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August 9, 2012
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Mother sues bus agency, driver over daughter's death near Aspen

ASPEN - The mother of a woman who was struck and killed by a public bus near Aspen on the morning of Jan. 1 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and one of its drivers.Kansas resident Joanne Borell, the mother of Joanie Kocab, alleges that RFTA's negligence was the "direct and proximate cause" of the death of her daughter, who was 29 years old at the time. The suit was filed late Tuesday in Pitkin County District Court.On Wednesday, Bloch & Chapleau LLC, the Denver-based law firm representing Borell, issued a stattement about the suit and the death of Kocab."Ms. Kocab was struck from behind by the commuter bus on Highway 82 at such a rate of speed that her head shattered the bus's windshield upon impact, and her body was dragged for some time as the bus driver was unaware that she had hit someone," the statement says.RFTA President and CEO Dan Blankenship said Wednesday that he had not seen the complaint and could not comment on it. He said RFTA previously had been informed, through a notice from Borell's law firm, that a suit was likely."We received notification from them that they intended to sue," he said.The driver of the bus, Vijita Evans, also is a defendant in the lawsuit. She remains an employee of RFTA but is not driving and is currently on worker's compensation, Blankenship said. He declined to provide more specifics about the status of Evans, citing personnel reasons, but said RFTA's insurance carrier would absorb her legal costs associated with the suit.The statement alleges that Evans told law enforcement that she "was stunned to hear that she had hit someone."The suit seeks an unspecified amount in monetary damages due to Borell's "loss of enjoyment of life, mental distress, emotional pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and other incidental and consequential losses."It also claims that RFTA "knew or had reason to know that defendant Evans was likely to use the bus in such a manner so as to create an unreasonable risk to others."While the lawsuit is pending in the civil arena, the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office opted in March not to pursue criminal charges against Evans.A two-week resident of Basalt, Kocab - who was raised in Kansas and earned her master's degree in museum studies at the University of Kansas in 2008 - was killed as she was walking in the eastbound bus lane of Highway 82, just west of the intersection at Owl Creek Road.On Feb. 15, the Pitkin County Coroner's Office issued a report saying that Kocab's blood-alcohol content at the time she died was 0.298 percent, more than three times Colorado's legal threshold for driving under the influence.Trenton Ongert, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, said he expects RFTA to use Kocab's intoxication level in an effort to show she was negligent at the time of her death. "They will make the affirmative defense - and that is contributory negligence," Ongert said. "But we believe it's the actions of the RFTA driver that caused her death."Ongert also said the mother's chief goal in the suit is not about money; state law sets $436,000 as the maximum amount a governmental entity can pay out in a wrongful-death claim."The main thrust of the lawsuit is to find out exactly what happened that night," he said. Additionally, Ongert said his firm has made several requests to RFTA for the toxicology reports of Evans from the night in question."We were actually told by RFTA that they did do alcohol and drug tests on the driver, but they were not provided to us," he said, adding that he was not suggesting Evans was under the influence that night but that his firm wants to see the report nonetheless. The Colorado State Patrol did not administer any toxicology tests on Evans. Unanswered questions remain about the moments that preceded the death, including how Kocab made it from Basalt to the outskirts of Aspen - a stretch of roughly 20 miles on Highway 82 - the morning of the fatal accident.While the State Patrol investigated the accident, the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office was charged with investigating what precipitated it. Sheriff's deputies had said she exited a RFTA bus in Basalt at 12:45 a.m. after getting into an argument with her fianc. She was wearing dark clothing at the time of her death, and her only personal belonging was her cellphone.Lead investigator Jeff Lumsden, of the Sheriff's Office, also had said she did not take either one of the two upvalley-bound buses after she disembarked the bus in Basalt, based on statements from the drivers of both buses. Neither of the two buses had cameras, so there was no surveillance video to review, according to Lumsden.Lumsden also had said that a passenger and driver of an Aspen-bound taxi reportedly believe they saw Kocab walking along the eastbound lane minutes before she was killed. But other than that, no other witnesses who saw Kocab between the time she exited the bus in Basalt and the time she was struck by another one have come forward, the deputy said."How she got there, I don't know," Lumsden said Wednesday. "I'm assuming she hitched a ride, but we haven't heard from anybody."rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 9, 2012 06:15AM Published Aug 9, 2012 01:36AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.