A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the operators of a party bus from which a young mother fell to her death in May.
The suit was filed in Wyandotte County District Court against Midnight Express, a company recently ordered by federal regulators to cease operation because of allegedly unsafe practices.
The suit also names the company’s three operators and the driver of the bus. It was filed on behalf of the infant daughter of 26-year-old Jamie Frecks.
A second suit was filed on behalf of Frecks’ estate.
Frecks was celebrating a friend’s bachelorette party May 4 when the bus hit a bump while rounding a curve on Interstate 35 in Kansas City, Kan. Frecks fell from side double doors that previously had been used to accommodate wheelchair passengers.
According to the lawsuits filed by Kansas City attorneys Lynn Johnson and David Morantz, after Midnight Express bought the used vehicle in 2010, it made “extensive modifications” that included removal of some of the vehicle’s safety features.
On the night that Frecks was killed, the driver, Deborah Elmer of Basehor, unlatched the double doors so a cooler could be loaded onto the bus, according to the lawsuits. She then closed the doors from the inside while the passengers entered through a front door.
It was just a few minutes later when those double doors “suddenly and unexpectedly flew open” and Frecks was “sucked from the bus” onto the highway where she was struck by at least three vehicles, the lawsuits allege.
In addition to Elmer and Midnight Express, the suits name as defendants company operators Adam Breidenthal and Derrick Hansroth of Bonner Springs, Edward Goetz of Leavenworth and Turf Design, another company that they operate.
The attorneys for Frecks’ family issued a written statement after filing the suits that said: “Companies that transport passengers for hire must follow regulations designed to protect public safety. Those regulations are often dismissed as heavy-handed government intervention. Hopefully, this case will highlight the importance of those regulations and ensure that other companies comply with safety requirements so that future tragedies are prevented.”
An attorney representing Midnight Express and Breidenthal, Goetz and Hansroth said they had no comment about the suits. An attorney for the driver could not be reached for comment.
In late May, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an “imminent hazard” order that prohibited the company from continuing to operate until it addressed what the federal order termed an “appalling” disregard for safety.
“Midnight Express’ operational structure and safety management controls are so utterly deficient as to substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately,” the order said.
According to the order, a post-accident inspection of the bus by the Kansas Highway Patrol found several “egregious regulatory safety violations, including no or defective emergency exit windows.”
Troopers found that side emergency exit windows had been blocked by seats that had been reconfigured when the vehicle was converted to a party bus, the report said. The rear emergency exit window was blocked by an icebox apparatus and its release latch was “jammed and inoperable.”
State investigators also found there were no emergency exit markings, and the fire extinguisher was empty and had last been recharged in 2004 — long before Midnight Express purchased the vehicle.
Troopers found that the bus’s brake pedal “goes to the floor when depressed” and “the engine exhaust system leaks from beneath the passenger compartment.”
According to the order, a separate review by the Kansas office of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that the company’s compliance with federal safety standards was “practically nonexistent.”
The company was operating without the required U.S. Department of Transportation number and did not carry the $5 million in liability insurance required for passenger vehicles.
According to the federal order, “the most egregious example of Midnight Express’ utter disregard for safety is reflected in your complete failure to establish a system of equipment inspection, maintenance and repair — especially with regard to passenger safety.”