Jury rules in favor of First Student in Madison County trial; Plaintiff attorney had sought up to $6 million in punitives

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Oct 21, 2013


A Madison County jury ruled in favor of defendant First Student bus company on Oct. 18 after roughly three hours of deliberations in a case involving two brawling bus drivers who “just couldn’t get along.”

Circuit Judge William Mudge polled the jury, as requested by plaintiff attorney Roy C. Dripps of Armbuster, Dripps, Winterscheidt & Blotevogel in Alton, which confirmed a unanimous verdict in favor of First Student which was blamed for one of the driver's injuries and willful and wanton conduct for employing a driver with alleged "anger issues."

Dripps requested $600,000 in compensatory damages, factoring in lost wages, inflation, wage increases and loss of a normal life, saying his client was not completely disabled and can still work, but is limited.

He also requested punitive damages in order to punish First Student and “put a stop” to recklessly allowing a dangerous individual to drive a school bus. He requested five to 10 times the requested compensatory damages amount, or up to $6 million.

The jury trial began on Oct. 15.

The case against First Student was filed on Aug. 6, 2012, by Gary Spiller who claimed fellow bus driver Ronald Cochran threatened and attacked him, causing him to injure his shoulder and suffer permanent damage. He blamed First Student for allowing the incidents to occur.

Dripps began closing statements on behalf of Spiller, defining negligence as “failure to do something a reasonably careful person would do, or the doing of something a reasonably careful person would not do.”

“When we are talking about public safety, the standard comes from citizens of Illinois,” Dripps said. “That is you.”

He then instructed the jury to decide the definition of a reasonable person.

“Is it reasonable for First Student not to even look at the job application?” Dripps asked.

Arguing that First Student would try to blame the incident on Ronald Cochran, Dripps said the defendant was careless and contributed to the alleged danger by hiring Cochran despite his background.

“That’s pretty much the defense in this case: It’s not our fault, we didn’t have to do anything,” Dripps said. “It’s been excuse after excuse after excuse. What that shows is they just don’t care.”

Dripps alleged First Student should have known Cochran was a threat and was to blame for ignoring obvious dangers when hiring him anyway. He showed the jury an audit card proving that First Student went through its predecessor Laid Law’s files and was aware of Cochran’s history, but still threw documents out. Cochran’s file also revealed that First Student never signed and dated his application, Dripps said. If the company had paid closer attention, it would have noticed that Cochran lied about his criminal record by checking the “no” box on his application even though he disclosed the truth to Laid Law.

This is “conscious disregard to a known danger,” Dripps said. “The known danger is his criminal history.”

Thomas Magee of HeplerBroom in St. Louis represented the defendant and began his closing statement by thanking the jurors for their service and reminding them that the incident was about a fight between two drivers, not the safety of children.

“This is about two grown men who had disagreements over a woman and can’t get along,” Magee said. “If this were children, you would put them in time out.”

He then reminded them that he is not there to defend Cochran.

“It would have been nice if Cochran would have turned the other cheek and let this one go, but that’s not what he did,” Magee said, “and we’re being blamed for that.”

Magee also combated claims by arguing that First Student had proper personnel files online and was able to print them off and place them in Cochran’s file when Dripps requested to see the information.

“We’re not hiding anything. There’s no secrets here,” Magee said. “So in terms of all of these secrets that exist, there are no secrets in this world.”

He further argued that First Student’s failure to have files filled out properly did not cause the men to fight. The fight would have occurred anywhere under any other employer.

In addition to allegedly ignoring Cochran’s criminal history, Dripps blamed First Student for failing to investigate claims against him, including the death threat he allegedly made to Spiller in a break room.

Magee had also told the jury that compensatory damages should not be awarded because Spiller didn’t claim any medical bills.

He also said that it was "bizarre" that Spiller claimed Cochran vandalized his vehicle on three separate occasions but failed to call the police to report the incidents.

And after all that Spiller claims happened, Magee argues that it was "unnatural" for him to want to return to First Student and work with Cochran, which is what happened when both drivers were reinstated when First Student acquired Laid Law.

Dripps fought back during his rebuttal saying he only had to persuade the jury that they were more than likely right that a higher level of safety should be expected.

“Plaintiff’s burden in this case is not to convince,” Dripps said, “not to prove, but to persuade you.”

Dripps also argued that First Student only cared about money and said it needed to be fined in order to prevent situations like this in the future.

“They value money more than human safety,” Dripps said.

He finished by asking the jury to think about what they did to make the community safer when selecting their verdict.

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