Ed Domain Is Still Standing

An Arch Grant brought him to town. A terrible taxi ride almost destroyed him

Ed Domain came to St. Louis after winning an Arch Grant. He left on far less celebratory terms.
Ed Domain came to St. Louis after winning an Arch Grant. He left on far less celebratory terms. PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY

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click to enlarge Domain spent six months in hospitals and a nursing home after a 2013 crash. - COURTESY OF ED DOMAIN
Domain spent six months in hospitals and a nursing home after a 2013 crash.

In his nightmares, Domain used to see that van coming.

The crash was like a bomb dropped into the middle of his life. Between the hospital and a nursing home, he spent six months recovering before he was strong enough to move back into an apartment. The former English major would read a paragraph without understanding its meaning. The dancing talk show host had to learn to use a wheelchair and then a walker.

Still, it is not the crash itself that tortures him now. He can recite his memories of those bloody moments without anguish, and the nightmares are in the past. It is the injustice that lingers.

"I don't think I would have gotten so mad if I had just been treated decently," he says.

Unbeknownst to Domain, the cab that picked him up for the Cinco de Mayo party was uninsured. It seemed almost impossible that Harris Cab was still in business at all.

"It was remarkable that the cab company didn't have insurance," says Schlichter. The Arch Grants co-founder and prominent attorney took on Domain's case. "They made it very clear they had no insurance, and if we sued them, they would go bankrupt." When the lawyer insisted on seeing their financials, he learned that Harris had been slapped with more than twenty civil judgments over the years and was the subject of federal tax liens in excess of $140,000.

Domain was stunned. He wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, which regulates taxi service in the St. Louis region, hoping the MTC would take Harris off the road, step up enforcement and include new protections to keep others from getting hurt. He figured he was the perfect person to push for more accountability, given the personal hell he had suffered and the fact that he had some standing as an Army veteran and Arch Grants recipient.

No one even bothered to respond, although commissioners would later say they weren't given the letter by staff. Harris never faced any discipline from the regulators. (The taxi commission says that's for two reasons: One, they claim they didn't know about the incident until years later. Two, they believe any lapse in coverage was not the fault of the cab company. They blame its broker.)

click to enlarge Domain snapped this picture of one of Harris' blue taxis, blocked up on rocks, as he tried to illuminate the company's practices. - COURTESY OF ED DOMAIN
Domain snapped this picture of one of Harris' blue taxis, blocked up on rocks, as he tried to illuminate the company's practices.

The MTC was created in 2002 to bring order to the unruly world of cars for hire in the city and county, but it has always retained the air of a fox watching the hen house. By law, four of the nine commissioners must come from the industry, ensuring cab company owners maintain a powerful voice in how they are regulated. Unsurprisingly, when the commission did crack down, it focused on the drivers, rather than the companies. A Riverfront Times investigation published last year found the commission fined drivers, whose fees fund the MTC, a total of $21,918 between January 2014 and September 2015. Just one cab company was fined during the same period, despite numerous complaints from consumers about their experiences. Naturally, it was Harris Cab, cited in 2015 for allowing an unlicensed person to drive. The fine? $100.

The only companies the MTC seemed to have any real interest in fighting were the newcomers, app-based services Uber and Lyft, which cab owners saw as potentially lethal competitors to their business model. Led by its chairman, the influential lobbyist and longtime St. Louis political insider Lou Hamilton, the commission argued it was simply looking to keep people safe. It painted the ride-sharing services as lawless renegades in contrast to regulated cab drivers.

Even after cities across the nation let the ride-sharing companies in, St. Louis resisted. The MTC sued Lyft and won an injunction in 2014 to bar the service, and then immediately began citing Lyft drivers who continued to operate.

The MTC similarly battled Uber in court, insisting that its drivers submit to the commission's background checks, including fingerprinting. Uber claimed that the mandate was needlessly burdensome and that its online background checks were just as effective.

The commission's fight against Uber struck Domain as emblematic of the lethargic, influence-driven political system that he believed was choking the city's progress. It just seemed dumb for St. Louis not to welcome a new technology that was already ubiquitous in cities across the country, especially at a time when the city was trying to position itself as a hub for innovation.

And then there was the commission's argument that MTC oversight was the safety net that would protect riders. All Domain had to do was look at his scarred leg or remember he could no longer lift his right arm above his shoulder to see the gaps in that logic. Wasn't this the same MTC that was supposed to ensure that Harris' taxis had insurance before the company sent one of them to pick up Domain and his friends in 2013?

"They're so bad at being bad, they don't even try to hide it," he says.

Uber cars carried million-dollar liability insurance. In contrast, cabs operating in St. Louis were only required to have $200,000 in liability — and Domain was living proof even that was not guaranteed under MTC oversight. He seethed every time he heard Hamilton or a cab company owner cast MTC regulation as the only thing protecting riders.

In July 2015, Domain decided he had had enough. A friend alerted him to a St. Louis Public Radio story on the Uber fight. Domain tuned in just in time to hear a representative from Harris Cab tell the host the ride-sharing services should heed what was "simply an old kindergarten rule: Follow the rules."

Domain could not believe it. He called the station in hopes of getting on air to confront the rep, but the program was just about over. So then he turned to Twitter. During the next five hours, he tweeted 48 times. Forty-five of them were directed at Hamilton.

"Does the MTC only preach safety when they don't have to answer to their own MASSIVE failings?" he wrote in one.

He included pictures of himself lying in his hospital bed after the crash and highlighted bits of the vehicle-for-hire code that prohibit driving a cab without insurance.

"So either Harris lied to the MTC or the MTC is run by incompetent, protectionist tyrants," he added.

Domain now says that it was a conscious decision to go after Hamilton and the MTC on a public forum. They had ignored him for two years, and here was an opening to make them finally feel the pressure. But while the theatrics of an hours-long Twitter shaming may have been calculated, the anger was real.

"Silence won't work for you @Hamiltonstl," Domain wrote in a sign-off message, "if [you] think twitter was something today, wait till you see the crowd I can bring to you in person."

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