Defendant Seeks to Limit its Liability as a Matter of Law
Does the duty of a tour bus operator to provide its passengers a reasonably safe discharge include a duty to drop passengers off at a location where they have a safe path to the front door of their destination? Or, is the duty limited to dropping passengers off in a nearby parking lot, without considering their path to the destination?
VIP Tour and Charter Bus Company filed a motion for summary judgment asking the Maine Superior Court to decide this very issue, as a matter of law, in a lawsuit brought by passenger June Rickett. Ms. Rickett was seriously injured when she tripped and fell in an unlit staircase walking between a parking lot where a VIP tour bus had dropped off her tour group, and the restaurant designated as the first stop on their tour.
After reviewing briefs from all the parties—including plaintiff June Rickett’s attorneys Jim O’Connell and Alicia Curtis—the Court denied VIP’s motion. More than a procedural victory in the case, the order limits a defendant’s ability to avoid liability on summary judgment by asking a court to define the scope of a defendant’s duty so narrowly it excludes the defendant’s actions and omissions. As Justice O’Neil noted in his May 13, 2022, decision: parties “seeking to avoid liability often attempt to gerrymander themselves out of a duty by narrowly defining the duty owed so that it does not encompass them.”
Scope of Defendant’s Duty is Defined by Jury, Case by Case
Justice O’Neil’s decision rebuffed that strategy, which effectively asks a court to decide, as a matter of law, whether a defendant breached the duty of care. Instead, he emphasized the flexible and general nature of a duty of care, which depends on the factual circumstances. A court may decide, as a matter of law, whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a particular plaintiff. But having established that VIP, as a common carrier, owed a duty of care to Ms. Rickett, its passenger, the Court refused “to contour VIP’s duty to fit the specific factual circumstances before it.” Attorneys O’Connell and Curtis’s brief helped guide the Court to this important decision, which affirms the jury’s central role in deciding fact-bound issues such as the scope of a defendant’s duty and whether that duty was breached.
Vacationland Safer for Travelers
In a related decision on VIP’s cross-claim for contribution against the organizer of Ms. Rickett’s tour, Justice O’Neil issued an order clarifying the duty of care owed by a travel agent or tour group organizer to travelers. The tour group organizer filed a motion for summary judgment asserting she owed no duty to Ms. Rickett. Justice O’Neil noted the lack of any case law imposing a distinct duty of care on travel agents or trip coordinators. He went on to conclude the tour group organizer owed a general tort duty of care to Ms. Rickett—a duty “of reasonable conduct in the light of the apparent risk.” Because the facts in VIP’s summary judgment record failed to establish a prima facie case that the trip organizer breached that duty of care, Justice O’Neil granted the trip organizer’s motion for summary judgment, ending VIP’s cross-claim. The decision makes Vacationland safer for travelers and tour group participants by establishing that a travel agent or tour group operator does owe travelers a duty to act reasonably in performing their duties.