Public Common Carriers Held to Same Negligence Standard Under TCA as Other Common Carriers
Mar 5, 2021 | Written by: Share|
In Maison v. New Jersey Transit Corp., No. 083484, 2021 WL 608269 (N.J. Feb. 17, 2021), the New Jersey Supreme Court decided for the first time that public common carriers are held to the same negligence standard under the Tort Claims Act (“TCA”) as other common carriers.
In Maison, plaintiff Anasia Maison took a New Jersey Transit (“NJT”) bus on her commute home from work. Id. at *5. During the ride, a group of four to five teenagers verbally and physically harassed her as the bus driver silently watched and drove on. Ibid. Despite the escalating threats and unruly behavior toward Maison, the bus driver did nothing, despite Maison’s pleas for help. Ibid. As the teenagers were leaving through the rear side door of the bus, one of them threw a glass bottle at Maison’s head. Id. at *6. Maison called out for help, and the bus driver remained in his seat. Ibid. One of the passengers gave her a cell phone and she called for an ambulance. Ibid. She was transported to the hospital where she received twenty-two stitches to treat the wound in her forehead, which caused a permanent scar and ongoing headaches. Ibid.
The trial court ruled that the TCA did not abrogate the heightened common-carrier standard of care for public carriers, rejected NJT’s arguments regarding TCA immunity, and excluded the bottle-thrower from the verdict sheet because he was not named as defendant. Id. at *8. The jury awarded Maison $1,800,000. Ibid. The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part, remanding for a new trial only on the allocation of fault between the bottle thrower and NJT. Id. at *9.
On appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, NJT argued that it was not subject to the heightened standard of care required of common carriers, saying that such a standard is “irreconcilable with the TCA.” Id. at *10. NJT asserted that its duty was capped at the standard of “ordinary prudence” or “palpable unreasonableness.” Ibid. Thus, three issues were presented to the Court: 1) whether NJT was subject to the heightened negligence standard generally governing common carriers, 2) whether one or more TCA immunities shielded NJT from liability, and 3) whether the non-party tortfeasor (the bottle thrower) should have been included on the verdict sheet for purposes of allocating fault. Id. at *11.
The Supreme Court ruled that the TCA did not lower the standard of care for public common carriers, and that they were subject to the same negligence standard governing other common carriers. Id. at *13. The Court noted the TCA’s directive that liability is to be imposed on public entities and public employees “in the same manner and to the same extent as … private individual[s] under like circumstances” strongly implied that similarly situated public and private common carriers are not to be treated in a different manner for liability purposes. Id. at *13. (citing N.J.S.A. 59:2-2(a)). The court noted the incongruity in an example where two different buses are carrying passengers, one public and one private, but the passengers on the public bus are entitled to a lesser expectation of safety simply by virtue of riding on the public bus. Ibid. The Court said that “the duty to provide safe travel to passengers on NJ Transit buses is no less urgent than the duty imposed on private owned bus operators.” Ibid. Thus, “the heightened common-carrier standard applies to public carriers like NJ Transit.” Id. at *14.
The Supreme Court also agreed with the lower courts in rejecting the TCA immunities asserted by NJT, finding that NJT was not shielded from liability by the TCA immunities of failure to provide police protection, N.J.S.A. 59:5-4, failure to enforce a law, N.J.S.A. 59:2-4, or good-faith enforcement of a law, N.J.S.A. 59:3-3. Id. at *6. The Court found that “[n]one of those immunities abrogated defendants’ common-carrier duty to protect Maison from the dangerous and threatening conduct of the teenage passengers.” Ibid.
Finally, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the jury may decide that, because NJT’s duty of care encompasses its duty to protect Maison, no allocation of fault is necessarily required. Ibid. The TCA “leaves no doubt that an allocation of fault between a negligent public entity and its employees and an intentional tortfeasor is mandated.” Ibid. (citing N.J.S.A. 59:9-3.1). However, “to ensure that defendants’ duty to protect their passenger is not unfairly diluted or diminished, the trial court must give the jury clear guidance on the factors to consider in allocating degrees of fault.” Ibid.