Indiana State Police investigators identified the victims as Xzavier and Mason Ingle, both 6-years-old, and their 9-year-old sister, Alivia Stahl. A fourth victim, 11 year-old Maverik Lowe, suffered multiple injuries and was airlifted from the scene to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne. The same investigators also report that Alyssa Shepherd, 24, of Rochester, was arrested and charged Tuesday with 3 counts of reckless homicide. Shepherd was reported to have been released from custody after posting a $15,000 bond.
According to a news item written by Vic Ryckaert and published in the October 31st online edition of the Indianapolis Star, initial and follow-up coverage of the accident by CNN, as well as published photographs of the accident scene, a preliminary analysis of the accident suggests the following scenario:
At about 7:15 a.m. Tuesday, a group of children were crossing a rural 2-lane road north of the town of Rochester in Fulton County, Indiana to board a school bus which had stopped in the northbound lane with its “Stop” arm extended and its caution lights flashing. According to witnesses, a Toyota pickup truck traveling in the opposite (southbound) direction failed to stop as required by Indiana law and struck the children.
Photographs and video taken at the scene during the early stages of the investigation show a late-model Toyota pickup with moderate damage to its grill, slightly more pronounced on the passenger side, facing the opposite direction as the school bus. Although it is difficult to determine distances from still photographs, the pickup truck appears to have come to a stop about three school bus lengths (~ 80 to 100 feet) from the point where the children were struck. This suggests that the truck was travelling at least close to the posted speed limit of 55 mph when the accident occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board has sent an accident investigation team to Indiana to assist local authorities with their reconstruction of the accident’s circumstances.
Who can be held liable?
As is the case with the vast majority of traffic accidents, this tragedy appears to have been preventable as it seems to be due to the combined negligence of two parties: the driver of the pickup truck and the local school board.
- the driver of the pickup truck
In this case Ms. Shepherd, the driver of the pickup that struck the children as they attempted to cross the road to board the school bus, is obviously at fault because she violated a state law requiring all drivers to stop their vehicles when confronted by a school bus that is actively engaged in picking up or discharging its passengers. Furthermore, since it can be assumed that she had repeatedly driven this same route on a regular basis, she should have been aware that children could have been present. These factors alone appear to support an allegation of negligence on her part as a direct cause of the accident.
- the school district
While the liability of Ms. Shepherd is obvious, the school district itself may itself be liable in the accident if it can be shown that the board’s officers and/or employees 1) were aware that the bus stopped in a dangerous location; 2) given that the bus stop location, knew that an accident was possible, yet 3) did not take action to eliminate the danger. In support of the school board’s liability, consider the following two points.
1. In an video interview recorded on Tuesday afternoon the children’s uncle, Elgin Ingle, said of the local school district: "This school has been warned, this has been an issue, we have said this before." They've made complaints, other parents. It's not safe to walk a child across a highway, especially at that time because everyone's going to work at that time."
2. The school district that controlled the location of the bus stop where the accident occurred, the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation, later announced that it was relocating the bus stop from the highway into the mobile home park where the victims were living. Although this announcement is not a direct admission of liability, it would be difficult for a jury to not to consider it as such should this accident lead to wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits in the future. The school board does, however, have a point of law that could work in its favor.
In Indiana, as in other states, a government entity such a city council or a school board can enjoy at least limited protection from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under this doctrine, which can be traced back to the concept that “the king can do no wrong” in English common law, a government cannot be sued unless it consents to become a defendant or there is a provision for such lawsuits in the statutory (“written”) law of the state. Whether or not this will be an issue in the accident reported here remains to be seen.
At The Doan Law Firm, we will monitor future developments regarding this accident and will provide updates as appropriate regarding the complex legal issues that appear to be involved.