Appeals Court Revives Suit Against Tenn. School District Over Fatal Bus Crash

By Mark Walsh — November 02, 2018 2 min read
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It’s been a dangerous and deadly few days in school transportation as five children have been killed and other children and adults injured in accidents near school bus stops. Those incidents will inevitably lead to legal action that may take years to resolve.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court this week revived a civil lawsuit filed against a Tennessee school district stemming from a 2016 school bus crash that killed six elementary school students and injured numerous others.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously held that the Hamilton County school system may be liable on a theory that the school principal violated students’ right to be free from bodily harm by requiring the students to ride the bus each day with a driver who had been the subject of multiple dangerous driving complaints.

The decision comes in a case involving a Nov. 21, 2016, crash that killed six students at Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tenn. The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, was found guilty of 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault, six counts of criminally negligent homicide, and various lesser charges. He was sentenced this past April to four years in prison. Prosecutors said that Walker, an employee of a private school bus contractor, was speeding and on his cellphone when he lost control of his bus, swerved, and crashed into a walnut tree.

In the separate civil suit, the 6th Circuit panel reversed a federal district court’s dismissal of the suit and held that the victims may pursue a claim based on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Monell v. Department of Social Services. Under that ruling, a school district or other municipal body may be held liable for the acts of one of its employees if there was an official policy that led to the dangerous situation or if there were a clear and consistent pattern of unconstitutional acts by the employee.

“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; and (4) the principal was sufficiently culpable because she knew that Walker’s driving was dangerous,” said the 6th Circuit’s Nov. 1 opinion in M.S. v. Hamilton County Department of Education.

The school district argued that the principal’s actions in requiring students to board the bus even amid complaints about the driver’s safety did not “shock the conscience,” as would be required to find the principal liable.

The appeals court rejected the argument. Even though the lawsuit detailed only two examples of complaints about Walker’s dangerous driving, the actual number is unknown at this point, it said.

“Because it is conceivable that the principal received complaints such that it would be conscience-shocking for her to have instructed the schoolchildren to board Walker’s bus after their receipt, it would be inappropriate to grant a motion to dismiss on this ground,” the opinion said.

The court said the plaintiffs will have to “show that there was a clear and persistent pattern of that unconstitutional activity, that the district knew about that pattern, [and] that the district deliberately ignored that pattern.”

Separately, the 6th Circuit panel upheld a dismissal of federal civil-rights claims against the bus contractor, Durham School Services L.P., but it said its ruling did not affect whether the plaintiffs might have claims against the company under Tennessee law.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.