30 Jan, 2024

What Is a Common Carrier Accident?

Author Todd A. Strong
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Common Carrier Liability for Accidents and Injuries

Examples of common carriers include commercial vehicles such as buses, taxicabs, rideshare vehicles, and trucks, as well as passenger trains, commercial airplanes, and cruise ships. Common carriers are held to a high standard of care for the people and property they transport by the federal government. When common carrier accidents occur, drivers and the companies they work for may be held liable if the four elements of negligence can be proven.

Common carrier liability only covers accidents that occur when the employee is on the clock. The company is also only liable for injuries suffered by passengers as a result of a carrier’s negligence. Companies and drivers are not responsible for injuries that happen due to causes that are out of their control.

Regulatory Standards

Some common carriers, such as passenger planes and trains, operate under the authority of a regulatory body that sets standards for passenger safety and other passenger concerns. By law, commercial airlines must adhere to regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

When regulatory standards apply, failing to warn passengers about a dangerous condition can expose carriers to legal action for accidents and resulting passenger injuries. For example, if a pilot fails to warn passengers of turbulence by failing to turn on the fasten seat belt warning, the airline may face common carrier liability for a passenger’s injuries. 

If a passenger isn’t warned of danger, common carrier liability comes down to whether a reasonably careful operator would or should have known about the dangerous condition. Commercial airlines and trains may be sued for injuries caused by failing to exercise reasonable care and diligence to protect passengers or violating federal violations. Exercising reasonable care is a key factor in commercial carrier injury cases.

Rules and regulations that govern common carriers can vary. When carriers transport passengers or cargo across state lines, federal regulations usually apply. Public transportation carriers like buses, taxicabs, limousines, and rideshare carriers are typically regulated by state laws. Public transportation carriers have a duty to warn passengers of known dangers that exist in the type of transportation they operate. For example, buses must warn passengers of possible injury from standing in an aisle while the bus is moving. However, if a passenger can reasonably see that injury may occur, the carrier may not be liable or may be only partially liable for accidents and injuries.

Commercial airlines, passenger trains, and cruise ships often limit their liability for personal property loss. Personal property is protected to some extent when a passenger purchases a ticket or enters into a contract for transportation. In most cases, property loss can be recovered, but only to a limited dollar amount. Airlines, trains, and cruise ships usually limit their liability for lost or damaged items. A passenger who loses his or her camera, smartphone, luggage, jewelry, items of clothing, or laptop computer will likely only recover a flat monetary fee or partial cost of the property, rather than full replacement value.

Filing an Injury Claim After a Common Carrier Accident

When a passenger is injured in a common carrier accident, he or she must prove that the company or operator was negligent, and that injuries resulted from that negligence. If a bus passenger falls when the bus swerves to avoid a pedestrian or stops suddenly when a child runs into the street, this does not constitute driver negligence. However, if the bus driver is intoxicated or talking on a cell phone or to a passenger when an accident occurs, the driver may be found negligent and be held responsible for passenger injuries.

Common carriers typically respond quickly to accidents that involve passengers. However, drivers or passengers injured in other vehicles may find that the legal process is delayed because they have to fight large companies.

Because public transportation companies are regulated by federal or state agencies, special laws apply to claims brought against them. The statute of limitations for these injury claims may differ from other types of injury claims, and deadlines can vary from state to state. A lawyer experienced in common carrier accidents can help advise of deadlines after reviewing your claim. In addition, most states have caps or limits for injury claims against state or municipal agencies.

Important Evidence in Common Carrier Cases

Besides getting an answer to the question, “what is a common carrier accident?” it’s important to know what information could help support your injury claim or lawsuit. Although statistics show that common carrier accidents occur less frequently than passenger vehicle accidents, common carrier accidents are usually catastrophic. When you’re injured in a common carrier accident, you’ll likely be going up against large companies or entities that will perform their independent investigations to prove liability.

The carrier’s representatives or insurance adjusters will be looking for information that can reduce or eliminate the carrier’s responsibility to pay an injury claim. The evidence you and your personal injury lawyer collect will be key in showing the common carrier’s liability for your accident and injuries. 

Below are some pieces of evidence that can be used to help prove your claim.

Medical Documentation

Medical documentation provides a solid foundation for your injury claim. When proving your common carrier injury case, you must show that you were injured and took reasonable steps to get the medical care needed to mitigate your damages. Accident victims should seek medical attention and document your treatment following a common carrier accident, even if there are no immediate signs of an injury. Get all the recommended tests done, follow the doctor’s treatment plan, and attend all follow-up appointments. Photos of your injuries during different stages of your treatment and healing also help show the extent of your damages.

Electronic Evidence

Common carriers typically come with black boxes or event data recorders. Data collected by these devices at the time of the crash, such as the time of impact, speed, and brake application, can help establish what caused the accident.

Inspection and Maintenance Records

A common carrier’s safety and maintenance records can help determine the cause of the accident. You and your lawyer can review the information to establish if a prior repair problem led to the accident. Common carriers have a duty to include inspection and maintenance in their regular operations. Failure to maintain vehicles is an example of common carrier negligence.

For example, inspection records may show that a plane needed new landing gear installed. The carrier could be liable for injuries sustained if the existing gear fails. Manufacturers and maintenance companies or experts can also be held responsible after common carrier accidents related to mechanical problems.

Expert Testimony

Expert witnesses, like accident reconstruction specialists, engineers, and air traffic experts, help show how a common carrier’s negligence led to an accident.

Eyewitness Testimony

Witnesses can provide a firsthand account of what they saw before or during the accident, making it easier to establish common carrier liability. For example, another passenger may have seen the driver sneakily drinking alcohol before the accident. Taking down the names and contact information of witnesses at the crash scene is crucial.

Negligence Per Se

Negligence per se occurs when an action violates a statute or regulation. You can prove a common carrier was negligent per se if the carrier didn’t follow rules or regulations and you sustained injuries as a result.


Photographs of the accident scene and the common carrier can show the carrier’s negligence. For example, the carrier may have lacked safety equipment or signage to warn passengers.

Driver Records

The driver’s records can also help determine liability. They reveal the driver’s qualifications, disciplinary records, drug and alcohol tests, working hours, and duration of rest. You could hold the carrier liable if it assigns the driver too many working hours, making him or her prone to fatigue and distracted driving.

About The Author

Photo of Todd A. Strong
Illinois workers’ compensation and personal injury lawyer Todd A. Strong is the founder of Strong Law Offices in Peoria, Illinois. Todd brings considerable legal knowledge, experience, and skill to the table to ensure injured victims throughout the state are treated with respect, dignity, and fairness.