A horrific school bus crash in Tennessee made international headlines when the driver, ferrying 37 children, strayed from the route and crashed, leaving six children dead and dozens injured. Questions have been raised as to whether the 24-year-old driver intentionally crashed the bus and whether the district should have been aware that he was a possible risk on the road.
The reality is that school bus accidents – especially fatal ones – aren’t all that common. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that between 20004 and 2013, there were 1,214 school-transportation related fatal crashes. Approximately 134 people die in school vehicle-related crashes and about 8 percent of those are actually on the bus. About one-fifth are pedestrians and bicyclists. Most are people in other vehicles.
In the recent Florida case of Davis v. Baez, plaintiff was a student pedestrian who was injured when she was struck by another vehicle while crossing a darkened, busy street early one morning to get to her bus stop. Normally, the school bus driver wouldn’t be liable in a case like this, but the driver – allegedly and against the school district’s policy – instructed students at this particular stop to cross the street and be waiting for him at the bus stop on the east side of the street when he arrived. He told them if they didn’t cross before he got there, he wouldn’t stop to pick them up. However, school policy required that the students be allowed to wait on the east side of the street until the bus arrived, at which time the driver would extend his flashing stop sign to halt traffic in both directions so students could cross safely to the stop.
Plaintiff was an 18-year-old student, a senior at Sunset Senior High in Miami-Dade. The crash occurred around 5:50 a.m., and it was still dark out. She and her brother were assigned to that stop. Her brother had just barely crossed safely and watched on as his sister was hit. Plaintiff suffered serious personal injuries as a result of the accident.
The student took legal action against both the school board and the bus driver for not instructing her and her brother to wait on the west side of the road until the bus arrived at the designated stop, halted traffic and activated the bus’s red flashing lights and “STOP” arm so the two could safely cross.
The school district and the driver asserted sovereign immunity and the trial court granted the district summary judgment.
Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the claim against the school board, but that was affirmed.
She later appealed only the claim against the driver individually. The driver affirmed in his deposition that he had told plaintiff and her brother to be waiting on the east side of the street and that if they weren’t already there, he wouldn’t wait for them to cross so he could pick them up. Further, the bus route manager for the district testified that not only were children allowed to wait on the west side of the street, but that it was proper procedure for them to do so.
F.S. 768.28(9)(a) extends sovereign immunity protection to employees of a government agency so long as the worker was acting in the course and scope of his or her employment or function, unless the act was in bad faith or malicious or exhibited wanton and willful disregard for human safety.
In this case, according to the Third District Court of Appeals, there was a genuine dispute of fact as to whether, by voluntarily requiring the students to cross the street before the bus arrived, he created a foreseeable zone of risk and thus owed a duty to plaintiff and was not shielded by sovereign immunity laws. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Davis v. Baez, Nov. 9, 2016, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal
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