The Nashville-based Tennessee Supreme Court recently reversed an appeals’ court decision, which had ruled that federal law prevented a plaintiff-passenger from bringing a claim for disabling injuries sustained when thrown from a shuttle bus in Memphis. Bus accidents and any resulting injuries to passengers, other motorists or bystanders on the road can be particularly devastating, due to the size and weight of a bus. Injuries can range from minor scrapes and broken bones, to more serious matters such as brain trauma and even death.
In the above-mentioned court decision, a concrete truck collided with a shuttle bus transporting passengers between a rental car company and an airport. An injured passenger and his spouse filed a court action against a variety of defendants, including the bus owner, the bus manufacturer, the company that manufactured the windows, as well as the franchisor of the rental car company. Plaintiffs argued that the bus was unsafe because it did not have seatbelts for passengers, had windows made of tempered glass, and instead of forward-facing rows of seats, the bus provided perimeter seating. All of the allegations were based in negligence and product liability.
While a jury ruled in favor of plaintiffs in the amount of $8,543,630, it allocated 100 percent of the fault to the concrete truck owner, who had already settled claims with plaintiffs prior to trial. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that they were entitled to a new trial. Defendants maintained their argument that federal law preempted plaintiffs’ claims. The appellate court agreed and held that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 205 and 208 did preempt the window-glass and seatbelt claims. The court further held that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict on the perimeter-seating claim because plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove causation. The Supreme Court found that 1) both the window-glass and seatbelt claims are not subject to preemption by federal law, and 2) the evidence sufficiently supported causation as to the perimeter-seating claim.
The Supreme Court’s decision is absolutely correct and reflects the proper interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s preemption analysis in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. That Supreme Court decision was carefully tailored to address the adoption of airbags by Congress and NHTSA, in which specific decisions had been made to promote a variety of restraint devices. In other words, because Congress and NHTSA wanted auto manufacturers to experiment with different passive restraint devices, including airbags, a tort claim that alleged a vehicle should have had airbags when it did not would interfere with Congressional purpose and was therefore preempted. But Geier is the exception to the rule, not the other way around. Design defect claims are generally not preempted by the FMVSS, even if they impose requirements beyond federal law. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Lake gets that right.
According to the most recently maintained national statistics on bus accidents, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported that in 2009, there was a total of 56,000 motor vehicle crashes involving buses. Of those accidents, 221 involved fatalities, 9,000 involved other injuries, and the remaining 47,000 caused damage to property.
Under the Lake decision, injured parties would not be preempted from bringing certain claims arising out of injuries sustained in bus accidents. It is important to sort through complicated state and federal laws to properly ascertain the extent of a victim’s right to recovery.