Understanding the causes, liability, and recovery for bus accidents in Montana
In the winter of 1984, a bus carrying members of the Whitefish High School wrestling team home through a late-night snowstorm collided with a fuel tanker on U.S. Highway 2. Though the bus became engulfed in flames almost immediately, the wrestlers worked together to lift and carry injured passengers to a nearby café.
“There was just a ball of fire with the outline of the bus in it,” said café owner Clint Catheart.
The fiery crash killed 9 people and injured 19 more, making it the deadliest bus accident in Montana history.
So what happens when passengers or drivers are injured in bus accidents like the one on U.S. Highway 2? This article looks at bus accident liability in Montana, including the common causes of such accidents, the legal remedies available to injured parties, potential damages, and the unique procedural rules that must be followed should you decide to make a claim or file a lawsuit after a bus accident.
Types of bus accidents
The term “bus accident” is used to describe accidents involving a variety of modes of transportation. These include:
- Public transportation (ASUM Transportation, Mountain Line, MET Transit, Great Falls Transit)
- Private bus lines (Coach, Megabus, Greyhound)
- School buses
- Airport and hotel shuttle buses
- Tour buses
The laws and regulations, as well as the method of recovery, differ depending on the type of bus involved in the accident.
Causes of bus accidents and who can be sued
Just like regular car accidents, many different factors can lead to bus collisions. These include:
- Distracted drivers
- Drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Mechanical failures
- Poor weather conditions
In most cases, bus accidents are caused by the negligence of the bus driver or another person on the road (such as a motor vehicle driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian). In these cases, any person injured in the bus accident can file an insurance claim or file a negligence lawsuit against the person responsible for causing the bus accident.
Montana common carrier doctrine
In order to prove negligence, the plaintiff must usually show that the defendant failed to exercise a “reasonable degree of care” to avoid harming the plaintiff.
However, Montana has adopted the “common carrier doctrine.” This doctrine requires bus drivers to exercise the “highest degree of care,” rather than the usual “reasonable degree of care” with respect to its passengers.
For example, while it might not be considered negligent for a motor vehicle driver to talk to a passenger while driving, it may very well be negligent for a bus driver to do the same under this heightened standard.
Keep in mind that bus drivers only owe this heightened degree of care to their passengers. The degree of care bus drivers owe to all other persons on the road remains the reasonable degree of care.
In less-common cases, bus accidents are caused by a defective product (for example, a defective tire prone to tread separations). In these cases, any person injured in the bus accident can sue the manufacturer of the defective product under a theory of negligence or strict liability.
What if the bus is owned by a government agency?
If a bus driver is negligent, a lawsuit is generally filed against the owner of the bus in addition to the bus driver (and sometimes just against the owner of the bus). This is done under the theory of respondeat superior, which holds that an employer can he held responsible for the actions of its employees.
Some buses are owned by private companies, but others are owned by state or municipal agencies. Special rules apply when claims are brought against the government. Most notably, a “notice of claim” must be filed with the government agency before any lawsuit can be filed.
Damages awarded to bus accident victims
Due to the large size of buses and the low speed at which they generally travel, serious injuries and fatalities are rare. On the other hand, the fact that buses are generally not equipped with seatbelts and rollovers are more common than with smaller vehicles, means that injuries certainly can happen when an accident does occur.
Common bus accident injuries include:
In Montana, there are three types of damages available to plaintiffs injured in a bus accident:
- Economic damages (medical expenses, lost wages, future lost wages)
- Non-economic damages (pain and suffering, loss of consortium)
- Punitive damages (damages intended to punish the defendant)
Punitive damages are only available in cases where the defendant acted with actual malice. A defendant acts with actual malice if they:
- Had knowledge of facts that created a high probability of injury to the plaintiff, and
- Intentionally proceed to act despite the high probability of injury.
What's more, you can't recover punitive damages from government agencies. Also, the economic and non-economic damages that can be recovered against government agencies are capped at $750,000 for each claim and $1.5 million for each occurrence.
Finally, in Montana, the amount of damages you can recover is reduced by a percentage that reflects your degree of fault – so long as you're not more than 50% at fault, in which case you can't recover any damages. This is called the “modified comparative fault” theory.
Workers' compensation for bus crashes
In addition to having the option of filing a personal injury lawsuit, bus drivers who are injured in an accident may have the option of filing a workers' compensation claim.
Workers' compensation is a form of insurance that pays medical expenses and lost wages to employees who are injured while doing their job.
In Montana, workers' compensation is a “no-fault” insurance system. This means that valid claims are paid regardless of who's to blame for the accident. In other words, even if the bus driver is responsible for causing the accident, the bus driver can still receive workers' compensation benefits so long as the accident wasn't intentional.
Montana workers' compensation pays medical expenses (including mileage reimbursements), wage loss benefits, and death benefits for certain dependents.
What to do if you're involved in a bus accident
If you're injured in a bus accident, first get the medical attention you need. Then, consider contacting an experienced Montana personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney can help you sort out the details of your accident, calculate the potential value of your injury case, and make sure you receive all the compensation you deserve.