In my truck and bus crash practice in Atlanta, I have worked on some horrible crash cases. One was the Bluffton University baseball team bus crash several years ago. In that Atlanta case a tour bus carrying 33 members of the college baseball team en route to a spring tournament in Florida crashed off an overpass at I-75 and Northside drive in Atlanta. Five students were killed, as well as the bus driver and his wife. Four students had critical injuries and the others had less serious injuries. I represented ten of the team members.
Today, the news from California includes what appears to be an even a worse bus crash in which a FedEx truck jumped the median barrier and crashed head on into a bus taking high school students from Los Angeles to visit a college in northern California. As both vehicles burned, a massive fire and column of black smoke could be seen from a long distance.
A total of ten people died in this crash on I-5. Eight people on the bus were killed – including five students, three chaperones one of whom was a college recruiter, and the drivers of both the FedEx truck and the bus. According to one report, 36 or 37 people sustained injuries that included burns, broken legs and noses and head injuries of undetermined severity.
It will likely to take a while to determine why the FedEx bus veered across the median. Investigation will undoubtedly include examination of the “black box” data recorder in the FedEx truck, data transmitted from the truck during its operation, the driver’s work hours, fatigue and physical condition, toxicology examination, mechanical inspection of the truck remains, site reconstruction including skid, gouge and yaw marks, interviews with everyone who was in the area who can be identified, etc. One concern is that sometimes when vehicles are completely destroyed by fire, it becomes difficult if not impossible to read data in a severely burned electronic control module.
This was a trip meant to open doors to a group of low-income and first-generation prospective college students. Three buses, two from Los Angeles and one from Fresno, were en route Thursday evening to Humboldt State University in Arcata near Eureka in northern California when the FedEx truck crossed a median and slammed into one of the buses.
Tommy Chang, the instructional superintendent for the Los Angeles School District said the trip was meant to be a great opportunity to see what California offered to students in terms of higher education.
“Humboldt State University is deeply saddened by a tragic accident…involving a charter bus filled with prospective students,” the school said in a statement. “They were on their way to visit campus for the April 11 Spring Preview event. Our hearts go out to those who have been affected, and we are here to support them, and their families, in any way possible.”
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a special team from Washington to the scene on Interstate 5 near the town of Orland, about 100 miles north of Sacramento. The reason the FedEx truck crossed the median remains under investigation but that investigation could take months. The NTSB will investigate the human, mechanical and environmental issues. First it will seek collect perishable information that can disappear very quickly.
It will be interesting to see if this California crash contributes to evolving safety standards. After the Bluffton University bus crash in Atlanta, that tragedy led to changes in highway signage standards as well as a movement toward requiring seat belts on tour buses.
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice. His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.