Transportation directors: Take note

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has opened the door to school district liability for a horrific bus crash that killed six students.  The case is important for us in Texas because the theory of liability is not based on state law (Tennessee), but federal law. Thus a court in Texas could apply the same reasoning.

Let’s first review some basics of tort liability for Texas school districts.  If a school bus driver is negligent in operating the bus, and someone gets hurt, the school district faces liability.  This is the only tort for which a school district can be liable under state law.  The amount of liability is capped by state law at $300,000 per occurrence.  That figure would not begin to compensate for the death of six children.

I don’t know what the law is in Tennessee, but I’m guessing they have similar protection for public school districts, which may explain why the plaintiffs are bringing their case under federal law.  There are no caps there.

The lower court dismissed the case, concluding that there was no basis for liability here under federal law.  The appellate court agreed with that decision in one respect—that Durham Transportation should be dismissed from the case.  But the court held open the possibility that the district could be held liable. The district contracted with Durham, a private company, to provide bus service.

DURHAM: Since this is a case alleging a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the plaintiffs have to prove that the harm was caused by “state actors” as opposed to private parties. The court held that Durham Transportation was a private party, even though it had a contract with the district and received considerable funding from the district.  Thus Durham might face liability under state law, but not under the U.S. Constitution.

THE DISTRICT: The court held that the pleadings in the case alleged facts that might be enough to impose liability on the district under the “state created danger” theory.  According to the plaintiff, there were “numerous complaints” about reckless driving by the bus driver. The district allegedly knew about these complaints, but did nothing about it.  Here is the plaintiff’s case in a nutshell:

Plaintiffs have alleged that (1) the principal committed affirmative acts by instructing the schoolchildren to board Walker’s bus; (2) this direction endangered the students because of Walker’s dangerous driving; (3) this danger was specific to those students; (4) the principal was sufficiently culpable because she knew that Walker’s driving was dangerous.

The court held that if the plaintiff could prove the truth of these allegations, liability might be proper.  Might be.  The case has a long way to go and the plaintiffs face a heavy burden of proof. At this stage the court is only telling us that it was too early to toss this case out.

The case is M.S. v. Hamilton County DOE, decided by the 6th Circuit on November 1, 2018.  We found it at 2018 WL 5734642.