Tennessee Supreme Court Says Federal Law Does Not Prevent Claim for Injuries in Bus Accident

May 3, 2013

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals, which had ruled that federal law prevented a claim for the disabling injuries a passenger received when thrown from a shuttle bus in Memphis.

In 1998, a concrete truck collided with a bus used to transport passengers between the Memphis International Airport and a nearby car-rental facility. Chicago attorney Clifton A. Lake suffered severe injuries when he was thrown through one of the bus’ side windows. Lake and his wife brought suit against the owner of the bus, the manufacturers of the bus and its windows, and the franchisor of the car-rental business, contending that the bus was unsafe because of the perimeter seating arrangement, the lack of seatbelts, and the failure of the side windows to sufficiently protect against ejection.

The trial judge dismissed the claim against the window manufacturer, but permitted the other claims to go to trial. Following a three-week trial, the jury found that Lake and his wife had sustained damages in the amount of $8,543,630, but declared the concrete truck owner 100% at fault. The Lakes had earlier settled their claims against the concrete truck owner.

On appeal, the Lakes argued that the trial court had committed a variety of errors that entitled them to a new trial. In 2011, the Court of Appeals held that the claims based on the lack of seatbelts and unsafe window glass were governed by the federal motor vehicle safety standards – not state law. The lower court also ruled that the Lakes could not recover based on the seating arrangement because there was no proof that Lake was seated at the time of the accident.

The Supreme Court first concluded that the Lakes’ claims were not barred by federal law, ruling that there was no evidence of a federal policy preventing states from requiring more stringent safety measures, such as passenger seatbelts or more protective window glass. The Court also determined there was sufficient evidence that Lake was seated at the time of the collision and returned the case to the Court of Appeals to consider the other issues the Lakes had presented for review.

To read the Clifton A. Lake et al. v. Memphis Landsmen, LLC et al. opinion authored by Chief Justice Gary R. Wade, visit the Opinions section.