When is a school district liable for a bus accident?

We can learn several things from the recent decision of the Court of Appeals involving a tragic bus accident that led to a student’s death. Texas law provides “governmental immunity” to school districts, which limits liability considerably.  However, districts can be liable when a school employee is negligent in the “use or operation” of a motor vehicle.  In this case the plaintiffs alleged four specific acts of negligence.  The court held that the district was immune from liability for three of them. This meant that the court lacked jurisdiction to even consider those claims.

First, there was the claim that the district was negligent in how it trained its bus drivers.  The court held such an allegation did not involve the “use or operation” of the bus. Therefore even if the district did a poor job of training its drivers, it could not be held liable for this.

Second, the plaintiffs alleged that the district was sloppy with vehicle inspection and maintenance.  That didn’t work either.  Without addressing the facts of the situation the court dismissed this claim because it did not relate to the “use or operation” of the bus.

The third claim that did not work was about negligent supervision on the bus. For example, the plaintiffs alleged that the two teacher chaperones were both sitting in the front of the bus, rather than spacing out as required by district rules.  True? We don’t know. The court held that it didn’t matter. This would be, at best, a claim of negligent supervision, which is not the same as negligence in the “use or operation” of the bus.

But the final allegation was that the driver was driving too fast.  That one was sufficient to invoke the court’s jurisdiction and keep the case alive. The court held that allegations of driving at an unsafe speed, if proven true, would “demonstrate practical, purposeful actions which are encompassed with the definitions of ‘operation’ and ‘use.’”

The case is Harlingen CISD v. Miranda, decided by the Court of Appeals for the 13th District serving Corpus Christi and Edinburg.  It was decided on March 14, 2019, and we found it at 2019 WL 1187152.


Tomorrow: How not to handle a student walkout.