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Lawsuits filed in school bus crash, more expected

A Johnson City attorney has filed five lawsuits on behalf of five different families whose children were on board the Washington County school bus that crashed on Sept. 20 in Telford. The crash sent 26 of the 39 students on board to the hospital, many with serious injuries.
Attorney Robert Bates, who works for the Law Offices of Tony Seaton, filed the lawsuits Oct. 15, accusing the Washington County Board of Education of negligence and blaming the school system and its employee for his clients’ injuries.
Each lawsuit claims Brenda K. Gray, of Jonesborough, was driving twice the legal speed limit that day when she approached a hill on Mount Wesley Road. Authorities have confirmed Gray was traveling at a minimum of 57.3 mph on the road, which has a speed limit of 30 mph, at the time of the crash.
According to each lawsuit, Gray “attempted to drive up the hill at such a rate of speed that the bus would come off the ground.”
Rumors have been circling that Gray was trying to “get air” at the encouragement of some of the students on board the bus that afternoon. At a press conference earlier this month, however, District Attorney General Tony Clark said nothing in the investigation had proven, or disproven, that allegation.
All of the students named in the lawsuits reported the same story to attorneys about Gray trying to jump the hill, Bates said in a phone interview Monday morning.
“When you have 20-some odd kids that come up with the same story, that’s a pretty good indication (of its validity),” Bates noted.
The lawsuits also accuse the Washington County Board of Education of negligence, listing several ways in which Bates and his clients believe the school system is guilty of common law negligence.
The suits claim the Board of Education failed to properly supervise, monitor and/or screen its bus drivers and owed a “duty to provide a safe and operable vehicle – without defects – to transport the plaintiff from school.”
According to authorities with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, their investigation revealed no mechanical problems with the bus that was involved in the crash. Clark said the wreck was caused strictly by driver error. The lawsuits, however, allege otherwise.
Bus 88, which was being used in place of the route’s regular bus that day, was “unfit for use,” according to the lawsuits.
“There’s certain guesses we have right now, certain facts that are kind of leading up to that,” Bates said. “We are waiting for our engineer to have access to the bus and reports. They’re not turning that over very willingly right now.”
The lawsuits also accuse the school system of failing to discipline and/or act in a supervisory manner when there were complaints against Gray. In previous interviews, Director of Schools Ron Dykes has said Gray’s personnel file contained no complaints or violations.
Citing specific laws, the filings also place guilt on the Board of Education for Gray’s alleged traffic violations and actions since she was an employee of the school system at the time of the crash. Gray has since been terminated from her job as a bus driver.
According to the lawsuits, however, Gray is “insulated” from being sued in the case. Instead, the Board of Education is considered liable for the “acts and omissions of its employee.”
In total, the five lawsuits, which involve six children and their parents, are asking for a combined $950,000. (See sidebar.)
While it has yet to be determined how the cases will proceed, that total amount is unlikely to be awarded to those filing suit. State statute places a cap on the damages that can be awarded in a case such as this one.
The total amount that can be paid out is a “statutory maximum” of $700,000, according to Earl Booze, attorney for the Washington County Board of Education.
According to Booze, that is the maximum amount of money that will be divided among all those awarded any sort of compensation in the incident. It includes medical expenses as well as any other damages being sought, he said.
“That’s total – all claims of every nature,” he said. “By statute, that’s it.”
According to state government, the monetary limits are in place to ensure individuals injured by negligent local governments will be compensated, but at the same time protect other citizens from experiencing tax increases or reductions in service caused by overblown judgments that would cause an increase in insurance premiums or the unavailablity of coverage.
While Booze said he couldn’t say whether damages would exceed that amount since he had not seen a single medical bill from the crash, one could surmise that the medical bills alone would exceed $700,000. More than two dozen students were transported to area hospitals, many by rescue helicopters. Several students had to undergo at least one surgery and many were hospitalized for consecutive days.
While Bates called the bus crash itself an “injustice,” he said the $700,000 cap only adds insult to injury.
“This cap is probably the bigger injustice. At the end of the day, that to me, is probably the biggest problem,” Bates said. “If you’ve got 42 kids on that bus, and worse case scenario, every one of them passed away, we would have to sit down with these parents and say, ‘Your kid is only worth $16,000. That’s it.’”
Bates said he is examining every possible way to find another avenue to get more money for his clients, some of whom suffered “very, very serious physical injuries,” while others are suffering from “very serious emotional injuries.”
“They’re 15-, 16-year-olds that are probably going to have to deal with this for the rest of their lives,” Bates said. “Some of these kids were pulling other kids from the bus. In the meantime, they were seeing things we wouldn’t even want to see, much less have our children seeing.”
Bates said he expected to file a few more lawsuits on behalf of other students involved in the crash and their families later this week. He also said it would be likely that other lawsuits will be filed in connection with the crash by other area attorneys representing students involved.
According to Booze, the insurance company decides how much, up to the maximum, should be awarded in the case. The court then would decide how much each individual plaintiff would receive.
“It’s not up to the insurance company. It’s not up to the school board,” Booze said. “The court is going to have to determine a fair and equitable way to divvy up the $700,000.”
The process will likely take years, since the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit often does not expire until an individual reaches age 18.
“You could have literally dozens, up to as many students that were on that bus, filing lawsuits,” Booze said. “This thing is going to be around for a long time. It’s going to be going on for years.”