Even A Simple Bus Accident Case Presents Legal Challenges (Hitting An Overpass Edition)

The news here in Philadelphia has been filled with reports about the bus accident in Boston, in which more than three dozen high school students (who had just finished touring Harvard University through the “Destined for a Dream Foundation” in Bristol Borough) were injured when the charter bus they were riding foolishly rammed into a low overpass. It seems like a classic distracted driving case, as the driver was allegedly checking his GPS right before the crash. There will of course be numerous accident claims filed, and rightly so: many of the passengers were significantly injured, and the whole point of negligence law is to make negligent parties responsible to the people they hurt.

There's a tendency for outside observers to look at these types of situations involving obviously preventable traffic accidents and consider the inevitable lawsuits to be a "slam dunk" - the lawyer files the lawsuit and the insurance company pays, right? Truth is, it's not that simple, and there's a lot of work to do.

First, even assuming there's ample insurance coverage for everyone (more on that in a moment), the insurance company will hire its own lawyers, and send the medical records and bills to its own adjusters, and will try to minimize the value of the claim. It's one thing to prove someone broke their wrist in a bus accident: you just show the Emergency Department record from the hospital diagnosing the break and treating it, plus the follow-up visits. It's quite another thing to show, for example, "soft tissue" injuries, though they can be just as painful - and sometimes even more disabling. Similarly, neurological and psychological injuries are notoriously difficult to prove in court, and insurance adjusters know it, so they try not to pay for them at all.

Second, it is extremely unlikely the bus company has adequate insurance to cover all the claims. Many bus companies have insurance policies of one million dollars or less, rarely enough to cover three dozen or more people with significant injuries. The obvious solution would be to demand the company pay out of its own pockets, but, apart from a handful of national carriers, bus companies rarely have significant assets, and the moment an accident like this happens, the company goes bankrupt and all of their funds are rapidly dissipated. (You don’t have that problem suing NJ Transit, for example.)

So, the initial challenge for the passengers' lawyers is to look for other potential defendants beyond the bus company. Remember that awful "Chinatown bus" crash back in March of 2011? Unsurprisingly, the company had minimal assets (the company was barely operating) and minimal insurance, and so the passengers' lawyers have been pursuing Mohegan Sun casino, alleging it contributed to the accident by failing to provide sleeping quarters for drivers.

Third, once multiple claims are filed and additional defendants are added, the lawsuits become far harder to pursue from a procedural standpoint. All it takes to stop the cases is for one defendant (or insurance) company to file bankruptcy, which automatically "stays" all cases pending the outcome of the bankruptcy. In major bus accidents, it's not surprising for these many procedural issues to require hundreds or thousands more hours from lawyers, and to delay the cases for years.

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