Merced Co., Ca Bus Crash and Bus Accident Law

Michael GrossmanAugust 17, 2016 9 minutes

On August 2nd, an Autobuses Coordinados USA bus travelling from Mexico to Seattle crashed near Livingston, California, in Merced County. The accident resulted in the deaths of 4 people, with as many as 21 more suffering significant injuries including amputations. According to media reports, rescue workers were literally bagging up body parts of injured people in the aftermath of the accident.

The accident occurred on Highway 99, one mile before the bus was due to stop and change drivers. For unknown reasons, the driver, Mario David Vasquez, 57, lost control of the bus, which careened full-speed into a highway exist sign. The pole from the sign sheered a path down one side of the bus, likely resulting in the amputation injuries.

In addition to being a tragic loss of life and numerous disfiguring injuries, this case touches on many aspects of bus accident law and highlights the dangers of bus travel.

A diagram of the bus accident in Merced Co., CA 8/2/2016

Questions Surround Autobuses Coordinados USA

When an accident like this happens, where a bus simply veers off of the side of the road, suspicion first falls on the bus driver. As the driver of the bus, the bus driver has the clearest duty to ensure that the passengers arrive at their destination safely. Part of this duty is making sure that they are fit for driving. As of right now there is nothing to suggest that the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident, although toxicology screening will be forthcoming.

Several news sources report that Mr. Garcia was ticketed in 2014 for driving a bus more than 15 miles over the speed limit. Because of speeding so recklessly, Mr. Vasquez' CDL was suspended. He was later ticketed for driving on a suspended license.

There are reports in some outlets that Mr. Vasquez had recently lost his wife and had not been sleeping well, but those close to the family insist that Mr. Vasquez would not drive unless he was fit for duty. However, the fact that Mr. Vasquez had previously lost his license, but continued to drive anyway must lead us to discount the family's assertion that Mr. Vasquez would not driver unless it was safe to do so. Since we don't know what actually happened that caused Mr. Vasquez to lose control of the bus, many questions remained unanswered.

What makes the case more suspicious are the 7 safety citations that Autobuses Coorinados USA received over the past couple of years, while operating the particular bus that crashed Tuesday. The most serious of the citations issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) include the lack of a brake-warning device, issues with maintenance records, and even aisle seats. The safety violations were not confined to the bus in question, but appear to have been widespread throughout the fleet, since news media outlets are reporting dozens of other violations on other buses. By any reasonable assessment, Autobuses Coorinados USA is not the safest company on the road.

Legal Issues Surrounding the Crash

I would like to preface these remarks by pointing out the accident investigation is ongoing and that the Autobuses Coorinados USA deserves the presumption of innocence. Despite their past safety issues, it is possible that they are not responsible for the crash, however slim that possibility might be since they employed the driver and were responsible for the maintenance of the bus.

When most people see an accident like this, their initial response is that the people who are injured are going to become rich. The way bus accident law works and the facts of this particular accident make that highly unlikely. For starters, buses that carry more than 16 passengers in the United States are required by federal law to carry at least $5 million in insurance. That may seem like a lot of money, until you realize that 4 people died and there are reports of multiple people who suffered amputations.

Early reports indicate that only 5 of the buses approximately 30 passengers escaped without injury. That means that roughly 2 dozen people have potential personal injury claims. For an accident of this severity, it is likely that each of those people has tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, lost wages, and for those who have suffered amputations, long recovery times and the possibility that they may not be able to work like they could before.

To see just how quickly $5 million can disappear, let's assume that each of the 20 or so people who were injured has an average of $200,000 in medical bills. That's $4 million dollars right there, without considering lost wages, or compensating the families who have lost loved ones. In serious bus accidents, like this one in Livingston, it is pretty likely that someone is going to be injured, but not compensated for their injuries.

Most people will wonder, what about the company's assets? Can't victims get money from the company, in excess of the $5 million. The answer to that question is, it's complicated. Most companies don't just leave large amounts of cash sitting in the bank. Further, the usual reason that many companies cut back on safety and accrue numerous violations, like Autobuses Coorinados, is because there is financial pressure on the company. While injury lawyers will track down any potential source of money in order to ensure that their clients get all of the compensation they deserve under the law, beyond the insurance money, there is no dedicated source of funding for any potential judgments. This is how people end up not receiving compensation.

We point this out, because it stands in stark contrast to the public perception that everyone on the bus is going to end up rich. The question then becomes, who receives compensation? The vast majority of people in a bus accident will assume that the insurance company has to pay them for their injuries. This is a bad assumption. Insurance companies indemnify or stand in for their policy-holders after an accident. Nothing compels them to pay anything. Just like the policy-holder they are shielding, they have the presumption of innocence. Any damages have to be proven before a jury, or the insurance company has to agree to a negotiated settlement. Those are they only two way that victims get compensation.

Futhermore, there is nothing that compels an insurance company to disclose the value of the insurance policy in an accident like this or to tell victims how much money has already been paid out. In many instances, getting compensation comes down to whomever gets an attorney that works that best, the fastest. Once the money runs out, it is most likely gone, and along with it, the means to compensate the injured.

While the aftermath of a bus accident, especially like the one that occurred in Merced County can be complex, it is not a hopeless situation for injured victims or the families of the deceased.

Other Strategies for Maximizing Victim Compensation

Many people assume that after an accident lawyers just look for whomever has the deepest pockets and file suit against that person. That makes for some nice Hollywood scripts, but the problem for real lawyers is that it doesn't matter how well off a person, business, or government entity is, a lawyer still has to prove negligence in a courtroom.

If it were just about deep pockets, then every personal injury attorney in the country would name Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg in every lawsuit where the real negligent party doesn't have enough assets to pay for all of the damages they caused. This doesn't happen for two reasons. First, billionaires have nothing to do with most of the accidents that occur in this country. Secondly, and far more important to most attorneys, bringing patently absurd litigation against innocent parties is a fantastic way to lose your license to practice law. So it stands to reason that if lawyers really were the "greedy bloodsuckers" of popular mythology, the last thing they would do is engage in professionally self-destructive behavior.

However, other parties are brought into lawsuits all the time, because their actions contributed to an accident, or increased its severity. This is why the best attorneys formulate their legal strategy once they have conducted a thorough, professional investigation, which gathers all of the facts.

Two potential outside actors may have liability in a bus accident case, like the one in Livingston, California, the manufacturer of the bus and whichever government entity is in charge of maintaining the highway.

One reason to look into the manufacturer is to see whether there is a design defect in the bus. From the pictures of the accident, the pole that the bus struck cut right down the middle of the bus, almost sheering it in two. Had a passenger car struck the same pole at the same speed, safety features on the car most likely would have enabled it absorb the impact, before the sign-post could sheer it in two. For whatever reason, bus manufacturers seem to get a pass when it comes to the inherently dangerous designs of their buses.

Such an approach has two legal hurdles. The first is known as the statute of repose. This term of art generally applies to products liability cases. Lawmakers agree that it is unfair to hold manufacturers liable for products that were made decades ago. Technologies will evolve and it is inherently unfair to compare the safety record of something made with early 1990s technology to something manufactured today.

In Texas, the statute of repose is 15 years. The bus involved in the Merced County accident was manufactured in 1998, which means that if the accident was governed by Texas law, there would be no liability for the manufacturer. However, this case occurred in California, where the laws are a touch different. Under California law, the statute of repose is only 10 years. It seems like any claim there is gone, but for the fact that California law has what is known as a "discovery rule." This means that the clock doesn't actually start ticking until the product's user becomes aware of the defect. For most of the passengers on the Autobuses Coorinados USA bus, the accident was most likely the first time they became aware of any issues with the bus.

While this may admittedly sound like a long-shot theory, it is worth investigating its viability in a case like the Livingston bus accident, since there doesn't appear to be enough money to go around. Of course, it would only add to the pool of available if there is in fact something defective about the bus' design. Additionally, if the bus' design contributed to the severity of the injuries (and I am not saying that it did), it would be wrong to ignore one negligent party, just because their is a more obviously negligent party.

In a similar vein, the design of the roadway, particularly the construction of the pole that the bus struck should also be investigated. The first step would be to determine weather the road is maintained by the federal, state, or county government. While most people may not realize it, many poles along the side of highways are designed to give way on impact. This lessons the risk of injuries for passengers. When poles don't behave the way the are supposed and increase the severity of the injuries in a crash, it is possible for a premises liability claim to arise against the government entity in charge of maintaining the roadway.

This may strike some as a bridge too far, but the fact of the matter is that governments are subject to the same premises liability laws that the rest of us are. One of the positive benefits of holding municipalities responsible for maintaining safe roads is that they have a financial incentive to keep roads from falling into disrepair. Additionally, it prevents short-cuts in the road-building process that could endanger motorists for years to come.

Certainly, an argument could be made the the particular sign post involved in this accident should not have given way, since it would bring the sign it was supporting crashing down, but that is a question that is answered during the investigative process.

Holding People Accountable Means Following the Evidence

As I mentioned before, bus accidents are a very complex area of the law. The potential for large numbers of victims and relatively scant resources with which to compensate them makes these cases very trying for everyone involved.

The key to maximizing compensation is not only to legal counsel experienced with this area of the law, but also to make sure that they are committed to thoroughly investigating events. The mistake that many inexperienced attorneys make is to see the insurance money and go after the low-hanging fruit. While bus accident lawsuits are ultimately about getting compensation for victims, they are also about holding all of the bad actors accountable. This could be the bus operator, a manufacturer, a trucking company, or even a municipality.

The problem with allowing one negligent party to escape without consequences is that they'll continue with their negligent behavior until the next accident comes along. While some may see this line of thinking as another example of someone in the legal profession looking to get paid as much as possible, the truth is that holding wrong-doers accountable is an intensive process that many law firms simply don't have time for. Many firms have a business model that revolves around getting as much money as they can, as quickly as they can. As a consequence, these firms may make more money for themselves over time, but they short-change their clients and the public at-large, who benefit from the accountability that lawsuits force onto the bad actors in our community.

Seen in this light, it is the firms who stress putting their clients first, who thoroughly investigate every aspect of an accident, and hold all of the negligent parties accountable that best serve their clients and the public.

While it is still too soon to know the exact circumstances surrounding the Autobuses Coorinados USA bus accident in Merced Co., it is very likely that what will emerge will be filled with many interesting legal questions for the victims and their attorneys as they pursue justice.