Texas SC: Federal bus safety laws do not preempt state common laws

Steve Korris Dec. 21, 2010, 9:47am


AUSTIN – McClennan County jurors correctly blamed Motor Coach Industries Mexico for a crash that killed five on Interstate 35, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled on Dec. 17.

Jurors found that seat belts on a Central Texas Trails bus could have kept passengers inside and that laminated glass would have prevented fatal injuries.

Federal regulations don't require seat belts or lamination on motor coaches, but all nine Justices agreed that jurors followed common law without intruding on federal law.

Justice Eva Guzman wrote that the verdict "does not present any obstacle to the accomplishment of the federal regulatory scheme's purpose."

Judgment on damages will require a second trial, because District Judge Jim Meyer failed to ask jurors about responsibility of Central Texas Trails and the driver.

In 2003, friends chartered a Central Texas Trails bus to take them from Temple to Dallas for a concert.

Near Waco, in rain and fog, the driver crested a hill and saw red lights. Traffic had stopped due to an accident.

"He attempted to change lanes to increase his stopping distance, but another car cut him off, so he steered into the earthen median and lost control of the bus," Guzman wrote.

"It crossed the median into southbound traffic and collided with a large sport utility vehicle, spun counter clockwise, and tipped over on its right side," she wrote.

"The bus slid across the southbound lanes and came to rest in the ditch on the far side of the road."

Five died and others suffered injuries.

Central Texas Trails exhausted its $5 million liability policy, declared bankruptcy, and deposited the proceeds in a liability fund.

Families and passengers sued Motor Coach Industries Mexico in McClennan County four months after the crash, along with its importer and distributor.

Central Texas Trails reached agreement with families and passengers four months after that, through non-binding mediation.

"The unique plan allowed the claimants to either accept a mediated percentage of the proceeds or to litigate their claims before a special judge," Guzman wrote.

Those who sued could obtain no more than 10 percent above the mediator's award.

Central Texas Trails reorganized, and a bankruptcy judge discharged any tort liability in excess of the liability fund.

Motor Coach Industries Mexico tested the discharge in the McClellan County action, moving to join Central Texas Trails and the driver as necessary third parties.

Meyer denied the motion.

At close of trial, he refused to ask jurors if they could hold Central Texas Trails and the driver responsible.

He refused to ask if they could subject Central Texas Trails and the driver to proportionate liability as settling parties.

Jurors awarded more than $17 million.

Before Meyer could enter judgment, the special judge for Central Texas Trails found all the awards but one exceeded the mediator's maximum.

The special judge capped the awards and prorated them. A bankruptcy judge approved the caps and released payments.

Meyer adjusted the awards to account for the mediation, and entered judgment.

On appeal, 10th District judges in Waco sided with jurors on seat belts and glass but found Meyer should have defined Central Texas Trails and the driver as settling persons.

The 10th District remanded the case for trial to allocate damages, and the Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

Guzman wrote, "Given that no federal safety standard even discusses passenger seat belts in motor coaches, MCI's preemption claim is predicated on regulatory silence.

"Regulatory silence will not preempt a state law absent a clear and manifest statement of intent to forbid all regulation in that area."

She wrote that "an agency's mere decision to leave an area unregulated is not enough to preempt state law."

On windows, she wrote that glazing materials would feature prominently on retrial.

Victims sought to avoid retrial by pleading that they styled the agreement with Central Texas Trails as a litigation plan rather than a settlement.

Guzman wrote that it had all semblances of a settlement.

Wanda Fowler, Thomas Wright, Chad Forbes, Michael Choyke, John Dacus, Darrell Barger and James Dunnam represented Motor Coach Industries.

Stephen Harrison, William Arnot, Justin Presnal, Thomas Brown, Wayne Fisher, Timothy Sulak and Craig T. Enoch represented families and passengers.

Case No. 09-0048

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