Limits of Liability in Time and Space: State by State Variations in Stop Design and Stop Treatment

At some point in time and space, responsibilities to passengers must end. Yet it is surprising how differently these responsibilities are defined from one state to another. It is even more surprising how, within a given state, these responsibilities are defined so similarly among modes with strikingly different characteristics.

Not surprisingly, these state-to-state distinctions have a profound impact on liability, and how it is approached. These distinctions affect how both plaintiffs’ and defendants’ strategies are developed and focused. They affect how facts are interpreted, and cases resolved. And they strongly influence both settlement tendencies and their outcomes.

Bus Stop Size and Jurisdiction

In some states, like Pennsylvania, a service provider and driver’s responsibilities are limited to the operation of the vehicle. In others, like Missouri, the service provider and driver are responsible for protecting passengers (a) at the point at which they step off the bus, (b) in the area around the bus, (c) in the intersection where the bus stops, and (d) along most reasonable safe paths to and from the stop (at least within a reasonable distance from it). And this applies to both boarding and alighting passengers. Because most public transportation services are “common carriers,” the importance of many distinctions among them melt away in the courtroom, even though some modes provide door-to-door or curb-to curb service, some have designated stops, some make flag stops, some discharge passengers upon request (more common to rural fixed route services), some make route deviations (for either general or special passengers), and still others (like charter and tour services) make only limited group stops.

Because charter and tour services employ few stops, at which either all or most passengers alight and re-board, these motorcoach services and drivers may place less emphasis on stop selection and loading/unloading procedures than their pupil transportation or transit counterparts. But stop frequency or spacing intervals do not warrant less attention or precision for those stops which occur. Further, the operating companies (and often the same drivers) providing tour and charter services often provide regular route/intercity and/or commuter/express services, where stops are more frequent, and similar in nature to school bus or transit stops. (Commuter/express service essentially is transit service.) As a result, the stop-related procedures articulated in charter and tour services can easily bleed over into other forms of motorcoach service, where distinctions between service pretty much end with the vehicle.

No Bus in Sight

The pupil transportation community, in particular, is regularly assaulted by law suits where passengers have been struck at bus stops before or after their buses have arrived, or after they have departed. So too are transit agencies transporting schoolchildren – risks exacerbated by the marginal attention paid to these passengers at the system design level. Many victims have collected sizeable damage awards from such incidents, claiming negligent stop selection, intersection placement, stop design, and stop treatment (which includes signage, signalization, crosswalks, red-lining, shelters, set-backs, and other indications of a bus stop’s presence):

  • An elementary school student walking home spotted a transit bus unloading at a crosswalk on the near-side of an unsignalized intersection. The student decided that the bus’ presence and unloading rendered the crosswalk even safer than normal, and decided to cross there. A motorist with a single week’s driving experience, unfamiliar with the state’s laws for crosswalk caution, ran through the intersection, past the unloading bus, without slowing, and struck the student. The case was dismissed because public agencies in that state enjoyed immunity in bus stop selection and design.
  • A middle school student riding a transit bus alighted and dashed in front, where he was struck by a car passing the bus. Beyond suing the transit agency (that defendant settled for $1.2M), the plaintiff also enjoined the school district – on the grounds that it was an active participant in the negligence because it had issued the student an I.D. card that permitted him to pay a discounted transit fare. The school board settled out for a measly $2,500 – and considered itself really lucky.

To keep our paranoia in check, it must be acknowledged that such decisions are hardly limited to bus stops:

  • A motorist lost control of his vehicle and crashed through an anchor fence, striking a schoolchild playing in the fenced-in yard behind a day care center. The court permitted the decedent’s mother to sue the school for locating the playground at a “dangerous intersection.” The plaintiff was victorious.

Stop Selection and Design

To the chagrin of numerous defendants who discover it too late, there is indeed a formal body of knowledge capturing the fundamental principles of bus stop selection and design. The literature on transit stops is somewhat finite, while material about school bus stops is more extensive and diverse. Regardless, systems which employ such principles poorly, or do not employ them at all, face more difficult challenges when their stops are found wanting:

  • One school principal was astonished to learn, during his deposition, that his school’s bus routes were not only not designed by the transportation director, but were not designed by anyone. Drivers were simply given a list of students who lived in a certain quadrant of the service area, and told to pick them up and drop them off. After this case was tossed out of Federal court on civil rights grounds – where it would have changed the transportation landscape – it settled so quickly for a huge sum that my services were no longer needed.
  • In the pre-dawn hours, a transit driver improvised a bus stop across the street from a virtual obstacle course along a high-speed, two-lane roadway, a half block before the designated stop at a signalized, well-illuminated intersection. Despite the plaintiff’s contributory negligence, he was apportioned $4M of the $7.5M award via the jury’s assignment of comparative damages.

In both cases, the driver’s selection of the stop effectively pre-empted the professional efforts of qualified planners and engineers who would, could or should otherwise have applied principles of stop selection and design available from a formal body of knowledge designed and intended for these specific purposes. The lesson is that bus stops must be not only carefully selected, but used.

Spatial and Temporal Displacement

For a public transportation defendant to be liable, accidents need not occur at, or even near, the bus stop:

  • A school bus stop was dangerously positioned at an un-signalized, six-way intersection bisected by a high speed arterial street with no traffic signals in sight. Not only was the stop marked, and used, as a transit stop, but vehicles approaching it from the side streets actually used the school bus’ flashing lights as a way to enter the intersection, after which they then passed the bus – effectively using it for a “pick-and-roll.” Enforcement of motorists passing loading and unloading school buses was non-existent, and complaints ignored. After several by the decedent’s mother, the high school student began crossing several blocks before the stop at the intersection in front of her house. On the day she was struck and killed by a motorist, her school bus was not even in sight. Ironically, the schoolbus deadheaded past her house on its way to the beginning of its route – and thus, could have picked her up without her need to even cross a street. While I felt this case had considerable merit, it was dismissed.
  • A school bus discharged an elementary school student on a service road alongside his development. As he reached his home inside the subdivision, a bully waiting for him in the bushes jumped out and chased him out of the subdivision and back into the service road – where he was struck and killed by a motorist. The school bus had long since disappeared. While I felt this case had no merit, the defendant school district was assigned 15% of the blame, and penalized $900,000, for its share of liability via the comparative damages formula.

Liability by Association

In none of these cases were any of the victims struck by the bus. Rather, they were struck, and generally killed or maimed, by third-party vehicles. In few cases were the motorists held responsible as a criminal matter. Their liability as a civil matter was moot, since most possessed minimal insurance coverage which their insurance carriers graciously handed over almost immediately. While accepting these offerings – which became spending money to chase the “big fish” – the victims’ attorneys had little interest in these smaller defendants’ complicity, and in fact, tried to diminish or discredit it.

In truth, most motorists are not at fault in such incidents. Instead, the environment in which the incidents occurred had been established by layer upon layer of negligence by the transportation agency or company and/or its driver. The nasty lesson here is that these defendants are sued almost automatically – even where the fault appears thin. In two cases, I have been engaged in malpractice cases against attorneys who failed to file against these parties. I have turned down many more.

Settling for Implications

An elderly passenger being assisted to her lobby door a few steps away from the vehicle was left standing on the sidewalk, momentarily, while her driver returned to the vehicle to see if he had forgotten something. Unfortunately, the object he forgot was her cane – and without it, she dropped like a stone. While I discovered literally hundreds of errors and omissions in the defendant’s paratransit operation, many related to proximate cause, the mattered little in the disposition of the case. Recognizing the limited boundaries of responsibility in this jurisdiction, I argued that public transportation service has no value to a disabled individual if physical assistance to and from the vehicle is not included in its provision. Rather than risk reopening the issue of stop jurisdiction, and expanding its application to the agency’s sizeable fixed route operations, the defendant settled for $1.5M.

Standards and Practices

The moral of this saga is that legal proceedings have their own rules, rationales and rationalizations. These rules often lie far apart from the principles employed in the design or operation of the services being judged. And these rules vary not only from state to state, but from case to case, often depending on both attorneys’ particular blend of capabilities, effort and strategy. Regardless, transportation providers are often subjected to far different standards and criteria for liability than they apply to safety.

Public transportation accident data tell us, repeatedly, that more passengers are killed or seriously injured outside the bus than on board. From a safety and liability perspective, it makes little sense to obsess about a vehicle’s safety characteristics yet pay only limited attention to where it stops and goes.

Publications: National Bus Trader.