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Texas jury blames bus company for lack of seatbelts

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Texas jury blames bus company for lack of seatbelts

Old 02-13-06, 10:24 AM
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Texas jury blames bus company for lack of seatbelts


It was one of the deadliest bus accidents in recent Texas history. Seven lives lost on a gently rolling stretch of Interstate 35 south of Waco on Valentine's Day 2003.

Five of the dead were elderly bus passengers, members of a Baptist church in Temple headed to a gospel concert in Dallas. Four of the five were ejected during the crash.

None was wearing a safety belt. The bus didn't offer them because federal highway safety regulators had decided safety belts were not necessary.

But a state court jury in Waco has ruled that the regulators are wrong.

In an unprecedented verdict in November, jurors declared that the bus was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked safety belts.

"I think it's huge," Norman Littler, vice president of governmental affairs for the United Motorcoach Association in Washington, D.C., said of the Waco verdict.

The decision shocked the commercial bus industry, which feared it could result in a domino effect of similar claims from passengers killed or injured in future accidents, he said.

"Because what we have here is a corporate defendant in front of a trial judge and jury that is being found guilty of negligence for something that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has repeated multiple times it would provide little, if any, safety benefit," Mr. Littler said.

The Waco jury ordered the bus's manufacturer, Motor Coach Industries Inc., to pay $17.5 million in damages to 19 injured passengers and family members of the deceased.

MCI, based in suburban Chicago, is the nation's leading commercial bus maker. It also made the bus that burned near Dallas in September, killing 23 elderly Hurricane Rita evacuees.

A spokeswoman for MCI, Pat Plodzeen, said the company would appeal. In a statement after the verdict, she said MCI cared deeply about the safety of its passengers and had not been negligent.

Whether or not the verdict stands, it has stunned the American bus industry, which has relied on federal regulations to defeat previous lawsuits that focused on the absence of seat belts.

Mr. Littler contended that buses without safety belts successfully protect passengers from serious injury in the overwhelming majority of accidents through a seating design known as "compartmentalization."

The idea is that high-backed, heavily padded bus seats act as effective shock absorbers in frontal or rear-end crashes, which comprise the bulk of all accidents. Seat belts might not be used or might inflict even greater injuries, the bus industry has argued.

No crash tests
Bus manufacturers have not installed safety belts on their own, Mr. Littler said, because of doubts about their effectiveness and because of the highway safety administration's refusal to conduct crash tests necessary to establish uniform standards.

"We feel that they've left us hanging out here," he said of federal regulators.

If a national standard required safety belts, Mr. Littler said, the bus industry would probably comply, particularly if it was granted the same kind of liability protections granted automakers when Congress ordered air bags in cars.

A spokesman for NHTSA, Rae Tyson, said the agency is aware of the Waco jury verdict but has no plans to alter its position on safety belts in commercial buses.

"Given the overall safety record of motor coaches and school buses, I think the approach has generally worked," Mr. Tyson said.

But, he added, there is nothing to prevent bus makers from acting voluntarily.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates fatal bus accidents, has pushed NHTSA to research or require installation of safety belts for almost 40 years.

"Its been proven in the transportation industry repeatedly that the simplest, least expensive and most effective safety device is a seat belt," said Jim Hall, chairman of the safety board from 1993 to 2001.

Mr. Hall, now a safety consultant in Washington, blamed the lack of responsiveness on the bus industry's political influence and on an overall lack of attention paid to bus accidents, which produce an average of fewer than 20 passenger deaths per year.

Texas recorded only 20 bus passenger deaths in 10 accidents between 1994 and 2004, according to information compiled by NHTSA's Fatal Accident Reporting System.

Mr. Hall applauded the Waco jury's verdict as a common sense decision.

"I hope it has an impact," he said. "I think it certainly could."

The Valentine's Day crash near Hewitt, Texas, was typical of the kinds of accidents that most often kill passengers.

The bus, operated by Central Texas Trails Inc. of Waco, was traveling north in heavy rain and fog when it crested a hill and encountered a traffic backup. Driver Johnny Maxine Cummings braked and changed lanes, sending the bus into a skid.

The bus veered into the grassy median which lacked concrete barriers and crossed into the southbound lanes. It collided with a 2002 Chevrolet Suburban carrying three administrators of McLennan Community College, killing the driver and the front-seat passenger.

The impact spun the bus, and it toppled onto its right side, coming to rest in a shallow drainage ditch off the shoulder of the highway.

One passenger and Mr. Cummings were thrown through the front window. Thirteen other passengers were ejected from side windows that broke when the bus rolled. Those who died all suffered blunt force trauma.

The bus passengers who died were Dolores Hinton, 72, Jo Freeman, 70, Martha McKee, 77, Melvin Akers, 76, and his wife, Delois "Speedie" Akers, 72. They all lived in Temple and were active members of Memorial Baptist Church.

Mrs. Hinton's son, David, said all those who died were special. "She was one of those people who left every place she was better than she found it," he said in an interview Friday.

At the time, the accident accounted for the worst loss of life from a Texas commercial bus accident in at least a decade. Only last fall's bus crash before Hurricane Rita where fire engulfed the interior before its infirmed passengers could be rescued topped the death total.

Bankruptcy filing
Two months after the accident, Mr. Cummings and the owners of Central Texas Trails filed for bankruptcy protection, citing anticipated claims from injured passengers.

The injured and surviving family members of those killed turned to the state court system. Their lawsuit rested on a little-used legal theory that MCI was liable for not exceeding federal minimum safety standards and installing safety belts and laminated windows, which reduce glass shatter.

Tom Brown of Houston, the lead plaintiff's attorney, said he had been looking for the right case to make the point that the lack of safety belts on buses was costing lives.

Everyone on the bus who died in the Hewitt crash probably would have lived had they been kept in their seats or inside the vehicle, Mr. Brown said, adding, "This was such a clear visual example of the need for seat belts."

Only a handful of attorneys had attempted to raise safety belts as an issue in other bus accident lawsuits, Mr. Brown said. None had been successful.

MCI's attorneys argued that the claims of the Hewitt plaintiffs were pre-empted by federal regulations, but state District Judge Jim Meyer allowed the safety belt issue to go to the jury.

At trial, the defense tried to convince jurors that Mr. Cummings' driving errors, not MCI's decision not to install safety belts, were to blame for the passenger deaths.

MCI's national trial counsel, Tony Toups of New Orleans, did not return a phone call. Another defense attorney, state Rep. Jim Dunnam. D-Waco, referred questions about the Hewitt case to attorney Tom Wright of Houston, who declined to comment.

Mr. Brown said he built his case in part around evidence that Australia and the European Union had ordered safety belts installed in buses while U.S. regulators did nothing.

Mr. Littler said that in those instances, politics, not extensive research, drove the decisions.

"They had some bad cases over there, and there was a lot of pressure placed on the legislative bodies there, and they just put them in," he said.

But the foreman, Gary Don Paris of West, said jurors agreed that buses should meet a higher safety standard than the federal minimum.

"My personal view is that everybody has waited for somebody else to do something, and nobody has done nothing for public safety," he told the Waco Tribune-Herald after the verdict.

Derek Gilliland, a Waco plaintiff's lawyer who also teaches a class in product liability at Baylor Law School, said government regulators and the bus industry may ultimately ignore the jury's verdict, but trial attorneys will be paying attention.

"Everybody knows McLennan County juries are conservative and don't award a lot of money," he said. "And so people are going to notice it, because here's one where they did."
I've always thought it was insane that seatbelts were deemed unnecessary on busses. I think this jury has set a good precedent and hopefully it will get the law changed. If not, I don't know that any new bus will come without as a result.

What are your thoughts?
Old 02-13-06, 10:26 AM
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I'm not sure I agree with the lawsuit but I think it's a shame that the bus company openly admits that they aren't interested in safety unless the government forces it on them.
Old 02-13-06, 10:28 AM
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so what happens if a seatbelt breaks and someone can't get out of a bus and burns to death?
Old 02-13-06, 11:15 AM
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I always thought that one reason school buses don't have seatbelts is because they could slow down children from getting off a bus - in the case of a fire or stuck on RR tracks or something.
Old 02-13-06, 11:53 AM
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It's the same way with asbestos - despite the fact that companies met the government regulations for dust levels and air quality, they were sued out of existence.

I guess the point is that regardless of what the safety regulations say, if you have reason to believe differently then you have a duty to protect against the hazard. That's what this jury says anyway.
Old 02-13-06, 11:56 AM
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Originally Posted by Groucho
I'm not sure I agree with the lawsuit but I think it's a shame that the bus company openly admits that they aren't interested in safety unless the government forces it on them.
than what's the point of government regulation?
Old 02-20-06, 05:04 PM
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There was a bus crash in Oklahoma this weekend that killed 2, one a boy that was thrown from the bus and crushed him. Maybe it is time to add seatbelts to buses, at least give people the option of using them.
Old 02-20-06, 06:48 PM
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"My personal view is that everybody has waited for somebody else to do something, and nobody has done nothing for public safety," he told the Waco Tribune-Herald after the verdict.

Should a guy who can't string a sentence together really be trusted to decide matters of this import?

While I've never understood the lack of a seatbelt requirement for buses, the laminated glass stuff is a step overboard. One, using glass that doesn't come out may make it more dangerous for bus passengers, especially when the time comes to escape the bus, and 2. The standard should never be that anything less than the safest possible design means the company was negligent. They could take out windows altogether and replace them with armored steel. That would be safer and prevent passenger ejections, but every bus manufacturer that doesn't do that isn't negligent, in my opinion.

There was a bus crash in Oklahoma this weekend that killed 2, one a boy that was thrown from the bus and crushed him. Maybe it is time to add seatbelts to buses, at least give people the option of using them.

It may be time, but I don't think offering them will prevent lawsuits like this. Ford lost a lawsuit last year in which the driver/passengers were not only not wearing seatbelts, but were also speeding and over-the-legal limit for intoxication. They rolled their car and were ejected. The jury decided that the lack of laminated glass was 90% responsible for the accident/deaths.

Last edited by BigDan; 02-20-06 at 06:50 PM.
Old 02-20-06, 11:10 PM
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One of the problems is that when you have small companies (like this bus company) they must rely on the government for safety advise. Why? They do not have the money/resources to research this type of stuff. Nor can they afford to do their own testing. They must rely on 3rd party available information and this mainly comes from the government.

Another example: say a mom and pop want to open a restaurant. They do not have the knowledge, resources, or testing ability to figure out the "safest" way to install ventilation in the kitchen. They rely on local codes, federal safety guidelines, OSHA rules and instructions from the makers of the kitchen equipment.

I for one do not want some yahoo who opens a business deciding what is or is not safe. I want the experts to decide

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