Case Bulletin – Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Vacates $250,000 Verdict Based on the “Jerk and Jolt” Doctrine
On October 28, 2015, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania vacated a $250,000 jury verdict, instead ruling in favor of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (“SEPTA”), Philadelphia’s public transportation system. Green v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., No. 65 CD 2015 (Pa. Commw. 2015), slip op. at 1. On Saturday, February 2, 2013 at approximately 8:00 am, George Green and his wife boarded the Route G bus on 58th Street and Chester Avenue. Both paid their fares and were walking to find seats when “the bus driver suddenly jammed the brakes causing [Green’s] body to swing backwards.” Id. at 1-2. Green grabbed a pole, which caused his body to twist, and he tore his rotator cuff ultimately requiring shoulder surgery. No reason was given for why the driver applied the brakes so abruptly. Both Green and his wife testified that other passengers gasped when the bus was braking. The jury found SEPTA negligent and awarded Plaintiff $250,000.
The Commonwealth Court vacated the verdict, citing the “jerk and jolt” doctrine, which provides the standard for establishing negligence against a common carrier as follows:
A common carrier for hire, although not an insurer, owes to its passengers the highest degree of care. … ‘It is well established by a long line of decisions that testimony indicating that a moving trolley car jerked suddenly or violently is not sufficient, of itself, to establish negligence in its operation. There must be a showing of additional facts and circumstances from which it clearly appears that the movement of the car was so unusual and extraordinary as to be beyond a passenger’s reasonable anticipation, and nothing short of evidence that the allegedly unusual movement had an extraordinarily disturbing effect upon other passengers, or evidence of an accident, the manner of the occurrence of which or the effect of which upon the injured person inherently establishes the unusual character of the jolt or jerk, will suffice.’
Id. at 2 (citing Connolly v. Phila. Transp. Co., 216 A.2d 60, 62 (Pa. 1966) (internal citation omitted)). Pennsylvania courts define a common carrier as “one who holds himself out to the public as engaged in the business of transportation of persons or property from place to place for compensation, offering his services to the public generally.” Id. at 11 (citing Lynch v. McStome & Lincoln Plaza Assocs., 548 A.2d 1276, 1279 (Pa. Super. 1997)). The court held that this definition includes public utilities, such as SEPTA. Id. at 12 n. 9.
The mere happening of an accident does not establish negligence. Instead, the standard requires that the Plaintiff establish the movement of the car was unusual and extraordinary. The court cited its own previous opinion that “[c]ases unquestionably have characterized quite substantial jolts as being not unusual.” Id. at 18 (citing Buzzelli v. Port Auth. Of Allegheny Cnty., 674 A.2d 1186, 1189 (Pa. Commw. 1996)). The court went through previous case law and listed certain examples that would qualify as unusual and extraordinary movement, such as evidence of (1) driving at an excessive speed, (2) an unusual stop, and/or (3) other passengers being thrown into a plaintiff, knocking him down. Id. at 20. The nature and extent of a plaintiff’s injuries may not be used to demonstrate the extraordinary and exceptional nature of a jerk and jolt. Id. at 21 n. 12.
This opinion affirms Pennsylvania’s application of the Jerk and Jolt doctrine, and it provides insight into what forms of evidence may be necessary to establish a claim for negligence against a common carrier in the future.