In a very important decision for the safety of bus passengers, the New York Court of Appeals recently held in the case of Doomes v. Best Transit Corp. that a bus company could be found responsible for a failure to install passenger seat belts. Under New York State statutes, there is no specific requirement that passenger buses be equipped with seat belts. However, the Court determined that by common law (not statutory but by decisions over the years) a jury could find that an owner or manufacturer of a bus could be responsible for injuries from an accident due to a lack of seat belts.
The plaintiffs in Doomes were injured when the bus drove off the highway after the bus driver fell asleep. Clearly, the bus driver was at least partially responsible for the accident, but the jury decided that many of the passengers' injuries would have been averted if the bus had been equipped with passenger seat belts (the driver did have a seat belt).
The defense attempted to argue that federal law, which does not specifically mandate passenger seat belts in buses) preempted the state jury’s decision in Doomes. In fact, the dissent argued that The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made a “conscious decision” that seat belts in buses were unnecessary due to their “size and function.” Thus, the dissent contended that the field of bus safety was in fact regulated by federal law, leaving no room for a contrary decision by a state court jury. However, the Court of Appeals noted that a clause in the federal regulation (known as a “savings clause”) “did not expressly prohibit plaintiffs’ seat belt claims.”
The Court did reject another claim by plaintiffs as to the “weight balance” of the bus, in which the plaintiffs argued that the negligent design and manufacture of the chassis affected the weight balance, leading to the rollover. In that regard, the Court ruled that plaintiffs’ arguments were speculative and not supported by sufficient evidence.
The Doomes decision is one more example of the best news for the safety of New York accident victims in 25 years—the ascendancy to Chief Judge of the Court Of Appeals of Jonathan Lippman in February of 2009. Justice Lippman, who has shown in his almost three year tenure that when the evidence warrants same, he is truly dedicated to the rights of those injured through the negligence of others, despite the large scale and well financed efforts of automobile liability insurance companies, hospital CEO’s, and large corporations to fight these efforts at every turn.