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California Transit Agencies and Personal Injury Law: Who’s Responsible for Subway, Bus, and Train Accidents?

Millions of people rely on California transit agencies for subway, bus, and rail transportation, but with even with the best safety precautions, accidents are bound to occur. Commuter injuries can range from minor cuts and bruises caused by slip-and-falls in transit stations all the way to severe disfigurement and death in the case of train collisions and other major accidents. Transit accidents also involve third-parties in many cases, as with bus collisions and crossing mishaps involving automobiles, pedestrians, or bicycles.  

If you’ve been injured in this type of subway, bus, or train accident, you may be entitled to recover damages from the transit agency. As “common carriers,” transportation agencies are held to a higher standard of care than other parties, but as governmental agencies they’re also eligible for various types of immunity from liability.As with other types of accidents, transit accidents are often caused by the negligence or reckless behavior of subway, bus, and train operators, such as speeding or operating under the influence. Outdated facilities and worn-out equipment can also be a cause of transit accidents, as can improper maintenance and faulty repairs. Dangerous conditions at transit facilities or inside passenger vehicles provide yet another catalyst for collisions and other calamities.

Common Carriers

Subways, buses, and trains are classified as “common carriers” under California law and the special relationship between a carriers and their passengers gives rise to a heightened duty of care. Under California Civil Code §2100, common carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for their [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” Similarly, California Civil Jury Instruction 902 states that “Common carriers… must do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances to avoid harm to passengers. While a common carrier does not guarantee the safety of its passengers, it must use reasonable skill to provide everything necessary for safe transportation….” See also California Civil Jury Instruction 903.

Among the responsibilities imposed on common carriers under the heightened standard of care are the duty to safely transport passengers to their destinations, the duty to provide safe places to enter and exit the carrier’s vehicles, and to provide safe conditions inside the carrier’s vehicles, the duty to protect passengers from harm, including harm from other passengers, and the duty to hire qualified and properly trained employees.

Although common carriers owe a special duty of care to their passengers, the heightened standard of care applies only while passengers are in transit, and it terminates as soon as passengers have safely departed from the carrier’s vehicle. In McGettigan v. Bay Area Rapid Transit District, 57 Cal. App. 4th 1011 (1997), for example, the court held that the plaintiff had lost his status as a passenger after he exiting from his train onto a railroad platform. Because the carrier-passenger relationship had ended, BART was not liable for injuries that occurred when the plaintiff, who was drunk, fell and/or was struck by a train.

Dangerous Conditions on Public Property 

Under California Government Code §835, a public entity can be held liable for injuries caused by “dangerous conditions” of its property if the plaintiff can establish the following elements:

  1. the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury;
  2. the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition;
  3. the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred; and
  4. either (a) the dangerous condition was created by the public entity or its employees, as a result of negligence or wrongdoing, or (b) the public entity had notice of the dangerous condition at a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against it.


In the context of transit authorities, “dangerous conditions” could include any number of physical defects which could cause derailments, train or bus collisions, boarding/exiting injuries, or other accidents. Dangerous conditions may also include the location of transit facilities, however. This point was decided in Bonanno v. Central Contra Costa Transit Authority, 30 Cal. 4th 139 (2003). The case involved a plaintiff who was seriously injured when she was hit by a car while crossing a street to reach a bus stop. Prior to the accident, the transit authority had received numerous complaints about the bus stop’s lack of safe pedestrian access and several less serious pedestrian collisions had occurred. The court found that the bus stop’s location qualified as a dangerous condition under these circumstances. The court was careful to explain, however, that it was imposing liability based on the transit authority’s placement of the bus stop’s entrances or any other aspect of the facility’s design. As the court explained, public entities enjoy “design immunity” for injuries arising from discretionary choices regarding a facility’s “plan or design.”

Design immunity, which is codified at California Government Code §830.6, is intended to allow agencies a certain measure of discretion in the planning and design of public improvements. To be entitled to this immunity, the public entity must establish three elements: (1) the causal relationship between the design and the accident; (2) the discretionary approval of the design prior to construction; and (3) substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the design. This test was discussed in another transit agency case, BART Dist. v. Superior Court, 46 Cal. App. 4th 476 (1996). The plaintiff had brought a claim for negligent maintenance against the transit system, alleging that she was injured when a BART train that she was riding jerked back and forth and threw her against a seat. BART claimed design immunity in response to this claim, introducing evidence that the train’s jerking motion was caused by its automatic acceleration system, which was set to a reduced rate on the day of the accident in order to prevent wheel slippage in inclement weather. The court found this evidence sufficient to meet BART’s initial burden of proof under the design immunity test and then granted summary judgment in BART’s favor because the plaintiff failed to submit any evidence in opposition.

In addition to design immunity, a number of other statutory immunities protect public entities from liability for dangerous conditions of their property. These include immunity for injuries caused by the natural condition of unimproved public property (Cal. Gov. Code § 831.2), immunity for injuries caused by the condition of an unpaved trail or recreational access road (Cal. Gov. Code § 831.4), and immunity for injuries arising out of a hazardous recreational activity (Cal. Gov. Code § 831.7). Finally, California Government Code §835.4 provides that a public entity’s creation or maintenance of a dangerous condition does not render the entity liable if the act or omission creating the danger, or the measures taken to protect against it, were reasonable.

Time Limits and Other Requirements Under the California Tort Claims Act

Because transit authorities are often public agencies, claims relating to passenger or third-party injuries may need to comply with the procedural requirements of the California Tort Claims Act. One of the most important differences between this statute and the normal rules for civil tort litigation is the statute of limitations. In cases involving private defendants, injured parties usually have two years to initiate personal injury litigation. For claims against public entities, however, the filing time is limited to just six months. See California Government Code §911.2.

The procedures for initiating tort claims against government agencies differ from regular civil litigation procedures in a variety of other ways. Claims must be submitted first to the appropriate governing board of the transit agency, whether a local public entity or state-level department. The board then has 45 days to grant or deny the claim, and litigation can only be commenced after going through this administrative process.

This article isn’t a substitute for actual legal advice, however, so contact a California personal injury attorney if you have additional questions or want to discuss your case in more detail. If you need an attorney, you can contact the law offices of Nelson C. Barry at 415-587-0550.


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