Footsie and Patsy: Consequences of Chasing, Kicking and Slapping the Bus

No, these are not games that Irish kids play. They are stupid things bus and motorcoach passengers sometimes do, and things that their drivers need to watch out for.

Patsy is my term for slapping or punching the side of the bus as it goes by. Footsie is my term for sticking your foot underneath the front or rear tire. Sometimes, footsie occurs as a result of patsy.

Buster the Backpatter

A domestic manufacturer named Robotronics produces a clever teaching tool named Buster the School Bus, along with two cousins – Barney the Type D School Bus, and Toby the Transit Bus. These yard-long, toy-like, over-simplified plastic models of buses are designed and programmed to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of schoolbuses and transit buses – particularly with respect to crossing and wheel crushes. I have always appreciated the value of these products, and have been disappointed by their underutilization by the pupil transportation community. But I have also taken issue with the products’ designers. For my money, when toddlers or elementary school kids touch the passenger-friendly tires, I would like to see them receive a low-voltage shock. When they step behind Buster or Barney, or in front of Toby, I would like some horn make their eardrums throb. Many pupil transportation professionals consider these opinions somewhat overboard. Yet my forensic portfolio swells with lawsuits involving not only crossing and wheel crush accidents, but episodes of footsie and patsy:

  • Returning from a field trip, a schoolbus driver stopped to unload his passengers on the steep hillside at the school’s front entrance door – instead of the huge, flat, level parking lot to its rear. Echoing the typical approach of a motorcoach driver, he engaged the parking brake, and alighted to spot the passengers as they descended the stepwell. Unfortunately, he left the engine running, and failed to deploy a wheel chock. As the last 18 or so alighting passengers inched their way to the front, one of them knocked off the bus’ aisle-side parking brake, and the bus began careening down the hill and veered left. Crashing into a large statue kept it from plunging into the Hudson River one block further. When this incident began to unfold, the driver lunged forward to grab an elementary school child standing on the bottom step – and the bus’ front, curb-side tire ran over his foot. After that driver had the gall to file a lawsuit against the school district, I helped it’s counsel dismiss this mockery of justice. For awhile, however, it was a real case.
  • On the opposite coast, a just-alighted airline passenger waiting for her parking lot shuttle bus was frustrated when one of them passed her by, apparently full. When the next one approached her stop in the curb lane, she stepped into the roadway – only to find that this second unit also intended to pass her by. Teetering on four-inch stiletto heels, this deep thinker smacked the side of the bus four times while screaming well-deserved profanities at the driver. But the vehicle’s passage caused her to lose her balance, and its curb-side, rear tire ran over her foot. Because the nincompoop driver failed to stop the bus, I helped the victim’s attorney score big bucks in her lawsuit, flawed as her behavior was.

Bus and motorcoach passengers need to block out the cheerful lessons provided by Buster the Backpatter, and pay some mindful attention to those nasty tires. The victims’ attorneys are almost certain to argue that their clients’ poor judgment was reasonably foreseeable, even if it was patently foolish. Depending on the harshness of the legal environment, this argument can be deafening: In Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and one other state, if the victim was even one percent at fault, the defendants or co-defendants walk away Scott-free. But in many other states, the victim must be 51 percent at fault for the other parties to walk away. In still others, the jury simply “slices the pie,” allocating the damages against the various parties as it chooses.

Playing Patsy

Even when the tires miss the passengers’ feet, punching or smacking the bus is a profoundly stupid act. However, it is also an act that the bus driver can usually see unfolding, particularly by scanning the curb-side, exterior, rear-view mirrors:

  • Discharging his passengers at a rest stop, a motorcoach driver told his passengers to return in 30 minutes and, turning right minutes later, pulled out toward the maintenance facilities housed around the corner in an adjacent warehouse. A passenger who spoke only Polish did not understand the announcement. When she saw the bus pull out, she thought she was being stranded, with a purse containing over $500 in cash left onboard. Running alongside the coach and pounding it with the outside of her left fist, she actually caught up with the front plane of the coach and, momentarily, stepped in front of it. Of course, like most non-bus drivers, she did not realize that turning buses proceed straight only until their rear axles clear the extended curb lines alongside them. When this coach began turning back toward her like a steel wave, it knocked her down, and she was crushed and killed by its curb-side, front tire. Combing through the defendant’s records, I learned that this very same driver had experienced the exact phenomenon literally the night before, when he appeared to strand another passenger.
  • Because of the biting cold temperature, a nanny and the two children she was charged with safeguarding waited for their bus in the lobby of a large movie theater, from which they could see the bus approaching a half block away. When their bus came into view, they left the theater – only to find the bus pulling away from the stop before they could reach it. For some reason (possibly the normal stop-and-start of merging back into thick, urban traffic), the bus stopped, then started again. Angered and frustrated by this apparent stranding, the three-year-old broke away from the grasp of her nanny and slapped the bus. Knocking her off balance as the bus moved past her, its outer, curb-side, rear tire ran over her torso. Consistent with its typical shenanigans, the defendant transit agency literally relocated the bus stop, shelter and all, a block further south – to a point where every eyewitness’ testimony made no sense. Of course, there was no way to relocate the curb-side, exterior, rear-view mirrors in which the victim’s image lay squarely as the driver pulled out and ignored the slap and shout.

Keeping it Simple

In my forensic work, I have often been critical of attorneys who zealously follow the “KISS” principle: “Keep it simple, stupid!” This only works when the case actually is simple. When it is not, practicing this principle usually translates into a loss.

In truth, some cases really are simple. While I think more highly of juries than most attorneys for whom I’ve worked, even the dumbest juror understands concepts like stopping a bus when a pedestrian steps into the roadway in front of it. And even motorists who rarely use their automobiles’ mirrors grasp the importance of a bus or motorcoach driver glancing into his or her large mirrors as the large bus or coach pulls away from a stop.

My nitpicking aside, Buster, Barney and Toby were designed for children. Studies show that below age 13 (and particularly below age 10), children do not possess the skills, as a developmental matter, to cross a street. However, three of the four victims cited above were full-grown adults.

Stupid is as stupid does. But transporting stupid passengers is hardly a rarity. When one of them makes a poor decision, most state courts consider it the duty of a “common carrier” and its driver to exercise the highest degree of care. Failing to spot a pedestrian in the “danger zone” alongside the bus, or failing to respond to the sounds of a passenger screaming and pounding the bus, generally falls below this duty or standard.

Mass and Messages

The Statue of Liberty does not proclaim, “Send us your acrobats, your gymnasts, your highly-skilled intelligentsia, because riding on a bus in America is tricky and dangerous.” Bus riders need not be rocket scientists or brain surgeons. Particularly with the promulgation of the ADA, bus and coach passengers need merely breathe. When these huddled masses step, cycle or wheel themselves alongside or in front of your bus or coach, much less when they assault it, beware: When a bus or coach touches someone, he or she may be killed or maimed. But the bus driver and his employer will turn into the real patsy when the U.S. legal system attaches its tentacles to them and their insurance carrier.

The admonition, “Stop, look and listen” is not applicable only to kids. Apart from children, the individuals who need to understand this message the most are drivers. Otherwise, the larger the vehicle, the greater the responsibility. As with safety, when it comes to liability, mass is everything.

Publications: National Bus Trader.