District might be liable for student’s death….

It’s hard to read cases involving accidents that lead to a child’s death, especially when you can visualize exactly what happened.  This one happened on October 23, 2012 on U.S. 83, a busy highway, in La Joya.  Josue Uranga, a 13-year old boy, was a bit late getting to the bus stop that morning.  When the bus driver did not see the boy at the usual stop, he continued on his route, turning into the crossover between the expressway’s two lanes.

But then the driver saw Josue heading for the bus, so he stopped in the crossover and activated the flashing warning signs.  To reach the bus, Josue had to cross the expressway.   He did not make it.  He was hit by an oncoming vehicle and died at the scene.

The parent sued the school district. (She also sued the driver of the vehicle, but the court does not tell us what happened with that lawsuit).  The district filed a Plea to the Jurisdiction, arguing that the court did not have the authority to hear this case.  This was based on the Texas Tort Claims Act, which shields school districts from tort liability in most cases.

However, the TTCA does permit liability if a person is injured due to the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle by a school employee, acting within the scope of employment.  Thus if a school bus driver is careless, and crashes into an embankment, the district would be liable for injuries. If the driver fails to keep a safe distance from the car ahead of it, and rear ends it, the district would be liable.

This case was different. The boy was not struck by the school bus, but by a private vehicle driven by someone who was not a school employee. The bus driver was simply waiting in the crossover, giving the student a chance to catch up to the bus.  Was this an act of “negligence” in the “use or operation” of the bus?

The parent argued that the use of the flashing signals was an instance of the negligent operation of the bus. The argument was that the flashing signals, while the bus was at an undesignated stop in the middle of a busy highway, indicated to the 13-year old boy that it was safe for him to cross the highway….which it wasn’t.  The court agreed with the parent that this was a plausible theory of liability:

When, as alleged here, a bus driver stops at an undesignated location in the middle of an expressway in order to pick up a student, it is reasonable to anticipate that the student would attempt to cross the expressway, thereby risking injury or death to the student.

Thus the court concluded that the complaint alleged a viable cause of action. The court had jurisdiction. The Plea to the Jurisdiction was denied.  The case is La Joya ISD v. Gonzalez, decided by the Court of Appeals for Corpus Christi-Edinburg, on November 2, 2017. We found it at 2017 WL 4987145.

There is another aspect to this case that we will discuss in a later Dawg entry—that being about the requirement to give the school district notice of a tort claim.


Tomorrow: Cloak and dagger operations in girls’ basketball!