Texas Bus Accident Law - An Overview
Most people understand that when you get into an accident with, say, an 18-wheeler, the way a lawyer handles the case is different than the way he would handle a regular fender-bender car accident case. The reason for this is because the laws that govern how 18-wheelers are supposed to operate are quite different than that of cars. Likewise, busses are operated under different laws than cars.
But the really tricky part is that, not only are busses regulated differently than cars and 18-wheelers, but also the laws which determine the amount you can sue for and the factors which determine whether the bus owners are liable or not are also different.
For these reasons, bus accidents are treated by Texas lawyers as their own separate sphere of the law, and in this article, we're going to explain exactly how the law works in regards to bus accidents, what you can expect if you want to file a lawsuit against a bus company, and how to get the most compensation out of a case.
Questions answered in this section:
- What if I got into an accident with a government-owned vehicle? Does that effect my case?
- Why are bus drivers held to a higher standard than regular drivers?
- Who's responsible if the bus itself was the cause of the accident?
Bus regulations are based on weight and passenger capacity
Buses come in many shapes and sizes, and are intended for different purposes, but the one defining characteristic of buses that matters from a legal perspective is how many passengers they carry. If a bus can carry more than 15 passengers, it has to abide by certain rules and carry a certain amount of insurance. If the bus carries 15 passengers or fewer, it abides by a different set of rules and is required to carry a smaller amount of insurance. The insurance coverage available completely dictates what case strategy should be employed when seeking compensation for an accident. More on this to come.
Different Buses, Different Categories
First, you need to understand that there are two broad categories for buses:
- Private or commercially-owned buses, which consist of:
- Commercial buses.
- Ex. Greyhound Bus.
- Casino buses.
- Charter buses.
- Church buses.
- Nursing home buses.
- Shuttle buses.
- Airport buses.
- Hotel buses.
- Amusement park buses.
- Commercial buses.
- Government-owned buses, which consist of:
- City buses.
- School buses.
- Public disabled transportation.
What's the Difference?
As we explained earlier, there are two types of buses you'll see on the road: commercial buses that are owned by a private company, and government-owned buses, which are owned and controlled by the local city government, the state, or even a school district. If you're hurt by a bus, this distinction matters quite a bit, legally speaking.
There are a lots of differences between the two classifications, and one of them is profit, or the lack thereof. A government-owned bus is part of a larger service to the public, for example, a school district. In addition to providing a school system for the general public, the state government also provides transportation in the form of school buses. This is free for students and teachers, obviously.
But even public transportation owned by the city isn't something done for profit, though it may cost money. It's a subsidized service for the public. For example, it might cost money to take the subway or bus across town, but it's not a for-profit business, just like the Postal Service isn't a for-profit business. It's something done for the public good and is often subsidized so it's affordable. Government-owned buses are effectively owned by the general public, so there are laws to provide these buses with an abnormal degree of protection from lawsuits, even when the bus's driver is entirely negligent and at fault for your accident.
A non government-owned company providing transportation to paying customers is operating for profit, just like thousands of other businesses out there. Common examples would be charter buses, tour buses, or even shuttles that take people to and from the airport. Now, we've been saying "privately owned" to distinguish from government-owned buses. Let's be clear that we're not referring to whether a business is publicly traded or owned by a single person's company. That is to say, a bus can be owned by either Greyhound or Ed's Kwik-Dallas Shuttle Service; both of these companies are considered to be privately-owned and not affiliated with the state government, city, or state.
Both government-owned buses and privately-owned buses are required by federal law to carry a certain amount of insurance, which is subject to how many passengers the bus carries. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has separate rules for commercial vehicles hauling products and supplies and commercial vehicles transporting people. For a bus that carries 15 passengers or fewer, federal law requires at least $1.5 million in insurance coverage. For a bus that carries 16 passengers or more, federal law requires a minimum coverage of $5 million.
This also includes church buses. Even though churches are usually tax-exempt and enjoy a few other special privileges that other businesses don't, they still have to comply with federal law when it comes to transporting people in buses or even vans. This means that any kind of charter bus (or even 15-passenger van) a church owns still requires either $5 million or $1.5 million in insurance coverage.
Common Causes of Bus Accidents
The bottom line is that most accidents are caused by some sort of human error -- usually a driver's. The links below will take you to the "Truck Accident" section of our website, which is dedicated to 18-wheelers and semi-trucks. However, semi-trucks, 18-wheelers, and buses alike are all commercial vehicles and are governed by federal law, so many of the principles remain the same.
The most common causes of bus accidents are as follows:
- Distracted driving.
- Driver fatigue.
- Presence of alcohol or drugs.
- >Maintenance and mechanical issues with the bus itself.
- Defective parts in the bus.
The Texas Tort Claims Act (Can You Sue the Government?)
Going back to government-owned buses for a moment, let's talk about the rules for filing a lawsuit against the government. Obviously, if a Greyhound bus driver gets into an accident, there's nothing stopping an injured passenger from filing a claim against the company for their driver's negligence. That's just a matter of general personal injury law. You can always pursue a claim against a non-governmental defendant.
So are there rules against filing lawsuits against the State of Texas? Yes. What we're talking about is called "sovereign immunity." If you remember the American classic Lethal Weapon 2, you'll recall that the main villain used "diplomatic immunity" to do whatever he wanted. Well, sovereign immunity is a bit like that because it essentially protects the government from being sued except under very special circumstances. Under common law traditions, governments have always enjoyed sovereign immunity, and are therefore immune from lawsuits by default.
In 1969, Texas lawmakers decided to pass a law that allowed you to sue the state, city, or local government under certain circumstances that they felt the government should be held accountable for. The Texas Tort Claims Act, as the law was known, was enacted by the Texas Legislature and still applies to this day. It outlines exactly how and when someone can bring a lawsuit against the government. Although it allows you to sue the government, it still limits a few things:
- When you can bring a lawsuit against the State of Texas.
- What you can sue for.
- How much money you can recover in damages.
One of the special circumstances that allows for lawsuits is "injuries arising from the use of motor-driven vehicles or motor-driven equipment." Since that includes buses, you can file a lawsuit when a government-owned bus causes an accident that injures you. That covers the "when."
Now, let's talk about the "what". In a normal personal injury lawsuit, you have to prove that the defendant did something they weren't supposed to and injured you as a result. If the negligence is severe enough, a jury can decide to punish the defendant with additional fines also known as "punitive damages". Your losses are your "damages," and that can include medical bills, therapy expenses, etc. But punitive damages are above and beyond that, and they're awarded at the jury's discretion. For example, the infamous McDonald's "hot coffee" case from several years ago carried a $2.7 million verdict in punitive damages. Obviously, that was appealed, but you get the picture.
Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, you cannot sue for punitive damages, which are sometimes called exemplary damages, but you can sue for most ordinary damages, subject to a maximum limit.
Finally, the question that most people are interested in: "how much" money can you recover in a lawsuit against the government? The Texas Tort Claims Act says you can only ever recover $250,000 per person and $500,000 per accident, total, in a lawsuit against the State of Texas or a municipality (cities such as Dallas, Houston, Austin, etc.).
In a lawsuit against a "local governmental unit" (like a county or school board) or an "emergency service organization" (like a fire station), you can only recover $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident, total.
Your Case Has No Value Until You Prove It
Just by itself, the fact that you were in an accident doesn't actually entitle you to any compensation under Texas law. You can have a good fact pattern and have zero fault in the accident, but as we said earlier, you can't just walk into a courtroom with your medical bills and expect to be awarded compensation for your losses.
To receive compensation for your accident, there are several things that you'll need to prove. These are outlined below.
For lawsuits against privately owned buses.
- You need to prove that there was some sort of negligence involved with the driver of the bus or the company that owned the bus.
- You need to prove that the bus driver or the bus company owed you a duty and breached said duty. This can mean a lot of things, but it mostly refers to traffic laws and simple, reasonable behavior. There are laws against running red lights and speeding, so that's an obvious example of breaching a duty. But while there's no law against driving while sleepy, an accident caused by a bus driver who nodded off behind the wheel would also be an example of breaching a duty.
- You need to prove that the breach of duty was the proximate cause of your injuries. For example, if a tour bus runs you off the road and you break your arm, but you weren't wearing your seat belt, who really caused the injuries? Proximate cause is an area where the opposing counsel for the bus company will fight back hard.
- You need to prove that there is compelling legal reason for a jury to order the defendant bus driver and company to compensate you for your injuries.
For lawsuits against government-owned buses:
- You need to prove the bus driver or company (defendant) was a governmental unit under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA).
- You need to establish a duty owed by the bus driver or bus company.
- You need to establish that the defendant had breached that duty, same as above.
- You need to prove proximate cause, same as above. However, the TTCA specifies that your injury must have been caused by:
- the operation of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment, or,
- a defect with the bus.
- You must prove that the defendant would have been personally liable had they been a private entity and therefore non-governmental.
- You absolutely must provide proper notice as required by the TTCA.
By now, you should be acutely aware of the fact that a lot of work goes into handling a bus accident case, and it's always best to be prepared if you're filing a lawsuit. That means that if you're going to claim a bus driver or company was negligent and injured you, you'd better have proof to back it up. Things like expert witnesses are going to be a crucial part of your case.
Products Liability: How Defective Equipment Can Affect Your Case
Products liability is a whole other area of personal injury law, and we've written an article about defective buses and products liability detailing the specifics of when you can and cannot sue the manufacturer of a bus for an injury caused by a defect. But, suffice it to say, there are situations where bus accidents are caused by or made worse by a design flaw or defect present in the bus.
For instance, many buses have sub-standard rollover protection. Even though the technology exists to make buses withstand rollover accidents, many bus manufacturers take the less expensive route. This means that many of the buses on the road are unable to fare well in a rollover accident, which is a problem considering how rollover-probe buses are.
Don't Try To Handle your Case On Your Own
A pro se litigant is someone who represents themselves in a lawsuit. A lot of people will read up on car accident or personal injury law and try to take a small insurance company to small claims court, or something like that. But because bus accidents involve such a different areas of the law, we can't, in good conscience, advise that anyone try to litigate their own bus accident case. The simple fact of the matter is that there are a lot of moving parts in these cases and things only get more complex when you involve a government-owned bus.
Now, we're not saying this to scare you away or convince anyone to hire us, but the single greatest enemy you can have in the courtroom is a lack of knowledge and experience. The attorneys and insurance companies who defend commercial bus companies have been doing so for many, many years and they're very good at picking out who knows the law and who doesn't. We've had too many prospective clients try to bring their unsalvageable case to us after they'd already ruined it in court due to their lack of experience. There simply isn't room for error, especially with the tight deadlines in a case against the government.
You need an experienced attorney who knows how to win these types of cases. The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices have more than 25 years' experience, and can help you get the compensation you need. If you have any questions, call us at 1-855-326-0000.
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