In the wake of the tragic school bus accident that left six Chattanooga elementary school students dead, evidence has come to light that could be incredibly damaging for any defense in subsequent legal action brought on behalf of the deceased children. It appears as though the school district had direct knowledge of the driver’s poor driving and received numerous complaints from parents, students, and administrators about his speeding and reckless behavior on the job. One of these complaints came directly from a student just five days before the fatal crash in which he described the driver going so fast it felt like the bus was going to flip over. Furthermore, The New York Times is reporting that the district has acknowledged many emails of “complaint and concern” about this particular driver. This evidence means that the school system, along with the contractor that had been hired to handle the district’s transportation needs, Durham School Services, could be liable for a variety of legal claims outside of the normal violations of the rules of the road and claims that could be brought because he was in the course and scope of his employment.
For one, the school district and Durham could be liable for negligent hiring and/or negligent retention, meaning that they knew or should have known that this particular bus driver was not suited for this specific job given his driving record, that he had many complaints lodged against him, and that they violated their duty to exercise ordinary care in hiring and retaining employees. Given the admissions of the school district, it may also be possible to recover punitive damages, since they willfully turned a blind eye to the clearly egregious conduct of their employee. To recover for punitive damages on this type of claim in Georgia claim, a plaintiff would have to prove the defendants had actual knowledge of serious violations, or the defendants showed blatant disregard for their duty to check for such violations. Western Indus., Inc. v. Poole, 280 Ga. App. 378 (2006).
The district and Durham could also be sued for negligent entrustment because they entrusted the care of a school bus full of kids to this driver who had no business being out on the road in that capacity. To bring such a claim in Georgia, the injured party would have to prove (1) the defendants either owned or had control of the vehicle in question; (2) the defendant driver was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle safely; and (3) the defendants had actual knowledge that the at-fault driver was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle. Danforth v. Bulman, 276 Ga. App. 732 (2005). Punitive damages could also be awarded on this claim if it could be shown by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants acted with such willful misconduct, malice, fraud that would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences of their actions.
While this case is still in its early stages, we can only hope that these families will be able to achieve justice for the tragic and senseless deaths of their young children due to the irresponsibility and recklessness of those entrusted to protect our young students.