Fatal Bus Crash Raises Legal Questions

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Four people are dead, and another three dozen are injured, after a charter bus carrying students from a South Carolina private school veered off the road in North Carolina.

The wreck occurred on Highway 74 in Richmond County, North Carolina. According to investigators and witnesses, the Ramah Jucco Academy’s football team was en route from Rock Hill to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where it was scheduled to play the University of God’s Chosen. The bus hit an overpass bridge near Rockingham, killing four passengers and seriously injuring 42 others.

None of the names were released.

Where to File Suit

This question may seem rather inconsequential, but filing a negligence or other lawsuit in the correct forum saves considerable time and money. In most cases, the venue rules are relatively straightforward and designed to protect the victims. Typically, plaintiffs can file car crash or other negligence lawsuits in the county where they reside or in the county where the incident occurred.

In most cases, it’s best to file in the same county where the accident took place, because it is easier to collect evidence. For example, a court’s subpoena power is typically subject to geographical restrictions, so important witnesses may be absent from the trial. As a rule of thumb, the more evidence that the victim has, the more compensation the victim will obtain. However, in interstate cases like the one in the above story, it is often best to file in the county where the plaintiffs resided, so the victims need not travel great distances. Moreover, juries are sometimes more sympathetic towards local residents.

There are some exceptions to these general rules, mostly in mass tort cases and other products liability actions.

First Party Liability in Bus Crashes

Bus drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, truck drivers, and other commercial operators have a higher duty of care in South Carolina because they are common carriers. Most motorists must use reasonable care when on the road, which essentially means that they must do their best to avoid car crashes. But common carriers have a duty of “best choice care,” which basically means that the safety of cargo and passengers overrides any other concerns they may have.

In practical terms, a higher duty of care makes it easier to prove negligence. The standard of proof is lower in these cases as well. In criminal courts, prosecutors must prove that the defendants are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in civil actions, the plaintiffs need only establish that the defendants were negligent by a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.

Many tortfeasors (negligent drivers) cause vehicle wrecks because they are impaired, and the Global Safety Road Partnership recognizes three different kinds of impairment:

  • Alcohol: In most cases, drivers are impaired after only one drink. With each successive drink, their motor skills are more inhibited, their reaction times are slower, and their judgement ability becomes less.
  • Drugs: In addition to illegal street drugs like cocaine and heroin, legal prescription drugs, like Xanax and Vicodin, have mental and physical side-effects that make it impossible to safely operate motor vehicles and other heavy machinery items.
  • Fatigue: Scientifically, insufficient rest has the same effect on the body as alcohol or drugs. Furthermore, just like the only cure for alcohol and drug impairment is abstinence, the only way to effectively prevent fatigued driving is to get enough rest.

Excessive speed is also a common contributing factor in serious crashes, because velocity decreases the amount of time drivers have to react to unexpected situations and increases the force of the collision.

Third Party Liability in Bus Crashes

These theories are important, because in many large vehicle crash cases, the damages exceed the driver’s insurance coverage. Third party liability creates an additional source of recovery, so victims can obtain fair compensation for their economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Respondeat superior (“let the master answer”) typically applies in bus crash cases. Under this theory, the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) employer is jointly responsible for damages. There are basically two prongs:

  • Employee: Most courts use the broad Department of Labor definition, so in addition to workers who receive W-2s, independent contractors, interns, and even volunteers are often “employees” for negligence purposes.
  • Course and Scope: This phrase is also very broadly defined. In most cases, any employee that is doing anything that benefits the employer is acting within the course and scope of employment. Even small contributions count, such as employees who drive vehicles that bear the company name or logo.

In the unlikely event that respondeat superior is inapplicable, negligent supervision is often available, because employers are liable for actions that occur outside the scope of employment if they know that the employee may present a danger (e.g. had a bad driving record or had previously made poor decisions on the job).

Reach Out to an Aggressive Lawyer

The tortfeasor may not be the only party responsible for damages in a bus crash. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Charleston, contact David Aylor Law Offices. We have four area locations.

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