Another family has filed a civil lawsuit related to 2016's fatal Woodmore school bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary students and injured dozens of others.
The suit, filed Aug. 19 in U.S. District Court, claims that Hamilton County Schools and its transportation provider at the time, Durham School Services, failed to protect students on the bus and did not provide appropriate safety equipment and precautions.
More than 30 lawsuits have been filed in the past three years related to the Nov. 21, 2016, accident. The most recent was filed by Pamela Johnson Arnold and Nancy Fortson, the grandmother and mother of a Woodmore student who was severely injured in the crash.
The child suffered disfigurement, physical pain and psychological pain when the driver, Johnthony Walker, lost control of bus 366 and overturned on Talley Road in Brainerd with 37 students aboard, the suit says.
Walker was convicted of six counts of criminally negligent homicide and other charges by a Hamilton County jury. In April 2018, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole sentenced him to four years in prison. Walker has since been charged with aggravated statutory rape in Nashville for admitting to an officer that he had sex five times with a 14-year-old girl while he was out on bond.
The school district and Durham have faced scrutiny since the crash. The district has since severed ties with Durham, largely in part due to rampant safety concerns cited since the crash. Hamilton County Schools' contract with the transportation provider ended in May 2019, and the district is now using First Student Inc. in addition to contract drivers.
The lawsuit claims the district ignored concerns and complaints about Walker and other drivers and was "aware of instances of school bus drivers exceeding the posted speed limit while transporting its students." It also alleges that the district was aware of school bus drivers swerving, abruptly braking, using cellular devices and other unsafe driving practices.
A report released in May 2018 by the National Transportation Safety Board found 10 complaints were made against Walker in the months leading up to the crash. Parents and school officials claimed Walker was speeding or driving erratically on multiple occasions between Aug. 11, 2016, and Nov. 18, 2016.
Investigators noted in the report that Durham seemed to be unaware of some of the complaints made about Walker, a sticking point in many of the negotiations and cases against the district and Durham since the crash.
The lawsuit claims that the school district and Durham's actions — or lack of action — "placed [the plaintiff] and the other students in bus 366 in special danger of death and serious injury."
"Defendant violated rights of [plaintiff] and other students on bus 366 to personal security and bodily integrity when it approved Walker's continuous use of sadistic and malicious force on bus 366, including but not limited to driving recklessly and at high speeds, deliberately slamming on the brakes to force children into the seats in front of them, driving off of or improperly driving the approved route, and swerving on the road," Memphis attorney Robert Spence Jr., who is representing the family, wrote in the suit.
Per the school district's contract with Durham and its parent company, National Express, the "duty to defend" this lawsuit falls on Durham, according to Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett of Bennett & DeCamp PLLC. In an email, Bennett said he is not handling the case.
As of September 2018, Durham had settled all but one of the six death cases from the crash, along with several other lawsuits. The company is still fighting emotional distress suits from Woodmore teachers, arguing that educators who didn't have a blood relative on bus 366 or witness the crash itself don't have a claim.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.