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Court dismisses claims against Sunflower Express in bus accident case. Yao v. World Wide Travel of Greater N.Y. Ltd. 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 32473 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2018)

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In a complex multi-party legal case, plaintiffs sought damages from Sunflower Express, Webster Trucking Corp., and Joshua Alphonso Reid, stemming from a devastating bus accident.

Background Facts
On March 12, 2011, a devastating accident occurred on Interstate 95 in the Bronx, New York. A bus, driven by Ophadell Williams, was returning to Manhattan’s Chinatown from Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. While carrying 32 passengers, the bus veered off the southbound lanes around 5:39 a.m., collided with a guardrail, overturned, and was impaled by a sign pole, resulting in 15 fatalities and numerous injuries. Investigations were conducted by the New York State Police, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Bronx County District Attorney, which led to Williams facing charges of manslaughter and assault, although he was ultimately acquitted.

Lawsuits for negligence and wrongful death ensued against multiple parties, including Williams, the bus’s owning and operating companies, World Wide Travel of Greater New York LTD and World Wide Tours of Greater New York, and Sunflower, a contractor responsible for selling bus tickets. These legal actions claimed that Sunflower, which also provided a tour guide, should bear some responsibility, despite their role being limited to ticket sales.

Additionally, the New York Litigation Coordinating Panel consolidated related personal injury actions under a single case, Yao v World Wide Travel of Greater New York Ltd. Additional claims were made against Webster Trucking Corp. and Joshua Alphonso Reid, asserting that a truck owned by Webster and driven by Reid had struck or cut off the bus, triggering the catastrophic events. These matters are currently under judicial review.

Issue
Whether Sunflower Express could be held liable for the actions of the bus driver or the bus company, given that it only sold tickets and did not operate or own the bus. Additional questions were raised regarding the potential negligence of Webster Trucking Corp. and driver Joshua Alphonso Reid, who were alleged to have caused the accident.

Holding
The court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants, dismissing all claims against them. It ruled that Sunflower Express could not be held liable as it did not have operational control over the bus and merely acted as a ticket agent. Similarly, the claims against Webster Trucking Corp. and Joshua Alphonso Reid were dismissed, with the court finding no credible evidence to support the claim that Reid’s actions contributed to the accident.

Rationale
The court’s rationale was based on several key points. Sunflower Express had no direct involvement in the operation of the bus.¬†Sunflower Express was a company contracted by Mohegan Sun Casino to sell round-trip bus tickets for travel between Manhattan’s Chinatown and the casino. The tickets were offered at a nominal fare of $10, making the trips accessible and popular among the casino’s visitors. As part of its services, Sunflower also provided a “tour guide” who accompanied the passengers on their bus trips to and from the casino. Plaintiffs argued that Sunflower, by selling the tickets and providing a tour guide, assumed some responsibilities that might contribute to their liability for the accident. The key legal question was whether Sunflower could be held accountable for the negligence of the bus driver or the bus company, World Wide Travel, since Sunflower was involved only in ticket sales and not in the actual operation or maintenance of the bus. The plaintiffs suggested that Sunflower could be vicariously liable or had assumed a duty of care that was breached, thereby contributing to the unsafe conditions leading to the accident. The legal principle that a booking agent cannot be held liable for the negligent acts of independent contractors applied here, absolving Sunflower of liability.

As for Webster and Reid, there was extensive evidence, including eyewitness accounts and data from the bus’s black box, indicated that the bus accident resulted solely from the driver’s actions, not from any interaction with Webster’s truck. The physical and digital evidence demonstrated that the bus was not cut off as claimed by Williams.

Conclusion
If you or someone you know has been involved in a bus accident, immediately contact an experienced New York bus accident lawyer who can provide guidance to help ensure that your rights are protected and that you receive the compensation you deserve. For knowledgeable legal counsel, contact Stephen Bilkis & Associates today.

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