Earlier this year, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments about liability for injuries to children involving school buses. The issue in the case was whether school bus drivers are liable for injuries and fatalities when students do not go straight home after leaving the bus. Although the court dismissed the case, the general issues are worthy of consideration.
The case in question involves a first-grader who left her school bus and ran down the street toward a friend’s house and was struck and seriously injured by a car – after the bus had continued on its route. The incident occurred in the Village of Cleves, near Cincinnati. Ohio law says that drivers must wait until the student reaches a safe place before moving on. At issue is how long a driver must wait and what is meant by a “safe” place. Although many, including some justices on the lower court, agreed that the law was poorly written, it is the only law available for now.
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The Ohio Supreme Court decided that it had “improvidently” accepted this case and dismissed it, sustaining the ruling of the Hamilton County Court of Appeals that the school district was not liable. Several of the justice noted that the case was primarily fact-driven and that there were no constitutional or legal questions to answer. Nevertheless, the larger issues about school busses and liability are not new nor are they limited to Ohio.
School districts across the United States are generally immune from liability in such matters, unless it can be demonstrated that the driver was negligent. Is the driver required to actually supervise a child once he or she is no longer on the bus? Is not providing such supervision a form of negligence? Is the driver required to escort the child to a safe place, leaving the other children unsupervised on the bus?
Supervision of Students
And what is meant by supervision? In North Carolina, for example, the state Board of Education is considering a requirement that drivers signal students when it is safe to cross the street. What if the driver signals, the students start to cross, and a car speeds around a corner and strikes a student? Is the bus driver liable?
Criminal Negligence vs. Civil Negligence
Like Ohio, the state of Washington requires that school bus drivers be found negligent before they can be held liable for student injuries or deaths. They can be criminally negligent, which means they have broken a law, such as failing to stop at a traffic signal or speeding. A driver could also be proven negligent in a civil case, which requires a lower standard of proof than criminal negligence. This could mean that the driver should have responded to a situation in a way a reasonable person would have and is a tough standard to apply. For example, if a driver suspected that the brakes on the bus were bad, should he or she have kept on driving?
Are Drivers Supposed to Intervene When a Child Is Being Bullied?
What about a child who is bullied on a school bus? Parents in Missouri sued their school district because it allegedly failed to stop their son from being bullied on the school bus, resulting in the boy’s suicide. The parents received a $300,000 settlement from the school district.
In St. Johns County, Florida, bus drivers are expected to break up fights – IF doing so does not compromise their safety. In other Florida counties, however, drivers are not permitted to touch students in any way, making it difficult to intervene in many situations.
A Nashville case was pretty straightforward; a driver was found to have been sending and receiving texts while transporting students. The driver has since died, so families cannot file lawsuits against the driver. However, the school district could still be held liable.
Liability for Administering Medication
How far will we go to ensure the safety of students on school buses? Some districts issue EpiPens to drivers so they can administer medication to students experiencing allergic reactions. However, many drivers are afraid they will be found liable if a student dies as a result of an allergic reaction, despite being given the injection. A lawmaker in Pennsylvania introduced a bill that would give drivers immunity from civil lawsuits involving the use of EpiPens.
Other Questions About School Bus Driver Liability
What if drivers are not school district employees? What if the buses are not school district equipment? Who is liable if school transportation is provided by a contractor rather than a school employee? The questions seem endless. This makes it very important for drivers to know the rules of their districts and states regarding operation of buses and their liability for injuries and deaths.