A bus accident is almost never the passenger’s fault, and you’re entitled to recover damages if you were injured.
Negligence is at the heart of every personal injury lawsuit. A person (or entity, like a business or government agency) is negligent when their behavior (an act or omission) breaches a duty to someone else and causes that person to be injured.
It’s not hard to meet the threshold for “duty.” You can have a duty to someone you’ve never met. In fact, any road user has a duty to any other person on the road — a motorist, bicyclist, pedestrian, road crew worker, or any other person using the road. The duty is simply to avoid causing harm to that person, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Tennessee follows a comparative negligence law. Under comparative negligence, each person involved in an accident is assessed a percentage of liability. In other words, each individual has a percentage for which they’re at fault for the accident. This is important when the insurance company or court is determining how much the injured person receives in damages, or the compensation you receive to recover your costs if you were injured in an accident.
Along those same lines, if there are 2 or more parties who are at fault, they’re considered to have joint and several liability for the same injury, which means they share the expense of damages.
Why is this important for a Tennessee bus accident?
A bus accident is one of the few situations where you, as a passenger, are likely not going to have any percentage of fault.
In a car accident, even if you didn’t cause the accident, you’re likely to be determined to have some percentage of fault. For example, if someone swerved in front of you, the accident is their fault but the court might find that if you’d braked a moment sooner, you could have avoided an accident.
But as a bus passenger, it’s completely out of your hands.
Public and private bus travel in Tennessee
There are 3 primary reasons why people travel by bus: commuting to work, inter-city long-distance travel, and school busing. The Tennessee Department of Transportation says:
“Compared to driving, public transportation is less expensive, safer, and better for the environment. It reduces traffic congestion, saves energy, and benefits the communities it serves.”
There are also private bus transportation services like Greyhound, Megabus and chartered buses. A charter bus is rented by a team, organization, or group of people who are traveling together between 2 or more destinations.
Nationally, there are about 480,000 school buses on the road each school day and they transport about 26 million children.
School buses are safer than most other vehicles for a couple of reasons:
- They’re designed to be safer than other buses or cars. There’s a reason why school buses are yellow. They are highly visible and, unlike other kinds of buses, they have flashing red lights and stop-sign arms. School buses are also equipped with protective seats designed to cushion children in a crash, high crush standards, and rollover protection features.
- There are laws that apply specifically to school buses. Drivers are not permitted to pass a school bus in either direction when it’s stopped to board or drop off passengers.
On a November day in Chattanooga, 24-year-old Johnthony K. Walker was driving a school bus carrying 37 children home from their elementary school. The bus was traveling on Talley Road in the Brainerd neighborhood when Walker lost control of the bus. It crashed, rolled onto its side, and wrapped around a tree. Six children under 10 years old were killed and many more were injured as a result of the crash.
The accident investigation showed that Walker had been speeding and using his cell phone at the time of the crash. He had received his commercial driver’s license only the previous April and had been involved in another minor bus crash in September — just 2 months before the fatal accident.
Why aren’t seat belts required on school buses?
A school bus distributes crash force differently from cars or trucks. The seats on a school bus provide “compartmentalization,” which protects passengers in the absence of seat belts. The bus seats are strong, closely spaced, and include energy-absorbing seat backs.
There are presently 8 states that require seat belts on school buses. Tennessee State Representative Susan Lynn introduced legislation in 2016 that would require Tennessee school buses to have seat belts. As yet, the law has not passed. Her action follows a deadly Meigs County school bus accident in October 2020, which resulted in the deaths of both the driver and a 7-year-old passenger.
Common causes of bus accidents
- Driver error. All drivers make mistakes, even when they’re careful and cautious. Because buses are so large, it can be difficult for a driver to see other vehicles on the road. Buses have larger blind spots than passenger cars, 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 Tennessee 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. It doesn’t snow often in Tennessee, but that means people aren’t as familiar with how to handle it when there is snow on the ground.
- 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.
Liability for a Tennessee bus accident
Liability is going to be a complex — but essential — element to your bus accident lawsuit.
If you’re in a bus accident as the driver or passenger of a car (i.e. not the bus), it would be handled like any other multi-vehicle crash. Your insurance company would attempt to sort out liability, and the person responsible for causing the crash is responsible for resulting damages.
But if you’re a bus passenger and aren’t liable, there are several parties that could be individually or jointly liable.
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 failure to follow any of these responsibilities causes an 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 its 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.
Common carrier laws
A “common carrier” is a business that’s licensed to transport passengers for a fee. There are state and federal regulations that mandate that a common carrier has a duty to ensure the safety of passengers.
These rules 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
Damages for a Tennessee bus accident
In a bus accident, you can recover costs for your medical treatment and other expenses associated with the crash. 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, house cleaning, etc.)
- Pain and suffering
- Punitive damages
Bus safety tips
You probably can’t prevent a bus accident.
But there are things you can do to prevent injuries like a slip-and-fall while boarding or leaving a bus or crossing the street.
These 10 tips can help make your bus experience safer:
- 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.
Finally, if you were injured, or if you lost a loved one in a bus accident, take comfort in knowing there’s legal help available. A Tennessee bus accident lawyer can work with the insurance companies and opposing parties to get the settlement you deserve... or to file a lawsuit if that becomes necessary. Contact a skilled and experienced attorney today to get what you need after a Tennessee bus accident.