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Legal Loophole Cited in Texas Bush Accident Probe

Aug 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Last week's fatal Texas bus crash has prompted federal authorities to temporarily cease all approvals for new bus companies.  That's because a loophole in federal regulations allowed banned bus companies to re-open under new names.

Friday’s crash claimed the lives of 17 Vietnamese Catholics on their way to a religious festival.  Dozens of others were injured. Six of the survivors, including the bus driver, remained in critical condition as of Monday. Initial reports say that the charter bus blew an illegally treaded tire, skidded off the highway and overturned.    The bus accident was the nation’s deadliest since 2005.

The bus involved in the accident was registered to Iguala Busmex.  The Houston-based company is owned by Angel De La Torre.

Following Friday's tragedy, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration  (FMCSA) said that “grossly deficient vehicle maintenance” contributed the accident.  The agency ordered Iguala Busmex,  and another company owned by De La Torre, Angel Tours Inc., to cease commercial operations Sunday, after finding that the companies posed an “imminent hazard.” A second order issued to Angel De La Torre, said that  his “activities in connection with motor carrier operations pose an ‘imminent hazard’ to the public.”

According to the Dallas Morning News,  De La Torre De la Torre opened Iguala Busmex three days after federal investigators banned  Angel Tours from interstate travel after finding safety violations.  Apparently, that is perfectly legal under current federal motor carrier regulations. Iguala Busmex had received a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) number but had not been approved for operation at the time of the accident.

The FMCSA typically approves 100 new bus company applications every month.  But John H. Hill, administrator of the FMCSA, told the Dallas Morning News  that until his agency can get a better handle on whether other operators are attempting  the same thing as De La Torre, all new applications will be halted.

Still, a Texas transportation official told the Morning News that even if the loophole had been closed, the accident might still have occurred because De La Torre had no interest in following the law.  Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety pointed out that even though De La Torre obtained a  USDOT number for his new company, he had not yet been given authority to operate his buses, but did so in violation of the law.

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County District Attorney is considering filing criminal charges against De La Torre.  The last time a Texas bus operator was subject to prosecution followed the 2005 Hurricane Rita bus crash near Dallas that killed 23 nursing home patients.  Owner Jim Maples was convicted of failure to maintain his buses and sentenced to six months of home incarceration and six months in a halfway house.

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