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Bethel v. New York Transit Authority, 1998 N.Y. Int. 0113 (October 15, 1998).

TORT LAW - DUTY OF CARE - COMMON CARRIERS

The Court of Appeals adopts a traditional standard of reasonable care for common carriers and abandons the previous duty of extraordinary care.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

Plaintiff fell to the floor of a New York City bus and incurred a severe back injury when he sat down on a folding wheelchair-accessible seat that collapsed. Plaintiff argued that a recent repair to the seat put Defendant on constructive notice that the seat was subject to collapse, and that a proper inspection would have revealed the seat's defect. The court charged the jury that Defendant, as a common carrier, had a duty to use the "highest degree of care" in the maintenance of its vehicles and equipment. The jury found in favor of Plaintiff. The Appellate Division affirmed, but failed to address Defendant's objection to being held to a higher standard than reasonable care based on its status as a common carrier. The Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal to confront the issue of whether a duty of highest care should continue to be applied to common carriers.

ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Whether a duty of extraordinary care for common carriers should be abandoned in favor of a duty of reasonable care.

Disposition

Yes. Common carriers should be held to the basic standard of reasonable care for negligence cases. Thus, the trial court erred by instructing the jury to evaluate the carrier's responsibility under a duty of extraordinary care.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

  • Adams v. New York City Tr. Auth., 88 N.Y.2d 116 (N.Y. 1996).
  • Miner v. Long Is. Light. Co., 40 N.Y.2d 372 (N.Y. 1976).
  • Basso v. Miller, 40 N.Y.2d 233 (N.Y. 1976).
  • McLean v. Triboro Coach Corp., 302 N.Y. 49 (N.Y. 1950).
  • Stierle v. Union Ry. Co., 156 N.Y. 70 (N.Y. 1898).
  • Kelly v. Manhattan Ry. Co., 112 N.Y. 443 (N.Y. 1889).
  • Lewis v. Metro. Transp. Auth., 99 A.D.2d 246 (1984).
  • Stagl v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 52 F.3d 463 (2d Cir. 1995).
  • Plagianos v. American Airlines, Inc., 912 F.2d 57 (2d Cir. 1990).
  • Union Traction Co. of Indiana v. Berry, 121 N.E. 655 (Ind. 1919).

Other Sources Cited by the Court

  • Restatement (2d) of Torts § 283, comment c.
  • Friedman, A History of American Law, at 482, 484, 485 n. 47 (2d ed.).
  • Harper, James and Gray, Torts § 16.14 at 508 n. 6 4.
  • Prosser & Keeton, Torts §§ 32, 34 (5th ed.).
  • Frederick Green, High Care and Gross Negligence, 23 Ill. L. Rev. 4 (1928-29).

RELATED SOURCES

  • McGettigan v. Bay Area Rapid Transit District, 67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 516 (1997).
  • Mueller v. Community Consolidated School District, 678 N.E.2d 660 (Ill. 1997).
  • Neighbarger v. Central Ohio Transit Auth., 458 N.E.2d 388 (Ohio 1982).
  • Dietrich v. Community Traction Co., 203 N.E.2d 344 (Ohio 1964).
  • West's Ann. Cal. Civ. Code § 2100.
  • Vernon's Ann.Tex.Civ.St. art. 6701(d) § 86.

COMMENTARY

State of the Law Before Bethel

Prior to this case common carriers in the state of New York were held to a duty of extraordinary care with regard to the safety of their passengers. This duty of extraordinary care was defined as "the exercise of the utmost care so far as human skill and foresight can go." Kelly v. Manhattan Ry. Co., 112 N.Y. 443, 450 (N.Y. 1889). This duty only applied to defects in the road, machinery, the construction of cars, or appliances that had the potential to cause great danger and loss of life. See id. It did not apply to the conduct of employees, see Stierle v. Union Ry. Co., 156 N.Y. 70, 73 (N.Y. 1898), or to the carrier's stations, platforms, and other facilities used to enter and exit the carrier, see Lewis v. Metro Transp. Auth., 99 A.D.2d 246, 248 (1984). This duty of extraordinary care was adopted by the Court of Appeals in the nineteenth century to compensate for the lack of efficient safety features in early railroads. Because the standard was outdated, the Court of Appeals had been considering revisiting it for a number of years, and the Second Circuit had already been applying the lesser standard of reasonable care in similar cases for several years, anticipating New York's abandonment of the higher standard.

Effect of Bethel on Current Law

Common carriers will now uniformly be held to a standard of reasonable care. By adopting the reasonable care standard, the Court holds public transit to a standard consistent with that of other activities. The reasonable care standard requires a consideration of all of the circumstances and allows the trier of fact to take into account the hazardous aspects of public transportation.

The rationale behind adopting the reasonable care standard is two-fold. First, it represents recognition that technological developments and government regulations have made public transit less hazardous. Second, it eliminates the confusion that application of the extraordinary care standard has created. By applying the standard of reasonable care to common carriers, the court holds common carriers to the same standard of care as others.

Unanswered Questions

Does the reasonable care standard apply to the common carriers that may not have adopted the technological developments that make public transportation safer?

Does the reasonable care standard now apply to all common carriers, even those common carriers that engage in more hazardous transportation, such as airlines?

Does this decision suggest that the Court of Appeals may be willing to revisit other so-called "special duty" situations in which potential tortfeasors are held to a higher standard of care than the reasonable care standard?

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Early in this century the Supreme Court of Indiana rejected a duty of extraordinary care for common carriers. Its formulation left it to the jury to determine what degree of care a carrier should have exercised. See Union Traction Co. of Indiana v. Berry, 121 N.E. 655 (Ind. 1919).

Most jurisdictions, however, do not adhere to the approach taken in Bethel and still require common carriers to exercise the highest duty of care. Last year, in Mueller v. Community Consolidated School District, 678 N.E.2d 660 (Ill. 1997), the Appellate Court of Illinois found that common carriers owe a nondelegable duty of the highest degree of care to their passengers. It noted, however, that this duty does not extend to situations where the operation of the bus is not the cause of injury.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that the duty of care owed by common carriers is the highest degree of care consistent with the practical operation of the system. Neighbarger v. Central Ohio Transit Auth., 458 N.E.2d 388 (Ohio 1982), citing Dietrich v. Community Traction Co., 203 N.E.2d 344 (Ohio 1964). The court ruled, however, that the mere occurrence of jerking in the operation of the carrier, absent evidence of an unusual suddenness, force, or violence, is not evidence of negligence.

In some states the issue is settled by statute. McGettigan v. Bay Area Rapid Transit District, 57 Cal.App. 4th 1011 (1997), held that that Cal. Civ. Code § 2100 requires common carriers to use the highest degree of care to ensure the safety of their passengers. This heightened duty of care, however, terminates once the passenger has safely exited the vehicle.

Prepared By:

  • Sarah E. Buffett, '99
  • Andrew Cohen, '99
  • Joshua Eisenberg, '00
  • Meredith Ford, '99
  • Sheila Kiernan, '00
  • Ashley Lattal, '00