Who is Liable in a School Bus Crash and How Are Damages Paid?

School Bus Crash Takes Life of Girl Near Dallas

A bus taking 42 students home last week ran off of the road in Mesquite and slammed into an electric pole. The school bus crash caused it to flip over and burst into flames from the impact with the power line. A 12-year-old girl was trapped inside and tragically died.

Three children, three police officers, and the 67-year-old bus driver were rushed to local hospitals, fortunately with non serious injuries according to the Mesquite Police Department. A young man on the bus heroically saved many of the students. It is truly a miracle that more children did not perish. Adding to the heart-breaking story, the sister of the girl was also on the bus.

Police do not know what caused this tragic collision. It will take a detailed investigation and perhaps a trial to resolve who is at fault and the amount of monetary damages paid to the surviving family and injured people.

It can sometimes be difficult to determine exactly who or what caused a vehicle crash. This process of determining fault is complicated since Texas employs the doctrine of comparative negligence. That weighs the liability of all involved parties. One person must be more than 50% at fault. If there are two parties that contributed to the accident and the jury finds each is one-half to blame, the plaintiff recovers none of his or her damages.

But especially when the worst nightmare imaginable — the death of a child — happens, we need to learn from the mistakes made so we can stop this from happening again. Statistics show that there are far too many children who die in school bus crashes. From 2006 to 2015, 301 children perished while sitting on the bus, sitting in cars hit by buses, or riding bicycles or walking to school.

These are the people or companies that might be responsible in this horrible collision:

1. The driver

What caused the bus to leave the roadway? Was the driver paying attention to the road or was he distracted, perhaps by children or his cell phone? This is the critical question that we do not have the answer to.

If he is solely responsible, this would be just another example of the problem with poorly qualified and trained school bus drivers over the years.  However, the school district was quick to note that he had been driving for it since 2011 and had not been involved in a collision before.

The most recent example of a commercial vehicle disaster was on Saturday when the unlicensed driver of a unsafe limousine crashed in New York, killing 20 people.

2. The school district

Parents obviously expect school districts to transport their children to and from school safely. When a school bus accident occurs, the school district is usually the first party blamed for the accident.

The investigation needs to determine whether the bus had all of the required safety features.

Furthermore, we need to know if it had been properly maintained by an ASE-certified repairman.

The school district can also be found liable if it employed an unqualified driver, failed to properly train or supervise him, or allowed him to continue driving after it knew or should have known that he was unqualified.

How do you know if the driver is unqualified? These are the requirements in Texas to drive a school bus:

  • Acceptable check of driving record – before employment and annually
  • Commercial driver’s license and school bus endorsement
  • Department of Transportation physical examination and drug screen
  • Classroom training – 20 hours
  • Driving test
  • Evaluation by a different trainer
  • Final approval by Texas DOT

An injury lawyer representing the family of the deceased or the injured passengers will subpoena the driver’s file, take his deposition, and determine whether he was qualified.

3. The bus company

Sometimes a school district subcontracts the driving to a transportation company, partly to insulate itself from liability.  Unless the district negligently chose the private company, it is not liable.

A personal injury lawyer will subpoena the contract with the outside company and investigate whether there is any negligence involved.

For example, the Dallas Independent School District just dissolved its previous bus company after the voters refused to continue to fund it after years of safety and financial problems. With only one month before school started this August, DISD still lacked several hundred drivers.

4. The State of Texas or Dallas County

The Dallas News  further reported that the road where the crash occurred has had many collisions before.  A neighbor said that the road sharply goes to the left and then to the right. Further, it is a narrow two lane road with electric and telephone poles only a foot from the right side and has no shoulder. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, there have been 68 crashes on that stretch of the road since 2010.

However, under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the government agency that built the road is often shielded from liability. A car accident lawyer will research the road design and obtain critical evidence regarding the road design, measurements, hills, lines of sight, and driver perception to build a case.

But not every road defect is legally dangerous, including small pavement drop offs of two inches or less.

6. The manufacturer or repair company

There is no evidence that this happened here, but sometimes bus accidents are caused by a defective part that suddenly malfunctions, including brakes, tires or engine parts. A product liability lawsuit could be pursued if there was evidence of this fact.

How school bus crash cases differ from typical vehicle collision cases

If you believe that you have a claim for negligence against a school district or other responsible person who caused a school bus crash, you need to hire a personal injury attorney who knows the specialized rules and procedures that govern these cases. They are regulated by the Texas Tort Claims Act, which greatly restricts the right to sue the government or one of its agencies. Here’s how this legal process differs from most injury cases.

  • Proving fault

Usually, it is impossible to sue the government. This goes back to English common law where it was held that the king could do no wrong. The concept is called sovereign immunity. However there are two exceptions in Texas. One allows individuals to file a lawsuit against a governmental entity if its vehicle has caused an injury. There are strict requirements under this law that must be followed.

  • Providing notice

The individual must give notice in writing within six months of the collision, and sometimes sooner. Certain information must also be provided. The failure to provide the notice will result in the lawsuit being dismissed unless the injured party can prove that the agency had actual notice, but this can is often contested.

  • Calculating the amount of damages

It is often difficult to assess how much money the claim is worth, but regardless of the extent of injury or even, as here, a death, the amount of damages is capped at $100,000 per person and $300,000 per collision against the school district or governmental agency. There may be sources of recovery available.

  • Filing a lawsuit and going to trial

Depending on the facts of the case, after a thorough investigation is done, one should begin the litigation process since achieving a favorable out of court settlement with a governmental unit can be difficult, if not impossible.

Recent Texas case where a child died after riding on a school but school district prevailed in court

Cases like the Mesquite collision can be hyper technical and difficult to win.  For example, earlier this year a Texas court of appeals sided with the school district and affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the parents of a severely disabled child. The third grader had to be lifted on and off the bus in his wheelchair on an electric ramp. One day he lapsed into a state of unconsciousness. The bus suddenly stopped near a hospital so that an ambulance could take him there. Sadly, the boy soon died.

The parents claimed that the driver had caused their child’s death by driving recklessly, going too fast over speed bumps, and not properly securing him. Further, the driver could have immediately driven the boy to the hospital and possibly saved his life, but stopping and waiting for an ambulance took an extra seven minutes. The appellate court somehow said that the boy’s death was caused by the non use of the bus and allowed the lawsuit to be dismissed. The parents have appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

We can help you

You should consult with a lawyer who specializes in personal injury cases. Berenson Injury Law has handled all kinds of vehicle collision cases over the last 38 years and has filed lawsuits and recovered damages against school districts. companies, and individual drivers. We recently obtained the maximum amount available from a local school district after filing a lawsuit. Please contact us if need legal help with any vehicle accident case.

For more on this topic:

Why are so many children getting injured on school buses?

School bus drivers breaking traffic laws in Dallas; hundreds fired or suspended


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