On Feb. 26, Paul Miller boarded a Rock County Transit van.
He was traveling to Rock Haven Nursing Home from Mercyhealth Dialysis Center, a trip he made about three times a week.
On this particular trip, van driver Michael Erickson quickly punched the gas on a sharp right turn. The 82-year-old Miller, who was sitting in his wheelchair, was thrust into the back wall of the van.
As a result, Miller broke two vertebrae in his back, according to the police report on the incident.
“I went right over backwards and hit flat on my back and my head against the back wall. That’s what hurt … my head against the back wall,” Miller of Janesville said in a video recorded at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville shortly after the incident.
On Feb. 28, two days later, Miller died at University Hospital in Madison.
His family has filed a notice of circumstances of claim with Rock County. Miller’s son, Kurt, said the incident raises questions about what kind of training van drivers receive.
Although the incident is detailed in a March 7 police report, key details remain unclear. In the video recorded in the hospital, Miller, who was in a neck brace and slowly recounting the story, claims that Erickson did not properly secure his wheelchair after he boarded the van.
Miller said his wheelchair tipped backward when Erickson “goosed” the gas, thrusting him into the van wall.
Another passenger in the van, Elaine Snyder, 72, corroborated the events in the police report and with The Gazette.
“I remember we went around a corner … and Paul fell over in the wheelchair. And I yelled at the guy to stop,” Snyder said.
Snyder said Erickson did not secure every part of the wheelchair when they boarded the van.
“They are supposed to hook up the wheelchair in four different places, and he (Erickson) only hooked two of them,” she said.
Erickson hung up on a Gazette reporter when reached by phone Tuesday. But in the police report, Erickson said he properly secured all four connections on the wheelchair after Miller boarded.
Snyder said Erickson did not secure the wheelchair before the incident. Rather, she said, he did so after Miller fell.
“The driver tried to lift Paul up … and he couldn’t,” Snyder said. “So he went outside the van, and he called the dispatch instead of calling 911.”
Miller recounted the same events in the video.
According to the police report, Erickson said he called Rock County Transit first. The person on the phone told him to call 911.
Paramedics eventually arrived and transported Miller to Mercyhealth, according to the report.
Miller’s wife, Annette Miller, has filed a notice of circumstances of claim with the county. She would not comment for this story.
However, his son Kurt said questions remain about the county’s protocols for its drivers in the Rock County Transit program.
He wants to know how extensive the drivers’ training is and whether there are records of that training.
“The county or whoever’s responsible ought to review their training program,” Kurt said. “Just improve the system and accountability. I don’t feel we need to take a pound of flesh from this driver. Accidents happen, and I’m sure he (the driver) feels terrible.”
Rock County Administrator Josh Smith, who is handling the matter for the county, also declined to comment because of the notice.
However, he said the county hires its drivers through Manpower, a private staffing company. A company representative could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It’s unclear if Erickson still drives for the county. Snyder said she rides the transit van three times a week, and although Erickson had driven the van a few times before the incident, she said she hasn’t seen him since.
Kurt said he doesn’t blame Erickson. Rather, he wants to know more about Manpower’s protocols for hiring drivers, and he said he wants to prevent future accidents.
“People make mistakes,” Kurt said. “Sometimes the coverup is worse than the crime.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Paul Miller's wife, Annette Miller, has filed a notice of circumstances of claim, not a lawsuit, with Rock County.