Homer trial challenges bus company, clears school district

Posted: Tuesday, October 24, 2000

HOMER -- The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was not responsible for the tragic accident in early 1997 that left 7-year-old Ashley Logan badly brain-damaged and confined to a wheelchair, a Homer jury ruled Sept. 26.

However, the 12-member panel in the civil case brought by Logan's mother, Patricia Seay, against the district and the bus company, Laidlaw Transit Inc., could not reach a verdict on the bus company.

At issue is whether Laidlaw should be held wholly or partly responsible for where the bus stop was placed, and for the actions of bus driver Dale Bothell, who allegedly instructed Logan to cross East End Road before the bus arrived to avoid being late.

A new trial is set to begin Nov. 6 in Homer, at which time the parties will begin selecting a new jury. The school district no longer will be a party to the suit.

Under terms of the district's contract with the bus company, Laidlaw will pay the district's legal costs.

At least 10 of the 12 jurors must agree on a verdict to avoid a "no decision," according to Judge Jonathan Link.

The case also included a countersuit filed by the district and the bus company alleging that the negligence of others led directly to the accident and that they should share the burden of responsibility. Logan's mother should be held responsible, district and bus company lawyer Clay Young said, for not ensuring that Ashley reached the bus stop safely.

Ronald Olson, the driver of the vehicle that struck her that dark winter morning, should shoulder some responsibility, the district and Laidlaw suit argued. Even at the age of 7, Ashley Logan ought to bear a measure of responsibility because she should have known better than to dash across the road, the countersuit claimed.

Because the jury could reach no verdict on the bus company's responsibility, however, it never reached the point of addressing shared responsibility.

"Technically what happened is I declared a mistrial, because they were unable to reach a verdict as to Laidlaw's liability," Link said. "It's always a disappointment to get no verdict, but I'd rather have to declare a mistrial than to have a verdict that didn't represent the consensus of at least 10 of the 12 jurors. All the parties agreed this was a very hard-working jury. They got an A-plus for jury duty."

Juror Mike Sirl, an artist who lives near Homer, said he believed Laidlaw had done enough to protect the children. Eight jurors were ready to rule in favor of the bus company, he said.

"It boiled down to what was reasonable," he said. "How do you divvy up responsibility of kids getting to the bus stop?"

Sirl said the jury had to hear and then wade through a wealth of testimony from experts brought in from the Lower 48 to testify on school bus safety standards. It was almost too much material, he said.

"The plaintiffs tried to make it like the safety standards were written in stone, like the Ten Commandments," Sirl said. "But there is a latitude. You have to look at (local) conditions and whether Laidlaw, the school district and the parents are doing their jobs. The hang-up was in the instruction to the jury -- interpreting what was 'reasonable and prudent' to do, and what is 'an accident.'"

That the school district was cleared was not unexpected, said Dan Westerburg, who represented Seay.

"The district was not the focus of our efforts," he said.

Westerburg acknowledged the plaintiffs had not done enough to convince the jury that Laidlaw was responsible because it chose the bus stop location.

He said a difficult element of the case was allocating fault among several defendants.

Laidlaw named Olson as a third-party defendant, and issues surrounded whether he had had his low or high beams on at the time. According to Westerburg, Olson couldn't remember which were on. Westerburg said Olson had been driving under the speed limit. He was not cited by Alaska State Troopers.

This was "a darting-child case," as far as Olson was concerned, he said.

Seay still feels strongly about the bus stop safety issue, Westerburg said. Like other parents who have experienced similar tragedy, she has taken on a cause -- in her case, a change in policy regarding where children must wait for buses.

"Like any parent would, she wishes she had done things differently" that morning, Westerburg said.

Seay said after the first trial that she was disappointed, "but I respect the fact they (the jury) did the best they could. It was a hard job for them."

She said she will continue to advocate for more safety for school children.

"The main thing is, I don't want this to happen to another child," she said.

Seay was seeking several million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. The money would cover the cost of caring for Ashley for the rest of her life. Ashley is now 10.

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