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Harsh wrongful death defense met with hefty reward for plaintiffs

For many parents, sending a child on a school bus off to preschool is a bit scary. Still, the child is taken care of by responsible adults, right? He'll be okay.

This was likely the thought process of the parents of a 3-year-old disabled boy who sent their son off to his California preschool class. Their boy never made it home from school that day because he died while riding the bus. The parents sued the school for wrongful death and recently were victorious in court.

When strapping a wheelchair into a vehicle such as the bus that carried the child, a lot of precision is required to make sure the child and the chair are secure and will remain so while the vehicle is moving. The child isn't supposed to be the one responsible for his safety. Adults supervising him are, and that didn't happen.

According to the wrongful death lawsuit, the boy wasn't securely strapped into his seat or properly watched by the bus driver. During his bus ride, he was able to slide down in his seat so his neck became bound by straps. He died of strangulation while sitting right behind the driver. Because of the victim's location, the driver couldn't see him or the struggle he was going through before he died.

When a child has limited communication skills like this boy it is important that restraints are double checked by the driver, or another person responsible for the safe transport of the child. But in this case it was not the bus driver or school staff that first noticed that the boy was being injured by a shoulder strap that would ultimately end his life. It was a parent of another child on the bus.

Instead of being apologetic and offering restitution to the child's family for its deadly negligence, the district initially denied responsibility. When they did admit they were wrong, they attempted to minimize the impact of the child's death based on the fact that he was disabled and would have cost his parents a lot of money in medical care.

The family's wrongful death case lasted far longer than it needed to, but in the end the jury determined that the value of a child's life is not something that is defined by his limitations. The parents were finally compensated for their loss with a reward that sets a record in their county.

Source: San Juan Capistrano Patch, "Jury Gives 'Record' Award in Wrongful Death of Capo Student," Paige Austin, December 7, 2012

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