Motorist awarded $7.15 million following head-on collision with school bus; Suit alleges school district lied about cause of crash

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | May 15, 2019

A St. Clair County jury awarded a man more than $7.15 million in a suit alleging he was permanently injured when a Mascoutah Community Unit School District bus driver crossed the center line and caused a head-on collision.

The four-day trial ended in St. Clair County Circuit Judge Chris Kolker’s courtroom on May 9. Jurors awarded plaintiff George Buchanan a total of $7,151,058.38. More specifically, Buchanan was awarded $471,658.38 in medical expenses, $300,000 in future medical expenses, $380,000 in lost earnings, $1 million for loss of a normal life, $2 million for pain and suffering, $1 million for emotional distress, and $2 million for disfigurement.

Buchanan was represented by Tom Q. Keefe Jr. of Keefe, Keefe & Unsell PC in Belleville and James A. Borland of Quinn Johnston in Springfield.

Defendant Mascoutah Community Unit School District 19 was represented by Brandon & Schmidt in Carbondale.


Keefe  

Buchanan filed his original complaint on May 10, 2017 against Mascoutah Community Unit School District 19 and bus driver Alphonse Schlueter, who was dismissed without prejudice on Dec. 10, 2018.

Buchanan filed a first amended complaint on Oct. 1, 2018, arguing that Alphonse Schlueter was operating a school bus in the scope of his employment with Mascoutah Community Unit School District on April 25, 2017. Schlueter was driving the school bus on Illinois Route 161 when the bus allegedly crossed the center line and struck Buchanan’s vehicle head on.

As a result, Buchanan allegedly suffered permanent and disabling injuries, including a completely mangled left arm and injuries to his upper extremity and hips.

Buchanan alleged Schlueter “turned his head and upper body around while operating the school bus, so that he was oriented toward the rear of the school bus and away from the view of the oncoming road at a time when defendant knew vehicles were approaching in the other lane of traffic, including plaintiff.”

The plaintiff alleged Schlueter looked away from the road for about 10 seconds.

Following the collision, Buchanan claimed the school district and its employees lied about the cause of the crash, including the scene following the collision.

Buchanan alleged the school district “misstated the cause of the crash to the press and the public, manipulating the cause of the crash so as to divert culpability from the driver and the school district and on to the students on the bus, including lying, misstating, and manipulating the cause of the crash after viewing a surveillance tape which belied said misstatements.”

He further alleged the defendant failed to report or seek assistance to control the distracting behavior of the students despite knowledge that the behavior posed a hazard.

Buchanan claimed that Schlueter failed to maintain proper control of the school bus, failed to keep a proper lookout, and failed to remain within his lane of traffic.

Mascoutah Community Unit School District filed a motion to dismiss or strike count II of the amended complaint on Oct. 26. Count II makes a claim for willful and wanton misconduct against the school district.

However, the defendant argued that the complaint lacks allegations to establish that the district “had an intent to injure plaintiff, was utterly indifferent to the safety of the plaintiff, or the district exhibited a conscious or intentional disregard of the rights of others.

Mascoutah Community Unit School District argued that Buchanan “has in essence stated a claim for negligent entrustment or negligent retention, but instead of using the term negligence has included the phrase ‘willful and wanton.’”

The school district also argued that the plaintiff failed to state that the defendant ordered the driver to turn around while operating the school bus.

The defendant further argued that the allegation only relates to the alleged conduct of the school district and its employees following the collision.

“As a matter of law, and as a matter of simple logic, the post-occurrence actions of the district cannot form the basis of any claim that the district acted in a willful and wanton manner at the time of or before the occurrence,” the motion stated.

Mascoutah Community Unit School District later answered the amended complaint on Dec. 3, 2018, admitting liability for the incident. The defendant admitted that Buchanan was injured as a result of the incident, but denied the nature and extent of the injuries and the damages being claimed.

In the defendant’s answer to the original complaint, the school district denied liability and argued that Buchanan caused his own injuries by driving at a speed that was greater than reasonable, operated his vehicle without keeping a careful lookout, failed to stop or decrease speed to avoid a collision, and failed to control his vehicle.

Keefe filed a motion for sanctions against Mascoutah Community Unit School District and Schlueter on July 24, 2018. He argued that the defendants’ deposition testimony had proven their discovery responses to be false.

“Defendants have declined invitations to amend those responses, and otherwise outright ignored correspondence …” the motion stated.

Keefe wrote that an attorney’s signature is required for every pleading, “constituting a certificate that he or she has read the pleading and that to the best of his or her knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well grounded in fact. By the plain language of the rule, this extends to discovery responses.”

In their interrogatories, the defendants testified that no statements regarding the collision were made to other employees.

However, Schlueter later testified in his deposition that he discussed the crash with two mechanics at the bus garage.

Kenny Neuner, who oversees the district’s transportation department, testified that Schlueter spoke to him about the crash and he later talked to Superintendent Craig Fiegal.

Frank Williams, who is the executive director of business operations for the district, testified that he talked to Neuner about the collision in order to submit a report to the district’s insurance company. He also testified that he discussed the crash with Fiegal, who told him that the distraction on the bus was a fight among students.

The motion further stated that Fiegel testified that he spoke with Schlueter on multiple occasions, spoke with students on the bus, spoke with the middle school principal, spoke with the district’s board members, made statements to at least three television outlets and at least one reporter, and sent messages to parents about the incident.

Keefe wrote that the defense counsel assured him in April 2018 that they would amend the interrogatories. However, those amendments still hadn’t been made when he sought sanctions.

Additionally, Keefe argued that the defendants’ claim that the collision occurred as a result of a fight was false.

“That claim was false, and the video from inside the bus proves it. But it didn’t become the company line by accident; it was planned – the result of conversations. Emails. Phone calls. Meetings.

“Plaintiff’s discovery requests properly seek precisely that information – where the story came from, who talked to who, who emailed who, about what, and when? Stated otherwise, how did they decide to participate to perpetuate this false spin? How did they decide to lie to the community about how plaintiff became horribly injured?” the motion stated.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 17-L-255

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Brandon & Schmidt Keefe, Keefe & Unsell

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