Millions of children take ride the bus to school each day, usually without incident. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that school buses are the safest way for children to get to and from school. As safe as these vehicles are, thousands of kids are injured in school bus accidents each year, sometimes seriously. This issue hit close to home earlier this week, as three teenage students at Natick’s Brandon School and Residential Treatment Center were injured when their bus collided with a minivan on Monday. According to a report published by the MetroWest Daily News, authorities indicated that their injuries were minor, and that both drivers would likely be cited as a result of the incident.
School bus accidents raise several legal issues that may not be present in a car accident case involving private parties. For one, school buses are often operated by private companies or by a municipality itself, both of which may bring up issues of who could be held liable, as well as if a party could be held liable at all. In the case of a private school bus operator, the legal doctrine of respondeat superior may come into play. Under this doctrine, an employer is liable for the tortious conduct of its employee if it occurs within the normal course of business. What this means is that if a school bus driver negligently caused an accident, the company that hired the bus driver could potentially be held liable for any losses that resulted.
If the school bus is operated by a municipality or the state, sovereign immunity may limit or even bar a lawsuit against the operator. Sovereign immunity means that the government or its units may not be sued unless it has consented to be sued. Fortunately for school bus accident victims, the state of Massachusetts has consented to lawsuits against itself and its subdivisions through the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, albeit to certain liability limits.