Every day New York parents entrust their children to the care of bus drivers who take their children to and from school. New York courts have long recognized a school district must act in a “careful and prudent manner” to protect children from injury when transporting students. But does that duty extend to children waiting at a bus stop? The New York Court of Appeals addressed this issue in a May 2014decision that every parent—especially those with special needs children—should take notice of.
Williams v. Weatherstone
This case arose from a 2008 accident in Onondaga County in upstate New York. The plaintiff is the mother of a 12-year-old child diagnosed with mental disabilities. The mother enrolled the child at a public school operated by the Jordan-Elbridge Central School District. The child's assigned bus stop was about 60 feet from her home near a state highway.
One morning, the driver forgot to pick the child up. A bus monitor alerted the driver to the error, and the driver then turned around, intending to loop back to the child's bus stop. The child, however, mistakenly assumed the bus would be waiting for her on the other side of the highway, so she started to cross the street. Another vehicle then struck and seriously injured the child.
The mother sued both the driver of the car that hit her daughter and the school district. The school district argued the child was not “within its physical care or custody” at the time of the accident, and the driver's error was not the “proximate cause” of the child's injuries.
Onondaga County Supreme Court denied the school district's motion to dismiss the case. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, agreed with the denial for somewhat different reasons than the Supreme Court. The Fourth Department rejected the plaintiff's argument that the school district's “duty to care” extended to her child waiting at the bus stop simply because she had a learning disability. But the appellate court said the district could still be liable for the bus driver's negligence in missing the child's stop, as it effectively created a hazardous situation leading to her injury.
A majority of the Court of Appeals did not see it that way, however. By a vote of 4 to 3, New York's highest court said the school district was entitled to a dismissal of all claims. As the majority saw it, as long as the child was at the bus stop (or supposed to remain at the bus stop), she remained under her mother's “custody and control.” Until she stepped on the bus, therefore, the school district was not liable for any injuries she suffered.
Protecting Children from Safety Hazards
That is not to say there are never cases where a school district may be liable for injuries suffered by a child when boarding or exiting a bus. The dissenting judges in this case cited one such example, where a jury awarded damages to a child who “was injured while crossing the street immediately after getting off her school bus.” In that situation, the courts found the bus driver's actions created an unacceptable safety hazard.
If your child has been injured due to the negligence of a school bus driver—or any driver—it is important you consult with an experienced New York accident attorney who can assess your potential claims against the school district and other responsible parties.Contact our office to speak with someone right away.