Motor coaches can be a fast and fuel-efficient way to travel long distances. They can also be fairly dangerous. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reported in October 2015 that transit buses accounted for 33 percent of all bus accidents in the country from 2003 to 2013.
Further, the number of buses involved in fatal crashes increased by 11 percent from 2012 to 2013, from 253 to 280, and the vehicle involvement rate for bus crashes increased by 8 percent.
The FMCSA is the federal agency responsible for overseeing motor coach/ transit bus safety in the U.S. It has the power to impose sanctions against companies that flout important safety rules, such as operational equipment, qualified drivers and adequate supervision of driver hours. However, that does not necessarily mean it can be held accountable for bus accidents.
This was recently underscored in a federal lawsuit before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In Pornomo v. U.S., the surviving son of a woman who died in a motor coach accident in 2011 took legal action against the federal government for allegedly failing to keep an unsafe carrier from operating.
However, the federal government enjoys special protections under the law. While sovereign immunity for the negligence of government employees is often waived in injury and wrongful death lawsuits, there is an exception for discretionary action by government employees.
Discretionary action is that which involves some level of discernment from the government worker. This is as opposed to ministerial action, for which there is no level of employee discernment required.
In this case, the carrier in question was allowed to operate for an extended period of time even after the agency had given it an “unsatisfactory rating.”
Currently, federal law requires that if a motor carrier is deemed “unsatisfactory,” the company has 45 days in which to correct these actions and request a review. If after that review, the FCMSA does not find the carrier to be “fit,” the carrier must go out of service. However at the time this crash occurred, there was a provision that allowed carriers to request a 10-day extension. That’s what this company did, and it was granted. That 10-day extension provision has since been eliminated.
The crash in this case occurred while the motor carrier was operating within that 10-day extension window.
The bus was traveling from North Carolina to New York when the driver fell asleep at the wheel on an interstate in Virginia.
Plaintiff’s mother was killed when the bus overturned.
Plaintiff alleged the agency was negligent for allowing the carrier to operate past the initial 45-day timeline.
And the truth is, the agency very well may have been negligent. However, neither the lower court nor the appeals court reached that question because it was determined the decision to grant that extension was a discretionary function. That means the agency was protected from legal action for this decision.
The appeals court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the FMCSA.
Plaintiff may still have the option, if he has not already availed himself of it, to take legal action against the motor carrier, driver and others who may have been negligent in causing this fatal crash.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Pornomo v. U.S., Feb. 25, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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