In May 2011, a bus traveling from Charlotte, North Carolina to New York City swerved off Interstate 85 approximately 30 miles north of Richmond, Virginia. The bus hit an embankment and overturned. Consequently, four passengers died and several dozen more were hospitalized with injuries.
The bus company was a discount operator with a long history of accidents due to unsafe driver behavior. According to news reports at the time, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration cited the operator “for 17 unsafe-driving violations” in the two years prior to the fatal Virginia accident. The FMCSA shut down the operator immediately after the accident.
Chhetri v. United States
Some of the accident victims said the FMCSA did not do everything in its power to protect riders. Two of the injured passengers sued the United States government in Atlanta federal court. They alleged FMCSA officials, specifically those in the agency’s Atlanta office, should have shut down the bus operator weeks before the accident.
Suing the federal government is never an easy task. The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allows individuals to sue the federal government under state tort law under very limited circumstances. The FTCA is designed to hold government officials to the same liability standards as other people. However, the FTCA does not apply when officials exercise a “discretionary function.”
In this case, the victims said that the month before the accident, the FMCSA notified the operator it was about to receive an “unsatisfactory” safety rating, which would legally require the carrier to cease transporting passengers within 45 days. Following a series of communications between the carrier and the Atlanta officials, the FMCSA granted a 10-day extension to continue operating while it addressed safety issues. It was during this extension period that the Virginia accident occurred.
Unfortunately for the victims, the courts held the decision to grant the 10-day extension fell within the “discretionary function” exception to the FTCA. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, affirming a Georgia trial court’s earlier decision to dismiss the accident victims’ lawsuit, said federal regulations clearly granted the FMCSA discretion over whether or not to grant an extension. The victims argued the officials failed to follow their own rules. Essentially, they alleged the carrier was not legally entitled to an extension because it had not “expressly [stated] in writing that its operations were currently in compliance.”
The 11th Circuit said that did not matter. The court said it would not second-guess the agency’s actions and “[erect] by judicial fiat yet another set of administrative hoops that FMCSA officials must assiduously jump through before they could even begin to consider exercising” their authority under the law. The 11th Circuit added that its sister court, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, dismissed a “virtually identical case” last year against the FMCSA on similar legal grounds.
All that said, the 11th Circuit’s decision does not exonerate the FMCSA’s conduct. The court merely held it lacked jurisdiction to hear the victims’ lawsuit under the FTCA. It should be noted the FMCSA rescinded its 10-day extension rule a few months after the Virginia accident.