If you get hurt while on public transportation -- such as a bus, train, or subway -- you might be entitled to make a claim against the public transportation company that runs the transport line. This article will explain the most important differences between the law that applies to public transportation companies and the rules in most standard personal injury cases.
Most personal injury cases are based on negligence rules; the injured person must prove that the defendant was negligent in order to win the case.
Public transportation injury law is still based on negligence, but public transportation companies in some states may be subject to what is called the "common carrier" law. A common carrier is an old legal term for people or businesses that provide public transportation. Common carriers generally include public buses, trains, and trolleys, as well as taxis. Depending on the state, common carriers also include school buses and maybe even private limousine companies.
In many states, common carriers owe their passengers a higher degree of care than the average person does. The injured person must still prove that the public transportation company was negligent in order to win the case. But in many states, common carriers are said to owe their passengers a higher degree or even “the highest degree of care” to provide safe means and methods of transportation for them.
In other words, the common carrier’s duty to act reasonably to take care of its passengers is greater than the average person’s duty to act reasonably. In some states, the common carrier law only applies to injuries that occur in the course of the common carrier’s operation of its vehicles (i.e., while the bus, train, or taxi is moving). But in other states, the common carrier owes this higher duty of care in all circumstances, even if someone slips and falls in the train station or is injured on a broken bench on the subway platform.
But, even though the common carrier may owe this higher duty of care, the injured person must always prove negligence. Let’s take an example. Let’s say that you are standing on a public bus, the bus swerves or stops short, and you get thrown to the floor and injured. Just because the bus swerved or stopped short and you got hurt does not mean that the bus driver was negligent. If, for example, a child ran into the street unexpectedly, and the bus driver had been driving at a reasonable and safe speed beforehand, the bus driver may well be found not to be at fault. But if the accident occurred because the bus driver had been talking with a passenger, the bus driver will likely be found negligent.
This is a good example of the higher duty of care that common carriers owe in some states. When we drive, we often talk with our passengers. But public bus drivers in common carrier law states owe a higher duty of care to their passengers than the average driver, and so they must drive more safely (i.e., less negligently) than the average driver. We talk with our passengers; it might be a little bit negligent, but we do it anyway. Bus drivers cannot talk with their passengers. They cannot be even a little bit negligent.
The second important distinction between public transportation law and standard personal injury law has to do with the procedure for bringing a claim against a public transportation company.
Because public transportation companies are state or municipal agencies, special state laws (usually called State Tort Claims Acts) apply to claims brought against them. There will almost always be time and notice deadlines for filing injury claims against a government entity like a public transportation company. These deadlines differ from state to state, but can include the following:
These requirements are applied more strictly in some states than in others. In some states, your claim will be barred if you send your notice to the wrong municipal department, even though it might just be down the hall from the correct department. Moreover, you have to make sure that you make your claim against the proper governmental entity in the first place. To make sure that you satisfy all of your state’s notification requirements, if you got hurt on public transportation, you should contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, most states have caps or limits for injury claims against state or municipal agencies such as public transportation companies. These limits will also differ from state to state, but can be very low, sometimes $100,000 or less.