WCNC Charlotte reports two recent bus accidents that snarled traffic and sent one person to the hospital with serious injuries.
Per the publication, the first accident involved a Charlotte CATS bus and an SUV colliding in the area of Central Avenue and Longfellow Street. The road was closed for a short period following the incident. The second accident involved a school bus on Interstate 77 in North Charlotte. Multiple lanes were shut down to clear the scene and investigate the crash. One person was sent to the hospital in that instance.
If you’ve been involved in an accident with a bus – whether a school bus or a city bus – you may wonder who should be held liable. It may seem that the easy answer is “the driver,” but this issue can actually be more complex than you might think.
Vicarious liability and sovereign immunity in bus accident cases
If you were injured in an accident with a bus owned by a private company, typically the company can be liable for your injuries under the theory of vicarious liability. Vicarious liability means that a supervisory party like an employer can be liable for the conduct of their employees. Therefore, the employer of the bus driver can also be responsible for your accident and resulting injuries.
However, what if you were hit by a school bus? This is where the issue of sovereign immunity comes in. In a nutshell, sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that protects a government from being sued without its consent. It’s also known as crown immunity.
The doctrine dates back to English common law in the 13th century. The premise is that “the king can do no wrong” because his will is the law. In the United States, sovereign immunity applies to both the federal and state governments. It’s important to note that state governments are not immune from lawsuits brought against them by other states or by the federal government.
The North Carolina Tort Claims Act applies to school bus accidents
The North Carolina Tort Claim Act governs the way we hold government employees (and agencies) accountable for negligence. Generally, it lays out when the State or a county or city can be held liable. This includes claims involving school buses. Under the provision G.S. 143-300.1 of the North Carolina Tort Claims Act:
The North Carolina Industrial Commission shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine tort claims against any county board of education or any city board of education, which claims arise as a result of any alleged mechanical defects or other defects which may affect the safe operation of a public school bus or school transportation service vehicle resulting from an alleged negligent act of maintenance personnel or as a result of any alleged negligent act or omission of the driver, transportation safety assistant, or monitor of a public school bus or school transportation service vehicle.
The Act applies when:
- The driver is an employee of the county or city administrative unit of which that board is the governing body, and the driver is paid or authorized to be paid by that administrative unit,
- The monitor was appointed and acting in accordance with G.S. 115C-245(d),
- The transportation safety assistant was employed and acting in accordance with G.S. 115C-245(e), or
- The driver is an unpaid school bus driver trainee under the supervision of an authorized employee of the Department of Transportation, Division of Motor Vehicles, or an authorized employee of that board or a county or city administrative unit thereof, and which driver was at the time of the alleged negligent act or omission operating a public school bus or school transportation service vehicle in accordance with G.S. 115C-242 in the course of his employment by or training for that administrative unit or board, which monitor was at the time of the alleged negligent act or omission acting as such in the course of serving under G.S. 115C-245(d), or which transportation safety assistant was at the time of the alleged negligent act or omission acting as such in the course of serving under G.S. 115C-245(e).
In the event that you or your child is injured by or on a school bus, and the cause of that injury was the negligence of one of the above parties, then you can file a claim under the NC Tort Claims Act against the applicable Board of Education.
Note: there are more than 115 boards in North Carolina: “100 county boards of education and 15 that govern city school systems, as well as several other specialty school systems, including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and the Department of Defense Schools serving military dependents.” So the first thing you need to do in any school bus accident case is identify which board applies.
How do you file a claim under the NC Tort Claims Act?
When suing the government in a school bus accident, instead of filing a lawsuit with the court (like you would with a private company), you file a claim with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. However, under the Tort Claims Act, you are eligible to appeal the Commission’s findings to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Per the law:
The liability of such county or city board of education, the defenses which may be asserted against such claim by such board, the amount of damages which may be awarded to the claimant, and the procedure for filing, hearing and determining such claim, the right of appeal from such determination, the effect of such appeal, and the procedure for taking, hearing and determining such appeal shall be the same in all respects as is provided in this Article with respect to tort claims against the State Board of Education except as hereinafter provided. Any claim filed against any county or city board of education pursuant to this section shall state the name and address of such board, the name of the employee upon whose alleged negligent act or omission the claim is based, and all other information required by G.S. 143-297 in the case of a claim against the State Board of Education. Immediately upon the docketing of a claim, the Industrial Commission shall forward one copy of the plaintiff’s affidavit to the superintendent of the schools of the county or city administrative unit against the governing board of which such claim is made, one copy of the plaintiff’s affidavit to the State Board of Education and one copy of the plaintiff’s affidavit to the office of the Attorney General of North Carolina. All notices with respect to tort claims against any such county or city board of education shall be given to the superintendent of schools of the county or city administrative unit of which such board is a governing board, to the State Board of Education and also to the office of the Attorney General of North Carolina.
(b) The Attorney General shall be charged with the duty of representing the city or county board of education in connection with claims asserted against them pursuant to this section where the amount of the claim, in the opinion of the Attorney General, is of sufficient import to require and justify such appearance.
Collecting damages in a school bus accident claim
The law says:
In the event that the Industrial Commission awards damages against any county or city board of education under this section, the Attorney General shall draw a voucher for the amount required to pay the award. The funds necessary to cover the first one hundred fifty thousand dollars ($150,000) of liability per claim for claims against county and city boards of education for accidents involving school buses and school transportation service vehicles shall be made available from funds appropriated to the State Board of Education. The balance of any liability owed shall be paid in accordance with G.S. 143- 299.4. Neither the county or city boards of education, or the county or city administrative unit shall be liable for the payment of any award made pursuant to the provisions of this section in excess of the amount paid upon a voucher by the Attorney General. Settlement and payment may be made by the Attorney General as provided in G.S. 143-295.
What is the statute of limitations for bringing a claim under the Tort Claims Act?
Under the Tort Claims Act, the statute of limitations for an injured party to file a claim is three years, or two years in the event of a wrongful death claim. This is similar to if you brought a negligence claim against a private bus company.
What damages can I collect under the Tort Claims Act?
It is important to note that GS 143-299.2 limits the amount that the state will cumulatively pay to all injured parties from any one occurrence to $1,000,000.
As you can see, the doctrine of sovereign immunity does not make the state completely immune from lawsuits, but it still offers a modicum of protection for government entities.
Were you injured in a bus accident? Ensure you have the right representation on your side with Price, Petho & Associates. We will work to secure the compensation to which you are entitled. To schedule a free consultation with a Charlotte school bus accident lawyer, please call our office or complete our contact form today. We have additional offices in Rockingham and Rutherfordton for your convenience.
Attorney Doug Petho is the owner and founder of Price, Petho & Associates. His primary focus is the litigation of plaintiff’s personal injury suits, and he has successfully tried hundreds of cases to jury verdict involving car accidents, trucking accidents, pedestrian accidents, slip and fall accidents, and work-related accidents. Contact his office in Charlotte today.