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While United Airlines is facing major heat for kicking passengers off flights, Scott Self’s bus company client got sued for allowing one to board—namely, a paranoid meth user who screamed “Everybody’s going to die!” before grabbing the wheel from the bus driver and causing a crash that injured several people.
And Self recently convinced Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals that a lawsuit filed against Greyhound Lines by three injured passengers should be dismissed because there was no proof that the company or its driver could have foreseen the criminal actions of a third party.
The background to his victory in Garren v. Greyhound Lines is as follows, according to the Fifth Court’s decision:
Maquel Morris boarded a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles with his girlfriend. She said Morris had been using methamphetamines, had been awake for a couple of days and thought someone was trying to kill him.
At a stop en route to Phoenix, Morris’ girlfriend was confronted by a Greyhound employee who noticed Morris’ strange behavior and asked if he was OK and that if he was not, Morris would not be allowed to reboard. The girlfriend told the employee, “I got him and he’s going to be fine.”
A passenger later complained to bus driver Ray Anthony Cunningham that Morris was talking about someone trying to kill him and arguing with his girlfriend. Cunningham also spoke with the girlfriend who assured him that they were going to be “okay.”
Morris later “moved like a cheetah up the aisle,” screaming “Everybody’s going to die” before breaking through the door to the driver’s compartment and grabbing the steering wheel from Cunningham, causing the bus to leave the highway and enter a median before coming to a stop.
Several passengers were injured, including Sunny Garren, Jacoby Seabourn and Christopher Jones, and sued Greyhound and Cunningham, claiming they were negligent and grossly negligent for failing to protect them from Morris’ criminal acts.
A trial court later dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against Greyhound and Cunningham on summary judgment. The plaintiffs later appealed that decision to the Fifth Court, arguing that Greyhound owed its passengers a heightened duty to protect them from violence perpetrated by another passenger.
In its decision, the Fifth Court noted that it’s well-settled law in Texas that property owners have no legal duty to protect persons from the criminal acts of a third party. But property owners do have that legal duty if they know of a foreseeable risk of harm to their invitee, the court wrote.
But the Fifth Court ultimately concluded that there was no one on the bus, including any Greyhound employee or any passenger, who perceived Morris as exhibiting behavior that posed an imminent threat before his attack.
“Morris did not exhibit hostile behavior until suddenly and without warning he charged to the front of the bus and broke through the barrier separating the bus driver from the passengers,” wrote Justice Robert Fillmore in a decision that dismissed the claims against both Greyhound and Cunningham. “Considering the evidence in light most favorable to non-movant appellants, we are constrained to conclude there is not probative evidence that Greyhound employee Cunningham should have reasonably foreseen the criminal act of Morris.”
Self, who represented Cunningham as well as the Dallas-based bus company in the case, said the key to winning the case was proving that his clients had no idea that Morris was a threat to other passengers.
“This person hadn’t acted violent before. He had gotten warned for not turning his music down, and for fighting with his girlfriend,” said Self, a partner the Dallas office of Fee, Smith, Sharp & Vitullo.
“The standard is actual knowledge of imminent harm. So the question was whether the Greyhound driver, Ray Cunningham, had actual knowledge that the Maquel Morris posed an imminent risk to the passengers or to the driver himself,” Self said.
“The yelling ‘Everybody’s going to die!’ that was as he was running down to attack the driver,” Self said of Morris, who was later criminally prosecuted and sent to prison over the incident. “He was calm until the accident. If he had acted like that before, we wouldn’t have won summary judgment. It would have been a much more difficult case.”
Coby Smith, an attorney with Fort Worth’s Brackett & Ellis who represents the plaintiffs in the case, has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision. Smith believes the case should be heard by a jury.
“Given the background facts and what the driver was aware of and what Greyhound was aware of, there was at least enough evidence to let a jury decide whether it was appropriate to let Maquel Morris continue on the ride,” Smith said. “He interacted with the driver and another Greyhound employee. And both of them had concerns about his behavior on the bus. And we think that’s enough to let a jury decide instead of the judge as a matter of law.”