While it's generally true that most people are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of personal injury law, this is never more apparent than when it comes time to discuss bus accident cases in particular. For instance, it is commonly believed that the transport companies that bus drivers work for are automatically financially liable to all occupants on the bus if an accident occurs, yet this belief is completely false. In the interest of spreading the word about how the law actually does work, I'd like to address some of the common misconceptions about bus accidents, and reveal some other lesser known truths about bus accident cases and the rights of bus accident victims.
Before we get too far into this discussion, understand that all of the info on this page pertains to commercial bus accidents exclusively. This includes:
- Greyhound busses
- Church busses
- Shuttle busses used by airports, camp grounds, theme parks, etc.
- Casino busses
- Tour busses
- Charter busses
We have another article that explains how city bus accidents are treated under the law. Spoiler alert, it's totally different than the way the law treats commercial bus accident cases.
Bus drivers and bus companies are not automatically liable for anything
The first thing to note is that there is nothing in the law that says that commercial bus companies are automatically liable for injuries sustained by either their passengers or the occupants of a car that a bus collides with. But why? Isn't that how personal injury law works? No, in fact. That's not how personally injury has ever worked.
In civil law (the law of suing people), just like in criminal law, the accused is always innocent until proven guilty. So, just the same way that someone can commit a murder and get away with it if the state fails to prove their guilt to a jury, someone who causes an accident is only held when a jury says they are liable, or when a lawyer who represents their victims convinces them to accept liability. Period.
The reason for this is because there are many instances where the bus driver might not actually be at fault, so the law doesn't allow injured persons to just assume that they are and take the bus company's money. Imagine an instance where a drunk driver cuts the bus driver off, and the bus driver veers off the road into a ditch, killing fifteen people. There aren't many people who would blame the bus driver for that accident, and the law takes account of this reality.
Where things get tricky is that bus companies and their attorneys can exploit the concept presented above. If we'd all agree that a bus driver who gets cut off by a drunk driver is not liable for a horrific accident, then this creates an incentive for bus companies to supply their own version of events. They might even make up a story and claim some mysterious vehicle cut their driver off, when that was not in fact the case. The main thing that everyone should take away from this article is that the fault of the bus driver or his employer must be proved in order for them to be held liable, and they always have some opportunity to defend themselves by either rightly pointing the finger at some other party who truly is responsible, or by fraudulently claiming that they are not to blame when they are.
They have a lot to lose
Notwithstanding scenarios wherein some other driver on the road actually does cause a bus accident, many bus accidents are the fault of the bus driver, his employers, or both. Yet, even in those instances, it's incredibly rare for a commercial bus company to admit fault. But why? Well, in the case of the bus driver, they can lose their license or their freedom if they admit fault. In the case of the commercial bus company, however, it's as simple as them trying to protect their bottom line and avoid financial responsibility for the harm they cause. If a typical motorist hurts someone, they are carrying about 30,000 dollars of insurance, so their worst day in court will likely only mean that they will have to pay that relatively small amount; their financial exposure is quite limited. But large buses that can carry more than fifteen people are required by federal law to carry a minimum of $5 million dollars in insurance. This might sound like good news for accident victims since there's enough available funds to cover their medical bills and whatnot, but the truth is that this just means the companies have five million more reasons to fight those who have been injured. Even if a bus company felt genuine remorse for the harm they inflicted on an accident victim, their insurance carrier would still fight the claim. That's just standard operating procedure.
Bus accident cases also create "competition among victims."
The other obstacle in these cases is the sheer number of persons involved. For instance, in an accident where a bus is hauling 80 people, 5 million dollars won't necessarily go that far depending on the severity of injuries and the varying medical expenses. It's not pretty, but the victims who take the initiative to get actively involved in their case soon after the wreck will get their cases settled before the money runs out, while those who linger or think that the bus company is just going to do the right thing may very well find out that all the available funds have been exhausted while they waited.
Bus accidents are viewed differently than car accidents under the law.
Under the law, "common carriers" are actually supposed to hold themselves to an incredibly high standard of care for their passengers. Some of the duties imposed on them by law include making sure passengers safely board or exit the bus, and also making sure passengers are safe at all times while riding the bus. These drivers and their companies are also responsible for all following federal laws in regard to the maintenance and inspection of vehicles as imposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
On the contrary, drivers of regular passenger cars are held to a much lower standard. Think of it this way. If you called a law firm and a paralegal gave you some bad advice, you'd be upset. If a lawyer gave you bad advice, you'd be beyond infuriated. The reason for this is simply because a lawyer should know better (i.e. you hold them to a higher standard). The same concept applies to bus drivers. But that is precisely why bus companies usually fight victims rather than pay. They know that since they are held to a high standard, admitting fault means that they will get eviscerated in court. It's cowardice, no doubt, to deny responsibility for an accident you caused, but despite how unscrupulous such conduct may be, it's easy to see why they operate that way.
How victims can protect themselves.
In order to get around some of the obstacles a victim might face if they have an injury from a commercial bus accident (or if they've lost a loved one), they will need to develop a legal strategy. This starts with having someone other than the police (usually an attorney or private investigator) conduct a thorough investigation in order to determine the root cause of the accident. Though the police are there to document the accident scene, they often don't have the resources to dig deeper to investigate what actually happened or to fight for the accident victims. Getting to the true cause of what happened is really the most important factor in this type of situation. Once the underlying cause is determined, victims must be prepared to go the distance, because they will have a legal battle on their hands.