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Holding a School District Liable in Texas

In a recent Texas bus accident decision, the court considered the parents’ claim that a school district had caused their son’s death. The son, who was disabled, started going to school in the district at age three. The district picked him up in a bus used to pick up disabled students. The boy would stay in his wheelchair while being lifted onto the bus, and the wheelchair was locked into place by the district employees. The bus had both a driver and an attendant.

One day in December, the boy became unresponsive while traveling to school in the bus. The driver and attendant saw he was in distress and stopped the bus. They waited for an ambulance rather than take him to a nearby ER. They didn’t try to resuscitate him while they waited. However, their decisions to stop and wait for an ambulance were in accord with District procedures related to students who face conditions requiring medical care while traveling on the school buses.

Within an hour of getting on the bus, the boy died. His parents sued the district in the following year for wrongful death and survival damages. They later amended their complaint to allege that the bus driver had negligently driven such that their son had been tossed around in his wheelchair, that the driver had driven at an unsafe speed and disregarded curbs, bumps, and stops, that District employees hadn’t properly used available mirrors and cameras to observe their son during the trip, and that locks on the support chair were used in an unsafe and negligent way.

The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The parents responded to the plea and alleged that their son’s death arose from the negligent use of the bus. They included an affidavit from the father, saying he’d reviewed a video recording from the bus and seen that his son slid due to the bus ride. They also included a nurse’s email, which said that on the day of the son’s death, she’d talked to a student who rode the same bus, and the student had claimed the restraint that ran across his chest might have been too tight.

The parents supplemented their response with more evidence, including a copy of a deposition transcript in which the bus driver testified he’d used another lift to help another student get on the bus when he saw the parents’ son slumped in his wheelchair. He was the one to call the District office, and the District called for an ambulance. He testified that taking the son to a nearby hospital would have taken about three minutes, but it would have violated District policy. It took the ambulance 10 minutes to come. The driver agreed he would have used the bus to drive the boy to the hospital if he’d been allowed to do that.

The lower court granted the District’s plea. The parents appealed.

The parents claimed that the Tort Claims Act provided a waiver for claims they’d filed against the District. The waiver provided was limited to harm arising from the operation or use of a motor vehicle. The appellate court explained that school district immunity is waived only for personal injury claims legally caused by the negligent use or operation of a motor-driven vehicle or equipment. The parents’ allegations about the negligent use of a harness involved matters relating to the use of tangible personal property. To establish a waiver, the parents needed to present evidence of negligent operation of the bus and show that the negligent operation legally caused their son’s death.

In this case, the boy wasn’t injured while getting off the bus. Instead, the assertion was that the driver should have used the bus to take him to the hospital, and the policies of the District shouldn’t have forbidden that. The appellate court reasoned these claims were not about using the bus and didn’t have to do with a negligent decision to stop the bus. Since they were about non-use, they fell outside the limited waiver of immunity for school districts.

The lower court’s decision was affirmed.

If your child has been injured as a result of a school bus accident, the San Antonio school bus accident attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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