When Enough is Enough: Wild Modes and Worse Risks

Plenty of motorcoach companies have reasonable and prudent policies. But particularly when these policies are strict, there is a tendency to sometimes “bend the rules.”

Bending the rules may seem reasonable, fair and even harmless at the time. But doing so will not seem so to a jury when this practice leads to an injury. This is particularly true when the service is already “over-the-edge,” and policies that appear designed for this very reason are ignored. One such scenario involves the transportation of minors on a party bus – not a particularly wise idea even without being compounded by other problems.

Intoxication and Darkness

Motorcoach carriers occasionally charter coaches to minors, including charters which do not include chaperones or any other adults beyond the driver. This is hardly a dangerous idea in and of itself: Remember that we have nearly 500,000 schoolbuses effectively doing this 180 days a year. To prevent this trip from being more dangerous than it already was, the company-in-question actually possessed a formal and responsible safety policy ostensibly carved in stone to address this risk: If the driver finds a single droplet of alcohol or a milligram of illegal drugs on board, he or she will stop the trip right there, on-the-spot, turn around, and return the coach to its origin – and retain the full fare paid for the charter. In the case of the trip described below, the driver-in-question actually made this announcement to the passengers before the trip began – even though he had forgotten to bring “consent forms” for the passengers to sign, agreeing to this policy. However, for whatever reasons, this policy was not followed:

On one particular trip, no itinerary was planned, but instead, the coach headed toward a major city, and the students selected a few sights at which to briefly stop, including: A fast-food restaurant, a shopping plaza, and famous, rock-constructed observation platform overhanging a cliff with a breathtaking view of the city below.

After the students returned to the coach from their second stop, after the driver ostensibly had a chance to oversee all 52 students boarding or alighting four times, he glanced down the passenger aisle only to find the group’s trip coordinator swigging from a gallon jug of rum. Jolted into alertness by this observation, the driver – who himself was never drug- or alcohol-tested even following the incident – began searching the bus, only to find two more now-mostly-empty bottles of liquor, and literally dozens of plastic water bottles that had been filled with vodka. By now, a lot of the passengers were pretty drunk.

The driver was understandably alarmed and angry, particularly because of his abject failure to spot any of this activity earlier. But he should have been angry at himself: One witness testified that the passengers had passed around the “handle” of rum, and that between 45 to 50 of them had taken a swig from it. Regardless, after discovering the conditions of many of his passengers, the driver announced that the trip was over, and that he intended to return the group to the trip’s origin. However, the passengers began to whine and beg, and counter to his company’s policy, the driver decided to proceed with the trip, himself suggesting as its final destination: A fortress-like observation platform located on a cliff overlooking the city, and which, when he arrived, was literally pitch black: None of the platform’s lighting was operable (including those lights that should have illuminated the stairway down to the platform), light trays were filled with cigarette butts and ashes, the only streetlights available lay “quite a distance away,” there was a “New Moon” (i.e., barely a sliver of moonlight), and the driver failed to even point his coach toward the platform to illuminate it with his coach’s headlights, but instead, turned them off.

Likely improvised after-the-fact, the driver tried to justify his behavior by claiming that, had he returned the students to the trip origin in their drunken condition after visiting their second destination, many of them would or might have driven home from the parking lot, and likely created carnage on the roadways. Regardless, after allowing the passengers to wander around this venue for about 20 to 30 minutes, the driver managed to descend a stairway, and shouted to the students that it was time to leave. Mistaking a rock seating ledge for the bottom step of a flight of stairs up to the parking lot, one student stepped up onto it, and since it was not a step at all, his second step planted him in thin air, immediately after which he fell forward toward a higher ledge whose edge he struck at mouth-level, a collision that knocked out his four upper front teeth, loosened one lower one, and severely sliced open his lower lip.

After the victim staggered back to the coach, literally gushing blood, some fellow students quickly stuffed a towel into his mouth, and applied pressure. Although the driver described this victim’s mouth as “bleeding profusely,” he felt it was not life threatening or deserving of an ambulance, and after failing to reach the “proxy” dispatcher (the company’s owner) by cell-phone, he decided to drive back to the trip origin, with the exception of first dropping off the bleeding victim at his home, after which his parents rushed him to a hospital.

Defense Counsel Nausea

The city, also sued by the victim, scrambled to defend the fact that its famous observation tower, knowingly used by City residents and visitors from all over the country, did not contain a single operable light. For the victim’s or “plaintiff’s” lawyer, this case was a field day – even though the damages were only moderate, somewhat dampening the attorney’s elation, and what he could reasonably spend on assistance from someone like myself. Of course, given the cornucopia of facts in the plaintiff’s favor, not much forensic work was really needed.

Greed and Expectations

Providing a patently dangerous service, a motorcoach operator could reasonably expect trouble. Under such conditions, the old adage that, “Rules were made to be broken” would far more likely materialize than they would on a far-more-conventional motorcoach trip, with a far-more-conventional seating configuration (i.e., one without a dance floor).

Mixed in with these ingredients, one would also expect to find a dash of naiveté. The coach-in-question’s passengers left from the venue of a junior prom that they did not attend, but instead, chartered this party bus. That they would likely begin their trip slightly intoxicated or high, and then sneak on board gallon upon gallon of additional liquor, should have been “reasonably foreseeable” – in legal terminology. That their driver did not search them or their carry-ons as they initially boarded simply allowed this risk to materialize.

There are plenty of decent, safe and honest ways to earn money in the motorcoach industry, some of them extremely creative and rewarding (see “Double the Passengers, Double the Responsibilities” in the February, 2009 installment of NBT). But operating a dance bus, much less for minors with glass bottles, and not searching them effectively for alcohol or drugs, is not among them. As a general principle, if your provision of almost any type of trip requires you to take risks, you are likely to find them. If not, they will likely find you. When you or they do, consider yourself lucky if one passenger simply has his teeth knocked out.

The Real Bad Guys

As a matter of public policy, adults or otherwise, we do not want our intoxicated individuals driving. We actually want them on buses, even if and when they engage in illegal albeit relatively safe activities – although dancing on a moving bus is hardly one of them. Apart from the dancing, the trip-in-question would have been almost harmless and risk-free if (a) no articles made of glass had been brought on board, and (b) once they were intoxicated, the driver had kept the passengers on the bus. Unfortunately, he failed to accomplish either.

Among the curious coincidences of this misadventure, not only did not a single passenger appear to have taken any illegal drugs or other controlled substances, but when approached by genuine hoodlums on the observation platform to purchase drugs, they were actually repelled by the notion, and in fact, the now-partly-toothless incident victim claimed to have been rushing away from these hooligans when he stepped out into the night air. So while admittedly breaking the law, this coach’s passengers were not actually such bad kids after all. Many could have saved their $50 or $60 fares, piled into some of their cars, four or five apiece, and driven into the city – with $200 to $300 per vehicle (less the gasoline) to spend on what entertainment was available to them – lap dances, drinking and hookah bars not likely among them. Yet they did no such thing. Even deviating from the law in drinking themselves into a collective stupor, they spent their hard-sought money to follow public policy and forego placing any fellow-citizens at risk. Further, no fights broke out, no passengers engaged in sex (the “couples” probably stayed home and attended the prom), and despite the blare-volume music, the passengers appeared to have done as little as possible to even distract the driver (who, on a dance bus, was obviously not concerned about them remaining in their seats).

As it turned out, given the possibilities, the motorcoach owner and his insurance carrier were pretty damned lucky. Given the City’s failure to illuminate its heavily-frequented nighttime venue, the risks that could have materialized were considerable: Someone could have easily climbed onto and fallen over one of the deck’s stone wall and fallen down the side of this steep cliff. A depressed student heavily-intoxicated might have dived over the wall in a suicide leap. Or a passenger or more could have been stabbed or otherwise mugged by fellow deck-inhabitants needing no shadows in which to lurk.

As NBT readers may know from my previous article about party buses (see the first NBT article referenced above), I do not think highly of dance buses, particularly with glass bottles and intoxicated passengers on board. Otherwise, the fact that a motorcoach company like the one involved in this incident could obtain insurance for such an operation is unsettling. This is particularly true since the vast majority of safe motorcoach operators’ insurance premiums effectively cross-subsidize the risks (since they obviously materialize) of the handful of operators providing service like that described above.

In fairness, it is important to recognize that motorcoach travel not only benefits those passengers who enjoy themselves, but that a motorcoach trip can actually be an end in itself – not merely a means to get from one point to another. But at the same time, when this privilege is overextended, it may not only harm a passenger, pedestrian or motorist, it may harm the industry as a whole, and may poison the public’s perception of motorcoach service. With the joy that comfy and safe motorcoach service can be, and generally is, it is a shame when an occasional lapse of judgment comes along and suggests otherwise. From the point of peer pressure, we would do well to try to discourage the provision of service involving such risks as those incurred by the trip illustrated above.

Publications: National Bus Trader.