Liability in Lombard Muni crash

This week’s question comes from Phyllis, who asks:

Q: “Yesterday, a Muni bus went out of control and crashed into a tree and store. One of my friends was on the bus and was injured. There is a rumor that the driver had some kind of medical problem, since he was unconscious following the collision. How do you determine who is at fault in a situation like this? If he had a heart attack or some other medical issue is Muni still responsible?”

A: For those unaware of the events of Sept. 10, a Muni bus traveling east on Lombard crossed the center divider, westbound travel lanes, and sidewalk before colliding with a tree and several buildings. Thankfully, no one driving westbound, walking on the sidewalk, or in the buildings was hurt. The collision was particularly severe because the front of the bus became elevated as it ran up the tree, causing passengers to be thrown about violently. The events were captured on a dashcam of a westbound vehicle that narrowly escaped being hit. Several passengers and the driver were critically injured and taken to the hospital. Others on the bus were injured but did not require emergency medical attention.

Muni is considered a “common carrier,” an entity that transports people in exchange for compensation. Under California law, a common carrier owes a greater duty to its passengers than a private driver. A private driver is held to the “reasonable person standard”: they owe a legal duty to act as a reasonable person would in similar circumstances. Common carriers, on the other hand, owe “the highest duty of care” to their passengers and must provide equipment and personnel suitable to meet this utmost standard. A person or entity that breaches their legal duty to others is deemed negligent and therefore liable for injuries caused as a result.

Employers are liable for the negligence of employees acting within the “scope and course” of their employment. Therefore, if a Muni driver is negligent, The City and County of San Francisco (“The City”) can be held responsible for any injuries caused. The City carries a combination of self-insurance and policies purchased from insurance companies to pay for such legal damages.

As of Tuesday afternoon, The City has released no official statement regarding what transpired immediately before the bus crossed the median. We do not know if the driver fell asleep, had a heart attack, swerved to avoid another vehicle and lost control, or if the bus suffered an equipment malfunction. I have seen all of the above in the hundreds of collisions my office has handed over the last 25 years of my practice. Here are a few possible scenarios:

  • If the driver fell asleep, he will be held negligent and both he and The City are liable for victims’ injuries.
  • If the bus swerved to avoid collision with another driver, then the conduct of both drivers needs to be examined; liability may attach to either or both of them depending on their comparative negligence. The bus driver may have been inattentive, failed to appreciate stopped traffic, or negligently over-reacted to events unfolding in front or alongside of the bus. The other driver may have abruptly switched lanes, hit the bus, come to a unnecessary and sudden stop, etc. This analysis is made easier by Muni’s on-board cameras and computers that indicate the date and time, geo-position, and speed of the bus, and capture video from multiple angles.
  • If there as a defect with the bus, e.g. a faulty braking or steering system, then The City may bear responsibility for failing to properly maintain the vehicle or to have a proper inspection system to identify and repair vehicles before accidents like these occur. If The City can show that a part, system or mechanism was faulty when it purchased the bus, the bus manufacturer may also be liable under a products liability theory for defective design, manufacture or assembly.
  • If the driver had a medical event that caused him to become incapacitated, The City will assert an “act of God” defense claiming the driver could not be negligent because he was unconscious and therefore made no decision that caused the collision. The City bears the burden to prove such medical incapacitation. Moreover, California requires bus operators to undergo periodic physicals and medical clearance to drive. If the driver did not have a current medical clearance, or if he failed to report to Muni or the DMV a condition affecting his ability to drive, both he and The City may be liable for failing to meet their legal duty of care to passengers.

Phyllis, as you can see, these are complicated cases. I suggest that your friend contact a plaintiff’s trial attorney who is skilled in both investigating and prosecuting these cases.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email Chris questions and topics for future articles

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