Elisa Kennedy boarded an Amtrak train to New York at South Station on Aug. 18. It was barely out of the station when it broke down. She then hopped on a Greyhound bus, hoping to be in Manhattan in time for a weekend of catching up with college friends and a Broadway musical.
But things didn’t go as planned. In a rural area of Connecticut, the bus abruptly pulled off the highway and the driver announced it could not continue due to serious mechanical problems.
Kennedy, 24, who works for Tufts and lives in Medford, was among about 45 passengers ordered out of the air-conditioned bus to stand in the hot sun along Interstate 84.
The Greyhound driver at first told them another bus was coming from Boston to take them to New York. But two hours later, he had a stunning update: No bus was coming and, as far as Greyhound was concerned, they were on their own.
“The driver was very blunt and dismissive,” Kennedy recalled. “People at first started to argue with him but he wasn’t interested. He had nothing more to say to us.”
At first, Kennedy tried Uber and Lyft, but drivers were apparently unwilling to venture onto the highway for a pickup. With the help of her family back home, Kennedy then found a livery van driver willing to rescue her and a few others she had befriended in their shared distress.
She arrived in New York at close to midnight, exhausted but relieved. (She made it to the show “Shucked” the next day.)
It was a rough few hours in the care of America’s oldest and largest intercity bus line. A couple of days later, Kennedy emailed Greyhound asking for a refund of her $83.98 ticket plus the $200 she had paid to complete her trip in the van.
But Greyhound said no.
“Unfortunately the ticket you purchased is non-refundable,” Greyhound wrote in response to Kennedy’s detailed account of what happened. “We are unable to honor your request.”
A refund seemed so basic that Kennedy asked again. This time, Greyhound’s denial was even more ridiculous: “We are unable to honor the request due to ticket restrictions, as the service was still provided, and the passenger [was] still able to complete the trip.”
Who was composing this nonsense? Greyhound had abandoned its customers in a godforsaken spot 150 miles from their destination without food or water in blistering heat and still wanted to get paid?
Kennedy wasn’t deterred. She filed complaints with the attorney general’s office and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and then she emailed me.
Kennedy wrote (with impeccable logic, I thought): “We all know a passenger loses their money when they don’t show up for a flight or ride, but I’ve never seen a carrier use that rationale when they don’t provide the actual service, especially after a stressful breakdown and abandonment on an Interstate highway.”
The Greyhound contract with its customers (its “terms and conditions of travel”) is a complex and intimidating mass of almost 5,000 words — about 10 single-spaced pages.
I found it noteworthy that there’s nothing explicit in it about refunds after a bus breaks down. (It’s never happened before?) It does say a refund is due when Greyhound cancels a trip, and I think it’s fair to say abandoning passengers by the side of the road constitutes a canceled trip.
But, really, there’s no need to closely parse the contractual language. Greyhound was under contract to deliver its passengers to their destination in exchange for payment. Greyhound then breached the contract. If one side in a contract breaches, the other side is relieved of its legal duty (in this case, the duty to pay). Calling the ticket “non-refundable” seems a kind of bluff, premised on the fact that so many of us aren’t likely to persist against a corporate giant.
So, yes, Greyhound absolutely owed Kennedy and all the other passengers a refund.
And what about Greyhound’s duty to assist passengers dumped in the middle of nowhere?
As it turns out, Greyhound’s long-winded contract contains some protection for the bus line, as you might expect, given that Greyhound wrote it.
“In cases where a bus becomes unserviceable during the trip,” Greyhound will exercise “reasonable commercial efforts” to provide passengers with “a substitute bus or transport.”
That clearly didn’t happen.
And when I asked Greyhound what “reasonable efforts” it had made on behalf of passengers in this case, it ducked the question.
As to reimbursement for the van ride to New York, Greyhound says in its contract that it is “never obligated” to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation after a cancellation. I think that’s open to challenge, but is it worth it to go to small claims court to find out?
Founded more than a century ago, Greyhound has struggled in recent decades due to ramped-up competition from short-flight air service and discount bus lines, among other things.
I wrote to Greyhound that “it seems outrageous” to refuse a refund to Kennedy. It took two follow-up emails over the next two days before Greyhound finally responded by telling me it now agreed to refund Kennedy’s ticket.
If it truly wanted to engender good will — and even better PR — Greyhound would also reimburse Kennedy for the $200 she spent getting to New York.
By the way, Amtrak immediately refunded her money after its train broke down.
In a Sep. 18 column, I wrote about Ed and Kathy Colbert, who were then locked in a battle for compensation from JetBlue after the airline lost Kathy’s checked bag more than a year ago.
The lost bag ruined the Peabody couple’s vacation on Hilton Head Island, and then JetBlue repeatedly gave them confusing and contradictory information on how to be compensated for their loss, or ignored them altogether.
After I got involved, JetBlue suddenly became responsive to the Colberts. During the ensuing negotiations for a settlement, Ed remained firm in his demand for a little more than $3,800, which included the replacement cost of the lost bag and its contents, the cost of their ruined vacation, and $800 for the many hours the couple had spent chasing JetBlue.
First, the airline offered about $1,000, which the Colberts quickly rejected. JetBlue next more than doubled their offer, but that was still about $1,600 less than what the Colberts demanded. Finally, JetBlue agreed to make up the $1,600 difference in vouchers for future travel.
Good job, Ed and Kathy. You made JetBlue pay the price for first losing your bag and then stringing you along for more than a year. Let it be an example for others.