Chhetri v. U.S. – Bus Accident Injury Lawsuit

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A serious bus accident in 2011 caused by a driver falling asleep at the wheel occurred during a brief grace period extended by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) after the bus carrier flunked its safety rating. 

Two of those who survived the bus accident were plaintiffs in Chhetri v. U.S., who alleged the government acted with gross negligence in allowing this derelict carrier to operate, despite its failure to fix serious safety problems.

In a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, it was held that the federal government could not be liable for this decision because it was discretionary, rather than ministerial. That means that rather than simply carrying out a certain duty according to statute, those involved had discretion in their actions. In those cases, the federal government (and most state and local governments) have not waived their sovereign immunity protections. 

The crash in this case occurred on May 31, 2011. Plaintiffs were seroiusly injured when the Sky Express Inc. bus on which they were riding crashed on I-95 in Virginia while on its way to New York from North Carolina. It would later be revealed the bus driver fell asleep.

Almost two months earlier, on April 7, 2011, FMCSA carriers in North Carolina reviewed the carrier’s compliance with federal safety rules. They discovered numerous serious safety violations.

Afterward, the FMCSA suggested an “unsatisfactory” rating, which would mandate the carrier halt transportation of passengers once that rating became final with 45 days and until the government deemed it fit to continue.

The agency was notified of this unsatisfactory proposed rating within just a few days. The carrier responded on May 11, 2011, with the help of a transportation safety consultant it had hired, with a written request to the federal agency in Atlanta. It requested the FMCSA raise its safety rating to conditional, which would give the carrier the chance to keep operating after that 45-day window. To support its position, the company attached  details with a number of measures it was taking to improve its policies and achieve compliance. It was improving drug testing policies, creating an accident registry, reviewing driver qualifications and adding more drivers to certain well-traveled routes.

Communication records show the FMCSA denied the request to change the rating. However, there was another option available at the time (which is no longer available), which was to allow an additional 10-day grace period to the carrier, after which the agency would conduct another compliance review.

If that extension hadn’t been offered, the carrier would have had to shut down May 28, 2011 – three days before this fatal crash.

Plaintiffs, under the umbrella of the Federal Tort Claims Act, accused officials at the FMCSA of not using due care and of violating federal law in granting that 10-day extension.

The federal government argued, among other things, that it hadn’t waived sovereign immunity because the decision to allow the carrier to remain operational was a discretionary one.

District court agreed, finding the decision clearly involved an element of choice or judgment. Further, the court noted the agency was expressly afforded the right to make discretionary judgments, per federal law.

The federal appeals court affirmed.

This does not mean the bus accident victims are without remedy. They are still free to pursue damages against the carrier and, potentially, the driver. In the event there is not enough insurance to cover the full extent of their damages, they may want to explore underinsured motorist coverage, which would be derived from their own private auto insurance carrier.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Chhetri v. U.S., May 12, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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1st DCA Tosses Florida Workers’ Comp Attorney Caps, May 7, 2016, Boca Raton Injury Lawyer Blog