A jury ordered a school bus contractor to pay $36.1 million to the family of a girl struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross to her school bus, which was located at an unsafe stop that the company's bus driver never reported to management.
Six-year-old Isabella Sanchez was attempting to cross the street last October to board her school bus, which was operated by Durham School Services for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. A car passed the bus and struck the girl, throwing her 70 feet into the air. Sanchez suffered a "catastrophic" brain injury as well as fractures to her arm, leg, neck and pelvis. She now requires 24/7 care, according to a statement by her family’s lawyers.
A San Bernardino Superior Court jury last week concluded that the contractor was 50 percent at fault, and its driver was 30 percent at fault. It also placed 20 percent of the blame on Sanchez's mother. The driver of the car that hit the girl was released of liability because it was found that the school bus driver failed to activate the vehicle's flashing red lights and stop arm. The judgment will pay for the Sanchez family for lost income, medical expenses, and physical and mental damages.
The school bus crossing Isabella Sanchez was using, which the lawsuit referred to as "a concealed trap," was located at mid-block because other parents had previously deemed the closest intersection as unsafe. Court testimony claimed that Durham bus drivers repeatedly saw children and parents running across the street to and from the bus stop but did not inform superiors, “which is a blatant violation of their own policies and procedures,” said the Sanchez family’s lawyers.
Spokespersons for both the district and contractor cited pending litigation when declining to comment on which entity approved the school bus stop. Despite the jury’s Sept. 25 ruling, the case remains listed as “active” in the San Bernardino court system.
San Bernardino City USD spokeswoman Linda Bardere explained to STN that the Sanchez family is appealing a judgment rendered on Jan. 29 of last year that released the district from liability in the case. "A ruling is expected sometime next year," she added. "Given that the District still involved in ongoing litigation, we would refrain from commenting at this time.”
Section 10 of the California Vehicle Code requires school districts to approve all school bus stop locations, adding that school bus drivers “should never change the location of a bus stop without written approval from the appropriate school district official.”
On the subject of school bus route review, the 16th National Congress on School Transportation (NCST) wrote in the 2015 National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures handbook that a “periodic review should be conducted for the purpose of identifying factors that might indicate the need for a route change.” Bus stops, it adds, “should be established only after thorough investigation has revealed the location to be the most desirable in the area clear of hazards or dangerous situations.”
The lawsuit also states the bus driver “negligently, carelessly, and/or recklessly” failed to deploy the stop arm or turn on the red signal lights when it stopped, “which was a cause of the collision and subsequent injuries” to Sanchez. The responding police officer on the date of the incident wrote in his report that the school bus driver told him she doesn’t turn on the vehicle's red lights until she sees students ready to cross, and that she didn’t realize Sanchez had been hit until afterward.
California Vehicle Code Division 11 also requires that school bus drivers activate their flashing yellow lights before pulling over at a stop to pick up or discharge students, and that drivers must keep the red flashing lights and stop arm out “at all times when the schoolbus is stopped for the purpose of loading or unloading pupils.”
It further explains that school bus drivers must use a hand-held stop sign and escort all pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students across the road at uncontrolled intersections. This requires drivers to also ensure the keys are removed from the vehicle's ignition before leaving the bus.
The California DMV also advises that students should proceed across the street to board only after being given an all-clear signal by their driver.
NCST also recommends that schools or school districts “should develop age-appropriate training for children who ride buses” that includes travel to and from bus stops, loading and unloading procedures, and behavior at bus stops, among other topics.