Bethel v. New York City Transit Authority

92 N.Y.2d 348 (1998).

One-Sentence Takeaway: The standard of care applicable to common carriers is the same as that applied to any other potential tortfeasor – reasonable care under all of the circumstances of the particular case.

Summary:  Plaintiff was injured on Defendant’s bus when the wheelchair accessible seat collapsed under him.  Plaintiff could not prove that Defendant actually knew of the defect, but he argued that Defendant should have had constructive notice of the defect evidenced by a computer printout of the repair record which showed that eleven days prior to the accident, repairs, including adjustment and alignment, were made to a lift wheelchair.  Plaintiff argued that a proper inspection during those repairs would have revealed the defect causing the seat to collapse eleven days later.

The trial court instructed the jury that as a common carrier, Defendant had a duty to use the highest degree of care that human prudence and foresight can suggest in the maintenance of its vehicles and equipment for the safety of its passengers.  The trial court further instructed the jury that it was up to them to decide whether, under the highest degree of care standard applicable to common carriers, a reasonable inspection would have led to the discovery of the condition and its repair before the accident – i.e., whether Defendant bus company would have discovered the defect in the wheelchair accessible seat if it had used the highest degree of care in an inspection of the equipment.

Based on those jury instructions, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on the constructive notice theory.

The issue before the Court of Appeals was whether the proper standard of care applicable to common carriers was the duty of utmost care so far as human skill and foresight can go for the safety of their passengers in transit.  The Court ruled in the negative and held that the standard of care required of common carriers was the same as that required of any other potential tortfeasor – reasonable care under all of the circumstances of the particular case.

The Court reasoned that the extraordinary standard of care was historically applied to common carriers because there were primitive safety features when steam railroads were still new in the 19th century America.  “Their primitive safety features resulted in a phenomenal growth in railroad accident injuries and with them, an explosion in personal injury litigation, significantly affecting the American tort system. In this century, however, through technological advances and intense governmental regulation, public conveyances have become at least as safe as private modes of travel.”  Thus, the standard of care required of common carriers no longer has to be so high.

The Court further reasoned that there was an inconsistency between the common carrier’s duty of extraordinary care and the fundamental concept of negligence in tort doctrine (the reasonable person).  Reasonable person standard was a superior method to ascertain liability because it is flexible and it takes into account all of the circumstances that the potential tortfeasor was confronted with when the accident occurred.

The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Plaintiff and remitted the case to the trial court for a new trial.


Boyd v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, 9 N.Y.3d 89 (2007):

In Bethel vNew York City TrAuth., we abandoned the rule that common carriers owe a “duty of highest care,” and decided to “realign the standard of care required of common carriers with the traditional, basic negligence standard of reasonable care under the circumstances.” It follows from Bethel that a common carrier, like any other defendant, is not an insurer of the safety of its equipment; it can be held liable for defects in the equipment only if it knew, or with reasonable care should have known, that the equipment was defective.

Gunther v. Airtran Holdings, Inc., No. 05-cv-2134 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 24, 2007):

In New York, common carriers are not bound to a higher duty of care than other tortfeasors and must only exercise “reasonable care under all of the circumstances of the particular case.” Bethel  vNew York City Transit Auth., 92 N.Y.2d 348356681 N.Y.S.2d 201205 (1998). This reasonableness standard has long described a common carrier’s duty to its passengers with regard to the “conduct of operational employees,” and to “stations, platforms or other facilities of ingress or egress.”

[Footnote 9: In Bethel, the New York Court of Appeals eliminated the higher duty of care that had previously been imposed on common carriers regarding “possible defects ‘in the road-bed, or machinery or in the construction of the cars, or … appliances such as would be likely to occasion great danger and loss of life.”.]

It is also “well settled that a common carrier ‘is under a duty to provide prospective passengers with a reasonably safe, direct entrance onto the vehicle, clear of any dangerous obstruction or defect which would impede that entrance.” Lim v. Parent, 176 F.Supp.2d 207, 209 (E.D.N.Y.2001) (“Under New  York law, which rejects a special rule of care for common carriers, including air carriers, the carrier must exercise reasonable care under all of the circumstances to ensure the safety of its passengers in boarding and alighting from the aircraft or other vehicle.”). For example, in Abraham v. Port Auth. of New York and New Jersey, 29 A.D.3d 345, 347, 815 N.Y.S.2d 38, 40 (1st Dep’t 2006), the court noted that even though a bus company did not own, and had no duty to maintain, the boarding platform, the bus operator nonetheless had a duty to “provide [passengers] with a reasonably safe passage onto the bus [and] should not place the passenger in a position where he or she must follow a dangerous path in order to board….” Id. It is thus clear that AirTran owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to ensure that Ms. Gunther would have the opportunity to safely board its aircraft.

In assessing the nature and scope of a carrier’s duty regarding entry to its vehicle, New York courts consider the availability of alternative routes of entry. See Blye 124 A.D.2d at 112, 511 N.Y.S.2d at 616 (finding no liability on part of defendant where plaintiff chose her own route to board the common carrier’s bus without direction from the carrier where at least one safe alternative was available); cf. Miller v. Fernan, 73 N.Y.2d 844, 844, 537 N.Y.S.2d 123, 123 (1988) (noting that a factual dispute over whether there was “any safe alternative route” affects the analysis of whether a plaintiff’s conduct can be an intervening and superseding cause of injury as a matter of law). Ms. Gunther clearly did not have an alternative route available when the time came for her to board her flight.

Finally, New York courts “recognize that while the existence of a duty involves scrutiny of the wrongfulness of a defendant’s action or inaction, it correspondingly necessitates an examination of an injured person’s reasonable expectation of the care owed and the basis for the expectation and the legal imposition of duty.” Palka, 83 N.Y.2d at 585, 611 N.Y.S.2d at 820; see Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 437, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49, 52 (1986)(stating the same). Once a passenger has given her ticket to an airport gate agent and begun to go down the jetway to board an aircraft, the passenger certainly has a reasonable expectation that the gate agents have observed the obvious conditions of both passenger and pathway and, at a minimum, considered whether the path presents a hazard for that passenger.

Lowrey v. Montgomery Kone, Inc., 42 P.3d 621 (Ariz. App. 2002):

The case will therefore be remanded, but a question remains: whether the trial court properly determined by partial summary judgment that Montgomery Kone should not be subjected under the common carrier doctrine to a higher-than-ordinary standard of care. Common carriers were traditionally said to have a duty to exercise the “utmost” or “the highest degree of care” in the maintenance and operation of their vehicles and equipment. See Bethel vNew York City Transit Auth., 92 N.Y.2d 348681 N.Y.S.2d 201703 N.E.2d 12141215 (1998). This doctrine dates back to “the age of steam railroads,” whose “primitive safety features resulted in a phenomenal growth in railroad accident injuries.” Id. at 1216. Rationales for the doctrine were (1) “the perceived ultrahazardous nature of the instrumentalities of public rapid transit,” and (2) passengers’ “total dependency upon [carriers] for safety precautions.” Id. at 1217.

Although passenger elevators have long been classified among the group of common carriers,7 some courts have distinguished elevator owners and operators from elevator maintenance contractors and have declined to apply the common carrier doctrine to the latter.8 We need not dwell on the validity of this distinction, however, for we resolve this issue on a more fundamental ground. We uphold the trial court’s refusal to apply the common carrier doctrine because we conclude that it adds no useful element to the ordinary negligence standard of reasonable care under the circumstances.

The New York Court of Appeals concluded in Bethel, after a thorough examination of the origins of the common carrier doctrine, that it retains no current viability. **627 *196 One underpinning from the steam railroad era—the perception that the instrumentalities of public transport were ultrahazardous—has been superseded, the court concluded, by more than a century of technological improvements and governmental regulation. 681 N.Y.S.2d 201703 N.E.2d at 1216. Moreover, the dangers in any given mode of transport are wholly accommodated, and the passenger’s dependence on the carrier for safety is likewise wholly accommodated, by the standard of reasonable care under the circumstances:

“The objective, reasonable person standard in basic traditional negligence theory ... necessarily takes into account the circumstances with which the actor was actually confronted ..., including the reasonably perceivable risk and gravity of harm to others and any special relationship of dependency between the victim and the actor. ‘The [reasonable person] standard provides sufficient flexibility, and leeway, to permit due allowance to be made ... for all of the particular circumstances of the case which may reasonably affect the conduct required.’Id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 283 cmt. c).

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals likewise recognized that the flexible standard of reasonable care under the circumstances accommodates whatever levels of care a particular set of dangers may require. Sebastian v. District of Columbia, 636 A.2d 958, 962 (D.C.1994). Indeed, that court noted, even when cases “speak[ ] of the high degree of care required of a common carrier,” such cases nonetheless subject common carriers “to essentially the same standard as any other alleged tortfeasor, i.e., an obligation to exercise due care.” Id.;9 see also McReynolds v. First Office Mgmt., 948 S.W.2d 342, 345 (Tex.Ct.App.1997) (rejecting notion that elevator owner/operator has duty to use anything greater than reasonable care to make the premises safe for use).

We find the reasoning of these cases persuasive. We also note that an attempt to explain the common carrier doctrine to a jury would be riddled with the prospect of confusion. A common carrier, like any other actor, must take reasonable care under the circumstances of the particular case. Just as the class of common carriers contains such disparate members as airplanes, taxis, horse-drawn carriages, and elevators, similarly the circumstances associated with each type of carrier entail disparate elements of reasonable care. To hold that a carrier must exert more than reasonable care under the circumstances not only serves no useful purpose; it is a hard concept to make sense of and one very likely to be misunderstood. We believe that the time has come to discard the notion that a common carrier bears a higher duty toward its passengers than that of reasonable care under all of the circumstances. As the Bethel court observed, “there is no stratification of degrees of care as a matter of law.... Rather, ‘there are only different amounts of care, as a matter of fact.’ ” 681 N.Y.S.2d 201703 N.E.2d at 1215 (quoting Prosser and Keeton, Law of Torts § 34, at 210–11 (5th ed 1984)).

VIA Metropolitan Transit v. Meck, 620 S.W.3d 356 (Tex 2020):

New York, for example, while recognizing that the common law imposed the higher negligence duty because of “the perceived ultrahazardous nature of the instrumentalities of public rapid transit” and the passengers’ “total dependency” on carriers “for safety precautions,” rejected the “stratification of degrees of care as a matter of law” in favor of “different amounts of care, as a matter of fact.” Bethel v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 92 N.Y.2d 348, 681 N.Y.S.2d 201, 703 N.E.2d 1214, 1215-17 (1998). The court reasoned that the higher negligence duty improperly invites the jury “to scrutinize the carrier’s conduct in an endeavor to find it defective” and is no longer required because, “through technological advances and intense governmental regulation, public conveyances … have become at least as safe as private modes of travel.” The court concluded that “the single, reasonable person standard is sufficiently flexible by itself to permit courts and juries fully to take into account the ultrahazardous nature of a tortfeasor’s activity.”

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