Pennsylvania Federal Court Dismisses Amtrak Passenger's Negligence Claim Based on "Jerk or Jolt" Doctrine

05.02.17

On April 5, 2017, Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro of the U.S. Dustrict Court for Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed an Amtrak passenger's negligence claim against the rail operator based on Pennsylvania's well-established "jerk or jolt" doctrine.

In Arrington v. Amtrak, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51728 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 5, 2017), a plaintiff of advanced age sued Amtrak claiming she suffered injuries while a passenger on an Amtrak train traveling between Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The plaintiff claimed that as she was moving from one handicap-designated seat to another at the direction of the train's conductor, the train underwent a sudden jerk which caused her to fall in the aisle and sustain injuries. On summary judgment, Judge Quiñones Alejandro rejected the plaintiff's negligence claim, finding the plaintiff failed to present evidence that the alleged "jerk" of the train "had an extraordinarily disturbing effect upon other passengers," or, alternatively, that "the manner or occurrence of [the] accident or the effect of which upon the plaintiff inherently establishes the unusual character of the jolt or jerk."

Dismissing the plaintiff's negligence claim based on this well-established standard for injuries sustained on common carriers, Judge Quiñones Alejandro observed the plaintiff "testified that she did not see anyone else on the train or even any items on the train fall when she did." The mere fact the plaintiff fell to the floor from a standing position when the train suddenly jerked, Judge Quiñones Alejandro observed, "is insufficient alone to meet the unusual or extraordinary requirement of the 'jerk or jolt' doctrine." According to Judge Quiñones Alejandro, "Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly held that to show that a fall was so violent and unusual as to permit the jury to predicate on it alone a finding that the jerk was unusual or extraordinary requires more than losing one's balance while standing or walking in [a common carrier]."

Comment: Arrington reiterates Pennsylvania's well-established "jerk or jolt" doctrine. The doctrine establishes a high evidentiary threshold for plaintiffs to satisfy to survive a dispositive motion. Most times, without evidence of other passengers experiencing an "extraordinary or unusual" jerk or jolt, or circumstantial evidence such as luggage falling from the racks, a plaintiff will not satisfy this evidentiary threshold. As common carriers often travel interstate, it is critical to determine which state's "jerk or jolt" law applies to the facts. In Arrington, the plaintiff was injured in Maryland, but the federal court applied Pennsylvania law because the plaintiff sued in Pennsylvania, and the law of Maryland was found to be "virtually the same" as Pennsylvania. The law is not always the same between states, so choice of law should always be a concern.

For more information, please contact Joseph Goldberg at jgoldberg@wglaw.com, or 215.825.7225.

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Sara L. De Long
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