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Bus Accident Litigation in Arizona

It is difficult to imagine a more serious accident on the road than a bus crash. Buses are heavy, cumbersome vehicles with large passenger capacities and limited safety equipment. Many buses do not utilize seatbelts, and many are designed for passengers to stand while the bus is in motion. Operating a bus carries high stakes, and bus companies are subject to a broad field of federal and state regulation that ensure they are operating safely. When bus accidents happen, litigation can be lengthy and complicated. This article aims to shed some light on the different obligations bus companies have, and what can be done for injured passengers when things go wrong. 

Intro to Bus Accidents & Litigation in Arizona & Nationwide

Bus crashes, though relatively uncommon, can cause terrible destruction, injuries, and even loss of life. Nationwide, the number of buses on the roads steadily rose from 1975 to 2016. Despite this, fatal bus crashes have declined. In 2017, there were 957 buses registered in Arizona. That same year, commercial and non-commercial buses accounted for only 4 fatal accidents and 197 injuries. For comparison, sedans alone accounted for 464 fatal accidents and 38,997 injuries. 

Though relatively rare, bus crashes can be catastrophic events that hurt or kill passengers and other people on the road. In April of 2018, 16 people were killed and another 13 injured when a tractor-trailer truck collided with a commercial passenger bus in Saskatchewan, Canada. In August of 2018, a commercial bus carrying 49 passengers from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona collided with a semi-truck near the Arizona border, killing several people and injuring many others. On July 3, 2017, a tour bus suffered a tire failure and rolled near the Arizona-California border, killing the driver and injuring several passengers. 6 people were killed when they were ejected from commercial bus south of Phoenix after it hit a pickup truck and rolled in March of 2010. The bus company had lost its license to operate nearly a year earlier, and should not have had buses on the road. Deadly bus crashes such as these are rare, but they do happen. However, more minor accidents happen more frequently. They can range from relatively minor fender-benders to sudden stops that cause falls on board. Such accidents rarely result in death but can still cause injuries to both passengers and other people on the road.

Surprisingly, many bus accidents are not just the result of driver inattention. In 36% of accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, driver fatigue played a major role. 20% of investigated accidents involved problems with vehicle conditions, like a mechanical failure, and 18% involved some sort of medical condition. Discussion of bus accidents often focus on the driver of the bus and largely ignore the bus company policies and practices. But as discussed below, federal and state laws place heavy burdens on bus companies to follow certain safety standards. Failure to follow those standards can cause tragic accidents.

Bus Accidents and the Negligence Standard

Historically, common law courts have applied a heightened standard of care to passenger carriers like buses. Passenger carriers had to exercise the “highest degree of care practicable under the circumstances”. In general, every person is under a duty to avoid creating situations which pose an unreasonable risk of harm to others. The special relationship between a carrier and their passengers meant that not only did passenger carriers have a duty to avoid creating hazards, but they also had an obligation to protect their passengers from risks created by others. The rationale for such a high standard of care were the hazards inherent to the early days of public and for-hire transportation. Many states still use a heightened standard of care for passenger carriers. Others, such as New York and Arizona, have abandoned this heightened standard in favor of a typical negligence standard.

In 2012, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the appropriate standard of care for passenger carriers was the traditional reasonable person standard. The court noted that the reasonable person standard provided flexibility and sufficient leeway to allow consideration of all the circumstances in a case. In other words, a jury in a civil case against a passenger carrier can consider anything which may reasonably affect how the carrier should have acted. If the carrier acted as a reasonable person would have under those circumstances, they have met the standard of care and will not be liable for injuries to their passengers. If, on the other hand, they have failed to take the reasonable steps to avoid injuries to their passengers, they will be held responsible for those injuries. Often however, cases involving public or for-hire transport involve not just state law, but also federal regulations. 

Bus Regulations

Buses, because of their size, weight, and inherent hazards to the safety of passengers and road-goers alike, are heavily regulated at both the federal and state level. Failure to comply with regulations can result in serious penalties to bus companies. If such failure causes injuries or death to passengers or others on the road, bus companies may find themselves in hot water for any personal injury or wrongful death claims. 

Federal Regulations

Federal regulations of buses are written and enforced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and codified in Title 49, chapter 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Many buses are classified as Commercial Motor Vehicles under 49 CFR 390.5. Commercial Motor Vehicles are heavily regulated under federal law, and are defined as follows:

“Commercial Motor Vehicle means any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle:

(1) Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating, or gross vehicle weight or gross combination weight, of 4,536 kg (10,001 pounds) or more, whichever is greater; or

(2) Is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation; or

(3) Is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, and is not used to transport passengers for compensation

These regulations do not just apply to conventional buses. A passenger van capable of carrying 8 or more people might be a commercial vehicle if rides are paid for and the van is used in interstate commerce. Additionally, a 15-passenger van is a commercial vehicle regardless of whether rides are paid for, so long as the van is somehow used in interstate commerce. Buses meeting either the weight or passenger requirements travelling across state or national lines must adhere to a whole host of regulations for both drivers and vehicle upkeep. 

Commercial Vehicle Regulations

Regulations on commercial vehicles are numerous and lengthy. This article will focus only on those regulations that can affect negligence actions against bus companies and drivers. 

First, drivers of commercial vehicles must meet certain requirements, and motor carriers can be held responsible if they allow someone to drive their vehicle without the proper qualifications. A driver of a commercial vehicle, including buses in interstate travel, is qualified if he/she meets the following: 

(1) Is at least 21 years old;

(2) Can read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries, and to make entries on reports and records;

(3) Can, by reason of experience, training, or both, safely operate the type of commercial motor vehicle he/she drives;

(4) Is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle

(5) Has a currently valid commercial motor vehicle operator’s license issued only by one State or jurisdiction;

(6) Has prepared and furnished the motor carrier that employs him/her with the list of violations 

(7) Is not disqualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle under the rules 

(8) Has successfully completed a driver’s road test

Certain exceptions apply to drivers carrying passengers for both business and non-business entities. Private, non-business carriers of passengers are exempt from the age requirement as well as the requirement to report past driver violations to an employer. Additionally, no road test is needed for these drivers. Normally, commercial drivers must undergo a specific application, background check and yearly review before they can be on the road. Non-business passenger carriers are exempt from this requirement as well. Typically, commercial drivers must be medically examined before driving so that their physical fitness can be evaluated. Not so for non-business passenger carriers. 

Business passenger carriers are similarly exempt from the specific application, investigation, and road test requirements, so long as the driver in question is a single-employer driver. 

Second, once on the road, drivers are required to follow procedures that ensure the safety of both passengers and others on the road. Some of these procedures go above and beyond what is typically required by local traffic laws. For example, no driver can operate a commercial vehicle if they are so sick or fatigued that their alertness or ability is impaired. Additionally, no driver can be under the influence of alcohol within 4 hours of driving a commercial vehicle. Drivers cannot have any measurable alcohol in their bodies while operating their vehicle. Further, federal regulations have strict prohibitions against texting and using cell phones while driving. Violations of any of these rules can result in strict sanctions for drivers and their employers. 

Third, not only are motor carriers responsible for the violations of their drivers, they must take steps not to encourage or require drivers to break the law. For example, motor carriers can be penalized if they draw routes and timelines for their drivers that require drivers to break traffic laws or drive unsafely. If a route drawn up by a carrier can only be completed in time by speeding, or cannot be completed when accounting for traffic lights, stop signs, and other delays, the carrier has violated federal law.

Motor carrier obligations don’t stop at who can drive a commercial vehicle. Federal regulations have many requirements for vehicles themselves. Every vehicle operated by a motor carrier like a bus company must be in working order to be on the road.  Federal law requires that all motor carriers must systematically inspect and repair their vehicles. Specific to buses, pushout windows, emergency doors, and emergency door marking lights have to be checked every 90 days. Furthermore, maintenance records have to be kept to show that regulations are being followed. Vehicles must have individual records with due dates for maintenance, records of inspections and repairs, and records of tests conducted on pushout windows and emergency exits. These requirements apply to all buses except those owned by private, non-business passenger carriers.  

So far, this article has discussed only the regulations that apply to vehicles traveling in interstate commerce. However, Arizona has its own regulations on commercial vehicles, including buses, travelling within the state.  

State Regulations

Arizona, like many states, has adopted many federal regulations on commercial vehicles and chooses to enforce those regulations at the state level. Arizona’s definition of a commercial vehicle is strikingly similar to the federal definition, with a few key differences. Arizona defines a commercial vehicle as follows:

“‘Commercial Motor Vehicle’ means a motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles that is designed, used or maintained to transport passengers or property in the furtherance of a commercial enterprise on a highway in this state… that includes any of the following: 

(a) A single-vehicle or combination of vehicles that has a gross vehicle weight rating of twenty-six thousand one or more pounds and that is used for the purposes of intrastate commerce.

(b) A single-vehicle or combination of vehicles that has a gross vehicle weight rating of ten thousand one or more pounds and that is used for the purposes of interstate commerce.

(c) A school bus.

(d) A bus.

(e) A vehicle that transports passengers for hire and that has a design capacity for eight or more persons.”

Arizona’s definition lacks the requirement of interstate commerce contained in the federal regulations. This is critical. Federal regulation can only reach vehicles that travel between states. Arizona can enforce its regulations against any vehicle engaged in business on an Arizona highway that meets the listed requirements, regardless of where they are traveling to or from.

Arizona has adopted 49 C.F.R. 391 with only a few narrow amendments. Those are the regulations that describe how drivers must be qualified and trained to drive commercial vehicles. This means that the requirements for age, training, and physical ability mandated by federal law are also enforceable by the State of Arizona. Additionally, all the requirements for background investigations by employers of their employees are contained in 49 C.F.R. 391. Those requirements are therefore incorporated into Arizona regulations as well.

Arizona also used the federal regulations concerning fatigued drivers, prohibitions against alcohol and controlled substances, as well as the total prohibition on cell phone use while driving. Requirements for commercial vehicle maintenance, including record keeping, are also the same in Arizona as they are in federal law.  

In most cases, with only a few exceptions, if a driver would not be able to drive a commercial vehicle across state lines under federal law, they also cannot drive on Arizona highways.

Putting Bus Accident Litigation Together

In Arizona, passenger carriers being sued for negligence are not automatically subject to a higher standard of care than a typical driver on the road. But federal and state regulations place special duties on passenger carriers that may affect how passenger carriers must perform to meet their standard of care. 

Passenger carriers are obligated to act as a reasonable person would under the circumstances. A reasonable person would no doubt comply with the regulations they are bound by law to follow. So, if a passenger carrier has failed to follow federal or state regulations and that failure causes an accident, they have failed to meet their standard of care.

As an example, consider the Texas case TXI Transportation Co. v. Hughes. That case involved a fatal accident between a gravel truck and an SUV. The truck was regulated as a commercial vehicle under the code of federal regulations and was the truck company was obligated to follow the same employment practices as bus companies under federal law. The employer of the gravel truck driver, TXI, knew that they needed to conduct an investigation into the background of every employee it had. Despite this, TXI hired the driver knowing that his application was incomplete. TXI knew that the driver had changed jobs repeatedly every few months, something saw as a warning sign when hiring someone. TXI did not train the driver, relying instead on the experience he said he had in his application. Had TXI done a background investigation as required by law, they would have learned that the driver’s application contained incomplete and false information. The Texas court of appeals held that TXI’s failure to properly investigate the driver’s experience constituted a breach of the legal duty TXI owed the general public.

Bus companies are obligated to follow most regulations placed on commercial vehicles. If a bus company isn’t diligent in hiring and allows someone unqualified to drive a bus, they will be liable for any damage that person causes while behind the wheel. Similarly, if a bus driver has been using alcohol, drugs, or even a cell phone while driving, their employers may be responsible for failing to properly supervise their employee. When an accident happens because of a failure to do basic maintenance or inspections, the bus company can be held responsible.

In this way, the negligence standard intersects with both federal and state regulation. Reasonable people running a bus company would know to follow all applicable regulations. Failure to follow those regulations is a breach of reasonable care.

Case Value

 In negligence cases, plaintiffs are entitled to compensation for their medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other damages they may have sustained because of an accident. Jury verdicts for accidents involving buses can vary. Bus crashes that result in only minor injuries will have relatively small jury awards. But more major injuries result in higher awards. Cases in which someone is killed in a bus crash generally result in the highest jury awards. Outlined below are some recent Arizona jury verdicts for cases involving buses.  

Case Citation Summary of facts Jury Award
Sestiaga v. First Transit, Inc., Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, WL 4547468 (2016) A bus driver failed to yield and keep proper lookout at a controlled intersection and struck the Plaintiff, who was on a motorcycle. The motorcyclist suffered a fractured knee requiring extensive and invasive surgeries. He also suffered injuries to his spine, shoulder, ribs, arms, legs, pelvis, femur and ankles. Many of Plaintiff’s injuries caused permanent disability and ongoing pain. $1,400,000
Schaffer v. Foundation for Senior Living, Superior Court of Arizona, CV 2010-033696 (2013). Bus driver backed his bus into a golf cart being driven by Plaintiff. Plaintiff was thrown from the cart, and suffered spinal injuries requiring fusion. $710,000
Hofmann v. Modestin, Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, WL 6988676 (2017). A bus driver failed to yield at a stop sign and collided with Plaintiff. Plaintiff tore his rotator cuff, and suffered a spinal injury requiring fusion. $350,000
Nunez v. Professional Transit Mgmt. of Tucson, Inc., Superior Court of Arizona, Pima County, CV 2009-0652 (2010). Bus driver failed to place a seat belt or shoulder harness on Plaintiff, who was in a wheel chair. Bus driver was following another vehicle at close distance. Bus driver was forced to stop suddenly, and Plaintiff was thrown from her wheelchair, fracturing both femurs.  $186,777.87
Hall v. Professional Transit Mgmt. of Tucson, Inc., Superior Court of Arizona, Pima County, CV 2016-2785 (2018).  While boarding a bus, bus doors closed on Plaintiff and failed to reopen. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant was negligent in both operation and maintenance of the bus door. Plaintiff suffered injuries to her arms, and permanent injuries to her lumbar spine and hip.  $55,000

Practice Points

There are several things an attorney pursuing a bus accident claim should know in the early stages of bus accident litigation. Bus accident claims can become complicated quickly, so it is important to investigate early and identify problems with your case. 

Know your statutory deadlines. 

Bus accident litigation often involves private companies like charter buses or for-profit transportation. But it also frequently involves public transit. When a bus is operated by a public entity, there are tight deadlines that must be met. The Arizona Notice of Claim Statute requires that notice of a lawsuit be given to public entities within 180 days. Waiting until after that deadline to file could sink any negligence claim against public transit companies. Furthermore, a notice of claim is presumed to be denied if not accepted within 60 days of submission, and regardless of whether notice is accepted, plaintiffs have only 1 year after the claim has accrued to sue. Failure to take note of these deadlines can kill a bus accident litigation case before it even starts. 

Get bus documentation and get it early.

Under both federal and state law, bus companies are expected to keep detailed documentation about vehicles, drivers, and policies. These can include maintenance records, performance reviews, and driver schedules that can be critical in the early stages of litigation. Getting those documents as soon as possible serves two important functions. First, depending on the contents of the documentation, plaintiffs can discover early on whether they have causes of action above just negligence. If a driver had a poor record, plaintiffs may be able to pursue a negligent entrustment or supervision claim directly against the bus company. Further, missed, delayed, or poorly executed maintenance may give rise to additional negligence counts against bus companies and possibly third parties. 

Carefully consider possible defendants. 

Many bus accident cases and litigation are brought strictly against the bus driver and bus company. Consider the possibility that other parties on the peripherals of an accident may also be at fault. If a bus company uses a third party for maintenance, and a hack-job repair causes an accident, consider bringing that party to the suit as a defendant. Furthermore, consider the possibility of making a products liability claim against bus manufacturers. The National Transportation Safety Board has issued many recommendations for improving bus safety. Plaintiffs should investigate whether bus models comply with those recommendations and whether the bus model has any recurring safety problems. Products liability cases can be expensive and complicated but bringing such a claim can be helpful in situations where insurance is limited.

Know Before You Go

Passengers should be aware that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintains a search tool that tracks both bus companies and specific models of buses for safety problems and violations. Using this tool, prospective passengers can learn important information about a company’s safety violations and crashes. The following was retrieved by searching for Greyhound Lines, Inc., a well-known intercity bus company. F38,

The tool will also flag recent compliance problems with the company such as unsafe driving, hours of service, vehicle maintenance, controlled substances, and driver fitness. 

This tool will retrieve information for any bus company registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recommends that prospective passengers use this whenever they are trying to book a trip with an interstate bus company. Companies whose safety ratings are not satisfactory should not be used. Additionally, if an interstate bus company cannot be found via the search tool, ask about their registration status with U.S. DOT. If they are traveling between states but are not registered, they are not operating legally and should not be used.

Conclusion

Bus accidents, though relatively uncommon, do happen. When they do, people can be seriously injured and even killed. The law places heavy burdens on bus companies to follow safety procedures and ensure their drivers are being responsible. When accidents occur, federal and state regulations can provide a great deal of assistance in proving negligence for a plaintiff. Bus accident litigation can be a complex intersection of negligence, regulations, and even products liability law. But it is important that those who have been injured, and the families of those who have been killed in bus accidents know that the law can provide recourse for their losses.

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