We all know that TriMet has its issues, but this one is relatively novel: a driver in Cornelius was charged with DUII last week after “callers reported the bus was swerving” as it headed east on Southwest Baseline Road. The swerving was so bad that it forced another vehicle out of its lane as the bus headed toward Hillsboro, according to The Oregonian, citing a Washington County Sheriff’s Office report.
“No one was on the bus, and the bus was not in service,” according to the newspaper, but those may be the only ‘good’ elements of this story. To state the obvious, even an empty bus can do a lot of damage.
The Oregonian reports that TriMet has opened an investigation. After her arrest the driver “was accused of DUII, but police said alcohol was not a factor. It’s unclear what she was allegedly under the influence of. According to the (police news) release, police are continuing to investigate while toxicology tests are completed,” the newspaper notes.
There is a lot that we still do not know about this accident. Even so, some of the legal issues involved can already be identified.
First, and most importantly: even though there were no passengers on the bus, the driver appears to have been on company time. According to The Oregonian she stopped the bus (and was subsequently arrested) when the company contacted her directly. That would mean the incident took place within the course and scope of her job and raises significant questions about TruMet’s liability (if she was not on company time that would not release TriMet from liability issues. We would need to start by asking the question: how was this person able to drive away with a bus while off-duty?). Any legal proceeding will need to look into both the driver’s work and driving history and to ask whether the company really did its due diligence before she was hired. Were there danger signs that should have been spotted earlier?
What is most troubling, however, is the gap between the damage this driver might have done and the redress that would be available to her victims. Because TriMet is a government agency, claims against it are limited under the Oregon Tort Claims Act (specifically ORS 30.269). Had someone died in this incident the maximum amount that survivors could claim in damages would have been just $727,200. Had there been multiple victims, state law would have limited the total damages among all claimants to just under $1.5 million. Claims for property damage would be capped at $119,300 for an individual or a shared pool of $596,400 if there were more than one victim.
Had the bus driver seriously injured someone in a way requiring long-term care these figures would barely cover the first few weeks in a hospital. As a Portland attorney who specializes in helping victims and their families, I can only hope that this incident will spur our lawmakers to reexamine the unreasonably small limits placed on government liability. There is no excuse for protecting government in this way, and insulating irresponsible employees from the consequences of their own actions.
The Oregonian: TriMet bus driver arrested, accused of DUII in Hillsboro
Oregon Judicial Department: Oregon Tort Claims Act liability limits