Transit Authority Not Liable for Dead Man on Bus
The Philadelphia-area public transit agency is not liable for a man who died on a bus and whose corpse was subsequently driven across the city, a judge ruled recently.
Leonard Sedden posthumously made the headlines in 2010 after he was found dead on a night-owl SEPTA bus. The driver initially noticed that he was drooling and had urinated in his seat, but a supervisor instructed her to finish her route and not seek medical attention for her passenger.
An hour and a half later, when the bus reached its terminal destination, Sedden had as well, killed by drug-related heart failure.
A woman handling his estate sued the transit company for negligence, wrongful death and civil rights violations, because the agency declined to call an ambulance for the man even after the driver reported that he was unresponsive.
Unfortunately for the estate, a judge ruled that passengers have no “federal constitutional right to rescue services, competent or otherwise” and SEPTA could not be liable because they did not create or worsen his condition.
The transit company defended its inaction. “On many of our late vehicles, people frequently fall asleep. We do not discriminate against somebody who wants to sleep on our vehicles; our policy is to let them sleep,” a SEPTA spokesperson told the Philadelphia Daily News. “The fact that they may have soiled themselves, I hate to tell you, is not out of the ordinary.”
Steep Hill To Climb
With certain exceptions, plaintiffs have an uphill climb to successfully bring a lawsuit against a state entity in Pennsylvania. “There’s general immunity from lawsuits that the government and agencies like SEPTA enjoy,” says Dean I. Weitzman, a personal injury attorney with the firm MyPhillyLawyer. “Failing to provide emergency services is not one of the known exceptions to the general mandate of immunity.”
In general, suits in state court will be allowed to proceed against the transit agency only if they are related to a motor vehicle accident or a real property defect like a cracked sidewalk, and they carry a damage cap of $250,000.
Outside of the specific exceptions, the only way to sue is in federal court, which isn’t bound by state immunity laws or the tort cap. “In this case, the way most attorneys would do this is to say it’s a violation of one’s federal civil rights,” Weitzman says. “In order to demonstrate that, you’d have to show that SEPTA acting under color of state law intentionally deprived the person of his constitutional rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
However, the standard of a civil rights lawsuit is steep. “Really they would have to show something that is gross negligence, at least, or intentional acts,” the attorney says. “What the courts have consistently found with regard to summoning emergency services is that they haven’t been able to demonstrate gross negligence or intentional acts.”
As the judge’s ruling makes clear, not calling the medics for a passenger even in an apparent drug coma does not meet the standard for liability. “It’s a very very difficult bar to climb,” says Weitzman, “and very unlikely that the facts would fit the bill for that type of claim.”