Monday, July 06, 2020

The Wheels on the City Bus Go 'Round and 'Round - and Its Operator Still Owes a Higher Duty of Care, Per the Texas Supreme Court

By Jonathan Spigel

 

In a June 26, 2020 opinion, the Texas Supreme Court rejected an argument asserted by a city bus operator that it did not owe its passengers the “higher duty of care” owed by “common carriers.”  In VIA Metropolitan Transit v. Curtis Meck, VIA Metropolitan Transit (“VIA”), the operator of the city buses/transit system that serves San Antonio and other parts of Bexar County, appealed a $100,000.00 personal injury judgment in favor of Mr. Meck.  VIA argued: (1) the high-degree-of-care duty does not/should not apply in this case; (2) assuming that such a high duty does apply, VIA’s governmental immunity was not waived; and (3) there was no evidence that VIA breached the high duty of care.  The Texas Supreme Court struck down each of VIA’s arguments and upheld Mr. Meck’s judgment.

In February of 2013, Curtis Meck boarded a VIA city bus.  As many bus passengers do, Mr. Meck stood, holding onto a strap above his head.  The bus began moving forward, a passenger yelled “Back door!” (meaning someone was trying to exit the back door of the bus while the bus was pulling away), the bus operator braked hard, and Mr. Meck was thrown up against the partition behind where the bus driver sat, initially injuring his neck and shoulder.  He was treated and later had a neck surgery for a herniated disc in his neck.

 

Texas and Higher Duty of Care
Texas law has held “common carriers,” i.e., those businesses whose primary purpose is the transportation of people, to a “higher duty of care,” and judged using the “very cautious, competent and prudent person” standard for more than 165 years.  This is a higher standard of care as compared with the “ordinary prudent and reasonable person” standard of care applicable to most vehicle drivers.  Part of the reason the higher duty of care is imposed on common carriers is that their passengers can be exposed to greater risks and are more vulnerable than passengers of ordinary vehicles.  For instance, there are no seatbelts on most city buses. 

VIA made technical arguments that it did not meet the definition of a “common carrier” and that even if it did, the Texas Supreme Court should overlook 165 years of precedent and apply an ordinary negligence standard as some other states do.  The Texas Supreme Court declined to do so. 

VIA next argued that the waiver of governmental immunity did not apply because the statute merely mentions ordinary “negligence” in its waiver provision (having to do with the operation of motor-driven equipment), versus only “slight negligence” which is required for higher-duty-of-care cases.  The Texas Supreme Court ruled that at the time the Texas Tort Claims Act (providing for governmental immunity and limited waivers of that immunity) was enacted, the term “negligence” was broad enough to include both ordinary and slight negligence

Finally, because VIA’s own witnesses testified that the bus operator should avoid “abrupt stops,” check his back mirror for exiting passengers, apply the foot brake while passengers are entering and exiting the bus, maintain a speed that will permit stops with a normal application of the brakes, and always start and stop the bus smoothly -- there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find a breach of the higher duty of care owed by common carriers.  In sum, if you are a common carrier of passengers for hire in Texas, be prepared for your drivers to be held to a higher duty of care by Texas judges. 

 

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