There are many types of buses on American roads, including school buses, municipal transit buses, tour buses, intercity buses, airport buses, and more. Each serves a unique purpose, but all are intended to transport large groups of people at once. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) uses the term “bus” to describe any vehicle used to transport nine or more people.
Despite the numbers of buses on the road, bus accidents are not terribly common. The truth is, buses are not particularly dangerous vehicles. Passengers are higher off the ground than in most other vehicles, so are not as vulnerable to a direct hit. And while many buses do not have seat belts, the phenomenon of “compartmentalization” ensures that passengers are protected by the narrow spaces between seats. In fact, 99.9% of bus passengers are delivered to their destinations safely.
However, when bus accidents do happen, they can be uniquely catastrophic. There are a few factors that contribute to this:
- Buses contain some risks that other types of vehicles do not. Like trucks, they tend to have longer starting and stopping distances than small vehicles, which increases the risk for certain types of collisions. Also, like trucks, buses are more likely than smaller vehicles to roll over in an accident. Buses are also full of loose objects that may become projectiles in an accident.
- Bus accidents are often much larger than car accidents. When a passenger car crashes, there are typically only a few people involved, even in multi-vehicle collisions. But collisions involving buses can affect dozens of people at once.
- Bus passengers are not the only ones at risk. Other road users outside the bus, including automobile drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, can also be involved in collisions with buses. Because buses, like trucks, are so much bigger and more powerful than ordinary cars, these parties are more likely than bus passengers to be killed.
- People boarding or exiting buses (or else waiting to board a bus) are also at risk, especially children waiting at bus stops, who may stand too close to the curb, or not look both ways before crossing the street in front of a bus.
If you are a parent whose child rides a school bus, it is important to be familiar with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s bus safety recommendations, and educate your child on bus safety.
By the Numbers
Just how common are bus accidents? According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were 229 fatal bus collisions in 2017.
These bus accidents led to 274 total fatalities. However, only 44 of these fatalities were bus occupants. 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.
73 of these collisions involved school buses, 13 involved cross-country intercity buses, and 95 involved transit buses. In addition, 32 involved van-based buses, and 19 involved other types of buses or unknown buses.
What about injuries? In 2017, there were around 25,000 people injured in bus crashes, and around 15,000 buses involved in these crashes.
Under what circumstances are bus accidents more likely to occur? One 2012 study found that the bus drivers most likely to have accidents are bus drivers under 25, and bus drivers over 55, (and especially over 65). Female bus drivers are more likely than males to have accidents, and the most dangerous areas include intersections and stretches of road with especially low or high speed limits.
Bus Drivers’ Licenses
Bus drivers are expected to go through a rigorous training program before being licensed to drive a bus. 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.
All drivers of any type of large bus (weighing over 10,000 pounds), including school buses, tour buses, and city buses, must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Most driver’s licenses are regulated by the states, but CDLs 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 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, it is important to be familiar with the federal bus licensing laws, as well as the precise requirements for your state.
Buses as Common Carriers
Under the law, buses are recognized as common carriers.
Legally speaking, a common carrier is any sort of vehicle transport offered to anyone who pays the necessary fare. In fact, the term bus is derived from the Latin word omnibus, which means “for all,” a bus is a common carrier, literally by definition. Aside from buses, some other examples of common carriers include passenger trains, commercial airplanes, and cruise ships.
Private carriers only transport select groups of people and not as a public offering. They 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, you have the duty to do everything a reasonable person would do to make sure that your passenger arrives at their destination uninjured.
The law requires common carriers to provide a higher standard of care to their passengers than it does for private carriers. This standard is known as utmost care, and requires the bus driver to go far beyond what a reasonable person would do under the same circumstances.
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. They still must be as careful as any other type of driver, and if they were negligent or careless, they can be held accountable.
Negligence in Bus Accidents
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 or the plaintiff, it is your job to prove that the party who injured you, the defendant was guilty of negligence.
There are four elements to prove negligence: 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, the negligent party may be held liable for damages.
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, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was not that of a “reasonable person.” The reasonable person standard is a centuries-old standard that relies on legal precedent to defining what constitutes reasonable behavior.
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 lacking in regard for others’ safety, 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.
Shared Fault and Comparative Negligence in Bus Accidents
Bus accidents can be complex, and fault is often more difficult to determine, as there may be several parties who share fault, and many factors that cause or contribute to bus accidents:
- Other road users, including motor vehicle drivers, or cyclists, pedestrians; or,
- The roads on which the bus accident occurred, if these roads were poorly designed or maintained; or,
- The bus itself or another vehicle involved in the accident, if the vehicle had a manufacturing or design defect; or even
- The passengers on the bus, if these passengers caused a distraction.
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, they will have to split the damages for the accident between them.
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 slightly responsible for an accident.
In other states, damages are assigned according to the proportionate degree of fault each defendant contributed to the accident. If one defendant was responsible for 20% of the accident, for instance, they will pay 20% of the damages.
If the plaintiff shared some fault, in most states, he or she is still entitled to recover damages, but they will be diminished according to the rules of comparative negligence.
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 the other party was responsible for 80% of the accident, and you were responsible for 20%. Under a comparative negligence standard, you would be entitled to receive 80% of the damages you otherwise would have received. If your judgment (or settlement) would have been $1 million, you will receive only $800,000.
Buses and Claims Against the Government
There is another complication that makes bus accident lawsuits more difficult than those involving ordinary car accidents: most public transit buses are owned by the municipal governments of the cities in which they operate.
Many municipal governments self-insure: they provide their own insurance to pay claims out of the government funds.
Filing a claim against the government is complex, and there many rules that may not apply to insurance companies. They may deny your claim according to different standards than private insurers, so the expertise of a personal injury attorney may come in handy.
If your claim is denied, your next step is to file a lawsuit. When you file suit against a public bus, you are directly suing the government, so certain restrictions apply.
Lawsuits against a government entity are impeded by the legal standard of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that comes from 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, cases against government entities are still more difficult than lawsuits against private actors in a variety of ways.
For example, the statute of limitations, or the period during which you can file a lawsuit after an accident, 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 even longer, but in cases against government entities it is often six months or less. If you don’t file your lawsuit within six months of the accident date, you’ll lose your chance forever.
So, don’t waste any time after a municipal or school bus accident! Call an attorney today.’
Damages in a Bus Accident
As with other types of accidents, there are a few categories of damages that you can collect in a bus accident lawsuit: economic or monetary damages; non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering; and punitive damages, sometimes awarded to punish an especially egregious offender.
The damages you are eligible to collect will vary significantly based on the nature of your case and the quality of your legal representation.
What to Do If You Are in a Bus Accident
As with every accident, there are a few steps 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 like those that should be taken in any car accident.
- The first thing you should do in a bus accident, as in any accident, is to make sure you and those around you are safe. If anyone is injured, even slightly, call 911. Typically the bus driver will call 911, but if they can’t or don’t, you have every right to call, even if the injury seems minor.
- If you were a bus passenger, follow the bus driver’s directions. If you were a third party who was hit by a bus, move out of the road.
- Once you have made sure you are safe and the police are on their way, you should request the names and contact information of everyone at the accident scene, including drivers of vehicles, bus passengers, and any other witnesses present. If you were a driver, sharing your contact and insurance information with the other driver is a legal requirement to avoid hit-and-run charges.
- If you have a cell phone or camera on hand, take photographs of the accident scene from as many angles as possible.
- When the police respond, take down the officer’s name, badge number, and business card, and make sure that they record your version of events into the police report. The officers will compile their accident notes into a final report later. This accident report is an important piece of evidence, so order a free copy of your police report through our website.
- If you aren’t taken to a hospital after the accident, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible, preferably the same day. You should always do this after an accident: First, some injuries with delayed symptoms take time to manifest, and you might feel fine immediately after accident, only to be diagnosed with an injury later. Second, the medical records taken immediately after an accident are the primary form of proof that you were injured. If you have a gap in treatment, your case will suffer as a result.
- The most crucial step you should take at this stage is to never talk to the other side’s insurance adjusters, or their lawyers, without your own lawyer present. These people don’t represent you and don’t have your best interests at heart. They are experts at tricking people to say things that will damn their case. They may give you a “lowball offer” that at first, may seem generous, but may not even begin to cover your injury expenses.
A TorkLaw attorney will represent you in all your dealings with insurance adjusters. Our attorneys have extensive experience dealing with bus accidents and will ensure you are compensated to the full extent possible. We have a proven track record of winning accident cases against heavy odds, and we are passionate about leveling the playing field so accident victims receive the justice that they deserve. Let us navigate the complex personal injury system so you can concentrate your energy on recovering from your injuries.