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School Bus Accident Illustrates Florida’s Comparative Fault Law

Many times when we talk about school bus accidents and related injuries, we are focused on the well-being of the children aboard the bus or who are on the ground in the vicinity.
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However, there are a fair number of cases in which other drivers and passengers – often in much-smaller vehicles – are harmed as a result of a run-in with a school bus. These large vehicles require an operator who exercises great care and caution, particularly when approaching intersections, negotiating turns and initiating stops.

When they fail to do this, both the school bus driver and employer may be held responsible, making the victims eligible to receive compensation.

Our Delray Beach school bus accident attorneys note one such incident recently came before the Louisiana Supreme Court. In Purvis v. Grant Parish School Board, the case was prompted by injuries sustained to a motor vehicle driver and passenger involved in a collision with a school bus.

At issue in the original case, as well as the appeal, was who was at fault – and to what degree. When plaintiffs are partially at-fault for the incident at hand, this is called comparative fault or comparative negligence.

According to court records, the motor vehicle driver and her passenger were heading southbound on an unmarked, two-lane road, while the bus driver was heading the opposite direction. As both vehicles rounded a curve, the left front portions of the two cars collided.

The driver of the car sustained serious injuries, and sued both the driver and the school district.

The matter proceeded to a bench trial (before just a judge instead of a jury). At the conclusion of the portion of trial determining liability, the trial court found that the plaintiff was 40 percent at-fault and the bus driver was 60 percent at-fault.

The court reasoned that the vehicles didn’t strike each other head on, and while each was attempting to drive in their respective lanes, the bend of the road, the lack of road markings and the large size of the school bus made it likely that the left side of the bus was encroaching over the center line at the time of the crash. Given the size of the bus, the plaintiff was probably unlikely to have been able to avoid the crash altogether, the court reasoned, but she was probably “hugging the center line.” It’s worth noting that the bus driver was reportedly looking down at the time of the crash.

Based on this 40-60 finding of fault, the court awarded $6,800 in property damages, $2,100 in rental car expenses, $28,000 in medical expenses and $7,500 in general damages.

Florida, like Louisiana, is a pure comparative fault state (F.S.A. § 768.81(2)), meaning a plaintiff’s reward can be reduced proportionately for his or her fault in the accident.
The plaintiff appealed. A divided appellate panel disagreed with the trial court’s ruling with the fault apportionment, and instead allocated the driver and school district with 100 percent fault. The court reasoned that the lower court had found the plaintiff had not been obeying the law and traveling in her own lane, and yet apportioned her 40 percent of the blame anyway. The appellate court also significantly increased the amount of compensation granted to the victim.

An appeal by the school district was heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Here, the court reversed the appellate court’s ruling, holding that a trial court’s finding of fact (in this case, the apportionment of fault) should be upheld unless manifestly erroneous.

The district court had determined that the plaintiff was partially at fault because she failed to drive defensively from the time she witnessed the negligent operation of a vehicle or to slow down to avoid a serious incident.

There was little objective evidence in this case. Primarily, the court was left to rely on witness statements. Based on the information at hand, the supreme court determined there was no indication that the district court’s finding was manifestly erroneous. For this reason, the supreme court determined that the appellate court erred in disturbing the trial court’s findings.

The court further determined that there was no abuse of discretion by the trial court in the damages it awarded.

The trial court’s finding was reinstated in its entirety.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Purvis v. Grant Parish School Board, Feb. 14, 2014, Supreme Court of Louisiana

More Blog Entries:
Study: Children More Distracting to Drivers Than Cell Phones, Dec. 23, 2013, Delray Beach Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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