Suits in fatal 2006 Huntsville school bus crash settled

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, November 27, 2008

MONTGOMERY – Families of four Lee High School students who were killed when their bus plunged off an interstate overpass two years ago have settled lawsuits in the case that led to national debate over school bus safety, lawyers said Wednesday.

Attorney Jere Beasley said the agreement was reached late Tuesday night after a day of mediation. Terms of the settlement or the amounts were not released.

Beasley’s Montgomery firm represented the family of Nicole Ford, a 19-year-old who was killed in the Nov. 20, 2006 crash. That suit was the first filed and had been set for trial on Dec. 8. Defendants were Laidlaw Transit Inc., bus driver Anthony Scott and Tony Williams, a Lee High student who was driving a car involved in the crash.

Some families of two dozen students who were injured also sued and lawsuits against other defendants are still pending, lawyers said.

“The conduct on the part of the company, the school bus driver and everybody involved was so bad that they really could not afford to take this case to trial,” Beasley said from his Montgomery home.

British transportation company FirstGroup purchased Laidlaw after the crash and FirstGroup America spokeswoman Nicol Jones did not have an immediate comment on the settlement.

The bus was carrying 40 students to a technology center in downtown Huntsville when it collided with Williams’ Toyota on an Interstate 565 overpass.

The collision sent the bus careening into a concrete barrier and the impact flung Scott onto the overpass, where he lay critically injured while the bus nose-dived over the barrier and fell nearly 40 feet onto the street below.

The crash added fire to a national debate about putting seat belts on school buses and led Alabama to start a three-year $1.4 million pilot program to study the issue. It also contributed to a government rule announced in October that requires smaller school buses to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder seat belts for the first time and implements higher seat backs on larger buses.

Christine Collier, 16; Tanesha Estella Hill, 17; Crystal McCrary, 17; and Ford were all sitting near the front of the bus and died at the scene or later at the hospital.

Ford’s father, Calvin Darnell Fletcher, is raising his daughter’s son and said he is ready to move on.

“I am very pleased with the settlement,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “I am happy to have the matter resolved and the ordeal behind me so I can look forward, and concentrate on raising my grandson.”

A message left at the Birmingham law office representing Scott in the case was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Huntsville attorney Doug Fees is representing Hill’s mother, Lisa Hill Sledge, and said the four families received equal amounts. Tuesday’s mediation was the second formal attempt at reaching an accord and there is a “sense of relief and closure for many of the victims,” Fees said.

“I think the two-year anniversary of this tragedy and because it’s … Thanksgiving, it was a good time to come together in good faith to see if a settlement could be reached,” he said.

A criminal investigation into the deadly wreck was closed without any charges last year after toxicology reports showed Scott and Williams did not have any controlled substances or alcohol in their systems.