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Jury awards bus crash victims $17.5 million

Oct 4, 2005 | A McLennan County jury decided Thursday that the bus involved in a deadly 2003 Interstate 35 crash near Hewitt was defective because it didn't have seat belts and awarded $17.5 million in damages to bus passengers.

After 15 hours of deliberation, jurors in the four-week accident liability trial gave the plaintiffs everything they sought in their lawsuit against Motor Coach Industries, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based bus manufacturer.

“A person who sits on a bus ought to have the opportunity to be as safe as possible,” said David Hinton, of Temple, whose mother Dolores Hinton was killed in the accident. “To not have a seat belt on a bus, knowing what buses can do in an accident, is unacceptable. Clearly we had to have a trial in order to prove that point.”

Motor Coach spokeswoman Pat Plodzeen said the company would appeal the verdict.

“Passenger safety is the highest priority for (Motor Coach), and we stand behind the design of our coaches,” she said.

Plodzeen said that Motor Coach buses, like all other tour buses manufactured for North American use, do not include seat belts because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other industry experts have found that installing seat belts would not “enhance overall occupant protection.”

The accident occurred when 34 people from Memorial Baptist Church in Temple were traveling in a chartered bus to Dallas on Feb. 14, 2003, for a Christian music concert. The bus driver lost control in rainy conditions near Hewitt, crossed the median and crashed into a southbound Chevrolet Suburban.

Seven people were killed in the accident, including five on the bus and two in the Suburban, according to an accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Nineteen bus passengers and their family members sued Motor Coach for a range of damages, including medical bills, past and future lost wages, burial expenses and the mental anguish resulting from the death of a spouse or parent.

In Judge Jim Meyer's 170th State District Court, plaintiffs' lawyers argued that buses without seat belts are unreasonably dangerous, despite the fact federal regulations do not require them. They said seat belts, along with laminated safety glass on passenger windows, would have protected passengers who were ejected from the bus in the Valentine's Day accident.

The plaintiffs urged the jury to embrace the case as an opportunity to enact change in bus safety standards.

“I think that what the verdict reflects is that the jury saw this as a significant issue and an issue that requires significant response,” lawyer Thomas Brown, of Houston, said after the trial. “Our hope is that this in fact will be a verdict that leads to change.”

Defense lawyers argued that Motor Coach designed its buses with a range of safety features, including “compartmentalization,” or restraint consisting of high-backed, padded seats. They said the bus was designed to protect passengers in the most commonly occurring accidents, which are collisions that do not involve the bus rolling or tipping over.

After the trial, some jurors said compartmentalization was not an acceptable safety measure.

“If that bus turns over, right out the window you go,” said Gary Paris, 60, of West, the jury foreman. “You've got no protection at all.”

Defense lawyers also argued that the bus driver, whom they said was driving too fast for the rainy conditions, was the cause of the accident, deaths and injuries.

But in interviews after the verdict, jurors indicated that they adopted the plaintiffs' argument that a need for seat belts in buses eclipsed the specifics of the crash or minimum federal standards.

“My personal view is everybody has waited for somebody else to do something and nobody has done nothing for public safety,” Paris said.

“You can meet minimum requirements, but can they do more to make it safer for the public?

“I hope in five years when my grandson gets on a bus, if he's got to go on a school trip or whatever, I hope that there are seat belts on that bus so he can have the choice to use it or not,” Paris said.

A second trial with a second set of plaintiffs from the same case has yet to be scheduled. The second trial involves plaintiffs who sued Motor Coach after Texas tort reform laws took effect in 2003. The lawsuits completed Thursday involved plaintiffs who sued before tort reform took effect.

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