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Attorney Joe Fried talks about his experience litigating the tragic school bus accident that killed 6 elementary students in Chattanooga, TN

Written by Steve Gursten Posted January 5th, 2017

“There’s a big difference between lawyers who do this for a living [litigating bus accident cases] versus lawyers…where this is not their day-to-day lives….”


Less than one month after the fatal Baltimore accident involving a school bus and a public MTA bus that killed six people and injured 10 more, another terrible bus accident has senselessly torn families apart. The latest has killed six elementary school students and injured several others, ranging from ages 6 to 10 in Chattanooga, TN.

I’m currently representing one of the children in this terrible tragedy. This child was the most seriously injured in the bus crash and has a catastrophic brain injury.

When a tragedy like this happens, you often see both the best and the worst of the legal profession jump into action. You see the lawyers who are lifelong safety advocates, who have dedicated years of their lives to learning the intricacies of commercial motor vehicle and bus accident cases and who are poised to protect their clients. These attorneys also have a drive to improve safety from a societal standpoint, in order to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Then you have the side of the legal profession that slinks out from under rocks that tries to get involved in a big case because they know there’s going to be a big pay day. These are the personal injury lawyers that give the entire legal profession a black eye; the lawyers who do not have accident victims’ best interests in mind after serious bus wrecks like this one. To these lawyers, recovering any settlement – even one that is a fraction of what the case is worth – is better than nothing because it’s money in their pockets.

And then there’s the big difference between a bus accident lawyer who does this for a living versus lawyers who may be exceptional, but where this is not their day-to-day lives.

My hope for this Tennessee school bus accident tragedy is that all of the lawyers who represent the injured children and their families can come together as a team to get the best possible result for them. My hope is also that these lawyers will push a safety agenda that will identify the root causes at the systemic level and then take the steps through the case to eliminate these serious problems.

It’s a proactive safety stance that Michael and Steve, my fellow Roundtable founding attorneys, also believe in. It’s been a part of some of our settlements in these cases involving commercial motor vehicles and buses. For example, in one of my recent truck accident cases involving an $80 million settlement with co-counsel on behalf of five nurses who were tragically killed in Georgia, I required as part of the settlement agreement that the at-fault trucking company equip its fleet with forward- looking collision avoidance technology to prevent these truck accidents in the future.

I’m comfortable as an attorney with pushing for more safety standards because I view my role as also being a safety advocate.  In addition, I’m an experienced bus accident attorney who has litigated many of these cases. Every year at any given time, our Truck Roundtable law firm attorneys are involved with cases just like this one throughout the country. Sometimes, as here, where there are multiple fatalities and injuries that emanate from a single collision, you see the best and worst of the legal profession emerge. It’s often my role in these cases to help organize the troops so that we’re working collectively as opposed to at odds with each other. It’s not easy, but I’ve undertaken the role many times. It’s just what you do when the client’s needs come first.

In this case, the third-party bus company and the school district appear to be negligent after many reports from parents and students were made about thes bus driver, who allegedly bullied his vulnerable passengers by driving aggressively. Several published reports state that Johnthony K. Walker, 24, was speeding, swerving, braking to prompt students to hit their heads or fall when in the aisle, and even telling students he didn’t care about them.

Crashes just like this bus accident in Tennessee have been occurring with increasing frequency in 2016. Many are completely preventable.

We recently stressed the dire need for more school bus driver training after the Baltimore bus accident. It is shocking, but our school bus drivers – people entrusted with transporting our most precious cargo of all, our children – actually have less training standards and can drive with more serious medical conditions under existing exemptions than commercial truck drivers transporting lettuce or televisions. Our priorities are sadly misplaced.

Here are some details about the TN crash. I cannot divulge details about my client or the pending lawsuit, so I’m mostly referring to a recent story about the Chattanooga bus accident in The New York Times.

Mr.Walker, driving 37 children home from Woodmore Elementary School, strayed from his route and crashed on Nov. 25. He has since been charged with vehicular homicide for the bus accident (he was also allegedly speeding), which is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Chattanooga police.

Records released by the Hamilton County Department of Education showed that Mr. Walker’s behavior was a frequent worry this semester on behalf of parents – and the school district. For instance, according to the Times, in September, a parent, Jasmine Mateen, wrote to a teacher that the bus driver was cursing students and slamming on his brakes, “making them hit they heads and fall out” of their seats. One of Ms. Mateen’s 6-year-old daughters was killed in the bus accident, and two of her other children were injured.

Mr. Walker, 24, is not a school district employee; he worked for Durham School Services, a contractor based in Illinois that says it carries more than one million schoolchildren daily.

In a statement, the school district acknowledged that its records contained “many emails of complaint and concern.”

Yet the school district or Durham School Services did nothing to get this dangerous bus driver off the road.

This bus accident could have been prevented.

Next week, I will continue this topic with a blog post on how attorneys can do a better job of holding dangerous bus companies and school districts that choose to turn a blind eye to these egregious safety violations —  accountable.

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About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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