Earlier this month, a school bus crash in Chattanooga, TN claimed the lives of five elementary school children and seriously injured twenty-three others. The driver of the school bus was evidently speeding when he lost control of the bus and crashed. He was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide.
Passen & Powell’s commercial vehicle accident lawyers discuss several questions raised by this latest high-profile bus crash:
Should the bus driver’s employer have prevented this crash from occurring?
Clearly, the bus driver is at fault for reckless conduct in operating the school bus. The next question becomes, should he have been employed as a school bus driver?
The bus driver involved in this crash was employed by Durham School Services, a school bus transportation company headquartered in Downers Grove, Illinois. Under a theory of vicarious liability or “respondeat superior,” the employer is responsible for negligent or reckless acts committed by its employees who are acting within the scope of their employment. It would appear based on this theory of liability alone that the bus driver shares some liability for this crash.
Further liability would attach to Durham if it knew or should have known that this bus driver was unqualified or unfit to drive the bus, and failed to exercise its authority to discipline or terminate his employment. Such theories of liability may include “negligent hiring,” “negligent retention” or “negligent supervision.” Early reports suggest that the bus driver had been involved in one previous accident without any injuries, and that his licence had previously been suspended for failure to show proof of insurance.
Would Seat Belts Have Minimized the Children’s Injuries?
This bus — like most school buses — was not equipped with seat belts. This crash begs the question of whether the children’s injuries could have been minimized if they were wearing seat belts.
Seat belts have been required on passenger cars since 1968, and continue to play an important role in protecting the safety of occupants involved in motor vehicle crashes. The reasoning behind not requiring seat belts on school buses is that they are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than cars. Accordingly, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided that school bus design without seat belts was adequate to provide occupant protection, and that the addition of lap belts did not improve occupant protection for severe frontal impacts.
This recent crash calls those findings into question, and the NHTSA would be well-served to consider recommending a federal mandate for installation of seat belts on school buses.
Are the Families’ Damages Capped by an Arbitrary Limit, and if so, Why?
Families of the five children killed in the Chattanooga bus crash are limited to receiving $750,000 in damages under Tennessee law. That is because Tennessee’s legislature enacted “tort reform” to protect businesses and the insurance industry at the expense of ordinary people whose lives have been ruined by negligent or reckless conduct. That state has decided to place an arbitrary $750,000 cap on “non-economic” damages — such as pain and suffering, loss of society, loss of normal life, disfigurement, grief and sorrow, emotional distress, etc. — in personal injury lawsuits.
Damage caps, such as those in Tennessee, have been held unconstitutional by various state supreme courts, and are arguably in violation of the United States Supreme Court, which guarantees the right to have a jury decide all facts — which would include a dollar figure commensurate with the nature and extent of injuries in the case.
Fortunately, for Illinois residents and those of us practicing there, the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional efforts by the Chamber of Commerce, medical and insurance industries to place arbitrary limits on damages in personal injury and medical malpractice cases.
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