A Clay County jury concluded Friday that a Liberty school bus driver accidently pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, causing the massive vehicle to slam into a busy intersection, killing two motorists and critically injure two schoolchildren in 2005.
By GLENN E. RICE
The Kansas City Star
That decision, after an eight-week civil trial in Liberty, meant no money for the families of three victims who had sued the manufacturers of the bus and its brake parts. They contended in the lawsuit that faulty brakes caused the May 9, 2005, crash.
After delivering the verdict, jurors declined to comment and asked for security staff to escort them out of the courthouse. As two jurors were leaving, they hugged a son of David Gleason, one of the drivers killed in the accident. One juror, fighting back tears, told him she was sorry.
Gary C. Robb, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients were disappointed in the outcome.
“It was a horrible tragedy for all that were involved, but the jury has spoken,” he said.
The accident occurred at the height of morning rush hour as the bus headed south on Missouri 291, on its way to Ridgeview Elementary School with 53 children on board. Witnesses described it as looking like a torpedo as it barreled toward the intersection at Missouri 152. After swerving to miss stopped vehicles, the bus careened out of control and broadsided two automobiles, each carrying a driver and no passengers.
The impact killed motorists David Gleason, 53, and David Sandweiss, 49, critically injured students Renna Yi and Andrew Hubbard, and sent dozens of other children and their bus driver to hospitals.
The driver always has contended the brakes failed, but federal safety officials had ruled that she mistakenly pressed the wrong pedal. The bus plaintiffs — David Gleason’s family; Andrew’s parents, Edward and Tracy Hubbard; and Renna’s parents, Huairen Yi and Hongyun Peng — alleged that the automatic slack adjusters, part of the bus brake system, were improperly installed. They also claimed the bus manufacturer failed to warn that manual adjustment to the automatic slack adjusters would lead to unexpected brake failure.
They had sued Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, Thomas Built Buses and Freightliner LLC.
“The brakes failed during the worst possible time and at the worst possible place,” Robb told jurors during closing arguments Thursday.
Robb sought between $29 million and $38 million for Renna Yi, a fourth-grader at the time. Renna suffered head and spinal cord injuries. Her medical bills have reached $1.6 million, Robb said.
Now a high school senior who plans to attend college in the fall, Renna continues to be affected by her injuries, Robb said.
Andrew Hubbard, then a 6-year-old kindergartner, suffered a severe skull fracture and brain damage, developed cerebral palsy symptoms and never will be independent. His medical bills have exceeded $727,000, Robb said. Now a teen, he will require $13 million to $16 million for lifelong care.
According to his family, Gleason, who died at age 53, had plans to continue his law practice into his 70s. Robb estimated that Gleason would have earned $6 million between the accident date and his retirement had he lived.
John Heinrich, who represented Bendix, said in his closing statement that the brakes were correctly installed and properly adjusted. The accident was the result of driver error, Heinrich told jurors.
“The problem was a simple mistake,” he said. “Thomas didn’t press the brake pedal. There was nothing intentional on the part of the driver, and mistakes happen.”
The bus had been serviced numerous times, and there were no issues with the brakes, said Robert T. Adams, the attorney for Thomas Built and Freightliner.
Adams said mechanics and inspectors never found the brakes to be out of adjustment. He noted that other motorists told investigators they did not see brake lights on the school bus as it approached the intersection. That was an indication that Thomas accidently stepped on the accelerator, Adams said.
In September 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the driver’s “pedal misapplication” caused the bus to blast through the intersection.
Attorneys on both sides agreed that Irma Denise Thomas was a well-trained, conscientious bus driver who had an exceptional service record.
However, something tragic occurred that sunny morning as Thomas headed to Ridgeview Elementary School, they said.
Thomas told investigators that she tried to apply the brakes but that nothing happened. The bus swerved around several vehicles, was steered onto the right shoulder and struck a light pole before crossing the westbound lanes of Missouri 152 and entering the eastbound lanes.
The bus rammed a car and pickup truck and pushed them into a drainage ditch.
A Clay County grand jury declined in February 2008 to indict Thomas.
In the seven years since the wreck, numerous lawsuits have been filed against the Liberty School District, Thomas, the bus manufacturer, and the company that makes and provides parts for the bus.
A number of the suits were consolidated into this case, from which the Liberty School District and Thomas were dismissed. The Sandweiss family reached an out-of-court settlement with Bendix, Thomas Built and Freightliner in July, according to Steve Gorny, the family’s attorney.
Liberty school officials said the district paid $2.2 million to settle liability claims related to the bus accident. Insurance paid $2 million of the settlement. The district was released from all pending litigation in December 2011, district spokesman Dallas Ackerman said Friday.The trial was held in Clay County’s largest courtroom to accommodate more than 300 exhibits, including a mock compartment of the school bus driver’s seating and pedal area, the bus brakes, and numerous boxes containing countless statements and reports. Sixty witnesses testified.
“It was an emotional experience,” Robb said.
To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.