What does Texas law say about school bus accidents?
The September 2015 Houston school bus tragedy, which claimed the lives of 2 students and injured 2 more, plus the bus driver, briefly catapulted the issue of school bus safety into the spotlight. The accident proved a stark reminder that school bus accidents do happen and often with deadly consequences.
Certainly, all accidents are not as catastrophic as the bus accident in Houston, but while they receive less media attention, bus accidents happen everyday around the country. In almost all of these accidents, the result is that the family of the injured child files a lawsuit, but shockingly few people are aware of how what the law in Texas and other states is regarding bus accidents. The truth can be quite shocking.
Grossman Law Offices has represented children injured in bus, car, and truck accidents for over 25 years. In that time we have helped countless families maximize the compensation an injured child was able to recover after an accident. In this article we will discuss how the law treats school bus accidents.
Questions answered on this page:
- Who is generally responsible in a school bus accident?
- What is the difference between an actionable injury and one where the child cannot receive compensation?
- How does the Texas Tort Claims Act limit liability for school districts?
- How can manufacturers sometimes be at fault for a school bus accident?
- How can an experienced school bus accident attorney help maximize the value of your case?
Who is responsible for my child's bus accident injury?
When determining who is responsible for your child's accident, it is first necessary to determine whether your child's injuries were the result of an accident, or just something that occurred on a bus. There are a lot of folks under the mistaken assumption that just because an injury happens on a school bus, the school district is liable for any damages. We have heard of people attempting to recover because their child had a seizure on a school bus, or was injured exiting the back of a bus during a mandatory evacuation drill.
In such instances, there is no negligent behavior on anyone's part, which contributed to the child's injury. Like any other accident, the only way for an injured child to recover compensation is to prove someone else's negligence contributed to their accident. The most common responsible parties for a child's school bus accident include:
The school bus driver and school district
Quite often the bus driver is responsible for the accident. This is not to pick on the bus drivers, the vast majority of whom are responsible drivers, just looking to make a few extra bucks. However, the low pay and lax screening processes in many districts for school bus drivers means that invariably some dangerous and unqualified drivers will slip through the cracks. Just like with good car drivers, even good bus drivers will sometimes make mistakes that lead to accidents.
Since most bus drivers are usually the employee of a school district, it is the school district who is ultimately liable when a school bus driver negligently causes an accident, due to the doctrine of respondeat superior. Respondeat superior simply means that when a person is acting on someone else's behalf, the person on whose behalf they are acting shares liability.
Sometimes an accident can occur because parts on the school bus were not properly maintained, such as headlights, turn signals, warning lights or even brakes. If the school district performs its own maintenance, then the school board could be liable if it failed to properly maintain the school bus and that led to the accident. Given the increasing financial pressures that most school districts find themselves under, bus maintenance may not be the priority it should be.
Maintenance related accidents can include falls from improperly maintained aisles, lacerations from loose metal components of windows or springs in seats with damaged upholstery. In all of these scenarios, it is quite likely that the school district would have some liability.
In other instances, school districts contract out maintenance to an outside vendor. It those instances, liability for poorly maintained vehicles may rest with the outside vendor.
When the school is liable, the only way to recover money is through a lawsuit against the school district. However, since schools are part of the government, these lawsuits have extra restrictions under the Texas Tort Claims Act, which will be discussed at greater length below.
The school bus manufacturer
While no one suggests that school buses should all contain state of the art technology and cost so much that no school district could actually afford to buy one, as a whole school buses are among the worst made vehicles on the road. Many do not even incorporate 60 year old safety innovations, like seat belts. When poor design or shoddy manufacturing leads to children being injured, it could be that the manufacturer is to blame.
Certainly, school bus manufacturing has made great strides in the past 30 years. Bus seats are no longer made out of highly flammable material like they once were and buses come with far more mirrors to minimize blind spots. That being said, one cannot be struck by the dissonance between all of the money that is spent on schools and other programs to prepare children to become productive adults and the substandard vehicles, which are used to get them to these schools and programs.
When the manufacturer is to blame in your child's injury case, their personal injury case is pursued as a products liability claim against the manufacturer, which means your lawyer has to prove that it was their negligent manufacturing and design processes, which were responsible for your child's injuries.
As we said before, not all school bus accidents are the fault of the school bus driver. Many times it is another motorist who crashes into the bus, or forces the bus off a road. In these instances it would be the other driver whose negligent behavior that injured your child.
These cases proceed like any other car accident, with the caveat that given the number of other children who can potentially also be injured in such accidents, there is usually a very limited pool of money to make everyone whole.
On top of that, insurance companies will do their best to blame the accident on the bus, to shield them from liability. In such instances, the only way to maximize the compensation for your injured child is with the assistance of an experienced school bus accident attorney.
The Texas Tort Claims Act Limits Your Ability to Sue
The real obstacle to recovering fair compensation is the mixed blessing that is known as the Texas Tort Claims Act. Before the passage of the Texas Tort Claims Act in 1969, it was impossible to recover monetary damages from a government entity because of a concept called "sovereign immunity." Under this old sovereign immunity doctrine, whatever the government did, no matter how badly it damaged someone, if they were sued, they could walk into a courtroom, claim sovereign immunity, and the judge would have to throw the case out.
By passing the Texas Tort Claims Act, Texas law makers gave victims of the state the right to sue the state, city, and local government for their negligence. While the act granted Texans the ability to recover money when government negligence injured them, it severely capped the amount of money that could be recovered. Under the act, there are different damage caps based upon whether one is suing the State of Texas, a municipality, like Dallas, or Fort Worth, or a "unit of local government" like a school district, county, hospital authority, or community center. The act didn't actually define terms "municipality" and "unit of local government", that was done through case law in the intervening years.[iparticle id="3"]
Damages for "units of local government" are limited to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. This means that if 4 children are seriously injured in the same bus accident, the most any one of them can recover is $100,000, even if the cost of their actual injuries is closer to $250,000 or $500,000, each. Furthermore, since they were are injured in the same incident, the total damages cannot exceed $300,000. That means that there is no way that all 4 children can recover $100,000, let alone the full cost of their injuries.
To make matters even more tricky, the Texas Tort Claims Act requires that the school district be given notice of your intent to sue. Notice deadlines in Texas vary with jurisdiction and are set up by a city's charter. In essence, the city gets to write the law about how long you have to notify them of your intent to sue them after an accident. This creates a confusing patchwork of deadlines that vary from city to city throughout Texas. The deadlines can range anywhere from 45 days to as much as 6 months.
What makes these deadlines so critical, and why an attorney should be involved as soon as possible, is that if notice is not given in the time required, then the injury claim can no longer be acted upon. As far as the law is concerned it is as if your child was never injured.[iparticle id="2"]
Why you need to consult with an experienced school bus accident attorney as soon as possible:
Given the potential complexities of a school bus accident, it is imperative to contact an attorney as quickly as possible. An experienced school bus accident attorney will have the resources to conduct an independent investigation to sort out who is liable for your child's injuries.
If it is the school district that bears liability, then the Texas Tort Claims Act, compels prompt action or you risk losing your claim. If another motorist or manufacturer were involved then it is also essential that your attorney has the time necessary to gather evidence, depose witnesses, and make your case as strong as possible.
Regardless of how simple your child's bus accident injury case may appear to you, it is essential that you not assume that just because someone hurt your child that they are going to pay for those injuries. While it might be the right thing to do, there is nothing in the law that compels anyone to pay for your child's injuries are until they are proven liable for them in a court of law.
The way to get the leverage you need to get someone to pay for your child's injuries is with the assistance of an experienced bus accident attorney, like those at Grossman Law Offices. For over 25 years we have helped countless families in Texas, and throughout the nation, hold those accountable who have injured their children. While some law firms are fantastic at investigating, others good at litigating, and some specialize in the personal attention that people need when pursuing a case, few have all three of those attributes covered like Grossman Law Offices.
If you have questions about your child's school bus accident case, feel free to give us a call at (855) 326-0000 for a free consultation. We answer the phone 24/7 and are eager to know how we can help you.
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