Injury Claims Involving Public Transportation

If you're hurt in an accident caused by a bus, train, subway, or other public transit system, how do you make a claim for your injuries?

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

If your accident involved government-owned or government-operated public transportation—like a bus, train, or subway system—you might be able to get compensation from the government entity that oversees the system. But making an injury-related claim against a public agency often means playing by a unique set of rules.

What Kinds of Accidents Might Involve Public Transportation?

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of making this kind of injury claim, it's important to note that the potential liability of a government entity can come in a variety of ways when it comes to public transportation, including:

  • accidents involving operation of public transportation vehicles (like a city bus causing a traffic accident)
  • failure to maintain/inspect equipment (resulting in an escalator accident, for example)
  • failure to keep property in a safe condition (causing a slip and fall), and
  • failure to keep passengers safe (leading to an assault in a subway station).

What Is the Public Transportation Injury Claim Procedure?

Because public transportation/transit companies are usually state or municipal agencies, special state laws (often called "tort claims acts") apply to injury 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:

  • a short (six months or even less) deadline to notify the public transportation company in writing of the precise circumstances of your accident (often on a specific form), and
  • a shortened deadline for filing a lawsuit (the statute of limitations) against the public transportation company.

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. And of course, you have to make sure you file your claim against the proper governmental entity in the first place.

Learn more about making an injury claim against the government.

What Happens After I File My Injury Claim With the Right Government Agency?

The process is different in every state, and cities and local governments may have their own variations on claim procedure. But typically, after you file your claim, the government agency has a certain amount of time to either accept and pay the claim, or deny it.

Usually, if the claim is denied, you then have a set amount of time to file a lawsuit against the government entity in court. Similarly, you'll probably be authorized to file a lawsuit in court if the government agency doesn't respond to your claim within a specific amount of time.

In a few states (like Kentucky), your claim will be heard by a state claims commission or similar panel, and while there may be ways to appeal a decision that goes against you, going to court and filing a lawsuit won't be an option.

How Can a Public Transportation Agency Be Liable for My Injury?

Part of the reason for the claim filing/notice of claim requirements we touched on above is to give the government agency a chance to look into the incident and figure out whether:

  • there was negligence on the part of the government or one of its employees, and
  • that negligence caused your injury.

Let's take an example. Let's say you're standing on a public bus, the bus swerves or stops short, and you get thrown to the floor and injured. Just because you got hurt doesn't mean that the bus driver was negligent. If 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 witness testimony and phone data show that the incident occurred because the bus driver was texting, the bus driver will likely be found negligent.

Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.

Are Public Transportation and Public Transit Systems "Common Carriers"?

As we touched on above, public transportation injury law is based on negligence, but public transportation companies in most states are considered "common carriers," which means they owe their passengers a higher degree of care than a typical person might owe someone else.

The injured person must still prove that the public transportation company was negligent in order to win these kinds of cases. But it might be easier to establish liability against a "common carrier," especially if the public transportation agency violated a safety regulation in connection with the incident.

Are There Limits on Damages in Public Transportation Injury Claims?

As part of the set of statutes that spell out how an injured person might make a claim against a government entity, most states have set limits or "caps" on the amount of money that the injured person can receive, even if they end up going to court and getting a judgment in their favor.

A number of states also prohibit or limit the recovery of compensation for "pain and suffering," which can often make up the bulk of a personal injury plaintiff's "damages" in a successful lawsuit.

Learn more about different kinds of damages in an injury case.

Next Steps After an Injury Involving Public Transportation

It's probably clear by now that if your injury claim involves the negligence of a public transit agency or one of its employees, you'll need to understand and comply with a fairly complex set of rules in order to guarantee a satisfactory result. Trying to sort these rules out and tackle the process on your own might not be the best strategy, especially if your injuries are serious.

The reality is that getting the best outcome often means putting your claim in the hands of an experienced legal professional. Learn more about how a personal injury lawyer can make a difference for your claim, and how to find the right injury lawyer.

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