Injured Bus Passenger Barred from Suing SEPTA under “Jerk and Jolt” Doctrine

A SEPTA bus passenger who was injured after being thrown from her seat could not sue SEPTA for damages because the bus’s movement was not unusual or extraordinary, the Commonwealth Court ruled in Bost-Pearson v. SEPTA, __ A.3d __ (No. 910 C.D. 2014, filed June 5, 2015). Robin Bost-Pearson and her granddaughter were passengers on a SEPTA bus in Philadelphia when the driver swerved to avoid hitting prospective passengers at the edge of a bus stop. Bost-Pearson fell from her seat and hit the floor on her right side. She sued SEPTA, claiming that a torn rotator cuff and spinal injuries were caused by the incident. SEPTA moved for summary judgment, arguing that Bost-Pearson failed to establish any facts showing that the bus’s movement was so unusual or extraordinary so as to defeat the “jerk and jolt” doctrine. The trial court granted SEPTA’s motion and Bost-Pearson appealed to Commonwealth Court.

Writing for a unanimous Commonwealth Court panel, Judge Leadbetter held that the trial court correctly applied the “jerk and jolt” doctrine, which requires a passenger injured by the sudden movement of a bus or other form of public transportation to establish that the movement was “so unusual and extraordinary as to be beyond a passenger’s reasonable anticipation.” The Court rejected Bost-Pearson’s argument that the “abrupt” nature of the driver’s actions and the fact that she became unseated established the unusual character of the jerk or jolt. The Court noted that descriptive language such as “abrupt” is not proof of negligence, nor is being unseated a dispositive factor. The Court emphasized the lack of evidence that any other passengers, seated or unseated, were affected. Regarding Bost-Pearson’s evidence of severe injuries, the Court reasoned that such evidence was not determinative of liability and could not establish the mechanics of the incident. In sum, the Court observed that “

[a] bus’s swerving to avoid pedestrians is in no way unusual in a busy city, and certainly not beyond a passenger’s reasonable expectation.”

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