West Brook bus crash suit moves to federal court

Marilyn Tennissen Jan. 10, 2008, 6:50am

Kent Adams

In the nearly two years since a bus crash claimed the lives of two young soccer players, the lawsuit filed by the survivors has evolved into a complex litigation that has now been moved to federal court.

On March 29, 2006, the girls' soccer team from Beaumont's West Brook High School was en route to a playoff game in Humble.

It was raining and the roads were wet as the bus traveled west on U.S. 90. Allegedly, a pickup truck being driven by Joel Martinez was traveling east on Highway 90 and pulling a trailer loaded with insulation material.

Just east of Devers, some of the insulation material came loose from the trailer and fell onto the roadway into the west bound lanes.

While trying to avoid the materials, the Sun Travel bus lost control, fell on its side and skidded off the road.

Some of the passengers were ejected, either completely or partially from the bus. Alicia Bonura,18, and Ashley Brown,16, died and 20 other girls suffered serious injuries.

Although the girls were on a team trip, the bus was not a Beaumont Independent School District vehicle, but a charter bus owned and operated by Michael LaBrie, doing business as Sun Travel, and driven by Lorri White, an employee of Sun Travel.

On June 28, 2006, Marion and Joanne Bonura filed a wrongful death suit in Jefferson County District Court seeking monetary damages from Michael LaBrie Inc, individually and dba Sun Travel, and Lorri Ann White, bus driver

The original complaint, Case No. D177-257, claimed that the collision and resulting injuries "were proximately caused by various acts of negligence and/or negligence per se on the part of the defendants Michael LaBrie and Sun Travel."

Alleged acts included negligent entrustment of a defective vehicle; entrustment to and hiring of a reckless, incompetent or unsafe driver; negligent training or instruction; and failure to properly inspect, repair or maintain the vehicle.

In addition, the original complaint alleged negligence on the part of Lorri Ann White, the bus driver, for failing to operate the vehicle in a safe manner, failing to maintain control, failing to take proper evasive action and failing to give appropriate attention to the operation of the vehicle.

The complaint also alleged that White failed to properly inspect and maintain the vehicle, failed to comply with rules and regulations governing the operation of a commercial motor vehicle and with provisions of Texas Traffic Laws.

On May 9, 2007, the original plaintiffs filed an amended petition and added other individuals who suffered injuries in the wreck.

Then in November 2007, the plaintiffs filed a second amended petition which severed LaBrie, Sun Travel and White into a separate case and named a new set of defendants that included the bus manufacturers and vendors.

ABC Companies, ABC Texas Bus Sales, General Coach America, Thor Industries, Freightliner Custom Chassis and Freedman Seating Co. are named as defendants in the second amended complaint.

The alleged driver of the truck that lost the load of insulation and caused White to swerve, Joel Martinez, was also named in a defendant in the amended complaint.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Paul "Chip" Ferguson of Provost Umphrey, invoked theories of "strict tort liability" and "crashworthiness."

The design and manufacture of the bus was "defective" and "unreasonably dangerous," the amended complaint states.

"While plaintiffs believe the sole and complete responsibility for injuries rest with defendants, also recognize they need to make a claim of negligence against Joel Martinez," the complaint states.

The amended complaint included wrongful death claims for Bonura and Brown, and damages for physical pain, mental anguish, disfigurement, impairment, health care expenses and loss of earning capacity for the other 20 girls injured in the crash. The girls' parents are also seeking damages for mental anguish and loss of parental companionship.

The complaint also asks for punitive and/or exemplary damages.

On Dec. 21, 2007, ABC Bus Co. filed its Original Answer to the second amended petition. Represented by Kent Adams of Adams & Boswell in Houston, ABC Bus Co. responded with a general denial and an affirmative defense asserting the doctrine of comparative fault.

As 2008 began, Adams submitted a notice of removal of the case from Judge Gary Sanderson's 60th District Court in Jefferson County to federal court in the Eastern District of Texas due to diversity of citizenship of defendants.

In addition, Adams argues in the Jan. 2, 2008, Notice of Removal that the bus at issue was sold by ABC Bus Inc., not ABC Texas Bus Sales, a separate and independent company.

"ABC Texas Bus Sales did not design, manufacture and or place bus at issue into the stream of commerce – indeed it has nothing to do with the design, manufacture or sale of bus at issue – there is absolutely no possibility that plaintiffs will be able to establish a cause of action against ABC, making its joinder fraudulent," the notice states.

The defendants also argue that the joinder of Joel Martinez to the second amended complaint is fraudulent because according to official records of the state of Texas, Martinez is a citizen of Mexico, not a citizen of Texas.

Additionally, Adams argues that the second amended petition states that Martinez was negligent and that his negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiffs' damages "but it does not state that Martinez did anything wrong, and even goes so far as to state that the 'sole and complete responsibility' for plaintiffs' damages rests with the manufacturing defendants."

The federal case, No. 1:07-cv-990-MAC, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Marcia Crone in the Beaumont Division.

On Jan. 4, parties were sent a consent form to proceed before a federal magistrate judge.

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