The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today the MBTA didn't break any implied contract with riders when it cancelled or delayed scores of commuter-rail trains in the the Winter of Our Discontent.
Raquel Rodriguez had filed a class-action suit against the T for the trains she was unable to take or which were severely delayed when her Zone 1 trains were cancelled and delayed repeatedly as the snows piled up that winter.
Rodriguez claimed the problems in January, February and March of 2015 broke the T's implied contract with riders to provide "timely, reliable commuter rail service" and that the real problem was not the ceaseless snow but years of "MBTA mismanagement and a culture of indifference."
But, the court ruled in upholding a decision by a Suffolk Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, Rodriguez showed no evidence that even if the T were promising such service, that the promise actually meant anything specific, especially in really bad weather.
We agree with the judge that the complaint does not set forth the material terms of the claimed contract. It is silent regarding the source of the contractual obligation, the scope of the MBTA's expected performance in these circumstances, and the rights of its customers in the event of a breach. Moreover, the obligation to provide "timely and reliable service" is too indefinite to create an enforceable contract.
Rodriguez's lawyers relied heavily on a precedent set in an 1867 case to prove that by purchasing her $182 (at the time) pass, Rodriguez was entering a contract with the T and that that brought with it certain contractual obligations.
But the court said the two cases were fundamentally different. The 1867 case involved a man sued when the Eastern Railroad held a train for nearly two hours to accommodate other passengers who wanted to leave later at night one day and did not receive "reasonable notice of the change."
By contrast, here, the MBTA changed the train schedule because of severe winter storms and published a new schedule. Significantly, the changes were not made for the convenience of the MBTA or other passengers. Rather, they were made as the MBTA attempted to manage a weather emergency. In these circumstances, we agree with the judge's assessment that "[the 1867 case] is sufficiently factually dissimilar to the instant case that it provides no support for [Rodriguez's] contention concerning the terms of the contract."
The court concluded:
The winter storms of 2015 wreaked havoc in and around Boston. To be sure, commuters were frustrated by the MBTA's inability to transport them to work and back home. Even the MBTA acknowledged the inconvenience caused by its failure. However, the purchase of a monthly pass on the MBTA is not a guarantee of performance according to its published schedule in these extraordinary circumstances. Because the complaint does not set forth the material terms of the claimed contract with sufficient precision, we discern no error in the dismissal of the breach of contract claim.