HOMER -- A civil trial arising from a tragic accident in January 1997 in which a 7-year-old girl was struck by a vehicle early in the morning while crossing East End Road to a bus stop began Thursday in Homer District Court.
Since the accident, Ashley Logan, a McNeil Canyon Elementary School first-grader at the time, has been in a wheelchair. Now 11 years old, she still is suffering the effects of severe head injuries, unable to function beyond the level of an 18-month-old baby. She is fed by a tube because she cannot swallow.
No criminal charges were filed against Ronald D. Olson, then 58, the driver of the eastbound Chevrolet Blazer that hit her that dark winter morning. However, Patricia Seay, Logan's mother, has sued Laidlaw Transit Inc. and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, of which the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is a subdivision, alleging it was their corporate negligence that led to the accident.
Seay charged that the defendants had a duty to select a safe place for her daughter and other neighborhood children to wait for the school bus, and that the place chosen was unsafe because it required Ashley to cross the busy two-lane road in the dark. Defendants also had a duty to train children on bus-loading protocol, inform parents of the protocol and to enforce that protocol in the field, but failed to, Seay charged.
She also said the school district failed to conduct training drills or to see that warning signs indicating to drivers they were approaching a school bus stop were erected by the Alaska Department of Transpor-tation. Seay is seeking compensatory damages for emotional distress, from loss of "society and comfort" from her daughter and for breach of contract. She also is seeking punitive damages. The amounts are to be determined by the court.
During opening arguments Thursday, Seay's attorney, Richard Friedman of Anchorage, said he will demonstrate that the three Logan children, including Ashley and her older siblings, had been told to cross the road and be waiting at the side of the eastbound lane five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. He told the jurors that by the time the trial is over they would know more about the accident and about student transportation industry bus stop safety than anyone on the peninsula.
"When it is time to pass judgment," he said, "that judgment will have enormous consequences, not only for the parties involved, but for children throughout Alaska."
Friedman said that since the accident, the medical costs of caring for Ashley have reached $1.2 million, and that future costs could range between $6 million and $9 million. Laidlaw and school district officials have denied legal responsibility, saying blame lies either wholly or in part with Olson, with Seay for not supervising her child, or with Ashley who, despite her age, should have known and did know better than to cross the street before the bus arrived.
Clay Young of Anchorage, attorney for Laidlaw and the school district, said there is no question Ashley Logan suffered terribly in the accident.
"This is a tragic case," he said as he began his opening statement. "But it is also a case of misplaced blame."
He said evidence will show that neither the bus company nor the school district is responsible for the accident, and that educators at McNeil Canyon Elementary School had instructed children to wait for the bus on their own side of the street and not to cross until after the bus had arrived and turned on its emergency lights. Young also said evidence will show that the bus driver, Dale Bothell, never told the children to cross the road before the bus arrived, as plaintiffs claim testimony will show.
Young said Laidlaw and the school district clearly have a responsibility for the safety of the children when they are picked up and riding the bus to and from school. But, he said, they are not responsible for getting the children to the bus stop safely. That is the responsibility of the parents and the children.
Seay did not accompany her children to the stop and help them cross the street that day. That was her failure, Young said.
"Hard as that is to say and hard as that is to prove, I believe the evidence will show it," Young said.
Seay disputes the counterclaims that she is responsible and has asked that they be dismissed.
The school district and bus company have named Olson as a third party defendant, charging that the jury should consider whether he is wholly or partly to blame for the accident. Young said that while experts have put Olson's speed at between 38 and 45 mph, that was still too fast for winter conditions. Olson was familiar with the route and knew children would be waiting for the bus, Young said.
The trial is expected to take between two and three weeks, according to attorneys from both sides.
Hal Spence is a reporter for the Homer News.
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