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Lessons for attorneys litigating school bus accident lawsuits

Written by Steve Gursten Posted January 12th, 2017

7 things we can take away from the school bus crash that killed 6 elementary students in TN

I’m representing one of the children in the recent tragic Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus accident lawsuits that has been in the news. The crash killed 6 elementary students and injured several others. The family that’s hired me had a child who was the most seriously injured in the bus accident and now has a catastrophic brain injury.

In this lawsuit, both the third-party bus company and the school district appear to be negligent. There are many reports surfacing about safety complaints being made by parents and students about the bus driver, who allegedly bullied his vulnerable passengers by driving very aggressively. These 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 prior to the deadly bus wreck.

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.

As I touched on last week, our mission at the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable is to prevent serious bus and truck accidents. We do this with our national safety advocacy, being in the news and spreading awareness of serious safety issues, and in trying to strengthen national trucking laws in the Legislature. We also do it as attorneys in our own cases, by working hard to expose every single act of negligence and every safety violation.

Often, these safety violations are ignored by motor carriers and bus companies.

So today we would like to share lessons for attorneys who want to learn how to hold dangerous bus companies and school districts that turn a blind eye to these egregious safety violations —  accountable, as I’m doing this right now in my Tennessee school bus accident lawsuit.

Lawyers need to start any analysis by looking at the duty – the legal responsibility of a party involved in a crash.  In a school bus accident case, this will depend upon whether a district is running its own buses or whether it employs a third-party bus company and contracts bus drivers, as many districts do.

While school districts have a responsibility to make sure bus drivers and school buses are safe — not only in the beginning but throughout the course of time he or she is driving a bus — the matter (as in this case) becomes more complicated because school districts are often immune under various state laws from being held accountable for things that private corporations and other companies are liable for, depending on the state. This governmental immunity often shields and protects school districts from liability, when even serious negligence occurs and someone is seriously injured or killed in a preventable and foreseeable way.

In contrast, often times the third-party company that hires and trains the bus drivers doesn’t share in the governmental immunity and can be held legally responsible for negligent hiring, training and supervision.

Here are seven things bus accident attorneys can learn from this case:

  1. Legally, the school district has a duty to monitor and supervise the people it hires to drive school buses, or to contract the bus drivers.
  2. If the school district learns about negligent and dangerous behavior on behalf of the bus driver, it has a legal duty to act to get the bus driver out of the driver’s seat.
  3. In addition to the claims for negligence for the bus driver as to the rules of the road violations, an attorney for the families of the victims can plead claims for the following in a school bus accident case: Negligent entrustment, supervision, training and negligent monitoring. This is for the third-party bus company that employed the bus driver. An attorney can also focus on the training and hiring qualifications of at-fault school bus drivers, and on what steps were taken before entrusting a driver to drive a school bus.
  4. Many states will also allow claims for punitive damages, based upon these facts if they’re proven to be true.
  5. Lawyers need to know that when one of these tragedies happen, the investigative efforts need be undertaken immediately. Legal discovery is also much more extensive and expensive than in a typical car crash case. It’s important to understand what type of safety technology exists and what could have been easily adapted for the school bus, and what other like school buses are using. The buses themselves are more sophisticated. The crash reconstruction is more complicated. An attorney who wants to find the full truth has to make a commitment of time, and that commitment can only be made after years of experience from handling similar cases.
  6. One of the big topics being discussed in legal seminars is whether there should be seat belts on school buses. We’re still operating in a world where most school buses do not have seat belts, as a lot of older buses are not equipped and nobody is doing anything about it. But can you think of any other similar mode of transportation today that does not have seat belts? It’s hard to look at one of these school bus accident tragedies and know that some of the carnage may have been avoided had we used technology that we’ve been using in every other mode of transportation for decades — and yet we don’t protect our own children.
  7. The key lesson here for attorneys is that school districts, whether hiring bus drivers directly, or working with a third party as many do, have  the final word on putting safe and qualified bus drivers on the road. The buck stops here.

When school districts put unsafe bus drivers on the road, failing to adequately train their drivers, failing to test them for drugs and alcohol, failing to look into their driving records, failing to monitor and supervise these drivers, and then failing to listen and take action on safety complaints from parents and students; these deadly bus accident tragedies become foreseeable.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that it is our children who pay the price.

Related info:

Top 4 tips for attorneys litigating bus accident cases


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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