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Who is Liable for Injuries on Public Transportation?

Posted September 1, 2015 | Personal Injury

Every day, public transportation safely brings millions upon millions of Americans from Point A to Point B.  However, that doesn’t mean accidents never occur.  In fact, there are thousands of SEPTA accidents in Philadelphia each year (to say nothing of countless other carriers across the country).  If you were injured while riding public transportation, you may be able to get compensated for your medical bills and other expenses.  It all depends on how and why the injury occurred.

How Often Do SEPTA Buses Get into Public Transportation Accidents?

Philadelphia locals like to joke about how unsafe SEPTA drivers are, but really, it’s no laughing matter.  SEPTA buses are involved in numerous accidents each year – especially in crowded downtown Philadelphia.

Wide SEPTA buses speeding down narrow Philadelphia streets mean that mirrors and door projections overhang onto sidewalks, which can result in pedestrians being violently knocked off their feet.  Cyclists are frequently struck when drivers try to speed through yellow lights, or make improper turns.  Cars and buses jostle for space alongside one another, sometimes nearly grazing each other’s sides, which is always a recipe for disaster.

public transportation injury

All it takes is a glance at recent news to see just how dangerous the roads can become when reckless SEPTA drivers disregard the traffic safety laws.  July 18, 2015: “SEPTA Paratransit Bus Overturns in Overbrook Crash, Four Injured”; July 7, 2015: “Pedestrian Struck and Killed by SEPTA Bus in Center City”; May 22, 2015: “Eight Injured in Car, SEPTA Bus Crash in Hunting Park”; May 6, 2015: “Three Hospitalized After Freak SEPTA Accident in South Philadelphia.”

Perhaps even more disturbing than the headlines themselves, is the fact that they’re spaced so closely together.  That’s at least 15 injuries and one death caused by SEPTA busesalone, to say nothing of the subways and trolleys – all in the span of about two months.

Hopefully, you and your loved ones will never be injured in a SEPTA wreck – but with so many crashes and collisions plaguing the city streets, there are no guarantees for anyone.  If the worst does occur, and you’re hurt while riding a city bus or subway train, you should know about some basic legal rules that apply when suing public transportation companies.

When Does the Common Carrier Law Apply?

In order for a personal injury plaintiff to be successful, he or she generally has to prove that the defendant engaged in reckless or negligent behavior which caused the plaintiff’s accident.  As we  discussed in a previous article, negligence can be boiled down to four basic points: (1) the duty of care from defendant to plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty of care; (3) injuries caused by the breach; and (4) damages resulting from the injuries.

Some states follow a legal rule known as the common carrier law, which holds providers of public transit to an even higher standard of care than the average private citizen, thereby making it a little easier for plaintiffs to prevail in injury lawsuits.

There is no dispute that appellant SEPTA is a common carrier and therefore held to the highest degree of care. See Sommers v. Hessler, 227 Pa. Superior Ct. 41, 323 A.2d 17 (1974); Green v. SEPTA, 2015 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 129. Common carriers have a duty of extraordinary care to their passengers. As a common carrier, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) itself owes the highest duty of care to its passengers.  Id.

A public carrier is not an insurer of its passengers’ safety, but liability is imposed for injuries resulting from negligent conduct on the part of the carrier. Sykes v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Authority, 225 Pa. Superior Ct. 69, 310 A.2d 277 (1973).

So how do you sue SEPTA successfully? The plaintiff must be prepared to present robust evidence demonstrating why SEPTA should be held liable for its role in contributing to the victim’s injuries.  SEPTA is potentially liable for compensating injury victims as long as the four components of negligence can be demonstrated by the attorney representing the plaintiff.  Thus, it is crucial to work with a lawyer who has experience handling SEPTA claims.

SEPTA accident

Depending on the presence or absence of additional factors (such as who had right-of-way if a cyclist was hit by a bus), SEPTA may be held liable for injuries caused under the following circumstances, to name just a few:

  • Physical or sexual assault on the bus.
  • Being injured because the bus overturns, speeds through a light, or strikes another vehicle.
  • “Jerk and jolt” claims, where the bus slams to an unusually/unreasonably abrupt stop.

Finally, it’s important to note that SEPTA claims are subject to a shortened statute of limitations, or the time limit for plaintiffs to sue.  Because SEPTA is operated by a public entity – the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – the applicable statute of limitations is shortened from two years (the normal duration) to just six months.  We covered this topic extensively in our article about suing public entities for slip and fall.

If you were hurt in a SEPTA bus accident, or if one of your loved ones was a victim of wrongful death, you may be entitled to compensation.  However, as we just pointed out, you only have a short period of time to file a claim.  Don’t let your legal recourse slip away forever: call personal injury attorney Brent Wieand at (800) 481-5206 to start discussing your accident in a free, private legal consultation.