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Cyclists beware: If you get hit by a cab, pray it has insurance

Darin Wiesner was left broken on the street with a $90,000 medical bill

Darin Wiesner was left broken on the street with a $90,000 medical bill

Darin Wiesner lay crumpled on the side of a south Minneapolis street. He screamed in pain, the two largest bones in his left leg shattered, a mangled bicycle beside him.

Wiesner only caught a brief glimpse of the Blue & White Taxi as it took a sharp left into oncoming traffic, heading directly toward him.

"I figured he would take the corner and go around me," Wiesner recalls. "But then I saw he was looking into the back seat, talking to the passenger."

The taxi slammed into Wiesner, throwing him onto the warm September asphalt, breaking his leg in two places.

Wiesner looked up to see the cabbie, Hassan Halane, talking loudly on his cellphone a few feet away. They made eye contact but said nothing.

Just as the ambulance pulled around the corner, Halane, still on his cellphone, looked over and asked Wiesner a question: "Why didn't you stop at the stop sign?"

Alex Oenes decided to take matters into his own hands

Alex Oenes decided to take matters into his own hands

Before Wiesner could explain that he was, in fact, foot-down and waiting at the stop sign on East 28th Street and Fifth Avenue South, Halane "just walked away."

A year later and a mile and a half away, Alex Oenes is on the street bleeding. There's a hole in his knee and his bicycle is snapped in half — thrown over the top of a Lincoln Town Car.

The clear-eyed male driver rolls down his window and pauses as Oenes pleads for help. The car begins to inch forward. Within seconds, it's gone.

Today, Wiesner still walks with a noticeable limp; Oenes is unable to lift heavy objects due to a strained rotator cuff that never fully healed. Neither received anything from the drivers responsible for their accidents.

Thanks to legal loopholes and gaps in insurance coverage, cyclists and pedestrians hit by Minnesota's taxis each year find themselves toiling futilely to find redress.

For Wiesner, the accident meant a $90,000 medical bill, a destroyed bike, and putting his work, education, and personal life on hold for six months while he recovered. It also meant two tiresome years pitted against Minnesota's largest cab company, which is protected by a convoluted and outdated legal system.

Oenes' injuries were more modest, leaving him with a $2,000 trip to the emergency room. But his fight would quickly become personal, leading him on a vigilante's quest for justice.

The hunt for a limo driver

Alex Oenes is tall, lean, and a tad on the muscular side, the result of riding more than 100 miles on his bike every week. His shaggy, sun-streaked hair swoops partially across his forehead as he recounts his accident last October. He speaks with calm thoughtfulness, despite having totaled his bike, lost his girlfriend, and gotten laid off in a sequence of bad luck. "That's probably the most depressed I've ever been was right after that," Oenes says of the month his life fell apart. "I try not getting too angry about it. I try to depersonalize it, even though it is a really personal thing."

The crash left Oenes with a cracked rib and a swollen rotator cuff that still gives him trouble. "If I do 30 pushups, my rotator cuff gets pissed for a few days," he says.

Oenes admits he never got a good look at the limo driver, but he did catch a glimpse of the license plate. "I really only had three to four seconds to get a good look at the plate," he says. "Then I just kept repeating it and repeating it."

Armed with this small but vital bit of information, Oenes made a choice. He'd find the driver even if it meant taking action himself. After he asked for help online, the close-knit Twin Cities biking community came to his aid.

One of his fellow bikers had access to the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles' driver registration database, Oenes says. They pulled information on the Town Car based on the license plate numbers he remembered.

They found the previous owner — a man who worked for Minneapolis' MidLand Limo and had sold the car in 2013. Oenes cold-called the man hoping to leach out a tip.

"Hey, I lost my keys in this car," he told the former owner. "Can you help me out?"

Amy Oberbroeckling waited nearly two years for her ER visit and therapy bills to be covered

Amy Oberbroeckling waited nearly two years for her ER visit and therapy bills to be covered

It worked. MidLand Limo gave him a phone number, along with the car's Vehicle Identification Number and the name of the company that bought it: Minnesota Limo & Taxi Service.

Oenes had already filed a police report for the accident, but without a clear memory of the driver, he worried that he wouldn't be able to identify the guy in a police lineup. So he decided to confront the driver.

But Oenes needed help finding the car.

He reached out to the biking community again, posting information about the car and license plate on social media and biking forums, offering cash to anyone who could find additional information. "I said I'd pay $100 to a bike messenger to video the driver with this license plate number," Oenes says. "And people started seeing the car."

He began receiving calls from bikers who spotted the limo on Franklin Avenue. A few days later, a cyclist sent him video of the Town Car driving through Uptown.

In the one-and-a-half-minute video, the cyclist approaches the car, which has a large dent on the hood of the passenger side, where Oenes was hit.

"Were you involved in an accident recently?" the cyclist asks. "What limo company do you work for?"

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"Uber," the man replies. "Am I being recorded?"

"Why do you have damage on the right side of your car?" the cyclist queries. "Is it your car or the company's?"

The limo drives off and the video cuts out, but not before the driver gives up his name.

Feeling confident he had found his man, Oenes contacted Minnesota Limo & Taxi Service to confront the company over the accident, but the call didn't go as hoped. "They were pretty rude and criticized me for taking so long to get in contact with them," he says.

That's when he hit a brick wall. The driver claimed the car was stolen at the time of the accident.

According to the Minneapolis Police Department, the car was reported stolen on October 6, a day after the accident. It was recovered the same day, parked a few blocks from the accident after someone called the police about a suspicious vehicle.

"It's a load of crap," says Oenes.

When asked about the timing of the supposed theft, police spokesman John Elder admits it's suspicious. "Is this the first time that someone could claim to have done that? Absolutely not," he says. "Have people done that in the past? Yes."

But because the case is currently under investigation, he can't say more.

Staggering bills and no relief

Darin Wiesner thought he had an open-and-shut case.

Driver Hassan Halane was named in the police report, and there were witnesses at the scene. "[Halane] clearly ran me over," he says. "He clearly broke my leg. There was no doubt whatsoever."

But when Halane's insurance agent, Kari Noble, contacted Wiesner to inform him that Progressive wouldn't be paying for his injuries, Wiesner found himself facing a staggering $90,000 medical bill.

Noble wouldn't disclose just why Progressive refused to pay the bill. Instead, she merely stated that she couldn't find coverage for the accident.

Wiesner had recently returned from two years in Africa working for the Peace Corps, and was being paid only a small stipend as a graduate student in the University of Minnesota's biology lab.

After the accident, his lab work and studies came to a halt for half a year. "It completely, one hundred percent disrupted my life," he says. "My life basically came to a standstill."

And he had nowhere near the $90,000 needed to cover his medical bills.

So Wiesner turned to childhood friend and attorney Ryan Frank.

Frank logged countless hours researching and making phone calls, only to encounter repeated roadblocks. Halane was unresponsive, Frank says, and Progressive was unwilling to pay. Frank believes it's because Halane didn't have the right kind of commercial insurance as a cab driver.

In fact, Progressive doesn't provide commercial insurance for taxis in Minnesota. Drivers must go to local agents. Frank believes Halane only went to the agent two weeks after the accident took place.

Halane's certificate of liability, which cabbies must file with the city, reveals that he was approved by Midwest Insurance Group on Sept. 20, 2013 — 14 days after the collision.

"Hassan Halane did not have insurance with my company prior to September 18, 2013," B.D. Passolt confirms. "He signed a statement that he was a new venture with no prior claims or accidents. This is the first that I have heard that he was involved in a claim."

Frank then turned to Blue & White. But the company claimed no responsibility, adding that any action against Blue & White would be "frivolous."

Under Minnesota law, cab companies don't have to provide insurance for drivers. Many require drivers to get their own.

"That's the position Blue & White takes," Frank says. "If a driver screws up and doesn't get proper coverage, then no harm on their end."

Both Blue & White and Halane declined comment.

An excruciating job

In a perfect world, taxi companies would be responsible for all of their drivers' mistakes, says Minneapolis license inspector Jose Velez. "The reality is that that's not the world that I'm working in."

Thirty years ago, taxi companies won the right to hire cab drivers as independent contractors, not employees. Drivers operate under the company's franchise, but they own their own cars, pay for their own insurance, and are responsible for their own actions.

"They've eliminated themselves" from legal responsibility, Velez says of the companies.

When drivers stop paying for insurance, adds Bloomington license inspector Doug Junker, his office should be notified, but often is not. "It's in our code — we're required to be notified when something lapses. But if insurance companies don't notify us, then we don't know that it's lapsed."

The suburb doesn't have the time or resources to make sure all 300 licensed cabbies in Bloomington are operating properly. "I'm the only license inspector," he says. "So when I can, I'm out checking liquor stores and restaurants. I'm out checking taxi cab drivers. I'm out checking precious metals."

Velez says the majority of Minneapolis cabbies aren't causing problems, but the ones who are have typically "gone rogue."

They're most likely low-income drivers struggling to make ends meet. "The vast majority of them are good people trying to do the right thing," he says. "Just trying to take care of their families, and they make wrong choices."

When James Morgan started driving for Minneapolis Yellow Cab 40 years ago, the taxi industry was an entirely different animal. "It was sort of a commission-basis thing with the company. So, if you have a bad night, you still made money, just not as much," he says. "Today it's harder."

Morgan doesn't drive anymore, but he's been teaching classes on taxi driving at Hennepin Technical College for decades, and is the former executive director of the Minneapolis Taxi Owners Association.

Today, Minneapolis has around 1,000 registered taxi licenses. Prior to 2006, the city had a strict limit on how many taxis operated at one time. But in 2011 the cap was lifted. "They basically just deregulated the numbers," Morgan says. "Anybody who wants a cab now can have one."

The glut left cabbies struggling to make a living, which is why some forego insurance. On average, taxi and limo drivers nationwide make about $26,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The low pay and excruciating hours make for a high turnover rate.

"You develop a treadmill," Morgan says. "You get people coming in, people going out. You still have a thousand cabs on the street, but they're not the same thousand. They keep rotating."

Minneapolis License and Consumer Services manager Grant Wilson disagrees, saying the licenses rose because the market could bear it. "The local industry saw the need for more cabs. So they chose to add more to their fleet."

Raising the cap also made driving more affordable, Wilson says, since licenses were once worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"You could come walk up to my counter, lay down $475, and buy a license," Wilson says. "Whereas prior to that they had a value of $20,000 on the street."

Yet most cabbies disagree with Wilson. Yssaq Sajady, who started Minneapple Taxi 10 years ago, pays around $7,000 a month to insure each of his company's five cars. He decided to pay because leaving it up to the drivers is too risky. "Why would you drive without insurance? You'll lose your business, you'll lose your car, and the city is going to kick you out."

But his drivers only make around $700 a week. And if one of those drivers gets in an accident, insurance goes up even more. "How can you make a living?"

A safety net with little safety

Amy Oberbroeckling lives in Powderhorn Park and works for the cycling magazine Gear Junkie. She had a green light and was biking across Lake Street. That didn't stop a taxi from running the red and ramming her.

The cab slammed into her left side. Oberbroeckling remembers the moment she saw it coming. "He was going way too fast."

She barreled across the cab's windshield, cracking the glass before landing in the intersection. A couple who saw the accident helped her up. The cabbie was apologetic, admitting he was on his phone. She would soon develop whiplash symptoms and be forced to see a chiropractor.

The driver was covered under his insurance, so Oberbroeckling didn't have to play cat-and-mouse to pay for her medical expenses.

But the process took well over a year because her bills were split between the cab company's insurance, the state of Minnesota, and her own auto insurance. "It was really confusing," she says.

Under Minnesota's No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act, people injured in an accident can be compensated by their own policies regardless of who's at fault. The law is meant to provide protection for the injured and limit blame-throwing and suits.

It covers up to $20,000 in injury costs and another $20,000 for things such as lost wages. For minor injuries like Oberbroeckling's, it's a great safety net.

But for Wiesner's $90,000 in medical bills, the coverage proved "woefully inadequate," Frank says, especially given how long it took to recover.

No Fault fails to compensate for more abstract losses, like postponing Wiesner's Ph.D. studies or paying for a caretaker.

Wiesner was bedridden for a month and nearly disabled for another two, he says. Had his father not stepped in to help, Wiesner isn't sure how he would have gotten by. "The first two weeks I was using a bedpan," he says. "It was a struggle to get out of bed."

He still plans to sue Blue & White and Halane, but he's unsure of success.

Oberbroeckling received her settlement for her ER visit and her physical therapy bills last year, nearly two years after the accident. But after a short phase of feeling unsafe on the roads, she's back in the saddle again. "I'm still so passionate about biking. I didn't want that stuff to stop me from doing what I love."

Oenes says he's lucky, since his auto insurer covered his $2,000 in medical bills. While his insurance didn't pay for his $1,200 bike or his $300 in trashed biking equipment, it did free up the $1,000 that he and a friend raised online after his accident in case he had to pay out-of-pocket.

Now he wants to use that money to help other cyclists, giving back to the community that came to his aid. "They've been incredible. I felt like I wasn't deserving."

Two years later, Wiesner faces more surgery on his leg. But this spring he received some good news: His health insurance finally agreed to pay the remainder of his medical bill after negotiating it down to $50,000 with the hospital.

He's also back on his bike. But the affair has left him pessimistic about the monitoring system that is meant to prevent drivers like Halane from operating without insurance.

"I feel that was a complete failure of the process, and I think there's no incentive for these drivers to maintain coverage because it's expensive. Taxi companies basically hold the power, even if it means it's not in the public's best interest."