Who Is Responsible For A Serious Bus Crash?

Investigators are closer to finding a cause in the Southern California tractor trailer-tour bus crash that killed thirteen people and injured dozens more in October 2016.

Due to the lateness of the hour (the bus arrived at a Palm Springs casino about 11 pm, departed about 4 am, and crashed about 5 am), some observers initially speculated that the driver may have been fatigued. Indeed, unidentified witnesses said that the driver, who was killed in the auto crash, was asleep and that moments before the crash, a car had swerved to avoid the bus.

Although the USA Holiday bus had a spotless service record since 2010 and had just passed an annual inspection in April, authorities say that the tread on four of the eight tires did not meet government safety standards. Earl Weener, of the National Transportation Safety Administration, said that the bus “was out of compliance. . .and could have been placed out of service.” CHP investigators added that the bus appeared to be traveling at freeway speeds when it rear-ended a tractor-trailer that was edging forward at about 5mph.

The truck was moving so slowly because Southern California Edison Co. was under contract to perform utility work on that stretch of Interstate 10 during non-peak hours, and workers had stopped traffic in the area. The one-month work permit went into effect only a few hours prior to the crash. In most cases, if the contractor stops, slows, or redirects traffic, there must be signs and warning lights posted to that effect; in the case of very short interruptions, such as removing debris from the road, an officer is supposed to drive slowly in emergency mode to alert motorists of the stopped traffic. It is not clear what, if anything, SoCal Edison did, or what it was required to do, vis-a-vis stopped traffic in the predawn darkness.

Investigators should have enough evidence to make a final determination by the end of the year.

Fatigued Driving

13 percent of large vehicle crashes involve driver fatigue, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study. To avoid traffic, and for various other reasons, many commercial operators drive mostly at night over very long distances, and experts agree that the resulting effects are basically like alcohol impairment. Sleepy drivers have slower reaction times, blurred vision, impaired judgment ability, and may even literally fall asleep at the wheel.

The FMCSA has very strict HOS (hours of service) requirements, as do the CHP, DMV, and several other state agencies. These rules include hourly driving limits and mandatory rest periods. Because most shipping and transportation companies pay their drivers by the load or trip, these operators are under pressure to complete their runs as quickly as possible, so they are often tempted to cut rest breaks short and stay on the road. Such behavior is evidence of negligence.

According to respondeat superior (“let the master answer), the company owner is legally responsible for the negligence of its employees who are working within the course and scope of employment.

Common Carrier

Under California law, commercial operators, including tour bus drivers, “must use the highest care and the vigilance of a very cautious person. They must do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances to avoid harm to passengers.” This duty starts when passenger or freight is loaded onto the vehicle and does not end until the passengers safely disembark at their destinations or the freight is successfully unloaded. Bus drivers have an additional duty of care to keep their passengers safe while traveling, so they must break up fights and make sure passengers do not slip and fall while boarding or getting off.

Therefore, in addition to using reasonable car while driving to avoid crashes, common carriers must carefully inspect their vehicles, usually prior to each trip, to ensure that the vehicles are safe. If the tires on the USA Holiday bus were dangerously worn, it appears that the driver may not have properly inspected the bus and therefore violated the common carrier duty of care.  However, there is also a question of causation.

Contractor Liability

In California, negligent performance is usually limited to the contracting parties, but third-party victims may also sue under this theory or a similar idea. If contractors fail to fulfill their obligations and someone is injured, these contractors may be liable for damages. These damages normally include compensation for both economic losses, such as medical bills and noneconomic losses, such as loss of enjoyment in life.

If SoCal Edison was required to warn drivers of the traffic slow-down, either by permanent signs or a roving traffic officer and failed to do so, it may be liable for damages in this tour bus crash case. In general, violation of a written policy or written requirements is always at least evidence of negligence, especially if the company had a history of looking the other way in prior incidents.

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