Personal injury cases involving common carriers pose unique problems to plaintiff’s lawyers, but offer some significant benefits in the form of the heightened standard of care typically imposed by courts on common carriers and, typically, deep-pocketed and amply-insured potential. When analyzing these cases, a potential claimants status as a passenger or non-passenger can be critical in determining the relevant legal standards as a personal injury lawyer in Arlington, VA like those at The Law Offices of Ryan Quinn, PLLC, can attest.
A recent federal case applying Virginia law provides a useful illustration of the passenger vs. non-passenger distinction. In Jones v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 378 F.Supp.2d 718, 719 (E.D. Va. 2005), the Plaintiff disembarked the 16-U WMATA Metrobus at the Pentagon Metro Station, a transit station in Arlington, Virginia. After leaving the bus, Plaintiff began walking toward an escalator descending to the rail platform, where, she tripped on what she described as an “uneven seam,” approximately one inch high, causing significant personal injuries. The common carrier defendant argued that plaintiff ceased to be a passenger once she had reached a point of safety at the bus drop-off point, while the plaintiff contended that she remained a passenger because she was in the process of transferring to one of defendant’s trains, and was under defendant’s control at all material times.
The court first noted that while the common, lay definition of “passenger” often extends to broader category of persons engaging in travel, including, for example, those with tickets who intend to travel or who are awaiting boarding in airport lounges. However, when determining whether the more stringent common carrier standard of care applies, the term “passenger” is “properly construed as limited to persons on the conveyances or transports or directly boarding or alighting from them.” Jones at 723. This narrower definition of “passenger” is warranted, according to the Jones court, because only those individuals in transport or directly boarding or departing from transit are “subject to the degree of carrier control and the type of hazard that warrants imposing the higher standard of care on a carrier.” Id. at 723-24.
The Jones court relied heavily on the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Dressler decision, where the Court held that the plaintiff was not a passenger at the time of injury where the transferring plaintiff was struck within minutes by different railcar while she was crossing the street to board another railcar on a different line also operated by the same carrier. Dressler, 132 Va. at 350. Relying on the underlying rationale for a higher standard of care for common carriers – the dangerousness of travel and the carrier’s complete control over the passenger’s safety — the Dressler court concluded that “[t]here seems to be good reason … for holding that the relation of passenger is not sustained while a passenger with a transfer is outside the direction and control of the carrier and walking along the public highway.” Id. at 362. Consequently, whether the passenger-carrier relationship is sustained exists during transfer — and thus whether the carrier’s duty of the highest degree of practical care continues — turns on (i) the degree and type of risks to which the person is exposed during transfer, and (ii) the degree and type of control that the carrier maintains over the person. As the Eastern District of Virginia concluded, “[o]nly where the risks involved and the carrier’s control over the person are essentially the same as those that exist during carriage should the highest degree of practical care be imposed on a carrier. In other circumstances, a duty of ordinary care is appropriate.” Jones at 724. Therefore, the court held that WMATA did not owe plaintiff a duty of the highest degree of practical care following her disembarkation from the bus and her subsequent approach to the escalator descending to the rail platform since the plaintiff had “reached a place of safety” on the public walkway leading to the escalator and was therefore no longer under the common carrier’s exclusive, or even primary, control. Jones v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 378 F.Supp.2d 718 (E.D. Va. 2005).