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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of Transportation Agency As Evidence Fails to Overcome Jerk and Jolt Doctrine

A recent case in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania involved the “jerk and jolt doctrine,” a phrase applicable to the movement of a trolley car involved in a passenger’s accident. The doctrine provides that there must be more than a jerk or jolt to a moving trolley car to establish negligence. The movement must be so unusual and extraordinary as to be beyond a passenger’s reasonable anticipation, or the manner or occurrence of the accident or effect on the plaintiff establishes the unusual character of the jolt.

The plaintiff in this negligence lawsuit, Ms. Bost-Pearson, brought a negligence action against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).

Ms. Post-Pearson and her two-year-old granddaughter boarded a SEPTA bus and sat in front-facing seats, approximately six rows behind the driver. In her complaint, Ms. Post-Pearson alleges that her bus driver suddenly and negligently jerked and jolted, accelerating and causing her to fall and suffer serious injuries.

The appeals court reviewed deposition testimony provided by Ms. Bost-Pearson. She testified that the driver swerved to avoid hitting prospective passengers waiting at the edge of the bus stop.  She testified that she was thrown from her seat due to the movement of the bus.   Two passengers helped her to her feet, and she exited the bus.

Ms. Bost-Pearson went to the emergency room for treatment of her injuries the following day. She also contacted SEPTA’s claims department. Ms. Bost-Pearson then sought treatment by an orthopedist, who concluded that her torn rotator cuff and spinal injuries were causally related to the bus incident.

After discovery and the completion of Ms. Bost-Pearson’s deposition, SEPTA filed a motion for summary judgment. They alleged that Ms. Bost-Pearson failed to establish that the bus moved in a manner to defeat the “jerk and jolt” doctrine. In support of their claim, SEPTA noted Ms. Bost-Pearson’s testimony that no other passengers screamed or shouted out during, or following, the alleged incident. Ms. Bost-Pearson’s granddaughter remained seated during the incident. SEPTA also noted that Ms. Bost-Pearson did not request immediate medical attention but continued to her destination. In sum, SEPTA claimed that the bus movement was an acceleration, and not extraordinary.

The court granted SEPTA’s summary judgment motion, and Ms. Bost-Pearson appealed.

Proceeding under the “jerk and jolt” doctrine, Ms. Bost-Pearson alleged that the abrupt nature of the driver’s actions caused her to fall, and that simply becoming unseated established the unusual and extraordinary nature of the bus’ movement. She also distinguished her case from standing passenger cases and pointed to the causation report issued by her orthopedist.

The court stated that to sustain a finding of negligence, there must be more than terms such as “sudden jerk” and “unusual jerk.” The use of the term “abrupt” is also not enough to prove negligence.

The court reviewed Ms. Bost-Pearson’s claim that she became unseated. They broadened the claim to consider whether the jerk had a disturbing effect on other passengers. Proof that the jerk had an effect on other passengers may result in a question for the jury. But Ms. Bost-Pearson did not present evidence that other passengers were affected.  The court also stated that evidence of her injury is not determinative of liability and cannot help to show the mechanics of the incident.

Finally, the court stated that, based on the report provided by the treating orthopedist, it cannot be concluded that the bus’ movement was unusual or extraordinary.  The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of SEPTA, granting their motion for summary judgment.

The personal injury attorneys at Needle Law, P.C. represent injured individuals, helping to secure compensation for their injuries. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 570-344-1266.

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