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October 21, 2010  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

The Roots and Results of School Bus Lawsuits

Litigation can have far-reaching effects throughout the pupil transportation industry — from school districts to contractors to manufacturers. Here, we examine issues that can lead to lawsuits, how legal costs impact bus prices and how to reduce the risk of ending up in court.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author

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Keep it factual
It may not be feasible for pupil transportation groups to prevent their position papers and documents from being appropriated by attorneys, but being aware of that potential use and sticking to the facts in such public statements are essential, experts say.

Gauthier says that while industry organizations should by no means be discouraged from expressing their perspectives, they must base their views on current and accurate data.

“If we do not take the time to understand the issues and the data and science involved and we simply express opinions based on emotions or partial information, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and the pupil transportation community as a whole,” says Gauthier, who has served as an expert witness for auto and school bus manufacturers in numerous cases since he retired from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1994.

Palmer recommends following the “New York Times Rule”: Don’t make statements that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of a major newspaper.

“My experience is that people will sometimes embellish or exaggerate facts or state opinions as ‘facts’ in order to make a point or when they are emotionally involved in an issue,” Palmer says. “These ‘facts’ are sometimes contorted by plaintiffs’ lawyers into support for a position or proposition that was never intended by the author. Sticking to hard facts — and those supported by data — usually helps people avoid this trap.”

Of course, the best practices in such venerable industry manuals as National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures are developed to bolster safety, and staying up to par with them will not only work in school bus operations’ favor in case of lawsuits — it can reduce their chances of having incidents that could lead to lawsuits in the first place.

“There is no need to prevent our documents from being used in court if our documents demonstrate that our operation is being run properly,” Finlayson-Schueler says. “Protecting ourselves by not having documents that tell us how our profession is supposed to operate is like having a surgeon who doesn’t have any documents on how to perform a given surgery.”

Furthermore, many documents from within the pupil transportation community are used to help defend school bus manufacturers and to help them enhance school bus safety.

Marcela notes that “in the context of investigating accidents and building better school buses, Blue Bird thinks the pupil transportation community should provide all the truthful, helpful information it has.”

Preventive practices
In terms of protecting themselves against possible litigation, there are numerous strategies that school districts and contractors can employ.

Burns stresses training and documentation.

“Identification of responsibilities and careful allocation of such responsibilities to qualified, well-trained individuals is very important,” she says. “Taking assertive action on behalf of the safety of students and employees is essential.”

Dr. Ray Turner, president of White Buffalo Press and a veteran pupil transportation administrator, recommends a number of “Golden Rules” for school bus operations. They include:
• Transport others as you would have your own child transported and with utmost safety, care and concern.
• Remember the school bus experience you had as a child, and make sure it is a better experience that your student passengers are now receiving.
• Leave no bus interior space uninspected for sleeping children after each
route service.

Finlayson-Schueler emphasizes hiring the right people and training them properly with both pre-service and in-service programs. Other key practices are:
• Don’t overlook little mistakes.
• Do not tolerate bullying or harassment on your buses.
• Have a documented on-the-road observation/evaluation system in place, conducted at least annually.
• Give staff members the information they need to transport special-needs students.
• Plan safe routes and stops.

“Educate students and parents about transportation policies and safe bus stop and riding practices,” Finlayson-Schueler adds, “and operate a well-maintained fleet with currently recommended safety equipment.”

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Litigation concerns spur name change

The title of the industry’s key document was changed at the 2000 school transportation congress, reflecting legal concerns as well as how its role had evolved. Pictured is the 2010 congress.

At the school transportation congress in 2000, delegates from across the country adopted a new title for the industry’s key document.

What was previously called National Standards for School Transportation became National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures.

At the congress, which is held every five years in Warrensburg, Mo., the proposed title change generated mixed feelings among the 300-plus delegates.

Some believed that the word “standards” strengthened and validated the document — a collection of equipment and operational guidelines for school transportation.

Others believed that the continued use of “standards” left school bus operators and manufacturers exposed in the event of a liability lawsuit. The concern was that attorneys could use the document to, for example, try to discredit an operation for not having some piece of safety equipment that is recommended in the document.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers were definitely citing the document as industry-accepted standards,” says former Indiana state pupil transportation director Pete Baxter, a veteran of the congress who chaired the steering committee for the 2010 edition.

Some delegates at the 2000 congress favored use of the word “guidelines” or “recommendations.” The “specifications and procedures” title that was ultimately adopted was seen as a compromise, with language that is authoritative but not too restrictive.

Baxter says that in addition to the litigation concerns, the document’s name change reflected how its role had changed.

The document was initially developed as school bus equipment and construction standards. But as the federal government later took over school bus standards and the document began including operational issues, “then it became more of a best-practice guideline,” Baxter says.

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