LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a school bus manufacturer and distributor cannot be held liable for not having installed passenger seat belts on a bus involved in a fatal crash.
In the May 2003 incident, a school bus carrying 43 students from the Siloam Springs School District ran off the road, flipped onto its side and slid down an embankment. One student was killed, and 10 other students sustained serious injuries.
Family members of the victims sued the bus maker, Thomas Built Buses, and its distributor, Merl's Bus Sales, claiming that they were negligent in failing to provide a safer product by equipping the bus with seat belts. The plaintiffs also claimed that the defendants should have warned the purchasers, users and riders of the bus that riding unrestrained in a bus is dangerous.
The court noted that the Arkansas Department of Education (DOE) is responsible for drawing up the minimum specifications for all school buses, and buses purchased by school boards must meet those specifications.
The state's specifications order school bus seats to comply with FMVSS 222, which sets occupant protection requirements but does not require seat belts for passengers.
The plaintiffs argued that nothing prevents manufacturers from exceeding the DOE's minimum specifications. They said that safety measures beyond the minimum — i.e., providing seat belts — would have better protected passengers.
The defendants argued that the DOE is not a common consumer that is ignorant regarding bus safety features, so bus manufacturers may not deviate from the DOE's exact specifications.
Additionally, the defendants noted that the Arkansas General Assembly has repeatedly addressed the issue of seat belts in school buses, deciding each time not to require them.
The state Supreme Court upheld a circuit court's previous judgment in favor of Thomas Built and Merl's Bus Sales.
"The Arkansas General Assembly has affirmatively decided not to require passenger seat belts in school buses," Associate Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber wrote in the decision. "We hold that the General Assembly has thereby preempted any common-law tort claims against school bus manufacturers that have complied with the Department of Education's design specifications."