Cab company not liable for driver's death; He was shot by a passenger after threatening phone calls

By Charmaine Little | Oct 11, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) – On Sept. 27, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled a cab company wasn't responsible for the death of a driver after he was shot by a passenger.

The court affirmed the city of Petersburg Circuit Court's ruling that dismissed Agnes Christine Terry's case against a cab company after her husband was murdered.

"Terry argues that the Circuit Court erred in ruling that her amended complaint failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted against Irish Fleet and (Reginald) Morris under a theory of assumed duty. Finding no reversible error in the circuit court’s ruling, we will affirm its judgment," the court wrote.

Terry filed the wrongful death lawsuit against Irish Fleet Inc., doing business as Boulevard Cab, and Morris, a dispatcher with the cab company. She filed suit in the Circuit Court of the city of Petersburg.

During the time of his death, Terry's husband, Peter Ambrister, was a taxi driver for Cab King Inc., which was owned by Irish Fleet. The night before Ambrister's life was taken, Morris received a series of what was described as "troubling" phone calls from an unidentified man, the ruling states. The man stated he was calling from a payphone, but Morris knew there weren't any payphones in the area the man said he was, the ruling states.

According to the ruling, Morris canceled the dispatched taxi after the man changed his location to a place Morris knew was closed. Morris then warned nearby taxi companies about the caller. Another dispatcher got a call from the same man the next morning, when Ambrister was working. The dispatcher assigned Ambrister to pick him up. Shortly after the man got in the car, he fatally shot Ambrister three times.

The Supreme Court first noted that while Terry said the defendants assumed a duty to protect her husband, that’s not necessarily true. The defendants didn’t take a vow or promise to not only protect but also even warn drivers about any potentially dangerous passengers. 

Still, justices Stephen R. McCullough, William Mims and Cleo Powell dissented for several reasons. 

“The assumption of duty liability is to hold accountable one who assumed duty (through words or conduct) that did not exist in the first place, and who then performed the undertaking negligently,” stated the dissenting opinion.

The dissenting opinion added that purposeful conduct is necessary and that isolated acts don’t qualify for assumed duty. It went on to note assumed duty has to be toward a specific person or an identifiable limited class and that the plaintiff would have had to detrimentally rely on assumed duty.

“The complaint alleges that the defendants assumed a duty, and it provides a concrete example showing that the dispatchers working for Irish Fleet provided a warning to another cab driver of criminal danger,” the dissenters added. They closed with nothing the allegations are proof enough that if Terry’s husband was given a warning, he would have depended on it.

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