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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Johnthony Walker leaves the Hamilton County Criminal Courthouse with Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies following a pretrial hearing in Walker's case Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 in Judge Don Poole's courtroom at the Hamilton County Criminal Courthouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. Walker was the bus driver in the Nov. 21, 2016 fatal bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary Students.

Four years after the tragic Woodmore school bus crash that left six children dead and dozens more injured, some of the victims' families' legal battles are just coming to a close, while others are still being fought.

On Nov. 21, 2016, Hamilton County school bus 366 was carrying 37 Woodmore Elementary School students home when it veered off Talley Road just before 3:30 p.m. and collided with a utility pole, overturning and crashing into a tree. The roof of the bus collapsed inward, nearly touching its floor.

Six children died — Zyaira Mateen, 6; D'Myunn Brown, 6; Zyanna Harris, 10; Cor'Dayja Jones, 9; Zoie Nash, 9, and Keonte Wilson, 8 — and dozens more were injured.

The scene could "only be described as carnage," as one civil lawsuit put it. Some of the first responders who worked the scene had to seek help for their own psychological trauma. Many of them, to this day, weep when recalling that tragic day and the horrifying scene they witnessed.

The driver, Johnthony Walker, then-24, was found guilty in 2018 on six counts of criminally negligent homicide, 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault and seven counts of assault.

At least 35 lawsuits were filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court, the first just two days after the crash. More were filed in federal court.

Most have been settled or closed. At least nine are still pending or are being appealed.

The latest, filed in August 2019, was settled in March of this year for an undisclosed amount.

The chief complaint among the suits was that the wreck could and should have been prevented. Plaintiffs have argued that Hamilton County Schools and its transportation provider at the time, Durham School Services, failed to protect students on the bus by continuing to allow Walker to drive despite multiple complaints and concerns about his driving from students, parents and Woodmore school employees.

The complaints, some of which were reported just days before the crash, included driving too fast, slamming on the brakes, making students fall out of their seats and swerving, purposely trying to make students fall.

Among the suits filed were some taking aim at predatory, out-of-town law firms that flocked to Woodmore victims after the crash, hoping to capitalize on the victims' families' civil cases. Some of those firms contacted grieving families directly, talked them into legal agreements that would funnel more money to the attorney or sent an agent into funeral homes to persuade them to sign up on the spot, the Times Free Press reported previously.

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Four years after Woodmore school bus crash, legal battles continue

That behavior was in violation of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, which state that attorneys must wait 30 days before they can contact people about litigation following a serious crash, or face possible disbarment.

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office has filed civil claims against at least one of those law firms: Texas-based Witherspoon Law Group. The state is seeking a court order that would stop Witherspoon employees from practicing in Tennessee and that would force the Dallas, Texas, firm to turn over any "ill-gotten profits" it received from legal agreements. The firm has denied any wrongdoing.

The case remains ongoing and has not yet been set for trial, according to Hamilton County Chancery Court clerks.

As for the school district, it has faced increased scrutiny over school bus safety in the years following the crash.

In 2019, it ended its contract with Durham School Services, which had been transporting Hamilton County Schools' students for more than a decade. In its place is a new vendor — First Student Inc. — which took over school bus operations for the district after the board of education approved an $11 million contract.

The new vendor provided 185 new buses, each being equipped with air conditioning and outfitted with six cameras, including three interior cameras (in the rear, middle and front); a forward-facing dash camera; a back-up camera; and a camera triggered by the bus's stop arm.

But none of the district's school buses — owned either by First Student or by independent contract drivers — have seat belts, district spokesperson Tim Hensley said Friday. The state of Tennessee does not require school buses to be outfitted with seat belts.

Following the Woodmore school bus crash, then-state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, brought legislation to make school bus seat belts and restraints mandatory, but it failed in the face of strong opposition, primarily from rural lawmakers who cited costs to bus drivers who own their vehicles and to school systems.

While recommendations from federal authorities state that all newly-purchased school buses should be fitted with seat belts, the proposal in Tennessee would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Instead, lawmakers approved a $3 million grant program in 2018 for school districts to apply for reimbursement for adding seat belts to newly purchased buses. So far, $707,500 has been awarded to 18 districts that have applied.

Hamilton County Schools is not one of them, despite previously saying it was working with the state on getting grant funds to install seat belts on buses in the future.

The district began its application process, "but as we progressed through the details, the limited number of buses funded with the grant was not a good fit for the district at the time," Hensley said in an email, adding that "the funding would not cover all buses and the district does not own our buses."

Hensley did not return requests to clarify why the grant would not be a good fit.

As for Walker, he was sentenced to four years in prison after a jury found him guilty of causing the school bus crash. The now- 28-year-old didn't qualify for a more severe punishment under state law because he didn't have a criminal record and was eligible for parole after serving just 30 percent of his sentence, which amounted to just over one year.

However, Walker is now serving a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to eight counts of aggravated statutory rape after admitting to having sex multiple times with a 14-year-old girl over a couple of months. He'd been staying with the girl's family in Nashville while appealing his sentencing in the Woodmore bus crash case — which was denied — and her parents called police upon learning of the relationship.

Since the 2016 Woodmore bus crash, the Chattanooga region has suffered one more fatal school bus crash: A 7-year-old girl and the driver of a Meigs County school bus were killed on Oct. 27 when a utility vehicle slid sideways into its path in the 7700 block of Highway 58. That bus also did not have seat belts.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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