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Niah Martin v. Southeastern Pennsylvania

June 28, 2012

NIAH MARTIN, APPELLANT
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY



Per curiam.

ORDER AND NOW, this 28th day of June, 2012, it is ordered that the above-captioned opinion filed on April 2, 2012, shall be designated OPINION, rather than MEMORANDUM OPINION, and it shall be reported.

IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Niah Martin, : Appellant : v. Southeastern Pennsylvania : Transportation Authority :

No. 472 C.D. 2011

Argued: February 14, 2012

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE SIMPSON

FILED: April 2, 2012

In this negligence action involving injuries sustained by a passenger on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bus, appellant Niah Martin (Plaintiff) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court)*fn1 that granted SEPTA‟s motion for summary judgment. The trial court determined Plaintiff‟s evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to her, failed to establish facts sufficient to meet the threshold requirements for recovery under the "jerk and jolt" doctrine. Plaintiff contends that in granting summary judgment the trial court: erred in disregarding a reasonable inference from Plaintiff‟s testimony that she fell because the bus abruptly accelerated and then unexpectedly stopped; and, erred in applying the jerk and jolt doctrine where Plaintiff testified she fell as a result of two jerks (a rapid acceleration followed by a sudden deceleration). Upon review, we affirm.

I. Background

In December 2007, Plaintiff boarded a SEPTA bus at the intersection of Wayne Avenue and School House Lane in Philadelphia. The only standing passenger, Plaintiff began walking down the aisle when the bus suddenly accelerated and then stopped, causing her to fall before she got to the center doors. Paramedics transported Plaintiff to a hospital emergency room for treatment of head, neck and back injuries. Plaintiff‟s head and neck injuries eventually resolved, but her back injuries persisted.

In 2009, Plaintiff commenced her negligence action by writ of summons. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging SEPTA‟s negligent operation of the bus caused her fall, which resulted in substantial injuries, including head, neck and back injuries. Plaintiff‟s claim for damages fell within the $50,000 arbitration limit. A board of arbitrators ultimately awarded Plaintiff $20,000 in damages.

Plaintiff appealed the arbitrators‟ award and requested a jury trial. Following discovery, SEPTA filed a motion for summary judgment. SEPTA urged that Plaintiff‟s deposition testimony that the bus suddenly jerked, standing alone, was insufficient to establish negligence on the part of a transit authority. Given the absence of evidence of a truly unusual or extraordinary jerk or jolt, or evidence other passengers were affected in extraordinary or unreasonable ways, SEPTA sought judgment as a matter of law pursuant to the "jerk and jolt" doctrine. See Connolly v. Phila. Transp. Co., 420 Pa. 280, 216 A.2d 60 (1966) (to recover under the jerk and jolt doctrine, a bus passenger must establish that the jerk or jolt was so unusual or extraordinary as to be beyond a passenger‟s reasonable anticipation, or that the jerk or jolt had an extraordinarily disturbing effect on other passengers); Meussner v. Port Auth. of Allegheny County, 745 A.2d 719 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000) (same). Here, SEPTA asserted, Plaintiff proffered no evidence to establish that any movement of the bus was so unusual or extraordinary as to exceed a passenger‟s reasonable anticipation. Further, Plaintiff provided no evidence that the movement of the bus disturbed any other passengers.

Ultimately, the trial court granted SEPTA‟s motion for summary judgment. In an opinion in support of its order, the trial court recognized there are two ways to show that a jerk or stop was so unusual and extraordinary as to exceed a passenger‟s reasonable anticipation: (1) the jerk or jolt had an extraordinarily disturbing effect on other passengers or, (2) the manner of occurrence of the accident or its effect upon the plaintiff inherently established the unusual or extraordinary character of the jerk or jolt. Connolly; Meussner.

The trial court also rejected Plaintiff‟s argument that the facts in the present case were similar to those in Buzzelli v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, 674 A.2d 1186 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996), where this Court determined the plaintiff met her threshold burden of proof under the jerk and jolt doctrine. In Buzzelli, the plaintiff, one of many standing passengers on a crowded bus, fell and suffered injuries when the bus suddenly stopped. The plaintiff testified the bus accelerated away from the bus stop at an excessive rate of speed; she estimated the bus accelerated to approximately 35 to 40 miles per hour (mph) in a 25 mph zone. The driver then suddenly slammed on the brakes. The sudden stop sent a crush of other standing passengers forward into plaintiff. Although the plaintiff held onto a seatback railing while standing, the crush of other passengers knocked her down.

Here, the trial court, in distinguishing Buzzelli, reasoned (with emphasis added):

Plaintiff argues that the instant case does not fit within the "jerk and jolt‟ case law doctrine because Plaintiff attributes her fall to more than "a mere acceleration,‟ but also a deceleration or sudden stopping of the bus. Plaintiff cites [Buzzelli] to suggest that . her testimony of an unusually hard stop is enough that would require the carrier to explain the hard stop; and, given all the facts, was sufficient to meet the threshold requirements under the "jerk or jolt‟ doctrine. Buzzelli, 674 A.2d at 1190. This Court does not agree.

Plaintiff‟s reliance on Buzzelli is misplaced. In Buzzelli, passengers were thrown forward, unable to control their movement, and with such force to knock a passenger holding a railing off her feet. Also, in Buzzelli, [the plaintiff] presented evidence of the bus travelling at an excessive rate of speed prior to breaking. In the instant case, Plaintiff was the only person to fall. Plaintiff does not know of any other passengers that were jostled. Plaintiff does not know how fast the bus was travelling at the time, and cannot even say she was holding onto anything at the time she fell. The facts of this case, even when taken in a light most favorable to

[P]laintiff, do not establish negligence. There is no evidence that anything outside of the ordinary happened besides [P]laintiff loosing [sic] her balance while standing on a bus as it was pulling away from a stop. Clearly, Summary Judgment in favor of SEPTA.

Tr. Ct., Slip. Op., 04/20/11, at 4-5. ...


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