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AGLO 1980 No. 28 - October 07, 1980
AGO Opinion Header Image
Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- STATE ‑- WASHINGTON TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION ‑- FERRIES ‑- CONTRACTS ‑- IMPOSITION OF TIME LIMIT FOR USE OF COMMUTER BOOKS

The Washington Transportation Commission did not violate any contractual rights of persons who previously purchased undated ferry system commuter ticket books when, by Resolution No. 72, it provided that commutation ticket books shall be valid only for ninety days from the date of purchase.

                                                                 - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                 October 7, 1980

Honorable Rick Smith
State Representative, 23rd District
P. O. Box 68
Silverdale, Washington 98383                                                                                                               Cite as:  AGLO 1980 No. 28

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you posed certain questions regarding action taken by the Washington Transportation Commission, earlier this year, establishing a termination date for the use of state ferry system commuter ticket books.  In essence, you asked whether the Commission's action violated any contractual rights on the part of purchasers, prior to the Commission's action, of undated commuter books ". . . to use such tickets at any time in the future . . ."

            We answer this question in the negative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            First, let us briefly set forth the factual background which is here involved.  Over the years, in establishing ferry tolls pursuant to RCW 47.56.030, the Washington Transportation Commission and its predecessor, the Washington Toll Bridge Authority, have included special provisions for commuter rates as authorized by RCW 47.60.325(2).  The general practice has been to establish a commuter rate which reflects a 40 percent reduction from the rate charged for individual trip tickets.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            Prior to the recent action which you have questioned, such coupon books, although numbered, have not borne either a date of issuance or a specific termination date.  The front and back inside covers of those books have, however, contained the following statements:

            "Commutation Books are sold subject to the following conditions.

            "1. No portion of the money paid for these coupons will be refunded if lost.

            "2. Unused coupons remaining in book will be redeemed to the original purchaser according to the provisions printed on the back cover.

            "3. Subject to Ferry System Regulations.

            "REFUNDS

            "1. Only coupons attached to cover and back of this book will be honored for refund.

            "2. All coupons refunded must have same numbers.

            "3. Refunded value will be, original cost less number of coupons removed from book at full one way fare.

            "4. Subject to Ferry System Regulations."

            By its adoption of Resolution No. 72 on March 18, 1980, the Transportation Commission increased ferry fares by 25 percent.  In so doing, the Commission also declared, with respect to the matter of commuter tickets, that:

            ". . .

            "2. The purpose of commutation tickets is to provide a reduced fare for those who must use the ferries frequently.  The lack of a time limit on commutation tickets is not conducive to this purpose and contributes to the abuse of the commutation ticket.  A user who does not make a round trip ferry passage on the average of at lease once every nine days  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] does not meet the frequency requirement and should not receive commutation ticket privileges.

            ". . ."

            The Commission then provided that its new, increased tolls would take effect on May 1, 1980, and that:

            ". . .

            "b. Commutation tickets shall be valid only for 90 days from date of purchase after which time the tickets shall not be accepted for passage or for refunds.

            ". . ."

            Accordingly the Washington State Ferry System has, since July 29, 1980, refused to accept tickets from any of the old, undated commuter books for ferry passage.  It has, however, granted refunds for such unused commuter tickets based on the tariff schedule which existed immediately prior to the May 1, 1980, increase.

            We turn now to your question regarding the validity of this action and, specifically, to the issue of whether the action violated any contractual rights of purchasers of undated commuter ticket books.  It is our opinion that the action thus questioned is legally defensible and that no contractual rights were violated.

            To begin with, it is entirely possible that our Washington Supreme Court would conclude, if presented with the question in the course of litigation, that no contractual relationship exists between the ferry system and purchasers of a subject commuter ticket book.  Our research has disclosed that the courts of other jurisdictions are divided on the question of whether a transportation ticket truly represents a contract or, instead, is merely a token or receipt for the payment made by the ticket holder at the time of purchase.  See, 14 Am.Jur.2d, Carriers, §§ 781 and 811-13, and 13 C.J.S., Carriers, § 603.  There apparently are no Washington cases addressing the issue.  But representative of the position that such a ticket is merely a token or a receipt are two cases, one from New Jersey and one from Illinois, which seem well-reasoned and worth noting further.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            First, in the early case of Shelton v. Erie Railroad Company, 74 N.J.L. 558, 66 Atl. 403 (1907) the New Jersey Court concluded that a railroad ticket was a mere token evidencing a payment made for a fare‑-and not a contract for passage.  In so ruling the Court said:

            ". . .

            "The fare thus to be collected by the conductor may be a cash sum or it may be a ticket; that is for the passenger to determine.  If the passenger proposes to pay in cash, he must be provided with and tender to the conductor a sum that under the established rules of the company is sufficient to pay his fare; if he proposes to pay by ticket, he must be provided with and tender a ticket that under the established rules of the company has the intrinsic effect of paying such fare.  This intrinsic attribute of the ticket is the essential quality to which it owes its efficiency.  It is the possession of this attribute that distinguishes a ticket from a contract, on the one hand, and from a mere instrument of evidence, on the other. . . .

            ". . ."

            Likewise, inLust v. Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railway Company, 222 Ill.App. 288 (1921) the Court, in holding that a transit ticket was not in itself a contract, said that:

            ". . .

            "'The settled opinion is, that a passage ticket, in the ordinary form, is merely a voucher, token or receipt, adopted for convenience, to show that the passenger has paid his fare from one place to another, and does not constitute the contract of carriage, although it often does have upon it some condition or limitation which enters into and forms a part of the contract.' . . . The same conclusion has been reached by courts of last  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] resort in many other jurisdictions, and the question must now be regarded as settled. . . .

            ". . ."

            The facts giving rise to this Illinois case are also worth noting.  Mr. Lust, the plaintiff, purchased a 6¢ ticket for passage on the defendant corporation's elevated railroad.  After his purchase, the fares were increased from 6¢ to 8¢ with the provision that all prior 6¢ tickets could either be redeemed or accepted in part payment of the fare at the new rate.  Subsequently, Mr. Lust attempted to obtain passage by using the 6¢ ticket, refusing the additional 2¢ and relaying on the ticket's facial reference to "good for one fare."  However, as above noted, when he took the matter to court, Mr. Lust lost.

            Alternatively, it is further our opinion that even if the commuter ticket books here in question were deemed to give rise to a contractual relationship between the ferry system and the coupon book holders, there are two further reasons for concluding that the action you have questioned did not violate any contractual rights.  First, as above noted, the "old" coupon books involved, while not bearing on their face any specific date of issuance or termination date do provide that their use shall be "subject to ferry system regulations."  And, in turn, the Transportation Commission's establishment of a 90-day maximum for coupon use, by the subject resolution, constitutes such a ferry system regulation as is thus referred to.  See, WAC 468-300-010 as thus amended through adoption of the resolution.

            In addition, it is an established principle of contract law that when a contract is silent as to its time of duration, it will be implied that performance was intended by the parties to take place within a reasonable time.  What constitutes a reasonable time is a question of fact which is dependent upon the subject matter of the contract, the situation of the parties, their intention and the circumstances attending the performance of the contract.  See,Peplinski v. Campbell, 37 Wn.2d 857, 226 P.2d 211 (1951); andSmith v. Smith, 4 Wn.App. 608, 484 P.2d 409 (1971).  Here, since commuter ticket books are sold at a substantial discount to reflect the frequency of their use, a reasonable time period for that use wouldnot be a long, indefinite period.  Instead, in the light of the purpose for which the discount is granted, we  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] believe that the Commission's determination that a frequency rate of one round trip every nine days‑-and thus a maximum of 90 days for a book of 20 one‑way trip coupons‑-would be held by a court to constitute a reasonable determination of the period within which the coupons may be used.

            We trust that the foregoing may be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

SLADE GORTON
Attorney General

EDWARD B. MACKIE
Deputy Attorney General

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