Legal expert explains limited options Chattanooga bus victims fa - WSMV News 4

Legal expert explains limited options Chattanooga bus victims face

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Johnthony Walker (Source: Chattanooga Police Department) Johnthony Walker (Source: Chattanooga Police Department)

Thirty-four pages of emails from school officials in Chattanooga show a principal, parents and students had been complaining about bus driver Johnthony Walker's driving.

With the first lawsuit already filed and a criminal investigation underway into last week’s deadly bus crash, questions about accountability and policy are boiling to the surface.

Attorney Jim Higgins handles cases involving crash injuries. He said Walker’s employer, Durham School Services, knew his driving was a problem.

"They had notice that this person was acting in a negligent reckless manner already and apparently they didn't do anything about it because he was still driving the bus on the day that this happened,” Higgins said.

Since the beginning of November, Woodmore Elementary School Principal Brenda Cothran had received several complaints about Walker from parents and students. Cothran wrote transportation director Ben Coulter herself, saying, in her opinion, Walker "was driving too fast" when he pulled out of their school.

"It was not as bad as yesterday, but not optimal,” Cothran wrote in an email on Nov. 11.

Coulter then wrote Durham School Services telling them the principal "had to go out there several times and that the driver is arguing with the students. This may be a situation where he needs to be coached on how to deal with students. Can you have this looked into?"

Minutes later, Coulter wrote to the administrators, saying "we are addressing this issue with the driver."

But the emails show no specific disciplinary action or follow up.

"We haven't seen a response about what they did to protect these kids," Higgins said. "It may be there, but we haven't seen what they did to discipline the driver, to train the driver."

Five days before the fatal crash, Cothran wrote to Coulter again saying "six students reported that the bus driver was swerving and purposely trying to cause them to fall today. Let us know how to proceed and if you were able to pull the tape."

One child also wrote in a letter, "The bus driver drives fast. He drives too fast. It feels like the bus is going to flip over."

Days after that letter was sent, six children were killed in the crash on Talley Road in Chattanooga.

Monday, Hamilton County School Officials said five children remained in the hospital. Three were in critical condition and two are stable.

Currently, there are no indications that Walker was asked to stop driving by any authority figure.

Instead, the transportation director, following each complaint, asked a Durham representative to pull surveillance video to review what happened. There is no confirmation in the emails about what was shown in the video or what was done to remedy the situation before the crash.

“You don't have probably just one thing that should've happened, you have a lot of things that should have happened from these emails," Higgins said. "You're going to have a criminal system deal with this driver, a civil system system deal with this corporation on what they did not do, what they've should have done. And then you're going to have a legislative body deal with this to say what safeguards do we put in effect to make sure we have good qualified drivers dealing with these kids and that they have the support that they need,” Higgins said.

The first family has filed a lawsuit. Higgins said others can come one-by-one and seek trial if they want.

“On the civil side, you're going to have these families probably band together. They will file a lawsuit is the way it all gets started,” Higgins said.

He said they will more than likely sit down with a mediator to bring a settlement or resolution of sorts for the families to move forward.”

Durham School Services and Hamilton County School officials said they could not comment on the investigation or their practices leading up to the crash.

Walker will have his first hearing in Hamilton County Court Tuesday. 

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