Understanding the legal claim process after a bus crash in the Garden State
NJ TRANSIT is the primary provider of bus transportation for New Jersey residents. The company reported 263 bus accidents in 2019. However, that’s out of 871 bus routes and nearly 2,500 buses.
Nationwide, the number of bus accident injuries and fatalities has decreased over the past several years.
Like all traffic accidents, some bus accidents are preventable. Since buses are either owned by a government entity or a private charter, it’s important to know who’s liable if you’re in an accident.
The category of “bus” includes:
- School buses
- Transit buses (city buses, shuttles, and commuter buses)
- Intercity buses (buses designed for long-distance travel)
- Passenger vans (vehicles that hold 15 or fewer passengers, often used for private organizations like churches, assistance for seniors or disabled individuals, daycare, and other entities)
A 15-passenger van is a convenient way to transport a small group of passengers. However, these vehicles can be more dangerous than either full-sized buses or passenger cars. They should only be driven by someone who is experienced operating this type of vehicle. A 15-passenger van handles much differently than a passenger car or minivan.
These statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are based on data taken on 15-passenger van accidents from 2007-2016:
- 509 people were killed in passenger van accidents. 41% of those people were ejected from the vehicle.
- 11% of fatal crashes for passenger vans are attributed to tire failure.
- 70% of people killed in 15-passenger van accidents were not wearing seatbelts.
8 common causes of bus accidents
- Driver error. All drivers make mistakes, even when they’re trying to do the right things. One problem with buses is that because they’re so large, it can be difficult for a driver to see other vehicles on the road. Buses have more blind spots than a passenger car, and it can be difficult to maneuver and merge into traffic.
- Driver fatigue. Bus drivers have rigorous schedules and it’s a tough job. Exhaustion is common. When a driver starts to become tired, their reaction times are slower and they become less alert, which can be a major factor in causing an accident.
- Driving while intoxicated. Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is illegal for all drivers, and it’s especially problematic for a bus driver who’s transporting passengers. Bus drivers who are operating vehicles while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs can be criminally charged and held liable for civil damages.
- Bus maintenance. State and federal laws require bus companies to perform certain routine maintenance checks to ensure that buses are safe and functioning properly, but some companies fail to perform the required checks.
- Mechanical problems. Brakes, tires, suspension, steering, and lights are all components that could break down during the operation of a bus — even with regular maintenance. If a defective part causes an accident, the manufacturer may be held liable under New Jersey’s product liability laws.
- Road design. Buses maneuver differently from cars because of their massive size, shape, and height. Sharp curves, short merging lanes and areas of poor visibility can result in bus accidents.
- Weather conditions. Snow, heavy rain, wind, and other weather conditions can leave roads slippery and impact the driver’s visibility or maneuverability.
- Road conditions. Weather isn’t the only condition that causes accidents. Potholes, poor lighting, construction zones, unmarked curves and other road maintenance issues can cause bus accidents.
Common bus accident injuries
Bus accident injuries can range from small cuts or bruises to serious injuries such as:
- Head injuries (concussions and contusions, traumatic brain injuries)
- Spinal cord injuries
- Burn injuries
- Bone fractures
- Neck and back injuries (whiplash)
- Facial lacerations
What damages can you recover after a New Jersey bus accident?
If you were injured in a New Jersey bus accident, you can recover costs related to your injuries. This can include:
- Medical expenses, past and future
- Lost wages and loss of future earning capacity
- Compensation for services associated with daily life (for example, child care, meal preparation, housecleaning, etc.)
- Pain and suffering
- Punitive damages
How do I make a claim after a New Jersey bus accident?
The main question after any accident is: who is liable?
Often, the answer isn’t so simple.
If you were in a bus accident where you’re the occupant (or driver) of an involved car, you’d rely on the same principles of liability as you would after any car accident. Namely, it would depend on whether you or the bus driver was at fault.
Liability for a New Jersey bus accident
After any personal injury accident, the first thing you need to know is who’s liable, or at fault. If you’re in an accident with 2 (or more) passenger cars, an accident investigator can usually determine which driver caused the accident. In many cases, both drivers have some responsibility for the accident.
However, if you were a passenger on a bus that was involved in an accident, you likely don’t have any responsibility because no part of the accident was within your control. How the accident happened might be less important in the immediate aftermath than knowing who was at fault — because even if the accident was caused by driver error, there could still be more liable parties than just the driver.
Common carrier liability and bus crashes
State and federal regulations include common carrier laws. A “common carrier” is any individual or business licensed to transport passengers for a fee.
Every common carrier has a duty to follow certain rules to ensure the safety of its passengers. These duties include:
- Safe, well-lit, unobstructed entries and exits
- Security where necessary
- Completing thorough background checks of drivers to ensure qualifications
- Adequate training for drivers
- Proper maintenance
If a common carrier bus company doesn’t do what’s required to ensure a safe ride for passengers, the bus company is negligent.
These are some of the possible liable parties in a bus accident:
- The bus company: The bus company is responsible for maintaining vehicles, driver training and screening, and company operations. If a failing of any of these functions caused the accident, the bus company would be liable.
- The bus driver: Sometimes, the bus company can be held liable for a driver’s negligence because an employer can be responsible for its employees. But not always. The circumstances of the crash and the driver’s behavior will determine whether the bus driver would be added as a defendant.
- Other drivers or road users: If the collision was the fault of another driver, that person would be liable for your damages. You would need to pursue a claim against that driver, just as you would for any other car accident.
- Manufacturer of the bus or its parts: When you purchase a car, usually it’s made in a factory by a single manufacturer that builds it from components also made by the same company. For example, if you have Honda, it’s built with Honda parts. But trucks and some buses are different. A bus might have components made by several different companies. So if the accident happened because of brake failure, steering failure, or some other mechanical issue, the bus manufacturer and the manufacturer of the failed system could both be liable.
- Maintenance provider: Sometimes a bus company hires other companies to provide routine maintenance on the bus fleet. If a maintenance provider failed to correctly maintain a bus in a way that resulted in a crash, the provider could be liable.
- City, state, or municipality: Some bus accidents are because of poor road conditions, signage, lighting, or other conditions that are controlled by a government entity. If the bus, itself, is owned by a government agency, that creates even more liability.
How to sue a government agency for a bus accident
If you need to file a claim against a New Jersey government agency, you must file a notice of claim within 90 days of the accident.
There are specific rules for what this notice entails, depending on who the involved individuals or entities are. If you don’t file the notice of claim properly, or if it’s missing any of the required information, you can lose your right to a claim. If there’s a possibility that a government agency or employee was liable for your accident, you should call a lawyer immediately for guidance on how to proceed.
Bus safety tips
Having to sue a person, company or the government for a bus accident can be a pain.
So what can you do to prevent a bus accident or injury?
While avoiding a crash may be out of your hands as a passenger, bus accidents aren’t limited to just collisions. Often, injuries happen when a rider experiences a slip-and-fall getting on or off the bus, or suffers another injury related to boarding or exiting the bus.
Here are 10 tips to keep yourself safe before, during, and after your bus ride:
- Arrive at the bus stop early or on time so that you’re not running to catch the bus.
- Wait until the bus is fully stopped and the driver opens the door before attempting to board.
- If there are other riders waiting, approach the bus patiently and in an orderly line.
- If you must cross the street, walk on the sidewalk or along the side of the road to a point at least 10 feet in front of the bus so the driver can see you. Wait until the driver motions you to cross.
- Use the handrails when boarding or exiting the bus.
- If you’re wearing loose clothes, bags with drawstrings, backpacks or other gear, keep them close to your body to avoid getting stuck in the bus doors.
- Never walk behind a bus.
- As soon as you exit the bus, walk a safe distance of 10 feet from the bus until it pulls away.
- If you drop something while on a moving bus, don’t attempt to retrieve it. Let the driver know that there’s a loose object on the floor and retrieve it when the bus is stopped.
- If the bus has a seat belt, use it. Encourage your children to wear their seat belts on school buses when available.
When to call a New Jersey bus accident lawyer
If you or a loved one were injured in a bus accident, you should call a personal injury lawyer near you right away.
If the accident involved a government or public agency, it’s especially crucial to act fast. Your lawyer will understand how to determine who the liable parties are, which government agencies might be involved, and what your best course of action is to file a claim and recover for your injuries.