A Common Carrier’s Duty to Its Passengers Under New Jersey Law
In New Jersey, a common carrier is a bus, train, taxicab, and/or other vehicle similarly engaged in public transportation. When determining whether a common carrier is negligent, the standard is higher than the typical negligence standard in New Jersey. Generally, negligence is found when a party has failed to exercise the degree of care for the safety of others which a person of ordinary prudence would have exercised under similar circumstances. (New Jersey Civil Jury Charge 5.10A).
New Jersey requires that common carriers use the utmost caution to protect their passengers. The degree of caution is defined as that of a very careful and prudent person. (New Jersey Civil Jury Charge 5.73).
The New Jersey Supreme Court discussed this duty in its decision, Harpell v. Public Service Coordinated Transport, 20 N.J. 309 (1956). There, a passenger claimed personal injuries when a boy threw a rock through a trolley window and struck the plaintiff. Evidence produced during discovery revealed that the windows were equipped with outside metal screens extending halfway up the window. However, there was also evidence that the common carrier had prior knowledge of seventeen similar occurrences along that particular route during the five years which preceded the accident.
In Harpell, the Court observed that,
The defendant carrier could not absolve itself of the duty of care to its passengers, commensurate with the known increasing danger, by reporting to the local police the notorious repetitive acts of violence directly menacing passengers’ security. And while one acting in a sudden emergency may be left no time for thought, and so cannot weigh alternative courses of action, but must make a speedy decision, which will be based very largely upon impulse or instinct, the conduct required is still that which is reasonable under the circumstances; his own judgment or impulse is still not the sole discretion, and he may still be negligent if his acts are unreasonable… Id. at 317.
Accordingly, the Court opined that “it was the exclusive function of the jury to assess the circumstances in the context of the carrier’s duty of care commensurate with the risk of harm, known or reasonably to be anticipated.” Id. at 317-18.
New Jersey courts have determined that this duty extends to protecting passengers against acts of fellow passengers and third parties; sudden stops or jerks; and overcrowding. See Harpell, Gaglio v. Yellow Cab Co., 63 N.J. Super. 206, 209 (App. Div. 1960), and Miller v. Public Serv. Coord. Transp., 7 N.J. 185, 187-188 (1951). In each of these situations, a common carrier is required to exercise a high degree of care to protect its passengers from known or reasonably foreseeable dangers arising from such acts.
Common carrier negligence cases are fact-sensitive in nature. For example, in 1961, the New Jersey Supreme Court was presented with another case where a plaintiff passenger was injured when a rock was thrown into a bus. Melicharek v. Hill Bus Co., 37 N.J. 529 (1962). Discovery in that case did not reveal that the common carrier knew of the existence of this danger to its passengers. Namely, it was unware of a history of kids throwing stones or similar objects into its buses in the area of the accident. Therefore, based upon the lack of evidence, the Court concluded that there was no factual issue and that the proofs were inadequate to establish a jury question. Id. at 550.