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November 26, 2013

Man loses banana peel injury case, faces criminal charges

WASHINGTON — It was the video that did him in.

One night in early August, Maurice Owens was riding an elevator at a Washington Metro station when, he says, he slipped on a banana peel as he was getting off, injuring his hip and leg.

He sued the transit agency for $15,000 - in part to cover $4,500 in chiropractor bills.

Problem is, the whole incident was caught on tape - and the tape showed something different.

The claim against Metro was thrown out, and Owens, 42, ended up being charged with second-degree fraud, a felony.

"Through our investment in digital camera systems across the system, we are demonstrating our commitment to protecting fare-paying riders and the region's taxpayers from fraudulent claims," said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

Here's how the scene played out: About 9 p.m. Aug. 8, Owens can be seen entering an empty elevator in the station.

He paces around a bit, then glances up into the elevator's camera. More pacing. Another glance at the camera. In fact, in the video, which is about 90 seconds long, Owens is seen looking into the camera at least three times.

Near the end of the video, as the elevator doors open, Owens can be seen flipping something onto the floor behind him. According to a Metro Transit Police report "this object was later identified as a banana peel."

In a dramatic gesture, Owens falls to the ground - half his body inside the elevator, half outside.

Owens reported his injuries to the station manager, Metro Transit Police was called, and he was transported to Howard University Hospital Center for treatment.

About two weeks later, Owens filed his claim against Metro.

"What you will see in the camera footage is that the elevator, just prior to Mr. Owens boarding, shows there's nothing on the floor," Stessel said.

"He is then seen with what appears to be a banana peel in his hand, looking in the direction of the camera," Stessel said. "An object can be seen on the ground, and then when the elevator doors open, he steps on the object, thrusts himself forward and falls out of the elevator."

In an interview with Metro officials, Owens reportedly asked why a custodian for the station had "not cleaned up the banana peel prior to his entering the elevator," according to the police report.

Owens did not return a message left Tuesday at his Washington home.

Metro presented its case to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District. A warrant was issued accusing Owens of fraud, and he was arrested.

At a hearing earlier this month, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered Owens to undergo a mental health screening and evaluation. He is scheduled to appear in court Monday.

Slapstick references aside, the case is one of the roughly 225 claims Metro's Third Party Claims office receives each month. Most seek compensation for slips and falls on station platforms, stairs, escalators, elevators and buses, or while getting on and off trains.

Fewer than half those claims result in a settlement or payout from Metro, and the average payout is less than $2,500, Stessel said.

For example, over the past few years the agency paid: $50 to a Metro rider who said oil dripped from the air conditioner of a rail car onto his shirt, $45 to a rider who claimed to have gotten his sandal stuck in an escalator at West Falls Church, $104.37 to a driver who said the gate at the West Falls Church parking garage came down on his vehicle, and $100 to a person who said he lost his footing while walking down the steps at the Branch Avenue Metro station.

Stessel noted that Metro sometimes opens its own claims. "For example, if a person gets transported to the hospital, we will automatically open a claim. If the person never gets in touch with us, it is classified as 'abandoned,' " he said.

 

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