If you ever need a reminder about the importance of what you and the people you work with do every day, keep reading.
An 11-year-old girl was awarded $36.1 million on Thursday, Sept. 21, by a jury in San Bernardino, California, that found that Durham School Services and one of its drivers was mostly liable for her injuries in a school bus stop incident in 2012. The jury placed 50% of the blame on Durham, 30% on the bus driver, and 20% on the child’s mother for allowing her daughter to cross the street outside a crosswalk, court records show.
Both the girl, who was 6 years old at the time of the accident, and the driver of the car that struck her, who was traveling under the speed limit, were ruled not at fault.
The girl, who suffered a brain injury and required 24-hour care from a nurse, was awarded $20,143,291 for future economic damages, $5 million for past pain and suffering, and $11 million for future pain and suffering, according to court records.
The basis of the lawsuit was negligence. The plaintiffs alleged that Durham failed to report and prevent dangerous mid-street crossings, proving it was typical for parents and students to walk to the school bus by crossing in the middle of the block in violation of the company’s policies and procedures.
A disciplinary system is in place for such violations, according to a news release from the law firm that represented the plaintiffs, citing witnesses for both Durham and the San Bernardino City Unified School District. Under the system, students who violate the rules get a verbal warning and then a written warning. Discipline can eventually include losing school bus privileges.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that not only did the school bus not have its flashing lights and stop signs engaged, but the school bus drivers who were assigned to the route never reported to their superiors that it was regular practice for students to cross the street illegally to get on the bus.
The company “is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the school district to monitor all things that are unsafe that occur out at the bus stops,” said Geoffrey Wells, an attorney who represented the girl and her family.
Wells said the school district’s transportation director testified that the district relies on drivers to report dangerous conditions at bus stops, including unsafe mid-block crossings. According to Wells, although two bus drivers testified that they didn’t see the dangerous crossings, four witnesses testified that they jaywalked daily in front of the bus driver to get to the bus stop.
This verdict comes two years after another San Bernardino jury awarded $20.5 million to the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was killed while crossing five lanes of highway traffic to get to a school district designated bus stop. The driver of the car that hit him said she did not see him. He died of his injuries a few months later.
In that lawsuit, the Chaffey Joint Union High School District attempted to place blame for the accident on the student and the driver who hit him, but the jury assigned 100% liability to the school district.
The student was walking to a school bus stop that required him to cross an uncontrolled, five-lane highway. California law prohibits bus stops “on a divided or multiple-lane highway where pupils must cross the highway to board … unless traffic is controlled.”
Several years prior, the district eliminated one of two bus stops located on either side of the highway, which reportedly forced students to cross the highway through traffic in an unmarked crosswalk without traffic signals or a crossing guard. The plaintiff’s counsel made a point to emphasize that the decision to remove the bus stop was made without alerting the California Highway Patrol or the school district’s superintendent.
The school district initially claimed that the stop it eliminated was still available on the date of the crash. The plaintiffs proved, however, that it was not. The school district re-designated it as a stop shortly after the student died.
The school district initially denied that the bus stop existed at all and refused to acknowledge or authenticate documents referring to the stop obtained by the plaintiff’s counsel. But after witness depositions revealed that the district instructed officials to routinely destroy documents at the end of every school year, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian S. McCarville ordered a hearing to reconsider the testimony of several school district employees and subsequently found new evidence on a jump drive that was submitted to the court by the school district.
Apparently emails and school bus route maps proving the stop’s existence had been misplaced originally in one of the computer folders on the drive containing attorney-client privileged correspondence and thus had not been found during the discovery phase of the lawsuit by the plaintiff’s counsel.
After the verdict, counsel for the plaintiff in the Chaffey case was quoted as saying, “I think this will be a wake-up call to school districts across the state to make sure they’re doing things legally, appropriately, and safely for the benefit of our children.”
Both of these cases are, indeed, wake-up calls. While Washington, D.C., continues to focus on safety inside the school bus, let’s not lose sight of the fact that children being struck getting on and off school buses remains the cause of more fatalities and many debilitating injuries. We must always maintain a sharp focus on preventing all forms of injury to children entrusted to us every school day.
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