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How Do Lawsuits Against City-Owned Buses Work in Texas?

How City Bus Accident Cases Work Under Texas Law

More than 125,000 bus passengers take Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) buses everyday. In addition, those buses share the roads with countless drivers and come across an unknown number of pedestrians at crosswalks throughout Dallas. Given this proximity of buses, cars, and people, it is not a question of if, but when accidents will occur.

Many times accidents involving city buses are not the fault of the city bus driver, however a certain percentage will be the fault of the driver. When injuries result from accidents caused the negligence of a city bus driver, it is important to understand the myriad of legal factors, which determine your ability to recover damages.

The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices will explain what you need to know if you've been injured by the negligence of a city bus driver. One thing that is absolutely important to understand, the laws governing claims against the state and local municipalities greatly limit the amount of time an injured person has to file a claim against a government agency. It is therefore imperative that you enlist the help of an experienced bus accident attorney as soon as possible after you accident.

Questions answered on this page:

  • How does a bus accident with a government-owned bus differ from a regular bus accident?
  • How does the Texas Tort Claims Act affect your ability to recover damages if you are injured by a city bus?
  • Who are other third parties that may be liable in a city bus accident case?
  • Why do you need an experienced bus accident attorney to help you maximize your case?

How the Texas Tort Claims Act casts a shadow over city bus accidents

It may be strange to start an article about city bus accidents with a discussion of the Texas Tort Claims Act, however given the degree to which the Texas Tort Claims Act overrides so many other areas of civil law, especially bus accidents, it is impossible not to start by discussing what it does.

Passed in 1969, the Texas Tort Claims Act is the law, which governs lawsuits against government entities in Texas. Before the act was passed, governments, be they local, county, or state, had what was known as sovereign immunity. This doctrine, which traces its roots to the common law, simply holds that you can't sue the government for monetary damages. Sovereign immunity was the ultimate get out of jail free card.

Before the passage of the Texas Tort Claims Act, if a city garbage truck happened to plow through the front door of your house and severely injured someone in your family, you might head on down to the court house and file a lawsuit, seeking to recover medical expenses and lost wages. When your suit got to court, the lawyer representing the city would stand up, assert sovereign immunity and the judge would toss out the case. Your loved-one would be severely injured and you would get nothing.

Damage Caps

Recognizing that one way to hold the government accountable was through lawsuits, the Texas Legislature passed a law, which governed the rules for when you could sue the government, how to go about doing it, and how much money you could recover. Of course, the government being the government, decided that you shouldn't be able to sue them for too much money, so they set damage caps.

Those caps are found in Section 101.023 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code:

(a) Liability of the state government under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), liability of a unit of local government under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(c) Liability of a municipality under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.
(d) Except as provided by Section 78.001, liability of an emergency service organization under this chapter is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.

What's all this have to do with your bus accident? Well, while the federal government requires buses the size of most city buses to carry $5 million in insurance, which they carry, the Texas Tort Claims Act only permits you to sue a municipal government entity, like DART for $250,000 per person, with a maximum of $500,000 per incident. Each of the buses is insured for $5 million dollars in liability coverage, but the law only lets you get to $250,000 per individual. If you're damages are more than that, you may get more from third-parties, but that is the maximum you can recover from the government.

Notification Requirements

If the damage caps weren't bad enough, the Texas Tort Claims Act also requires an extra step of notifying a government agency your intent to sue. This requirement is found under Section 101.101 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code:

NOTICE. (a) A governmental unit is entitled to receive notice of a claim against it under this chapter not later than six months after the day that the incident giving rise to the claim occurred. The notice must reasonably describe:
(1) the damage or injury claimed;
(2) the time and place of the incident; and
(3) the incident.
(b) A city's charter and ordinance provisions requiring notice within a charter period permitted by law are ratified and approved.
(c) The notice requirements provided or ratified and approved by Subsections (a) and (b) do not apply if the governmental unit has actual notice that death has occurred, that the claimant has received some injury, or that the claimant's property has been damaged.

While personal injuries generally have a 2-year statute of limitations in Texas, the "notice requirement" in the Texas Tort Claims Act functions as a statute of limitations inside another statute of limitations. While it doesn't circumvent the personal injury statute of limitations, in that you still have 2 years to file suit, if you don't submit your notice to file suit in the time specified within the Texas Tort Claims Act then just like if you wait too long under the statute of limitations your claim just vanishes.

A common misreading of this portion of the law is that it means you have to file your notice to sue within 6 months of the accident. However, section b permits cities to establish their own notice deadlines within the city charter. That means that every city in Texas has a notice deadline that can be as short as 45 days and as long as 6 months.

The notice deadlines for most of the major cities in Texas, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin are all 90 days as established by their respective city charters.

The big takeaway from the notice requirements is that if you were injured by a city bus, you have very little time to act if you wish to pursue a claim for your injuries.

Common accidents involving city buses

The most important thing to remember is that these restrictions only apply to accidents where the city bus driver is liable. For instance if you are riding a city bus and the bus is rear-ended by another motorist, it is most likely the fault of the other driver and you will have to pursue their insurance for any damages.

While we love city bus drivers and think they are great people, on the whole, every organization has some members who are less responsible than others. It has been our experience that these folks are responsible for the majority of the accidents that occur.

A bus runs up on a curb and causes minor injuries to the passengers

While Dallas is much better than many cities as far as being designed to accommodate cars and buses, there are still older portions of Downtown and other old neighborhoods that were never designed for bus traffic. While the roadways in these areas have been upgraded over the years, some city blocks are still pretty darn narrow. Buses require more space than regular passenger vehicles to turn.

One of the more common bus accidents is when a bus driver fails to properly judge a turn and runs up on a curb, crashing into a building, tree, or post. While such accidents may seem relatively minor, and they usually are, given the low speeds involved, the lack of seat belts on a typical city bus means that, in addition to the bumps and bruises you would expect to occur, broken bones or soft tissue injuries are also possible.

In these accidents, there is usually more than enough insurance money to go around to cover everyone's injuries, but just like any accident with a substantial amount of insurance money, nothing will be paid out until liability and damages are demonstrated. Since it's the insurance company and not the city that usually handles these cases, they have no incentive to just hand money over to you. No one in their company is running for re-election.

Most people simply do not have the legal knowledge and skill to make an insurance company offer up anything close to a reasonable settlement. That is why the assistance of an experienced bus accident attorney is so crucial. It not only demonstrates your resolve to the insurance company, but it is vital for meeting notification deadlines, properly investigating the accident, and getting evidence ready to be admitted into a court room, so that you can recover the full amount of you damages.

A bus accident where 4 people are severely injured

It is in this scenario that you can begin to see how meager the damage caps on city entities really are, especially since these buses have to carry $5 million in insurance money according to federal regulations.

However, DART buses travel throughout the city and on highways in the DFW Metroplex. If a rear-end collision occurs at any kind of speed, the potential for injury to the motorists and the bus passengers grows exponentially with increases in speed. At highway speeds, the mass of the bus is such that motorists in an average car will most likely suffer severe to catastrophic injuries. Those injuries can require hundreds of thousands of dollar in medical treatment. By law, the driver and any passengers in the vehicle or on the bus are limited to recovering $250,000.

Now suppose that 3 people on the bus suffered severe injuries as well. After all, very few city buses come equipped with seat belts, leading to a far greater likelihood that some of the passengers could be ejected during the accident. The injuries people sustain when they are ejected from a vehicle are particularly gruesome, if they survive at all. So now our scenario potentially has at least 4 people all with injuries in excess of $250,000.

It would be bad enough if everyone was stuck pursuing $250,000 and eating the rest of their medical expenses, lost wages, and disfigurement claims, but since DART's liability for each incident is $500,000, those four people severely injured people cannot even recover that much money.

Making matters even worse is that their is nothing that says the money has to be divided evenly or that the city has to pay at all. What ensues is a race to the money. In this race, those represented by experienced bus accident attorneys have a clear advantage. Since these attorneys know about the notification requirements, there is no worry that they will let that important deadline pass. Additionally, they will know from past experience that the available money can be divided however the city pleases, and that by the time a lawsuit makes its way through the courts, in all likelihood their will be no money left. For that reason, they will push fast and hard to ensure that their client gets as much as possible to make them whole.

At the same time they will keep a careful eye on the other claimants in the case. If there are folks who refuse legal representation and choose to go it alone, an experienced accident attorney will watch filing deadlines to make sure that those people keep their case alive. If they end up missing deadlines and sabotaging their own case, that leaves more money available to compensate the attorney's client.

It may sound cynical, but attorneys have a professional duty to represent their client to the best of their ability.

Pedestrians struck by city buses

While it is not always the bus driver's fault, their are plenty of instances where a city bus runs over a pedestrian. Such accidents usually result in truly horrific injuries for the pedestrian.

In addition to highlighting the inadequacy of the $250,000 damage cap for individuals, insurance companies, on the city's behalf, will almost always go out of their way to pin the accident on the pedestrian.

Many times the only people with a clear vantage point of the accident are the bus driver and the pedestrian. While we are not suggesting that bus drivers would lie about an accident, human beings are pre-disposed to remember traumatic situations in the most favorable light to themselves. Armed with a bus driver's, possibly inaccurate statement, insurance companies will go to work demonstrating that liability did not rest with the city, but with the pedestrian.

Instead of recovering $250,000, the maximum allowed by the Texas Tort Claims Act, the injured pedestrian in these situations faces the very real possibility of collecting nothing.

Balancing the scales requires a bus accident attorney who knows how to investigate and gain access to traffic cameras, private surveillance cameras, and canvas an area for any potential witnesses. Armed with this evidence an attorney is able to cut through insurance company shenanigans and hold negligent bus drivers accountable.

Injuries resulting from falls on buses

One of the most common types of injuries on a city bus doesn't occur when the bus is in motion, but when it is stopped. We are of course referring to falls.

From poorly maintained stairways, worn flooring, and improperly attached passenger handles and railing, there are a lot of dangerous places on the typical city bus. While fall injuries are sometimes mocked in the press, the damage they do and the pain that results is very real for fall victims.

Furthermore, the city, like any other bus operator has an obligation to ensure that buses are in a good state of repair, specifically to prevent fall and other types of injuries. When they fail in this duty, they can be held liable.

Third party liability in city bus accident cases

In addition to pursuing the city for the maximum amount allowable by law, an experienced bus accident attorney will also investigate for possible third party liability. One of the advantages of pursuing liable third parties is that not only are they held accountable for their contribution to the accident and the resulting injuries, but it also increases pool of insurance money available to help victims recover.

A list of liable third parties can include:

  • Outside Contractors: If the city outsources its bus maintenance and a maintenance defect contributes to the accident, that company could share some liability in the resulting accident.
  • Bars, Restaurants, and Liquor Stores: In some instances, the bus driver is intoxicated behind the wheel. If they were over-served by a licensed establishment, then that establishment may have liability under the Texas Dram Shop Act.
  • Bus Manufacturers: It is surprising how poorly designed and constructed many city buses are. If that poor design or a manufacturing defect contributes to passengers' injuries then the maker of the bus could share liability in the accident.
  • Uninsured Motorist Policies: Many people who ride city buses, do so by choice, meaning that they own cars of their own and for convenience or other reasons they choose to take the bus instead of their car. If they have have an Underinsured Motorist (UIM) rider on their own car insurance policy, many times that insurance policy can be pursued to help recover damages beyond the Texas Tort Claims Act damage caps.

The key to pursuing liable third parties is that an attorney cannot be content with the facts of the case as they first appear, but conduct a thorough investigation on behalf of their client. If there is a liable third party, they will rarely be known to the victim or their attorney simply based on the facts in a police report. That one reason why the choice of bus accident attorney is so crucial.

How Grossman Law Offices can help you with your city bus accident case

It should be pretty clear that city bus accident injury claims are an area of the law that is quite complex with many moving parts. From meeting tighter deadlines, to dealing with damage caps, most accident victims simply lack the expertise needed to pursue their claim to the fullest.

At Grossman Law Offices, over the last 25 years years, we have helped hundreds of people involved in commercial vehicle accidents recover to the fullest extent of the law. If you have questions about your city bus accident case, or would like to hire us to pursue your claim, give us a call at (855) 326-0000. We answer the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and your consultation is absolutely free.

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