What, as occasional failures, is our legal position when we take a bus journey?
We might not know that we are entering into a legal contract, but that is what we are doing. We agree that in exchange for payment of the bus fare, the bus company will take reasonable care to carry us safely to our destination.
Top Causes of Bus Accidents
What does the law say when something goes wrong and we are injured in the course of that journey? Who is liable and what can we as passengers do?
Liability is not strict. There must be a failure on someone’s part to take reasonable care; generally, the bus driver for whom the bus company is vicariously liable, or some third party vehicle driver.
Most of the cases involve moving off before passengers are seated, accelerating away too sharply, or braking too harshly.
#1. Moving Off Before Passengers Are Seated
There is a widespread belief that a bus driver should wait until all passengers are safely seated before moving off. This is not the law. The leading case is Fletcher v. United Coaches  PIQR P154, a decision of the Court of Appeal in England.
The plaintiff suffered a chest injury when she fell on her way to a seat as the bus driver moved off. The bus driver had to carry out an emergency stop because of the actions of an unnamed vehicle. There was no criticism of the actions of the driver. He had moved off slowly. The other vehicle was untraced.
At first instance, it was held that the driver should have waited until all passengers were seated before moving off. There was a 30% deduction for contributory negligence for failing to use the bus handholds. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment. Bus schedules would be dramatically affected if this dictum were to be the law. Drivers do not have to wait until everyone is seated as long as they move off at a reasonable speed.
The plaintiff, in that case, was 22 years old. There is probably an exception where the passengers involved are elderly or infirm, or perhaps children. Lady Stacey held as much in the Scottish case of Steel v. McGill’s Bus Services Limited  CSOH 5 finding liability, where the driver moved off before an elderly passenger, unsteady on her feet, was seated. Liability might also attach to any jerky movement caused by too rapid acceleration while moving off.
#2. Emergency Braking Caused By Other Vehicles
The normal rules of road safety liability, namely the Highway Code, will apply. Where an emergency is created by another vehicle, the bus driver will not normally be liable, unless it can be shown, eg that he or she was driving too close to the leading vehicle. (See, eg McCrory v. Hutchison’s Coaches Ltd and Anr. Unreported Hamilton Sh Ct 2nd August 2007.) It is also likely that where there is such violent braking as to throw passengers from their seats, there is a primafacie inference of negligence which it is for the driver to displace. (Mars v Corporation of the City of Glasgow and Anr. 1940 SC 203.)
#3. Emergency Braking to Avoid Dogs
In the old Scottish case of Sutherland v. Glasgow Corporation 1951 SC HL 1, it was held that a tram driver’s duty was to knock down the dog rather than risk passenger safety by emergency braking. Even judges are rather more tender-hearted these days and it is unlikely that this would be followed. In the unreported case of Phillips v. Glasgow FirstBus 2008, where emergency braking caused passengers to be injured but the dog unscathed, absolvitor was granted.
Bus companies are increasingly well organised to defend these claims. Relying no doubt on their driver’s report, your intimation of the claim will very frequently be met with the response that a third party is involved. Invariably it seems, that vehicle has driven off, with no identification details.
Here's what you can do:
- Ask for the CCTV footage. Most buses now have some cameras fitted. The bus company is a data controller in terms of the Data Protection Act 1998, and you should be entitled to view the footage, certainly any footage where you are the subject.
- Ask for the Telematics and the Accident Report. These are the “Black Box” fittings with a GPS tracking device. This shows the locations, length of driving time, rapidity of acceleration, and harshness of braking. You should be able to get this and the accident report by the specification of documents.
- Ask for the Company Guidelines for Drivers. In the case of Steel, the pursuer’s agents recovered the Standing Driver instructions. These confirmed that their driver should wait until the elderly passengers were seated before moving off.
- If all else fails, contact the MIB. The Untraced Drivers' Agreement 2017 is there to assist where the accident has been caused by the fault of untraced third parties. The MIB will take over the investigation of the claim and will pay out common law damages where the bus driver is genuinely not at fault. You should note to involve the MIB at an early stage if liability is disputed by the bus company, and the allegation is the fault of an untraced driver.