In a unanimous decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled to reverse an earlier finding by an appellate court that federal law barred the wife of a man disabled in a bus accident from pursuing an injury claim.
Our Knoxville bus accident attorneys know that the ruling in Lake v. Memphis Landsmen, a decade in coming, will clear the way not only for this family to pursue just compensation, but also for anyone in the future facing down a similar situation.
According to court records, here is what happened:
In mid-March of 1998, a 60,000-pound concrete truck crashed into an 11,500-pound shuttle bus that was being used to take passengers to and from the Memphis International Airport and a local rental car company.
A passenger who was on that bus suffered severe and permanent brain injuries as a result of the crash.
Subsequently, the man's wife filed a personal injury lawsuit against the bus's owner, the manufacturer, the maker of the bus windows and the franchisor of the rental car business. The claims were for product liability and negligence. The plaintiff contended that the bus wasn't safe because it was not equipped with seat belts, the side windows were made with tempered glass as opposed to laminated glass and the vehicle contained seats that lined the perimeter, instead of a safer forward-facing arrangement.
The driver was also accused of failing to employ reasonable and ordinary care while driving the bus, and that as such, his employer was liable.
The window manufacturer was awarded a summary judgment, while the bus owner and franchisor received a partial summary judgement on the claims of product liability. However, the trial court denied a portion of the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the basis that the claims were preempted by the standards set forth by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association.
At the trial, a physicist specializing in motor vehicle safety testified that the bus did not provide adequate safeguards to protect against occupant ejection.
A jury later found the plaintiffs had sustained more than $8.5 million in damages. However, the jury also found that 100 percent of the blame belonged to the owner of the concrete truck, and that firm had already settled with the plaintiffs prior to trial.
The plaintiffs appealed for a new trial, but the defendants continued to assert that under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 205 and 208, 49 CFR 571.205, .208(1994), the issue with seat belts, window glass and perimeter seating were insufficient to establish negligence or liability. The Court of Appeals then ruled in the defendants' favor.
Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed that decision, remanding the case back to the appellate court for reconsideration on the basis of Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America Inc., a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found that the decision of whether to provide seat belts in a bus is not one preempted by federal regulation and therefore wasn't sufficient grounds to toss out a case of alleged negligence.
So now, the case can move forward. We will be watching the developments closely.