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Harvard Graduate Student Plans to Sue MBTA Following Harvard T Station Injury

A section of the Harvard T station's inbound platform was sectioned off after a utility box and its supporting equipment fell out of place and hit a first-year Harvard Ph.D. student.
A section of the Harvard T station's inbound platform was sectioned off after a utility box and its supporting equipment fell out of place and hit a first-year Harvard Ph.D. student. By Claire Yuan
By Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writer

First-year Harvard graduate student Joycelyn Johnson, who was struck and injured last week by falling equipment at the Harvard Square T station, said she plans to sue the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority after suffering a separated shoulder.

A utility box and its supporting equipment dislodged last Monday, hitting Johnson on the shoulder. The MBTA said the equipment has not been in use since 2013, and corrosion on straps holding up the box’s bracket caused it to fall out of place.

At a press conference outside the station Wednesday morning, Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology, said she did not immediately realize the extent of her injury following the incident.

“I didn’t feel anything,” she said. “I was in a state of shock.”

Sean Martin, a spokesperson for Johnson and her lawyer, wrote that Johnson’s injury — which has left her arm in a sling — “will require ongoing and long-term medical treatment” and has affected her studies.

Johnson, who lives at the southern end of the Red Line in Quincy, said in an interview with WBZ-TV that she could no longer do “everyday experiments” that she called “probably the most important” aspect of her studies.

In an interview with The Crimson after the press conference on Monday, Johnson’s attorney Thomas Flaws alleged that the MBTA knew about the “decrepit” state of the utility box for more than a month before the accident — but did not take action.

“On March 30, an MBTA rider noticed this utility box in its decrepit condition, sent a message off to an employee at the T, sent a picture, said, ‘This is going to injure somebody, you need to fix this, this is dangerous,’” Flaws said. “And the employee at the T set up a maintenance claim.”

“And the same rider contacted the T about two weeks later and said, ‘This is still there, it’s still dangerous,’” he added. “They had been explicitly told that there was a danger in the station, and quite apparently did nothing to treat it.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo declined to comment on the specifics of Johnson’s case or her lawyer’s assertion that the T knew about and failed to address the corroded condition of the equipment, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation.

“The MBTA deeply regrets that this incident occurred, and know that we continue to work every day to ensure safety for all,” Pesaturo wrote in an emailed statement.

Flaws formally submitted Johnson’s claim to the MBTA on Thursday, according to Martin. The process for filing a lawsuit against a state agency in Massachusetts provides a six-month waiting period for the agency to respond before a suit can be filed.

Last summer, the Federal Transit Authority ordered the MBTA to take immediate action to improve rider safety and address poor working conditions, including dangerously long working hours for its dispatchers.

MBTA riders have suffered an array of serious safety incidents over the last two years, including a fire on the Orange Line, a death on the Red Line after a man’s arm was caught between the train doors as it began moving, and a death at the JFK/UMass Station when a Boston University professor fell through a corroded staircase.

In March, a 20-pound panel fell from the ceiling of Harvard Square station — also due to corrosion — and just missed an exiting rider. In both the instances of the falling panel and the dislodged utility box, the T has followed up with inspections that removed similar equipment from other Red Line stations.

By filing the claim, Flaws said he hopes to see “answers” from the MBTA about the incident, and, ultimately, “real action” that includes “in-depth safety inspections.”

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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