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Could Driver Face Civil Liability for Leaving Special Education Student on School Bus?


On August 22, a Simi Valley, California school bus driver left a 5-year-old special education student alone on a parked bus for more than three hours. The incident raises questions about the obligations bus drivers owe to kids in their care, explains a California personal injury lawyer.

According to the Ventura County Star, the driver delivered the students on her bus to Crestview Elementary School at 9 AM and then drove approximately two miles to the bus yard for the school district and parked the bus. When the driver dropped off her students that morning, she left the five-year-old special education student aboard the bus. She did not discover the student until her 12:30 PM return to the parked vehicle. While the temperature hit a high of 85 degrees in Simi Valley that day, the child was, fortunately, unharmed. Police did indicate that she was thirsty upon being discovered.

The Consequences for the Driver

Following the incident, the Simi Valley School District launched an investigation into how the child came to have been left on the bus. The driver was placed on leave pending the results of the investigation.

It is possible the driver will also face criminal charges as a result of abandoning the child. In a similar case in Boward County, Florida, for example, WSVN News reported that a 64-year-old bus driver and his 54-year-old aid were both charged with child neglect for leaving a special needs child on a bus for approximately four hours.

The Liability of the Bus Driver and School District

In addition to criminal charges, the bus driver and school district could also face civil liability. Civil liability means that the driver and district would be held financially liable for any damages caused to the child. The family of the child could sue on the child’s behalf to collect payment for medical costs, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.

The operator of a school bus transporting a child to and from school is considered to be a common carrier. This means that the driver must exercise extraordinary care to ensure the safety of the passengers. This is especially true in this instance with a special needs child. Leaving the child on the bus for hours falls short of any reasonable definition of “extraordinary care” for the well-being of the child. This means that if it is possible to establish that damages resulted as a consequence of the driver’s actions, the driver could be forced to compensate the family. If serious injury had occurred to the child as a result of heat stroke or other causes related to being left on the bus, the compensation could be quite significant.

The school district could also be held liable as a result of the bus driver’s failure to ensure the safety of the child while being transported to school. California statutes have established that public schools can be the subject of personal injury lawsuits.

Further, in Farley v. El Tejon Unified School Dist. (1990) 225 Cal.App.3d 371, 376-377, it was held that when a school district undertakes to provide transportation, their duty of care extends not just to the bus but also beyond the doors of the bus until the child is discharged to a place of reasonable safety. In the Farley case, a child was killed crossing the street when getting off of a school bus, and the district was held liable for the incident due to their failure to exercise reasonable care and the breach of their duty to provide “a reasonably safe system.”

Leaving a child on a bus unattended with no air conditioning does not constitute discharging a child to a place of reasonable safety, and can be considered a breach of the required duty of care imposed under California law. The school district, therefore, could become responsible for paying damages based on the acts of the driver employed by the district to deliver the children safely to and from school.

Additional information on transportation safety and the civil claims process is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.

If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.

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