Three years after West Brook bus crash, litigation still winding through local, federal courts

Steve Korris Apr. 9, 2009, 7:40am

Texas legislators quickly took charge of school bus safety after a crash killed two West Brook High girls' soccer team members, but three years after the crash Texas courts have barely begun to take charge of the disputes over liability.

The first lawsuit over the crash bounced from Jefferson County district court to U. S. district court in Beaumont, where it suddenly vanished last year.

A second suit continues in Jefferson County, but various defendants seek transfer to their home courts or Liberty County, where the crash happened.

A third suit bounced to federal court and back to Jefferson County, where Chief Judge Gary Sanderson consolidated it with the second suit for pretrial proceedings.

The crash happened in the rain on March 29, 2006, as the West Brook team traveled toward Humble on U. S. Highway 90 east of Devers.

A pickup truck ahead of them pulled a trailer. Insulation fell from the trailer and landed on the road.

Bus driver Lorri White steered to the right and skidded. She steered left and crossed the center line. She steered right and the bus slid off the road.

It crashed on its side. Windows broke. Girls spilled out and the bus rolled over them.

Alicia Bonura and Ashley Brown died, and 19 others suffered injuries.

Meanwhile, Texas students have learned to buckle up. Legislators responded to the crash by requiring seat belts on buses carrying students on road trips.

Litigation continues in Jefferson County although it no longer involves the bus driver or the owner. Plaintiffs settled with them in 2007.

To keep the suits running they lay indirect blame on dozens of businesses that built the bus, supplied its parts, maintained it, repaired it, sold it and rented it.

Three months after the crash, Paul "Chip" Ferguson of Provost Umphrey in Beaumont sued bus owner Michael Labrie and White on behalf of Marion Bonura.

Ferguson would later add most of the team and their families to the suit.

District judges Milton Shuffield and James Mehaffy recused themselves, and Sanderson took the case.

In November 2007 plaintiffs settled with Labrie and White. Sanderson approved the settlement and sealed it.

Three days later Ferguson asserted product liability claims against new defendants.

Defendants invoked diversity jurisdiction and removed the case to federal court, where Ferguson moved to remand it to Jefferson County.

In January 2008, John Werner of Reaud, Morgan and Quinn in Beaumont started a separate suit in Jefferson County.

He sued insurer USAA County Mutual on behalf of Stephanie Steelman, seeking to enforce policy benefits for injuries to Jordan Steelman.

Werner then broadened the case with new claims, new plaintiffs and new defendants.

Next, Ferguson pulled a surprise. He filed a new suit in Jefferson County and asked U. S District Judge Marcia Crone to dismiss the one in her court.

Defendants pleaded with Crone to stop the new Jefferson County action, but she granted the motion to dismiss her case.

She didn't shake the case, however, for defendants removed the new suit to her court.

Ferguson moved to send it back. Crone granted the motion last July, finding that defendants didn't present a federal question or establish diversity of citizenship.

Meanwhile in the Steelman case, defendants moved for transfer to other Texas courts.

Jordan Steelman turned 18, settled her claim and dropped out of Werner's case.

In October Sanderson consolidated Ferguson's case and Werner's case for pretrial proceedings.

Since then the cases have turned quiet. Transfer motions remain pending.

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