America is often described as a "litigious society" or with other words to that effect.
The notion is reinforced by stories of frivolous lawsuits as well as by the ubiquity of absurd warning labels ("Do not use while sleeping," the packaging of a hair dryer reportedly cautioned).
In a speech to the Chicago business community in 2003, Lord Peter Levene, chairman of Loyd's of London, gave a foreigner's perspective on the issue:
"The U.S. system of civil litigation has spawned an American pastime, something that ranks alongside catching a game of baseball or basketball: going to court to sue other people, or companies, or organizations, or the government," Levene said. "And as more and more people have gone to court, not only has the cost of doing so risen, but so too has the cost of insuring oneself or one's company against litigation."
The pupil transportation industry is by no means sheltered from the threat of litigation. To transport a busload of other people's children is to undertake an enormous responsibility. Risks can be mitigated but not eliminated altogether.
Regardless of whether they are frivolous or justified, lawsuits have a significant impact throughout the school bus industry — from school districts to contractor companies to manufacturers. For all involved in the industry, it is important to understand the types of issues that can lead to litigation, how plaintiffs' attorneys attempt to support their claims, and what can be done to ward off lawsuits.
Roots of litigation
A common cause of litigation in the school bus industry is crashes in which there are serious injuries or fatalities — whether to occupants of the bus, occupants of other vehicles or pedestrians. Plaintiffs may seek damages from the operator of the bus (whether it is a school district or a private contractor), the manufacturer of the bus, or both.
A typical claim is that the bus chassis or body failed in some way or was not sufficiently crashworthy in protecting passengers in the accident. Plaintiffs' attorneys may try to show that there was some component or design factor of the bus that caused or contributed to the injury or fatality.
"The specific nature of the alleged defect can vary dramatically from case to case," says Josh Palmer, associate general counsel for Thomas Built Buses parent company Daimler Trucks North America.
One example is a lack of lap or lap-shoulder belts in the school bus — even if the state doesn't require them, as most don't. Other lawsuits have alleged defects with such components as exterior mirrors, the front service door, the location of driver controls, crossing control arms, bumpers, handrails, seat padding and window retention. The list goes on.
"From time to time, just about everything on a school bus has been the subject of a claim," says Paul Marcela, vice president, general counsel and secretary of Blue Bird Corp., "even a claim — which the plaintiff did not follow up with a lawsuit — that a school bus' seat cover was too slick, causing the passenger to slip off."
Most fatalities and some serious injuries to students occur outside of the school bus, so these pedestrian incidents are the subjects of much litigation.
“There is often a twist, like a child running to catch a bus they have missed or are afraid they will miss,” says Ted Finlayson-Schueler, president of Safety Rules!, who serves as a school bus safety consultant and expert witness. “Preparing drivers for these unexpected situations is vital.”
Other common topics taken on in school bus-related lawsuits are complaints about the transportation of students with disabilities, employee pay issues and discrimination claims, and bullying and harassment of bus passengers.
In the latter type of case, plaintiffs may allege “violations of students’ constitutional rights because a school district did not respond appropriately,” says Peggy Burns, an attorney, consultant and owner of Education Compliance Group Inc.
“The communication links between drivers, managers — either contractor or district — and school administrators often breaks down,” Finlayson-Schueler adds. “If the driver doesn’t report the activity, it doesn’t even get started.”