Seat belts and safety glass would have mitigated fatal bus crash, attorneys claim

Seat belts and laminated safety glass would have protected passengers who were ejected from a bus during a fatal crash on Interstate 35 near Hewitt in 2003, plaintiff's lawyers said as a major accident liability trial began Thursday.

But lawyers defending bus manufacturer Motor Coach Industries countered that the bus contained proper safety features and met federal safety standards. The manufacturer should not be held responsible for deaths and injuries in an accident beyond its control, they said.

The opposing sides made their opening statements in a trial that packed Judge Jim Meyer's 170th District Court to capacity with more than 20 lawyers from both sides and numerous bus passengers and family members of bus passengers from the ill-fated trip.

“As it's very essence, this is a simple case: safety belts and safety glass saves lives,” said Thomas Brown, a Houston lawyer representing the 19 plaintiffs. “That's what this case is all about.”

The plaintiffs, including bus passengers and their family members, are suing Motor Coach, of Schamburg, Ill., for unspecified losses for medical bills, lost wages and mental anguish related to injury and deaths in the Valentine's Day crash. The plaintiff attorneys have suggested that damages could be in the millions of dollars.

The accident in question occurred when a group of 34 people from Memorial Baptist Church in Temple was traveling in a chartered bus to Dallas for a Christian music concert. The driver of the bus lost control in rainy conditions, crossed the median and crashed into a southbound sport utility vehicle.

The bus then rolled on its side and 14 passengers were ejected. Five were killed and eight suffered serious injuries, according to an accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Defense attorney Darrell L. Barger, of Corpus Christi, said the accident, which took place as traffic slowed to avoid a separate traffic accident, could have been avoided. He blamed the crash on factors including driver error.

“Did Motor Coach Industries have control over the accident?” Barger said. “The answer is no. We did not drive the bus.”

Defense attorneys said they would show in the trial why bus driver Johnny M. Cummings, and the owner of the bus, Central Texas Bus Lines, should be responsible.

A McLennan County grand jury cleared Cummings of wrongdoing earlier this year when it opted not to indict him on charges of criminally negligent homicide.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Thursday that the overall structure of the bus and its interior remained largely intact through the accident. The bus company's reliance on “compartmentalization,” or high-backed seats with padding, was not adequate crash protection, they said.

Motor Coach was aware that seat belts and laminated glass, which includes a layer of plastic between two glass panes, would help hold people inside the bus during a rollover accident, the plaintiffs argued.

“Crashes pose the greatest risk to bus passengers,” Brown said. “That being the case, bus manufacturers should take all reasonable steps to provide crash protection to passengers.”

Defense attorney John Dacus said the case is not as simple as installing laminated glass and seat belts. While the bus' side windows were not made of laminated safety glass, the windshield was, and that window was still broken out in the violent accident. The bus driver was ejected through that window.

Not a single North American bus manufacturer builds buses with seat belts, he said, and the federal government has determined that seat belts should not be required in “motorcoach” style buses, or large tour buses like the one in the accident.

Dacus said Motor Coach has determined through studying passenger safety that most passengers in most bus accidents – including frontal, rear and side collisions – fare better without seat belts.

Seat belts are not included on tour buses because safety designers “want to do the most good for the most people in the most accidents,” he said.

“Motor Coach Industries doesn't get to pick the accidents their buses will be involved in,” Dacus said.

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