A new pair of lawsuits point to gross negligence as the cause of the deadly 2016 Woodmore Elementary School bus crash.
Two children suffered disability, loss of life and psychological pain when Johnthony Walker lost control of bus 366 and overturned on Talley Road in Brainerd with 37 students aboard, the suits say. Six children died and many others were injured.
Durham School Services and National Express also bear blame for negligently hiring, training and failing to supervise Walker, according to the suits, which were filed Monday in Hamilton County Circuit Court.
Durham School Services, which does not comment on pending litigation, is a contractor that provides the majority of the county's buses and drivers. National Express is its parent company.
"Defendants' acts were willful, wanton, and ... raises the presumption of a conscious indifference to consequences," attorney Herbert Thornbury, who is representing the two children, wrote in the suit.
His litigation joins the roughly 20 other lawsuits that family members and friends have filed since the Nov. 21, 2016, crash. So far, four cases have settled. Another two were transferred to Chattanooga's U.S. District Court and dismissed.
Attorney Ronald Berke filed one of those federal lawsuits for two crash survivors and said others could sign on in a class-action. Durham was a "state-created danger," Berke argued, and Walker was a product of that environment.
Durham worked to maximize profits by offering school bus drivers low pay, few hours and inadequate training and support, Berke argued. This created an atmosphere of indifference, which allowed Walker to break the rules without getting fired.
As punishment, Durham and the school district moved Walker to the Woodmore route, the suit says. But there, overwhelmed and unmonitored, Walker resorted to "dangerous, malicious and sadistic methods of controlling the children," Berke's suit, filed last December, said.
And Durham and the school district knew about the problem but weren't fixing it, Berke said.
U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer agreed with some of Berke's arguments: The district did know of reckless driving complaints against Walker but nonetheless instructed students to get on his bus that day.
"Taking the allegation as true, the school children would have remained at the elementary school and would not have been exposed to Walker's actions without such an instruction," he wrote in an opinion in September.
But there were other factors that caused Greer to dismiss the case. First, he wrote, the acts of private contractors cannot be attributed to the state just because they're performing a public contract.
And second, Berke's team did not prove that the response by Durham and the district to complaints about Walker's driving established a "clear and persistent pattern of abuse."
"This allegation is insufficient to establish a 'clear and persistent pattern of abuse' where there are only two specified complaints, and the allegation that "on several occasions" Walker was driving recklessly," Greer wrote. "These allegations, even taken together, do not plausibly allege a 'clear and persistent pattern of abuse' by [the district] of ignoring the complaints."
Berke's clients told the court they were appealing its decision earlier this month.
Earlier this week, Berke also filed claims for three crash survivors in state court and reminded any interested families to file complaints before the Nov. 21 deadline.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
This story was updated Nov. 14 at 10:20 p.m. with more information.