This month our firm settled a horrific case against a major school bus manufacturer for a large amount. Greg Allen, the lead lawyer for the firm in the case, represents the mother of 5-year-old Bissiah who was tragically killed when the rear wheels of his school bus, weighing more than 20,000 pounds, ran over and crushed his head. The bus arrived at the child’s home just before dawn on Oct. 26, 2015. The little boy’s older sister and brother entered the bus first.
Bissiah crossed in front of the bus behind his siblings and his backpack got caught on the crossing arm on the front of the bus. The backpack spilled its contents directly in front of the bus. Bissiah bent over to gather his books. Bissiah’s mother watched in horror as the bus stop lights went off and the crossing arm moved in toward the bumper. The bus started forward and ran over her child. The mother ran out and picked up her dead child, cried, and sang to him while waiting on the authorities to arrive.
The bus driver testified that she saw only two children coming toward the bus and did not see the third child in the cross-view mirrors. There is a blind spot in front of this and other buses that are the kind used by most school districts in the country.
The bus was manufactured in 2002. Bus manufacturers have known since the late 1980s that student detection systems (sensor systems) were available to eliminate the blind spot on the front of buses. Yet, no bus manufacturer had undertaken to install them in 2002. Even today, very few school buses are equipped with a sensor system. There is limited use of this safety device in a couple of states. New Jersey recently enacted Abigail’s Law, which now mandates sensor systems on all new school buses sold in that state. Abigail was a toddler who followed her big sister to the bus. Abigail stopped right in front of the bus as her sister got on the bus. The bus driver never saw Abigail and drove over her. The general assembly of New Jersey realized that this tragedy needed to be addressed and enacted the law mandating sensor systems. The overwhelming majority of school buses on the road today do not have this safety device.
The Alabama School Bus Specifications Committee has never been asked by any school bus company to approve the use of student detection sensors in this state. The committee must approve any new technology. The head of the committee for more than 20 years testified under oath that he had heard of sensors, but that no manufacturer had ever presented the idea to the committee. He said that if it had been presented, the committee would have been very receptive to it.
The Defendant bus company in this case tried to hide behind the fact that the Alabama Bus Specifications Committee had never approved the technology. Judge Steve Perryman was our trial court judge. At the pretrial hearing, Judge Perryman demonstrated clearly that he had read everything filed and understood exactly how the manufacturer was attempting to escape its responsibility. Judge Perryman denied summary judgment, ruling that all the bus manufacturer had to do was ask for this new technology for it to be implemented.
During trial preparation, Greg and Bobby Monzingo, one of our in-house investigators, traveled to New Jersey to test a bus with the Rostra SDS System (Student Detection System). The system worked very well. We were also able to prove that the cross-view mirrors are not reliable and are fraught with hazards. Anything from dust, dirt, ice, snow or even rain could obstruct the mirror or distort the view of students in peril. School bus drivers deal with many distractions. They have to deal with students loading and unloading the bus, traffic in the area and they also have to deal with the discipline of the students already on the bus.
This sensor technology is like an extra set of eyes and emits a visual and audible signal when a student is in a blind spot. It needs to be made mandatory on all school buses by the federal government. Unfortunately, there is little attention being paid to this danger. More than 800 injuries occur from students being run over by their own bus each year in this country. On the average, one to two students die each month in these incidents. Fifty-four percent of the accidents are with children between 5 and 6 years old. The families of the children are devastated by these accidents as well as the bus drivers who have to deal with the guilt of causing an injury or death of a child.
It’s most unfortunate that neither the federal government nor the bus manufacturers have taken the initiative to implement this needed technology on all school buses. Hopefully, this case will shed some light on the safety issue and bring attention to this very significant problem. We have reason to believe that will happen.
The case was settled with the bus company for a large, but confidential, amount, with the understanding that we would not publish the name of the manufacturer. The case was handled by Greg Allen and Stephanie Monplaisir, along with this writer, from our firm; Darron Hendley of Montgomery; and Robert Thompson of Tuskegee, Alabama. Greg did a tremendous job of pre-trial discovery in this case and was able to locate some very important documents and papers written by engineers that helped us greatly. One of the engineers actually worked for the manufacturer. Hopefully, this case will help to bring about the badly needed safety changes in the industry. We have good reason to believe that it will happen.
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