First federal lawsuit filed in connection to Woodmore crash claims wreck should have been prevented

Volunteers arrive with bags of items to put in care packages for students at Woodmore Elementary School on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Students at the school were victims in a school bus crash that killed 6 children and injured dozens more.

One month after the fatal Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, a federal class-action lawsuit claims Hamilton County Schools, district Transportation Supervisor Ben Coulter and Durham School Services failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent the tragedy.

The school district, Coulter and Durham School Services received complaints about the bus driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, before the Nov. 21 crash but did nothing to protect the 37 students who continued riding his bus, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court here.

"This horror was foreseeable, predictable and preventable," the lawsuit claims.

Attorney Ronald Berke filed the lawsuit for the families of two crash survivors and on behalf of all the passengers and their families. The lawsuit estimates that is about 100 people.

This is the first federal lawsuit filed in connection with the crash. Six state civil lawsuits have been filed in Hamilton County courts by other attorneys.

The federal lawsuit claims the Tennessee Government Tort Liability Act, which can limit payouts, does not apply because the school district, Durham and Coulter violated the students' constitutional rights.

Hamilton County Schools contracts with Durham to provide busing services, and the lawsuit claims both groups have joint control over the busing service to Woodmore Elementary School.

The school district outsourced busing services to Durham to cut costs, and Durham worked to maximize profit by offering school bus drivers low pay, few hours and inadequate training and support, according to the lawsuit. It also states Durham hired poorly trained, inexperienced drivers.

Cost-control pressures created an atmosphere of indifference, allowing Walker to violate established regulations, rules and policies without consequence, according to the lawsuit.

"It was, however, Defendants' pattern, practice and custom to ignore these rules and regulations, thereby authorizing the driver's conduct," the lawsuit states. "The Defendants could have protected the children on that bus from the danger they themselves had created - but they did not."

The suit claims Durham and the school district took Walker off another route and assigned him to the Woodmore route as a punishment - it was known to be difficult because of the large number of young children on the bus and the need for constant supervision.

Walker, overwhelmed with the responsibility of driving and maintaining discipline, resorted to "dangerous, malicious, and sadistic methods of controlling the children," the lawsuit says. He would slam on the brakes, slamming children into the seats in front of them, drive fast and recklessly, and swerve the bus to throw the children about, the lawsuit continues.

Walker reported more than 10 students for misbehaving on a single day, and asked that an assistant be placed on the bus to help him control the kids, according to the lawsuit.

After that incident, Coulter told Walker he needed to stop referring so many students for discipline, the lawsuit claims and school records show.

"By agreement, conspiracy and concerted action, the Defendants ignored Walker's requests for assistance, ignored his sadistic methods of discipline and his reckless and dangerous operation of the bus, and were deliberately indifferent to the abuse of Plaintiff's Constitutional rights," the lawsuit states.

All of this led to the horrific crash on Talley Road that claimed the lives of six students and left the survivors injured and traumatized, according to the lawsuit. The two children named as plaintiffs saw their friends die, suffered injuries themselves and remain scared to board a bus, the lawsuit states. Their families have experienced psychological and emotional trauma, as well as pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages, the lawsuit says.

Hamilton County school board Chairman Steve Highlander said Wednesday evening he had not read the lawsuit and could not comment because of ongoing litigation.

"But our first and primary concern is the families who suffered the terrible losses and the children who are still hurting," Highlander said. "You cannot make it right [for those affected by the crash,] but we can try to make it as good as possible for the future."

The board plans to discuss its contract with Durham, which is set to expire this summer, on Dec. 28. At that time, Durham will inform the board about safety updates implemented since the crash, Highlander said.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson said switching a bus contract this large is not easy given the number of buses needed to supply Hamilton County.

"Whether or not the accident happened, we should have been reviewing [the bus contract,]" she said. "It's not a thing we can change overnight."

Robinson wants a comprehensive review of busing services, including policies and procedures.

"We need to talk about the [crash] and what it means for us moving forward," she said. "We need to make sure that what we experienced on Nov. 21 never happens again."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.