School bus accidents are a fact of life at all operations. In most accidents, the damage is minimal and no one is injured. In other cases, however, the crash entails significant damage to the bus and injuries to the passengers. In these cases, you can almost be assured that one or more of the passengers will file an injury claim against the school district and transportation department as a prelude to a possible lawsuit.
Many times, school districts or their contractors may not have a choice in the decision to “stand and fight” or “duck and run.” If the claim is substantially true and valid, then the district or contractor should duck and run — that is, admit to the error, apologize and settle out of court to avoid litigation.
If the claim is false, then the attorney for the school district may choose to stand and fight. But that choice may be influenced by the transportation department’s diligence in preparing for such an encounter.
Following are a dozen recommendations to help school districts and contractors use the “stand and fight” strategy. Please note that this article is for educational purposes only. The information it contains does not replace the advice of a lawyer.
1. Keep student ridership logs for seven years
It’s important to know who was aboard what bus at the time of the accident. Thus, you should keep a ridership log to verify who was riding each bus during the morning and afternoon runs when the accident occurred. Will your records verify that the student claiming injury was on the bus on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2001, at 6:59 a.m.? Unless your state limits the number of years you must keep certain documents, maintain student bus ridership logs up to the statute of limitations (seven years). Remember that a lawsuit can take several years to work its way through the court system.
2. Have a qualified on-site collision investigator
Who does the on-site collision investigation? All school bus collisions, especially ones involving a special-needs bus, must be investigated.
Was the school’s safety officer at the collision site a fully qualified accident investigator? Safety officers must be trained for comprehensive collision investigations, including digital photodocumentation, field sketches and measurements, skid and road evidence analysis and other procedures. Without a complete collision investigation, your counsel may recommend to duck and run.
3. Comprehensively photograph the accident scene
Were photographs taken of the accident scene, including interior and exterior bus damage? Also, do you have “before” photos of the interior and exterior of the bus on file? Before- and after-collision pictures of the bus interior and exterior can be very persuasive to a jury. Does the district rely on the police officer’s vehicle accident report alone, without the district investigator’s photodocumentation? If the police vehicle accident report does not include a field sketch with accurate measurements, it will probably not stand up in court.
4. Don’t rely on police accident reports
Were the police called to complete a vehicle accident report? A completed vehicle accident report is not a complete collision investigation. Police may not treat the collision in the same way that the school district should. Officers must complete the report and obtain a complete listing of the names and ages of all students on board. This delays clearing the accident scene before normal traffic flow resumes. Police supervisors press their officers to shorten the investigation and clear the accident scene, which leaves an incomplete investigation.
5. Use assigned seating
Do your bus route sheets show student seating assignments? Is the bus seating chart valid for the date of the accident? Can all students be identified at their specific seating locations at the time of the accident?
If you don’t know where a student was seated at the moment of impact, you cannot determine the forces to which he or she was subjected at impact and post-impact. This data could help to corroborate or refute the student’s injury claim.