Planes, Trains and Automobiles: A Heightened Standard of Care

Earlier this week, a Chicago CTA Bus drove off the road on Michigan Avenue killing one person and seriously injuring several others.  Last month, there was a horrific derailment of an Amtrak train outside of Philadelphia that left eight passengers dead, hundreds more injured and is expected to cost over $200 million in damages and insurance claims.  These tragedies are stunning in regards to not only the number of injured but also the extent of their injuries. And because they involve paying passengers who are being transported by someone else, they are looked at very differently under the law.

It is textbook law that every car driver is held to a standard of “ordinary care” when operating an automobile.  In Illinois’ Pattern Jury Instructions, this type of care is defined as “care a reasonably careful person would use under circumstances similar to those shown.”  1-10.00 Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions – Civil 10.02.  If a driver blows a stop sign, crosses a centerline, or speeds, the driver is not acting with ordinary care and he or she can be held liable for any injuries caused by their actions.

 When drivers are actually being paid or employed to carry passengers, then these individuals are viewed as “common carriers” and are held to a much higher standard of care than a typical automobile driver.  Under Illinois law, a common carrier “has a duty to its passengers to use the highest degree of care consistent with the mode of conveyance used and the practical operation of its business as a common carrier…  Its failure to fulfill this duty is negligence.”  1-100.00 Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions – Civil 100.01.

This extra high duty of care applies not only while driving a customer but also when a passenger is boarding or entering and exiting or leaving a cab, bus or train.  This means a cab or bus must make sure a passenger is not only brought to their destination safely but also upon arrival, let out in a reasonably safe location.  If, for example, a bus passenger is exiting the bus in a dark place where the pavement is cracked, the bus company might be held liable for a resulting injury for violating the standard of care of a common carrier.  See O’Shea v. Chicago Motor Coach Co., 328 Ill. App. 457 (Ill. App. Ct. 1946).  These expanded duties of care make sense because common carriers use professional drivers and charge passengers money to provide safe transportation.

This expanded duty has also become an important issue as new technology continues to fundamentally change the manner in which commercial transportation companies operate.  Earlier this year, Uber, the ride sharing company that allows passengers to call for a taxi, limousine or private driver through a smart phone application, engaged in a heated battle with the state of Maryland over whether the heightened common carrier standard of care applies to the Uber drivers.  In February, after months and months of back and forth between the company and the Maryland Public Service Commission, Uber finally conceded and agreed that Uber vehicles should be treated as a “common carrier.”  After accepting this designation, the Maryland Public Service commission notes that classifications such are important as they help address numerous concerns regarding the company’s public safety standards.  Similar debates are currently being waged in cities and states across the country, including in the city of Chicago.

It is important to note that the common carrier designation does not merely cover recent modes of transportation.  The world of common carriers actually extends beyond the realm of just cars, busses and trains and includes many other means of transportation such as planes, Kamienski v. Bluebird Air, Inc., 321 Ill. App. 340 (Ill. App. Ct. 1944), and ships and even means of transport within a building such as an elevator.  Jardine v. Rubloff, 73 Ill. 2d 31 (Ill. 1978).  In the event that someone is unfortunate enough to be injured while entering, riding or exiting a common carrier, the person should be aware that these professional transporters are held to the highest degree of care under Illinois law.