Common Carriers in Pennsylvania: Recent Appellate Court Decision Denies Recovery Under “Jerk and Jolt” Doctrine

By Robyn D. Kazatsky
January 24, 2023

On Monday, January 23, 2023, SEPTA was cleared of liability by a Pennsylvania Appeals Court after an injured trolley rider allegedly sustained severe injuries when a trolley operator suddenly accelerated.

Pennsylvania’s “Jerk and Jolt” doctrine applies to common carriers in instances where no collision occurs, but the alleged negligent action which causes injury is a jerk or jolt movement of the bus or train. Pursuant to this doctrine, when a plaintiff-passenger is injured he/she must show that the movement of the vehicle was beyond his/her reasonable anticipation and some unusual movement existed which made the jolt or jerk unusual.

On January 23, 2023, a 3-judge Commonwealth Court panel affirmed a summary judgment ruling in favor of SEPTA in a suit brought by Charlotte Grant wherein she alleged a trolley driver negligently and without warning accelerated the vehicle shortly after she entered the car, causing her to fall and sustain severe injuries. See Charlotte Grant v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, 1294 CD 2021. Ultimately, the panel agreed with the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge who determined Grant failed to prove the movement was so unusual and extraordinary that it was beyond her reasonable expectation, as required by the jerk and jolt doctrine. Surveillance video from inside the trolley revealed Grant was the only standing passenger inside the trolley when it accelerated and the only passenger to fall and sustain injury. The appellate court noted the jerk and jolt doctrine is a difficult burden to meet, requiring plaintiffs to prove more than a loss of balance due to an ordinary or moderate jerk of the vehicle. The panel quoted its precedential ruling in a similar 2016 case, Devlin v. SEPTA, stating “it is not uncommon for a standing person on a bus to lose his or her balance if an ordinary or moderate jerk occurs . . . This court has repeatedly recognized that trial courts may grant summary judgment if the jerk and jolt test is not satisfied.”

If you would like to learn more about this case or any issues regarding common carrier liability, please contact Robyn D. Kazatsky at 215-805-6807 or rkazatsky@lockgordon.com

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