Each day, hundreds of thousands of people rely on public or municipal transportation to get to work, go shopping, visit friends, or to otherwise get from one place to another. Every year, thousands of riders are injured when the public transit car they are riding in gets into an accident with another vehicle, pulls away from the curb too quickly while a person is trying to get on or off the mode of transportation, or when a passenger loses their balance because of a violent stop or jerk.
Mass transit accidents happen for a variety of reasons. For instance, perhaps a bus is following another vehicle too closely and crashes into the other vehicle when it suddenly stops. Of course, as far as passengers are concerned, it is not necessary for the bus or other form of public transportation they are riding to actually crash into the other vehicle. If the operator of the public vehicle was able to avoid crashing into the vehicle ahead of it, the public entity may still be legally responsible (“liable”) for injuries to its passenger who may fall or otherwise be injured due to the sudden stop.
Some other common causes of mass transit accidents are:
The public entity has an obligation, both to its passengers and non-passengers alike, to hire only qualified drivers, operators, and other employees and to see to it that they are properly trained to do their job.
The liability of publicly owned or operated buses, the MUNI, light-rail systems, Metrolink, heavy-rail systems, subway cars, BART, electric trolleys, cable cars, trains, and other modes of mass transportation operated by a public entity (such as a city, county, the State of California, or the United States government) involves two “standards of care:” one to its passengers and another to non-passengers. In the relationship with its passengers, a government-operated transit system is considered a “common carrier,” and so it owes those individuals a higher degree of care. Toward non-passengers, the transit system owes only the duty of ordinary care.
It is not necessary for the person to be completely inside the bus or other form of mass transit and to have paid the fare to be considered a “passenger.” A person becomes a passenger when he demonstrates an intent to board the vehicle and the vehicle stops to let him on. A person who is in the process of getting off a public vehicle is still considered a passenger until he is safely off the vehicle. Thus, from the moment a person signals his intention to get on the vehicle and the vehicle stops to pick him up until he is safely discharged from the vehicle in a reasonably safe place, the public vehicle, as a common carrier, is required to use the utmost care and diligence for the passenger’s safety.
Suppose a public bus pulls away from the curb while someone is trying to get on, resulting in the person’s falling into the street and being run over by the back wheels of the bus. The public entity that owns or operates the bus can be held legally responsible (“liable”) for the injuries to or death of that person (who is legally considered to be a passenger) for failing to use the highest duty of care for the safety of the passenger trying to board the bus, even though he was not completely inside the bus and had not paid the fare at the time of the injury or death.
A person is considered a passenger until he has safely gotten off the public vehicle in a relatively safe place. The public vehicle’s operator’s responsibility to the passenger continues until the passenger has had sufficient time to get away from the vehicle without injury. The public entity is legally responsible for any and all injuries a passenger suffers if, for instance, a public bus starts pulling away at a stop while the passenger is still in the process of getting off the bus, and he is injured when he falls when the bus starts moving again. The public bus is not necessarily required to let the passengers off at the curb; however, the bus driver must let the passengers off in a safe place where there is no danger of their being hit by passing vehicles or being injured by a dangerous condition of the street.
A special relationship exists between the means of public transit and its passengers that imposes a heightened duty on the public entity and its operators to safeguard its passengers. As the California Supreme Court has stated in relation to buses: “Bus passengers are sealed in a moving steel cocoon. Large numbers of strangers are forced into very close physical contact with one another under conditions that are crowded, noisy, and overheated. At the same time, the means of entering and exiting the bus are limited and under the exclusive control of the bus driver. Thus, passengers have no control over who is admitted on the bus and, if trouble arises, are wholly dependent upon the bus driver to summon help or provide a means of escape. These characteristics of buses are, at the very least, conducive to outbreaks of violence between passengers and at the same time significantly limit the means by which passengers can protect themselves from assaults by fellow passengers. We believe these characteristics of public transportation, along with the duty of utmost care and diligence imposed by California law, provide a more than ample basis for finding that a special relationship exists between buses and their passengers.”
A “common carrier” is a person, company, or public entity that basically agrees to transport anyone who can pay the fare (in legal terms, persons who “tender the price of carriage”). A publicly owned or operated mass transit system that transports passengers is a common carrier. As to its passengers, the public entity, as a common carrier, owes them the “highest degree of due care” and is liable for its passengers’ injuries and deaths resulting from even the slightest carelessness (“negligence”). Common carriers are required to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight can reasonably accomplish under the circumstances to protect its passengers from being hurt or killed.
As to non-passengers, such as people in other vehicles, motorcyclists, bicyclists, or pedestrians not intending to board the mass transit vehicle, the government entity owes them only the “ordinary standard of care.” This is the duty to conduct its operations in such a manner so as not to put the people traveling via the other vehicles or pedestrians at an unreasonable risk of harm.
Being a common carrier, a public entity has a duty to use the utmost care and diligence to protect its passengers from assaults by other passengers. The public entity can be held legally responsible for injuries resulting from an assault by another passenger when the operator of the public vehicle knew or should have known that an assault on a passenger may be about to occur and had the ability to prevent the injury. This does not require that the public entity provide an armed security guard on every public mass transit vehicle. Rather, there are a number of precautionary measures the operator could take which would impose little, if any, burden on the operator. Some of the actions that could be taken include the operator: (1) warning unruly passengers to quiet down or get off the vehicle, (2) calling the police and asking for their assistance, or (3) ejecting the unruly passengers.
One thing that is vitally important to know about injuries caused by a governmental agency or public employee is that, before you can sue, you must file a claim for damages with the appropriate governmental agency within a shortened period (usually six months). If you don’t, you will forever lose your right to hold the public entity responsible for your injuries or your loved one’s death. It is therefore extremely important that, if you want to pursue a case involving the fault of a government agency, you contact an experienced personal attorney as soon as possible.