Motor Vehicle: Double Decker Tour Bus
Case: Confidential v. Open Top Sightseeing LLC and Pacific Bell Telephone Company dba AT&T California et al.
Court: San Francisco Superior Court
Neutral: William Strickland
Date: March 18, 2015
Plaintiff attorney: William B. Smith, Abramson Smith Waldsmith, San Francisco, Ca.
Defense attorneys: Norman LaForce, San Francisco for Open Top Sightseeing LLC.Gregory Moreau, legal department for Pacific Bell Telephone Company dba AT&T California et al, San Francisco, Ca.
Facts: On July 19, 2013 a Big Bus driver was operating a double decker tour bus on 12th Avenue in San Francisco when he collided with a low hanging telephone wire. This wire struck passengers on the open second deck of the bus seriously injuring one of them and also injuring three others. The plaintiffs included Austrian tourists and tourists from Texas. The leading edge of the bus was 13'1" high and PUC General Order 95 requires a minimum clearance of 18' for a cable above a public thoroughfare. That meant the wire had to be at least 18 feet above the surface of 12th Avenue at all times. The marks on the front of the bus proved that the low hanging wire was less than 13' above the street. In fact, it was 5' lower than it should have been and should have been seen by the driver who was aware of this risk. The driver testified that he did not see the wire and his first notice of contact was the "horrible impact" that made the bus rock like an earthquake. The driver had no tour guide on the bus and it was his responsibility to do everything aboard including driving and watching two video screens in the driver's area while driving. His attention clearly was divided between the screens and what was ahead of him including traffic, pedestrians and wires. The driver also testifiedthat he could not miss seeing a wire as much as 2' lower than the 18' minimum; the wire he hit was 5' lower than the minimum. A neighbor near the scene testified that about 30 minutes before the incident, he saw a red double decker tour bus "skim" a wire at the location of the incident. He said he first noticed these buses using 12th Avenue about a month before the incident. His safety concern was the speed of the buses on a residential street and he called Big Bus to complain. A woman there told him not to call but to email his concerns.He decided not to email them at that time. However on the day of the incident, the neighbor decided to email Big Bus to complain about bus noise and the low hanging wire. Big Bus received that email and produced it during discovery. Unfortunately, the company had no rapid system of reacting to such a complaint and nothing was done before the incident. This is despite the fact that each bus had a radio and could easily have been contacted by someone at dispatch. Plaintiffs argued that CACI 902 requires that a common carrier like Big Bus must use the highest care and the vigilance of a very cautious person in operating its buses and that was not done. Plaintiffs also argued that the PUC regulation required AT&T to periodically inspect its wires and it admitted it had no periodic inspection program in the area at the time. It relied on complaints and observations of its workers who might happen to be in the area for other purposes. Big Bus contended that it did not have notice of the low hanging wire and, in any event, it hit it at only 15 miles per hour. AT&T contended it had no notice of the low hanging wire.
Injuries and Damages:
One of the plaintiffs (age 67) was the most seriously injured of the three plaintiffs. The wire slapped her in the face knocking her head against the seat and essentially "amputating" her nose. She also suffered a subdural hematoma and a C2 fracture that was not displaced. A CT scan of her face revealed complex, comminuted and displaced bilateral fractures of her nasal and anterior ethmoidal bones and her nasal septum. She also sustained extensive facial lacerations of her internal nasal mucosa and her right nasal airway totaling 7 centimeters in length. She underwent surgery at SF General Hospital to repair and replace her nose and close the lacerations. The plastic surgeons did a remarkable job and were able to salvage her nose and put it back in place. An air ambulance returned her to Austria where she was readmitted to a local hospital for additional treatment. After several months one could hardly see the scarring on her face and there were no obviousvisible signs that her nose had been lacerated so badly. However she did have some occulsion of her right nostril with some numbness on the right side of her face and a diminished sense of smell. The plaintiff's husband was sitting next to his wife when she was struck. The wire struck his left cheek leaving a small laceration and a bruise. He was treated in the emergency room and released. He witnessed the trauma to his wife. The other plaintiffs were seated across the aisle from the aforementioned plaintiffs. He sustained a 1.5 centimeter laceration to his left ear lobe which required sutures. He also had neck complaints. He was seen in the emergency room and was discharged. His laceration healed without difficulty and he had some diminished hearing out of that ear for about 3 months. His wife sustained trauma to the dorsum of her left hand and experienced bruising and swelling without any fractures.
The plaintiffs from Austria were paid a total of $640,000 by both defendants. The plaintiffs from Texas were paid a total of $17,268 by both defendants.