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Bus and Motor Coach Library

A Bus Company has Liability Exposure for All the Services it Provides to Passengers

Author - Tom Frenkel (2003)

When a person is injured and files a lawsuit, the court is commonly called upon to make determinations of both fact and law. Determinations of fact are based upon the evidence presented. In a jury trial the jurors make determinations of fact.  If the matter is tried without a jury (a bench trial), the judge will hear evidence and serve as the fact finder.

After the evidence is heard and facts have been decided, then the judge applies those factual findings to matters of law.  Occasionally, the court is called to rule upon matters of law where the facts are not in dispute.  In such a scenario, courts will commonly find that there are no genuine issues of material fact which remain to be decided and, therefore, the court may properly rule on issues of law.  One such scenario where a determination of law is proper occurs when the Plaintiff has not properly alleged a complaint against the Defendant.  When faced with such a complaint, a sharp defense attorney will seize the opportunity to file a motion to dismiss that lawsuit.  Most jurisdictions refer to such a motion as seeking a dismissal for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted.  An example of filings occurred when a passenger on a Florida motorcoach tour slipped and fell at a sightseeing attraction.  The lawsuit she filed was the subject of two appellate decisions, one after shrewd lawyering on the part of the Defendant bus company, and later by the Plaintiff.  While the case is not very recent, its principles still apply.

The Plaintiff in this lawsuit was a member of a ladies club at a condominium complex.  The club contacted a bus company to arrange a group tour for the club.  While at one of the featured attractions, she fell from a cat-walk.  The Plaintiff sued the attraction, its property owners and insurer, and the bus company. In her complaint against the bus company she alleged that it was in the business of "packaging, operating, and/or conducting group tours, such as the tour in which the Plaintiff was a participant," and that by virtue of an agreement with her condominium ladies club it agreed to "operate and conduct a bus tour to certain places of amusement and/or attraction," including the attraction where her fall occurred.  Her complaint alleged that the bus company "was fully and solely responsible for, and had the duty to make all arrangements for the tour, including but not limited to the selection of the amusements and/or attractions, and various rest and meal stops."  Following those allegations she asserted that the bus company knew or should have reasonably known of the dangerous condition which existed at the attraction, further asserting that the bus company should not have stopped at the attraction where members of the tour would be exposed to unreasonable risks of harm and personal injury.  She additionally alleged that the bus company had an implied contractual obligation to protect her from the unsafe condition by virtue of her agreement to arrange and conduct the tour for the club.  Beyond the assertions of contract breach, the Plaintiff's complaint alleged that the bus company breached its duty to protect her from dangerous conditions when it failed to inspect the attraction's premises, failed to warn her of the dangerous and hazardous conditions (the cat-walk), and failed to prevent her use of the cat-walk as the bus company knew or should have known that such use would expose a person of her age and agility to unreasonable risk, harm, and personal injury.

The bus company's defense counsel filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the Plaintiff failed to state a proper duty of the bus company, which it failed to perform.  That motion further asserted that there was no act by the bus company which caused her injuries under the law.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim.  The appellate court affirmed that dismissal, noting that the Plaintiff's complaint did not allege that the bus company owned, operated, or controlled the attraction; nor did it allege that the bus company furnished a tour director, a guide, or in any way assumed responsibility for the Plaintiff's welfare on those premises. 

Also, the bus company did not advertise any such service or duty in their brochure.  The appellate court dismissed the lawsuit, without any finding of liability on the part of the bus company.  But this was a short-term victory for the Defendant bus company, as the Plaintiff re-filed the complaint with some minor changes.

Her amended complaint asserted that the bus company operated the tour, as well as the bus line.  In support of that assertion, she presented some evidence that the bus driver served as a tour guide.  She also sought to add the bus company's "tour company" as a Defendant, asserting that the tour division was an alter ego of the bus line.  The trial court directed a verdict for the bus company (pronounced "Plaintiff, you are wrong and the court finds against you as a matter of law.").  However, this time the appellate court disagreed.

The appellate court found that the Plaintiff had proposed an issue of fact, which must be decided before the case outcome could be determined as a matter of law.  The Plaintiff's allegations (that the driver was also a guide) presented a question of fact as to whether the bus company had assumed duties beyond furnishing transportation.  The appellate court held that the case could not be decided as a matter of law because there was now "some evidence upon which a jury could lawfully find a verdict for the plaintiff."

There are many lessons which may be learned from such a case.  Among the most important is that a company takes responsibility for the services it provides.  It's possible that a disclaimer of responsibility in the tour brochure might have supported a different result.  In this case, the record does not indicate if there was such a disclaimer.  When you offer a tour planning service to fill your coaches, you take on responsibilities which are incumbent to tour operations.  This is neither good, nor bad.  It is merely true.  In the case, above, the court ruled that the Plaintiff deserved her day in court because she alleged that the bus company's services extended beyond transportation. 

The bottom line here is that a bus company assumes responsibility for every service it offers.  If your services extend beyond transportation, you can expect to be "held to task" for incidents beyond the confines of a motorcoach, or the scope of livery.

Thomas R. Frenkel is an attorney, licensed to practice in Illinois, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia.  Mr. Frenkel has a unique blend of legal and practical transportation and hospitality industry experience.  He is a past president of the National Tour Association (NTA), a past two-term board member of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), a founding member of the Hospitality Skills Standards Board (which was created under directive of the United States Department of Labor), and a member of the Transportation Lawyers Association.  Tom Frenkel was the Editor in Chief of the Southern Illinois University Law Journal.  He practices law from his office at Feirich/Mager/Green/Ryan, Attorneys at Law, a law firm which enjoys the highest ratings in both quality of legal service and quality of ethical standards by Martindale-Hubbell, an independent service which rates legal professionals.  Tom Frenkel may be contacted at FMGR, 2001 West Main Street, P.O. Box 1570, Carbondale, Illinois, USA, 62903-1570.  Phone: (618) 529-3000, email: tfrenkel@fmgr.com.  This magazine is proud to feature Mr. Frenkel's commentary, as a contributing writer.  This column is featured for the interest of our readers, but does not constitute legal advice; nor does any attorney-client relationship arise through its publication.