Texas Supreme Court holds TTCA waives immunity for slight negligence claims, which applies to common carriers (buses) and imposes a higher degree of care for passengers

VIA Metropolitan Transit v Curtis Meck, 18-0458 (Tex. June 26, 2020)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case involving a VIA bus accident where the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a jury award against VIA.

VIA Metropolitan Transit is a governmental entity that operates public transportation services in San Antonio and Bexar County. Curtis Meck boarded a VIA bus operated by Frank Robertson, who was new to the job and still in training. Robertson began to pull away from the stop when another passenger shouted “Back door!,” apparently to notify Robertson that a passenger was still trying to exit. Traveling just under five miles per hour, Robertson made an “abrupt stop,” causing Meck to fall forward into the partition behind Robertson’s seat. Meck asserts this caused a herniated disc in his neck. Mech sued VIA asserting negligence and asserted VIA was a “common carrier” with a high degree of care imposed for the benefit of the passengers. After a trial on the merits the jury found for Meck and VIA appealed. VIA did not object to the designation as a common carrier and did not object during jury selection when Meck’s attorneys told the jury of the higher duty imposed on VIA. VIA moved for a directed verdict asserting it was not a common carrier and the jury instruction was incorrect. The motion was denied.

Under the Texas Transportation Code, the duties and liabilities of a common carrier are the same as provided for under common law. Tex. Transp. Code §5.001(a)(1). A common carrier owes a duty to its passengers to act as “a very cautious and prudent person” would act under the same or similar circumstances.  To qualify as a common carrier (in contrast to a private carrier), the entity must provide transportation services to the general public, as opposed to providing such services only for particular individuals or groups and as its primary function. VIA argued it is not a common carrier because (1) it is not “in the business” of providing such services, (2) providing such services is not its “primary function,” and, (3) in any event, it cannot be a common carrier because it is a governmental body that performs only governmental functions.  While the Court agreed that VIA is statutorily prohibited from generating revenue greater than an amount “sufficient to meet [its] obligations,” it disagreed that profit is necessary to qualify for the “in business” designation. The  Court held VIA was indisputably in “the business of transporting people” and therefore met the first prong. And while VIA argued it performs numerous governmental functions that include constructing roads, issuing bonds, collecting taxes, and promoting economic development, for the purpose of “implementing the State’s transportation policy”, the Court held it must only do so to fulfill its obligation to operate as a “rapid transit authority.”  As a result, transporting people is its primary function. The Court agreed that VIA is a governmental entity and that it was performing governmental functions that provided, by default, governmental immunity. However, that status does not prevent it from being a common carrier with a higher degree of care to its passengers. The Court further declined to change the law by requiring a lower, ordinary standard of care. The Court then held the TTCA does not define what type of negligence is subject to the waiver of immunity. However, the common law has long used the term “negligence” to refer to “three degrees or grades of negligence,” including gross negligence, ordinary negligence, and slight negligence (which applies to common carriers).  As a result, all three types are subject to the waiver in the TTCA. Finally, the Court held the evidence was legally sufficient to uphold the jury award.

Chief Justice Hecht wrote a concurring opinion noting the “slight negligence” or “high decree of care” standards are misleading, unnecessary and should be abandoned. They suggest that common carriers are to “exercise all the care, skill, and diligence of which the human mind can conceive” and invites the jury “to scrutinize the carrier’s conduct in an endeavor to find it defective.”  However, he notes that given the evidence, an instruction on a “reasonable care” standard would not have changed the outcome.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Boyd delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Green, Justice Lehrmann, Justice Blacklock, and Justice Busby joined. Chief Justice Hecht delivered a concurring opinion, in which Justice Guzman, Justice Devine, and Justice Bland joined.

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