The number of party bus carriers nationwide has skyrocketed in recent years. In California alone, it has more than doubled.
Party buses are commercial vehicles used to host celebrations such as birthday parties, graduations, proms, and other special occasions. Many are open-air double-decker buses, outfitted with live music, dance floors, special lighting, and more. These buses are not necessarily used to transport passengers from one place to another, but rather to drive party-goers around over the span of several hours, without any destination.
In recent years, the industry has been faced with safety concerns because of the irresponsibility of some passengers and operators. Even though the bus company typically can’t provide or serve alcohol, depending on state laws, passengers can bring alcohol and consume alcohol during the ride. This has created an environment where underage and irresponsible drinking has occurred. Additionally, there has been little regulation of the party bus industry. Some companies have clear guidelines requiring all riders to wear seatbelts as well as adult or parental supervision; others lack any policies at all, sacrificing safety of passengers to promote a fun and exciting environment. The lack of safety has become all too common, resulting in party bus accidents that have claimed more than 20 lives. When this happens, the bus company and its drivers can be held liable.
A group of teens were participating in a “Sweet 16” birthday party on July 10, 2014. The group went on a 4-hour open-air double decker tour bus ride around the South Bay. On the tour’s return, the teens were on the upper deck listening to music and dancing when the 14-foot tall bus passed under a 15-foot, 1-inch tall overpass near the San Diego Freeway. The bus driver was traveling at 60 mph when the back of one teen’s head hit the overpass. Although it appeared the 16-year-old young man suffered only a bump on the head, he immediately lost consciousness from a severe brain injury and never woke up. He died two days later.
The parents of the deceased teen filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the tour bus company, the bus driver, and the parents of the birthday girl. The suit alleged the tour bus and driver were negligent in failing to warn passengers of potential dangers when passing under overpasses and bridges. The suit also alleged that the adults on board — a bus driver, tour guide and the birthday girl’s parents — ignored safety precautions to protect the 35 teenagers on board, like telling them to sit down and put on seat belts. The lawsuit claimed, that instead, the teens were provided vodka by the birthday girl’s mother and the bus employees allowed them to drink and dance upstairs while traveling along the freeway.
Both the bus driver and the tour guide pointed the finger at each other, saying the other was supposed to provide safety instructions to the passengers. Both men also stated that they had never received safety training by tour company, Starline Tours. Starline’s defense team argued the teen was to blame for poor judgment and underage drinking, and the birthday girl’s parents were to blame for providing alcohol to the teens and not supervising them.
The plaintiff’s attorney clinched the case with testimony from a woman who was also injured while riding on a Starline Tour bus. On October 26, 2013, while standing on the upper deck during a Halloween party, the woman was hit with a tree branch, suffering a fractured eye socket. The attorney for plaintiff’s in the 2014 case argued that the teen died because Starline did nothing after the 2013 incident to improve safety.
The jury in the 2014 case found the bus company 70 percent at fault; the birthday girl’s parents 25 percent to blame; and the deceased teen 5 percent responsible. The family was awarded $26 million, an amount believed to be the largest jury verdict ever awarded in California for the wrongful death of a minor. The teen’s mom said the money cannot bring her son back, so she and her family plan to put it to use by helping to change laws to improve bus safety, including improving hiring practices and background checks for employees, creating laws mandating the use of seat belts, and improving overall safe driving procedures.
Following this recover, there have been positive changes implemented to improve safety on party buses.
- A California law went into effect in late 2013 that prohibits underage drinking on party buses. It makes the driver and its carrier responsible for communicating this to the passengers. If there are passengers under 21 on the bus and alcohol is being transported, the new law requires that a designated adult 25 or older be present. The adult is responsible for making sure the law is complied with and ensuring the safety of the underage passengers.
- Starline no longer allows alcohol on its buses at any time, has placed stickers on buses warning passengers to stay seated, and requires security guards to work on the top deck of every bus.
In recent years, many states nationwide have also begun to regulate the party bus industry, with some considerations:
- Legally defining a party bus
- Requiring a special driver’s license
- Requiring a chaperone for underage riders
- Installing a warning system to alert the driver when a door, window or hatch has been opened
- Prohibiting the use of double-decker party buses by private operators
- Prohibiting open-air double-decker buses from being driven on freeways
- Altering party bus height restrictions
Despite laws, tour buses should always put safety first – not after a tragedy occurs. And, everyone should err on the side of caution and choose to celebrate responsibly. Lawsuit Financial is all about celebrating those special occasions, but don’t let your night around the city turn into a night of tragedy.
Experienced attorney, lawsuit funding expert, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. The series consists of "Betrayal of Faith", "Betrayal of Justice", and "Betrayal in Blue", with a fourth book due out in 2019. You can learn more about these topical political, legal thrillers at markmbello.com. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.