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This GRTC driver was beaten on his route. His workers' comp was denied: 'We are struggling'

Posted at 11:30 AM, Mar 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 11:29:54-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Whispering out of fear, GRTC bus driver Wayne Harvell called dispatch for help.

"I have a very unruly passenger who just threatened to blow my head off," Harvell told the dispatcher in the October 2021 call.

The dispatcher responded and confirmed Harvell's location.

Then the dispatcher told Harvell he was talking low and asked him to repeat what he said.

"I said there is a precinct on Chamberlayne. I can stop in front of that precinct and get an officer," Harvell recalled.

But the dispatcher advised Harvell not to go to the police precinct.

"Nah, that's a negative. Don't do that. Don't do that. Just pull over and standby and have someone assist you. What is the passenger doing?" the dispatcher said.

"He took his mask down and started eating, and I asked him to put his mask up and then he threatened me," Harvell said.

"Alright, pull over and open your door up in the back and standby for a second," the dispatcher advised.

Bus security footage showed Harvell stopped the bus on the edge of Gilpin Court, got out, and waited for help.

But as the wait got longer and longer, the passenger approached Harvell and threw a punch.

"The guy raised his hands, and now they're in a fight," Harvell's attorney Sean Kavanagh, from Harbison and Kavanagh, said.

GRTC workers comp 02.png
Security video shows GRTC driver Wayne Harvell attacked while on the job in Richmond, Virginia in October 2021.

The incident lasted for about five minutes with Harvell trying to hold off the passenger, and the two going from outside the bus, to inside the bus, and back off again.

At one point a passerby intervened to stop the fight, but even after Harvell appeared to try to stop the attack the passenger took another swing.

"This is a fight for his life, there is no question about that when you look at the video, it is a fight for his life," Kavanagh said.

Harvell ended up on the ground where he was kicked in the head.

GRTC suspended their bus driver without pay for one day.

Initially, the bus company said there was one moment when Harvell could have used better de-escalation techniques during the encounter. But, while working on our initial story about the incident, GRTC CEO Julie Timm, reversed that position.

GRTC ultimately found Harvell did everything he should have done. But the story did not end there.

"I come to find out later on that the public apology was not sincere," Wayne Harvell's wife Kimberly said.

Kimberly spoke with the CBS 6 Problem Solvers on behalf of her husband. She said he feared retribution from GRTC.

"He did go back to work," Kimberly said. "He kept saying the glare off the windshield was making his head hurt. The severe headaches just continue 24 hours a day seven days a week, ringing in his ears."

"When he finally did see the neurologist, the neurologist told him you have a severe concussion," Kimberly said.

The diagnosis put him out of work, so he applied for workers' compensation.

GRTC denied the claim.

"Their defense is that there are a couple of occasions where he could have potentially retreated, extricated himself from the fight, backed into the bus, shut the door," Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh said they have since filed the claim with the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission, where a commissioner will decide if he deserves to have his medical bills and lost wages paid.

"He is the sole provider for our family. I am a stay-at-home mom. We have two children with special needs," Kimberly said. "We are struggling. It's really affecting our family. The savings that we had. It's gone."

We showed the case and video to Professor J.H. "Rip" Verkerke, the T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law and Director of the Program for Employment & Labor Law Studies at UVA.

"This seems utterly inconclusive to me. Concerning that fundamental legal question, which is whether the driver instigated or was a willing participant in the altercation," Verkerke said.

He said GRTC bore the burden of proof to show Harvell acted with willful misconduct. If they can't, he said, the commissioner must find in favor of Harvell.

"Does this look like an instigator? I would say no. Definitely not. Is he a willful participant? That's a harder question. I think that's informed by the question. What's the best way to defend yourself against what was obviously a very threatening situation?," Verkerke said. "And I have a lot of sympathy for the driver's predicament. I cannot imagine what I would do in that circumstance."

Kimberly hopes the commissioner will do what she feels is only fair and approve the claim.

"I can't tell you how many times my phone has rung in the middle of the night with them calling because they needed help. They needed him to cover a run to drive for them because they didn't have enough drivers. Now when he needs help they don't care about him," Kimberly said.

GRTC sent the following statement:

As CEO, Ms. Timm has the authority to form an opinion and take action as it applies to final application of discipline for any member of GRTC staff. She used her authority to reverse Mr. Harvell’s discipline of a one-day suspension.

She continues to support and advocate for the safety of all her staff.

GRTC does not approve or deny worker’s compensation claims. All decisions on worker’s compensation are separated from GRTC administration and include independent, expert evaluation of all evidence and medical documentation to ensure fair and impartial application of benefits.

An administrative decision by GRTC’s CEO regarding fault or discipline has no bearing on whether the facts of the case meet the legal requirements for workers' compensation benefits. The Worker’s Compensation Insurance Carrier and, ultimately, the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission make those decisions.

Mr. Harvell’s case is currently under judicial review and is pending a final decision.

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