On November 21, 2016, a bus carrying 35 Chattanooga city school children crashed in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This caused six students to pass away and many others to be injured. The bus driver, Johnthony Walker was subsequently arrested and charged with vehicular homicide and reckless driving. Witnesses and a subsequent investigation revealed that the school bus was traveling well in excess of the posted 30 mph speed limit at the time of the collision. Documents also allege that students and parents had complained about the driver’s conduct prior to this incident, including erratic driving and cursing at students. He had also been involved in a wreck two months prior.
The bus driver was employed by Durham School Services which is headquartered in Warrenville, Illinois. Durham has over 13,000 vehicles with multiple school bus contracts in Tennessee, including Shelby County and Hamilton County. Durham also employs approximately 13,000 bus drivers. Unfortunately, this bus accident was not an isolated incident. Between 2014 and 2016, Durham School Services has been involved in over 340 accidents, with over 200 requiring at least one car involved to be towed. Injuries were reported in 142 of the crashes. In Tennessee alone, Durham had 36 bus accidents involving injuries. In the same 24 month period, Durham vehicles were subject to over 5,000 inspections.
With far too many school bus accidents occurring year after year, this begs the question: “Are school buses safe?” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 30,000 people are killed annually in traffic accidents. School bus accidents tend to affect younger victims. Between 2000-2009, 43% of school-age pedestrians killed in school-transportation related crashes were between the ages of 5 and 7.
In Tennessee, Respondeat Superior is a legal doctrine that can hold an employer or principal legally responsible for the wrongful acts of an employee or agent, if such acts occur within the scope of the employment or agency. Frequently, employers will argue that the employee’s actions were outside the scope of the terms of the employment agreement (i.e. illegal acts, violations of company policy, etc.). It is critical during an accident investigation to not only review the incident in question, but also the employer’s response in prior instances. Did the employer fail to properly document or enforce company policy, or is there a history of passively or selectively enforcing policy and standards?
Tennessee attorneys and courts are to abide by the Tennessee Rules of Evidence, which can impact what evidence may be introduced or excluded at trial. Attorneys representing the injured and deceased children of a bus accident will vigorously appeal to the judge to admit evidence of Durham drivers’ negligent acts and the company’s permissive management style. On the other hand, the bus company, as well as the school district, will argue such information is inflammatory, prejudicial or otherwise irrelevant in the prosecution of the case. This information will not only be critical as to the Defendants’ respective liability, but the insurance policies available to compensate the injured parties.
When choosing an attorney in a school bus accident case, it is critical that they are well-versed in the multiple local, state and federal rules regulating school buses and the supervising agencies responsible for their enforcement. Furthermore, comprehensive investigations into a company’s adherence to these regulations and employee management and discipline are crucial as well. Failure to do so may result in establishing important elements of your injury case, resulting in a significant loss of value or outright dismissal of the claim.
If you have been hurt in a bus or truck accident in Tennessee, call Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz at 1-800-LAW-4004. Our lawyers represent people injured throughout Tennessee, including Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.