What is a bus? Most of us will probably have our own immediate mental images upon hearing the word, but the federal government, specifically the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), uses the term “bus” to describe any vehicle used to transport nine or more people.
There are many different types of buses which can be found on American roads. These include school buses, municipal transit buses, tour buses, intercity buses, airport buses, and more. Each of these different types of buses serves a unique purpose, but all are intended to transport large groups of people at once.
If you’re like most Americans, then you’ve ridden on various types of buses many times over the course of your life. It may seem like the most natural thing in the world, but in fact, whenever we climb on board a bus, we are taking a leap of faith.
Driving in a car is one thing: you are, at least, in control of the vehicle. But when you ride on a bus, you are placing your life directly into the hands of the bus driver, who is likely a complete stranger. If this stranger makes a mistake, you may be seriously injured or killed. All you can do is hope that the driver knows what they are doing.
When you send your child off to school on a school bus, you are taking an even bigger leap of faith. You are entrusting your child’s safety to a strange driver, and while school buses take many safety precautions, accidents involving small children are uniquely devastating.
That’s the scary part. But you shouldn’t swear off buses just yet, because bus accidents, by and large, are not terribly common. There are a few reasons for this:
For these reasons, most passengers who ride on buses have nothing to fear, and are delivered to their destinations safely. But some, unfortunately, are not. Hundreds of people are killed, and thousands more injured, in bus accidents in America each year.
And when bus accidents do happen, they can be uniquely catastrophic. There are a few factors that contribute to this:
This is why, if you are a parent whose child rides a school bus, it is important that you familiarize yourself with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s bus safety recommendations, and educate your child on bus safety!
Hopefully, you will never be a victim of a bus accident… but if you are, then you still have many legal options at your disposal. The personal injury and wrongful death system allows bus accidents victims a number of avenues to receive compensation for their injuries or other losses, and with the right legal representation, this is perfectly doable. In this article, we will explain exactly how.
Just how common are bus accidents? According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were 261 buses involved in fatal crashes in 2015. This is a slight increase from the previous year, but a fairly average number overall.
These bus accidents led to 295 total fatalities in 2015. However, only 49 of these fatalities were occupants of the buses. This would seem to indicate that, consistent with the size differential between buses and other vehicles, bus accidents are more dangerous for third parties than for the people riding on the buses themselves.
What about injuries? In 2015, there were around 24,000 people injured in bus crashes, and around 14,000 buses involved in these crashes. Once again, these are fairly average numbers which have not varied significantly from year to year.
All different types of buses were involved in these collisions. 99 of the bus collisions in 2015 involved school buses, 33 involved cross-country intercity buses, and 93 involved transit buses. In addition, 14 involved van-based buses, and 22 involved other types of buses or unknown buses.
Under what circumstances are bus accidents more likely to occur? One 2012 study found that the bus drivers most likely to get in accidents include young bus drivers (under 25) and older bus drivers (over 55, and especially over 65). Female bus drivers are more likely than males to to get in accidents, and the most dangerous areas include intersections and stretches of road with especially low or high speed limits.
Bus drivers are expected to go through a much more rigorous training program before getting behind the wheel of a bus than that required of ordinary passenger car drivers. The law recognizes that driving a bus comes with a greater risk than driving a car, and has increased the requirements for bus drivers accordingly.
Bus drivers are required to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL). This is the same type of license that drivers of semi trucks are required to obtain, although the precise class of CDL is different for bus drivers. All drivers of any type of large bus (weighing over 10,000 lbs), including school buses, tour buses, and city buses, must have a CDL.
Most driver’s licenses are regulated by the states, but CDLs are the exception. They are standardized at the federal level by the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986. However, state law also plays a role: each state may have slightly different requirements for bus driver’s licenses, which may go above and beyond the federal standards.
If you are a bus driver, or if you have been in a bus accident and believe that the driver may not have been properly licensed, then it is important to be familiar with the federal bus licensing laws as well as the precise requirements for your state.
Under the law, buses are recognized as common carriers. Legally speaking, a common carrier is any sort of vehicle which holds itself out to the general public as being willing to transport anyone who pays the necessary fare. They are differentiated from private carriers, which only transport select groups of people and do not hold themselves out to the general public.
Buses are a type of common carrier, because they hold themselves out to the public as vehicles for general transportation. In fact, the term bus is derived from the latin word omnibus, which means “for all,” so it’s practically in a bus’ nature to be a common carrier! Aside from buses, some other examples of common carriers include passenger trains, commercial airplanes, and cruise ships.
This is a good thing for passengers of buses who were injured in bus accidents, because lawsuits against common carriers are often easier than other types of personal injury lawsuits. You see, the law requires that common carriers provide a higher standard of care to their passengers than that which is required of private carriers.
Private carriers are only required by law to provide reasonable care to their passengers. For instance, if you own a car, and you are transporting a passenger, then you have the duty to do everything a reasonable person would do to make sure that your passenger arrives at their destination uninjured.
Common carriers such as buses, on the other hand, are required to demonstrate an even higher level of care. This standard is known as utmost care, and requires the bus driver to go far above and beyond what a reasonable person would do under the same circumstances.
It’s not enough for a bus driver, as it is for a passenger car driver, to simply drive safely, respond to road conditions, and not break any traffic laws. The bus driver and bus company must make extensive preparations for any possible emergencies that may happen in the future.
Remember the last time you got on an airplane? The flight attendants probably gave you an extensive safety demonstration before the plane took off, showing you what to do in all sorts of unlikely emergency situations.
Airline safety demonstrations aren’t part of common carrier law, but they should give you some appreciation of the extensive safety precautions that common carriers are required to take to protect their passengers, and the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep you safe whenever you step on a plane.
You probably didn’t have to watch a safety demonstration last time you stepped on a city bus to travel a few blocks, but the basic idea is the same. Common carriers have to think far ahead and prepare for all sorts of potential emergency situations, and if they can be shown to have overlooked something major, they can be held liable. They are also required to warn passengers of potential dangers that they may encounter en route.
This means that, if you have been in an accident on a bus and you were a passenger, the odds in court are stacked in your favor. Victory is not certain, and you still have to demonstrate negligence on behalf of the bus driver, but overall you have a better chance of winning such a case than you would otherwise.
However, this standard of utmost care is not all-encompassing. For one thing, there are a few exceptions, including for “acts of nature.” For another, common carrier status only protects the passengers on the bus itself, and does not protect any other parties involved in a bus crash, such as drivers or pedestrians outside the bus. Bus drivers are only expected to show reasonable care for these parties.
This duty of reasonable care is the same duty that all road users have to each other, so it doesn’t mean that bus drivers can get away with anything. They still have to be as careful as any other type of driver, and if they were negligent, they can be held accountable. But the standard of utmost care is reserved only for the actual occupants of the bus, and no one else.
In a bus accident case, as in any accident case, fault is determined according to the standard of negligence. If you are the injured party, then you are the plaintiff, and it is your job to prove that the party who injured you (the defendant) was guilty of negligence.
There are four elements to a negligence lawsuit: duty, breach, harm, and causation. All users of the road, including bus drivers, have the legal duty to drive safely, with respect for both written traffic law and the basic safety of other road users.
If a bus driver or other road user breaches this duty, and this breach of duty is the direct cause of some injury or harm to another party, then the negligent party may be held liable for damages caused by their negligence.
In some cases, negligence is easy to prove: the plaintiff must simply demonstrate that the defendant broke a traffic law (such as running a red light or a stop sign), and that this breach of the law led to the accident. This is known as negligence per se.
In other cases, negligence is more difficult to prove. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was not that of a “reasonable person.” The reasonable person standard is a centuries-old legal fiction which is used in a variety of circumstances in our legal system. It is a somewhat abstract standard, although in the realm of traffic law there is significant legal precedent defining what constitutes reasonable driving.
Bus drivers are not the only parties that can be found negligent in a bus accident. Drivers of passenger cars, cyclists, pedestrians, and other road users can all be negligent, and the outcome of a bus accident case will vary substantially depending on who was negligent. Just because the bus was the largest vehicle in the accident doesn’t mean that it was necessarily at fault!
In a few cases, a bus accident lawsuit may go beyond mere negligence. This typically occurs in extreme circumstances, when the conduct of one party was so egregious, and so lacking in regard for the safety of others, that they are instead charged with recklessness.
Recklessness may include such actions as driving far above the speed limit, fleeing police, and street racing. Although such actions are fortunately rare with bus drivers, they have the potential to be very devastating, and are more likely than other types of accidents to cause death or serious injury.
The only silver lining to this cloud is that if you were a victim of an accident caused by recklessness, the law will weigh heavily on your side. You will likely be eligible to collect a high level of damages, including punitive damages (see below).
In theory, it might sound like it’s easy to assign fault in bus accidents. But bus accidents are very complex affairs, and fault is often more difficult to determine in a bus accident than most other types of motor vehicle accidents. Often, they are far more complex than car accidents, and there may be a number of parties who share fault for the accident.
Many factors can cause or contribute to bus accidents occurring. These factors may include:
Depending on who was responsible for the accident, the lawsuit may be conducted differently from an ordinary motor vehicle accident lawsuit.
For instance, a case involving defective roadway design or maintenance will be filed against the local government responsible for maintaining the road (and may run into some of the complications unique to lawsuits against government agencies; see below). A case involving poor vehicle manufacture or maintenance will fall under the umbrella of products liability law.
What happens if multiple parties share the blame for an accident? In this case, the lawsuit may be expanded to include multiple defendants. A good personal injury attorney will take advantage of this, and expand the lawsuit to include as many defendants as possible.
When there are multiple defendants in a personal injury case, then they will have to split the damages for the accident between them. How are the damages distributed? This can be a rather complex question, and the process often varies between jurisdictions.
In some states, damages are assigned according to the doctrine of joint and several liability, under which each party shares an equal responsibility for damages. This is a controversial standard because it can sometimes place an undue burden on parties who were only minorly responsible for an accident, but who have the most ability to pay.
In other states, damages are assigned according to the proportionate degree of fault that each defendant contributed to the accident. If one defendant was responsible for 20% of the accident, for instance, then they will be tasked with paying 20% of the damages, and so on.
So that’s how it works if multiple defendants shared fault, but what if the plaintiff shared some fault? In most states, the plaintiff is still entitled to recover damages, but they will be diminished according to the rules of comparative negligence.
The precise rules of comparative negligence vary from state to state, but the basic idea is this: a plaintiff who was injured in an accident, but was partly at fault, will be entitled to receive damages at a reduced rate as determined by the degree to which they shared fault.
For instance, let’s say that you were hurt in a bus accident, but you did something that contributed to the bus accident. The jury finds that the bus driver (or another party) was responsible for 80% of the accident, but you were responsible for 20% of the accident.
Under a comparative negligence standard, you would then be entitled to receive 80% of the damages that you otherwise would have been able to receive. If your judgment (or settlement) would have been $1 million, then you will instead receive only $800,000.
Comparative negligence might seem harsh, but it’s actually a blessing in disguise for many accident victims. Under the old standard of contributory negligence, anyone who was even partly responsible for an accident, no matter how minuscule their share of the blame might have been, was barred from seeking damages.
Fortunately, strict contributory negligence has been replaced with comparative negligence in nearly all states. And this is a good thing: even if you shared some fault in a bus accident, you will still be eligible to file a lawsuit for your injuries, and you will still stand a chance of receiving a settlement or judgment in your favor.
Some verdicts and settlements which have been diminished by comparative negligence are still quite sizeable, so don’t assume that you don’t have a case just because you may have made a mistake! Let us be the judges of that.
There is another complication which makes bus accident lawsuits more difficult than those involving ordinary car accidents: most public transit buses are owned directly by the municipal governments of the cities in which they operate.
Many of these municipal governments self-insure. This means that they create their own insurance provider which pays claims out of the bus company’s own money, rather than buying insurance from a private company like drivers are required to do. As you can imagine, they don’t want to have to pay anything out, if they can avoid it!
Filing a claim against the government is very complex, and there are a lot of rules for doing so which may not apply to filing claims against other insurance companies. They may deny your claim according to a different set of standards from those of private insurers, and that is why the help of a personal injury attorney will come in handy at this stage.
If the bus’ insurance company denies your claim, then your next step will be to file a lawsuit. When you file a suit against a public bus, you are directly suing the government.
Can an ordinary citizen sue the government? Yes, but certain restrictions apply, and you should be aware of these restrictions.
Lawsuits against a government entity, whether local, state, or federal, are impeded (although not altogether precluded) by the legal fiction of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a doctrine which goes back all the way to British common law, and stipulates that government entities cannot be sued unless they explicitly permit it.
Fortunately, sovereign immunity isn’t all-encompassing, and the government has waived its immunity in many personal injury cases, including bus accidents. However, it does mean that cases against government entities are harder than lawsuits against private actors in a variety of ways.
Most importantly, this means that the period during which you are allowed to file a lawsuit after an accident (known as the statute of limitations) is much shorter for a government agency than it is for a private entity. Typically, the statute of limitations for ordinary personal injury cases is at least two years, and perhaps even longer, but in cases against government entities it is often only six months or less.
This means that if you’ve been in a collision involving a bus which was owned by a city or other government entity, you only have six months to file your lawsuit. If you don’t file in that critical window, you’ll lose your chance forever.
So don’t waste any time after a municipal or school bus accident! Call an attorney TODAY. Time really is of the essence, more so than in almost any other type of personal injury case.
As with other types of accidents, there are a few different types of damages that you are allowed to collect in a bus accident lawsuit.
The three different types of damages are:
Of course, the types of damages which you are eligible to collect will vary significantly based on the precise nature of your case and the quality of legal representation which you have.
So you’ve just been in a bus accident. What comes next? As with every accident, there are a few steps which you should take in the immediate aftermath to ensure your short-term and long-term health, safety, and well-being. Many of these steps are similar to those which should be taken in any car accident, and will likely be familiar to you.
Instead, you should hire a competent, experienced personal injury lawyer who will represent you in all your dealings with insurance adjusters. Hiring an attorney can make all the difference in a bus accident case: they can ensure that you are compensated to the full extent of the law and any available insurance policies, and navigate the complex personal injury system for you so that you don’t have to. That way, you will be free to concentrate your full energy on resting and healing from your injuries (which is what you should ideally be doing after a bus accident in any case).
At Torklaw, our attorneys have extensive experience dealing with bus accidents and other types of mass transit accidents. We have a proven track record of winning accident cases against heavy odds, and we are passionate about leveling the playing field and seeing that all victims of bus accidents, including bus passengers and third parties, receive the justice that they deserve. If you have been injured in a bus accident, we would like to hear your story.