Fatal School Bus Crash: Can District Be Liable for Driver’s Intentional Tort?

A community has been left devastated after six young children were killed and several others seriously injured in a school bus crash on a recent Monday morning in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their pain has been even more exacerbated by the fact that this may not have been some terrible error in judgment but instead a calculated, intentional act. school bus

According to CNN, the driver of the bus has been charged with numerous counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. The bus reportedly slammed into a tree and split apart. Moments before the collision, the traumatized children told their parents and investigators, the 24-year-old driver had shouted, “Are ya’ll ready to die?!” He was reportedly traveling well over the 30-mph speed limit when he took a hard right turn and lost control of the bus, which did not have seat belts. It took hours to extricate all of the children from the mangled mass of metal after the crash. Five children died at the scene, and another was pronounced dead at the hospital. A total of 23 children were on the bus. Six children are in critical condition.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has launched an investigation into the crash and will be looking at what, if anything, could have been done to prevent this tragedy. If the children’s accounts are true, and these injuries and deaths were results of an intentional act, that could complicate any pending personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

A number of media outlets reported parents complained that this particular driver’s bus was speeding through the neighborhood in the weeks prior to the crash, although the school board refused to confirm the veracity of those reports.

The driver was employed by an independent bus contractor. Normally, companies and agencies can’t be held liable for the actions of a contractor or its employees, but it depends on the nature of the relationship and how much control the agency had over the day-to-day duties of the workers.

When it comes to employer-employee relationships, the doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer“) allows employers to be held vicariously liable for the actions of workers, even if the company didn’t actually do anything wrong. Usually, in order for this to apply, the worker must be acting in the course and scope of employment. But can an intentional act of wrongdoing fall under the “course and scope of employment?”

The question often at that point becomes whether the employer ratified the employee’s acts. Ratification could take a number of forms, and it could be either express or implied. One can make the argument that an employer ratified an employee’s wrongful acts if the company failed to fully investigate certain circumstances after being informed of a worker’s actions or concerns about the employee’s work. It may also be a failure to repudiate the worker’s conduct by redressing the harm or a failure to terminate a worker after learning about potentially dangerous conduct.

In this case, CBS News reports the driver’s license had been suspended for a month in 2014 for a failure to show proof of insurance. In September, he reportedly swiped a car with his bus, causing minor damage. The school district insists it could not have disciplined or fired the driver even if it wanted to do so, since he was not an employee.

However, one could make the argument the district failed to closely examine the safety history of its contractor. Federal data reveals the contractor, which operates 13,700 commercial vehicles and drivers across the U.S., has had nearly 350 crashes over the course of two years, including 142 resulting in injuries and three that resulted in deaths.

School bus accidents are relatively rare, and they can be complicated cases owing to issues with sovereign immunity. Only experienced commercial vehicle accident attorneys should be trusted to pursue them.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Tennessee school bus crash probe finds no alcohol, drugs in Johnthony Walker’s blood, Nov. 23, 2016, CBS News

More Blog Entries:

Feds: School Bus Driver in Fatal Crash Took Seizure Meds, Nov. 21, 2016, Charlotte Bus Accident Lawyer Blog

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