trains and stations.
A NJ Transit spokesperson declined to comment.
Myers said he has fought NJ Transit and other agencies on behalf of injured train workers since the early 1990s. Violence by passengers attacking train crews has been an ongoing problem that agencies exacerbate by failing to have adequate security staffing and protocols in place, especially during peak travel times, Myers said.
“The reason why we filed the lawsuit is to try to get a change in the safety culture to protect not just crews but passengers as well,” Myers said.
The new law Murphy signed in January also allows NJ Transit to suspend or ban public transit riders who assault employees and requires the agency to install communications systems in all trains and buses to ensure employees can connect quickly with law enforcement in emergencies.
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