[Update II, April 30, 2012: As some media outlets have reported, our law firm now represents the Tezsla family. The below post was written and published before we were retained and should not be considered the family’s or our law firm’s official statement on the case.]

[Update, February 24, 2012: The NTSB confirmed several facts this morning, including the school bus driver’s statements that his line of sight was obstructed and so he inched forward at the intersection and that he never saw the dump truck. The investigators also said the dump truck was overloaded past its weight limit, which, as discussed below, would factor into its ability to stop. Obviously, overloading a truck is itself negligent, and it subjects the trucking company to further liability.]

Readers of this blog anywhere near New Jersey undoubtedly know the story; for readers elsewhere, here’s NBC Philadelphia’s coverage. Thursday morning, a dump truck hit a elementary school bus at the intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road and Old York in Chesterfield, NJ, killing 11-year-old Isabelle Tezsla, seriously injuring two other students including one of her triplet sisters, and leaving 17 more students with minor injuries.

I have written about some of the unique issues that arise in school bus accidents before — an issue that’s often on my mind now since my four-year-old twins rode a yellow school bus for the first time last week (and seemed to enjoy the bus ride more than the field trip destination) — but I didn’t intend on writing about this accident until I saw that the National Transportation Safety Board has already begun investigating the accident, with a focus on the seat belts in the school bus. I’m glad to hear there will be more investigation into the use of seat belts in schools buses — as discussed below, it’s a complicated issue that goes beyond a simple trade-off of cost versus safety — but I don’t want the two biggest factors that may have caused the crash, dangerous road design and driver error, to go unnoticed.

In general, there are five major contributing factors in fatal automobile accidents: dangerous road conditions, dangerous road design, driver error, vehicle malfunction, and vehicle crashworthiness.

From what I’ve read so far, the road conditions didn’t seem to be a factor. There was light rain, but nothing that substantially impaired visibility or traction. As far as I know, there’s no indication of a spill on the roads or a pothole or the like. Similarly, I haven’t seen any discussion of a vehicle malfunction, such as the brakes on the dump truck failing, the tires on either being too worn down, or the like.

My suspicion is that the road design was likely a cause of this accident. The intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road (County Route 528) and Old York Road (County Road 660), which can be seen on Google Maps, is undeniably unsafe. There’s no signal or stop light, and only one road, Old York, has to stop. It’s not necessarily a problem when only one road stops; at least where drivers aren’t distracted, we assume that drivers on Old York will obey the stop sign then look both ways before crossing, and that drivers on Bordentown-Chesterfield Road will slow down if they see someone cross in front of them.

The problem is visibility.Continue Reading Thoughts On Liability For The Chesterfield, NJ School Bus Accident

From a safety standpoint, school buses are like commercial airlines. Mile-for-mile, they’re one of the safest modes of transportation; as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration noted a decade ago while reviewing whether or not to require seat belts in school buses (more about crashworthiness here), the fatality rate for school buses is 0.2 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled as compared to 1.5 fatalities for cars.

Like with commercial airliners, though, if a school bus accident does occur, then it’s likely to cause a lot of damage, and the accident is likely the result of colossal negligence. Current NHTSA data shows there are on average 142 school transportation-related fatal crashes every year — nearly three deaths a week — most of them occupants of other vehicles that were hit by buses or vans, a fifth of them being bicyclists or pedestrians, and just under a tenth of them being occupants of the school transportation vehicle. In many ways that’s not surprising: it’s well known that passengers in heavier vehicles are more likely to survive multi-vehicle crashes, and school buses are heavier than most of the vehicles with which they’re likely to collide.

One of the more shocking statistics revolves around school transportation vehicles hitting school students:

On average, 14 school-age pedestrians are killed by school transportation vehicles (school buses and non-school bus vehicles used as school buses) each year, and 3 are killed by other vehicles involved in school bus-related crashes.

More school-age pedestrians have been killed between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. than any other time of day.

It’s not hard to see why most accidents happen then: everyone’s tired and has let their guard down. School bus drivers typically report to work before 7 a.m., work until at least 10 a.m., then either work at the school (as a janitor, mechanic, or teaching assistant), do shuttle routes, or take a short break until they return again around 2 p.m. to take the kids home. By 3 p.m., they’re tired, ready to finish the day, and not nearly as alert.

Which is how Ashley Zauflik had her pelvis fractured and lost a leg. As the National Transportation Safety Board summarized the accident:

On Friday January 12, 2007 at approximately 2:30 p.m. EST a 1995 Thomas, 78 passenger school bus was one of several school buses parked side by side in the parking lot of the Pennsbury High School East Campus. After loading 10 students, the 54-year old driver placed the school bus in gear and released the parking brake, when he reported that the school bus suddenly accelerated and he was unable to stop the school bus. The bus traveled approximately 23 feet when the right front wheel of the bus climbed a 4-inch high curb onto the sidewalk in front of the school. The bus continued to travel approximately 25 feet on the sidewalk, striking 18 students on the sidewalk (pedestrians).

The driver wasn’t as familiar with that type of Thomas school bus, and so committed a classic driver error by stepping on the accelerator rather than the brake. He panicked when the bus jumped forward, causing him to mistakenly press even harder on the accelerator.

The case should be clear-cut in terms of automobile liability law. It is plain, clear, unequivocal negligence for a school bus driver parked at a school to hit the gas instead of the brake when preparing to begin his run. We call it “pedal misapplication.”
Continue Reading Pennsylvania School Districts Should Be Fully Responsible For Bus Accidents