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Appeals Court Finds “Passenger” Was Not Really a Passenger

A “common carrier” is a person or company that furnishes transportation to the general public in exchange for money. Georgia law requires all common carriers, such as bus operators, to “exercise extraordinary diligence” to protect its passengers in order to avoid liability for negligence. This is a higher standard than applies in most negligence cases, where an owner need only demonstrate “ordinary care” in keeping his or her premises safe.

Recently, a divided Georgia Court of Appeals addressed the applicability of the “extraordinary diligence” standard in the case of a ticketed passenger who tripped and fell on her way to board a bus. A majority of the court found she was not actually a passenger at that point, and therefore could only pursue a claim under the “ordinary care” standard for premises liability—which, unfortunately, was not available to her because of procedural issues.

DeMott v. Old Town Trolley Tours of Savannah, Inc.

The common carrier in this case operated trolley-bus tours of Savannah. A woman purchased a ticket at a visitor’s center and walked across the parking lot to ask an employee where she would board the trolley. The employee directed her to go back across the parking lot to the visitor’s center. The parking lot contained numerous potholes. As the woman attempted to avoid one such pothole, the asphalt beneath her collapsed, and she fell.

This occurred in 2008. Georgia law requires a plaintiff to file a premises liability claim within two years of the alleged injury. Here, the woman sued the City of Savannah in 2010, operating under the erroneous belief the city owned the parking lot in question. In fact, the tour bus operator owned the lot. The plaintiff attempted to substitute the bus operator as the defendant, but the two-year statute of limitations expired before she could do so.

The plaintiff amended her complaint again, this time accusing the bus operator of breach of contract, invoking the “extraordinary diligence” requirement of Georgia law. The trial court rejected her claim and granted summary judgment to the bus operator.

In a 4-3 vote, a seven-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Judge Michael P. Boggs, writing for the majority, said “no carrier-passenger relationship existed” between the plaintiff and the bus operator at the time the plaintiff crossed the parking lot. If the plaintiff fell while attempting to board the trolley, that would be a breach of the contract of carriage. But since she fell in the parking lot, her claim fell under premises liability, and was barred by the statute of limitations.

Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes wrote the dissenting opinion. She said, since it was undisputed the plaintiff purchased a ticket—thereby creating a contract of carriage—a jury should decide whether the tour bus company’s “extraordinary diligence” duty began when the plaintiff crossed the parking lot. Judge Barnes said, “the record is unclear” as to where the plaintiff actually fell in relation to the trolley.