On August 28, 2019, after years of litigation, and following a trial that started with four days of motions in limine on July 1, 2019, a Massachusetts Superior Court jury returned a verdict for a combined $36.5 Million on behalf of three seriously-injured high school juniors who were injured in a head-on collision with a school bus owned and operated by First Student, Inc. Jeffrey Beeler, a Partner at Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. [HBMHLaw], represented one of the seriously injured young women and obtained a verdict on her behalf of $6 Million, with another $750,000 being awarded to the victim’s mother for loss of consortium. The combined jury verdict of $36.5 Million in the 3 consolidated personal injury cases was recently recognized by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly as the largest jury verdict of 2019.
At the time of the collision, the three injured teens were passengers in a car operated by their teenaged friend. The collision occurred at a curve on a two-lane road less than 1/2 mile from their high school in Kingston, Massachusetts. Evidence from the trial suggested that the car was traveling at about 30 m.p.h. prior to the collision; the school bus, which was not carrying children at the time, was traveling at about 34 m.p.h.
Following the collision, both the bus and car ended up in the school bus’s southbound lane. Due to their extensive injuries, none of the occupants of the car ever recovered their memories of the events leading up to the collision or the collision itself. At the scene of the collision, responding law enforcement officers had access to the bus driver who sustained minor injuries, and two eye witnesses, who also worked for the bus company. In fact, every “eye witness,” whose perspectives were a function of where they were on the curve and traffic in front of them, claimed that the car left its lane, entered the oncoming lane, and hit the bus. Criminal authorities quickly concluded that the car driver was at fault for the collision. The car driver, who never had a memory of events, was prosecuted and eventually accepted responsibility for her car being in the wrong lane.
Attorney Jeffrey Beeler, from Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. was retained almost three years after the collision. Through the civil litigation process, and with the assistance of counsel for the other injured parties, the Plaintiffs were able to ultimately present evidence that supported the conclusion that both the car and the bus had left their lane of travel prior to the collision. This evidence included:
- The hard-left orientation of the bus’s front wheels after the collision. This orientation of the wheels was inconsistent with the fact that the bus was traveling a curve to its right immediately before the collision and, if the bus was hit by the car from the front while the bus’s wheels were turned to the right, the wheels should have remained turned to the right after the collision. It’s called physics . . .
- Yellow paint, that showed striations on the sidewall of the deflated front, driver’s side tire of the bus. This was most likely from being dragged across the yellow road line during heavy, pre-collision braking. This suggested that the bus did in fact cross the center line.
- Tire marks from the roadway, behind the bus’s point of rest attributable to the bus that were not documented by the police, but were visible upon close inspection of scene photos. These suggested that a vehicle with both dual and single wheels, and anti-lock brakes, like the bus, had engaged in heavy braking while steering to the right back into its own lane, before having to steer back to the left to straighten out in its own lane immediately prior to impact.
In addition to the above information, it was determined that the bus was equipped with a vehicle telematics system that provided operational data on the bus including speed, heading and GPS location data. This GPS data indicated that the bus entered the curve at 33.9 m.p.h., was in the wrong lane as it entered the curve, and immediately prior to the collision was on a heading so far to the west (its right) that unless it corrected back to the left, it would have gone off the road. To develop this evidence, Attorney Beeler, and counsel for one of the other Plaintiffs, fought collateral litigation in Seattle, Washington and conducted a deposition there of the bus company’s GPS vendor. In addition, the GPS data took both attorneys to Raleigh, North Carolina, to conduct a deposition of a former employee of the GPS vendor who provided the GPS data plot points placing the bus in the wrong lane right before the collision to the defense attorney for First Student within weeks of the collision. At trial, on direct examination by Attorney Jeffrey Beeler, Plaintiff’s GPS expert explained the accuracy of GPS data as it related to time, speed, heading and location data to the jury. The criminal authorities did not have the benefit of this evidence during their earlier prosecution of the driver or the car.
Additionally, the bus was equipped with an audio-visual camera and VCR recording system that was focused on the rear, passenger compartment of the bus. The images from this camera also captured images from outside the windows of the bus. From these images, it was possible to see changes of orientation and heading in the bus when it turned. It was also possible to see changes in speed and braking from the passing of outside objects and the associated engine and road noise picked up by the audiovisual recorder. As indicated by Attorney Beeler during the joint liability opening statement he delivered on behalf of all of the Plaintiffs, the evidence at trial was that the tape from this VCR was given by the bus company to the police either at the scene of the collision, or two days later at a meeting. The police, in turn, gave it to the District Attorney’s office who found it to be of minimal use in their criminal prosecution of the car driver because it depicted 12 minutes of static immediately before the collision. Indeed, the audiovisual footage came back as audio and then video as the bus rocked to a stop during the collision. Missing from the tape was audiovisual footage of the bus’s movements in the minutes preceding the collision. This tape sat in the D.A.’s file for years.
During the civil case, by order of the Court, the tape was brought to a forensic video expert hired by the Plaintiffs. A frame-by-frame copy of the tape was made which showed several of these periods of static, suggestive of a mechanical malfunction. The Defendant, based on “supplemental” interrogatory responses served days before the trial began, tried to advance the malfunction explanation for the static at the relevant part of the tape. In its supplemental interrogatory responses, it claimed that “dust in the VCR units caused the footage to skip and sometimes not function at all.” It further claimed that there were “no maintenance records or other records[.]” The bus company’s original interrogatory responses provided in August of 2016, however, indicated that prior to the collision, from its maintenance records, “neither the camera nor the VCR equipment required repair[.]” To investigate this issue, Plaintiffs’ counsel purchased a duplicate of the bus recording system. With this, the video expert was able to rule out mechanical malfunction as a cause of the static. Instead, he determined that the static had been intentionally introduced into the tape by someone manually turning off the digital date and time stamp on the video recorder, disconnecting the camera from the recorder, and recording blank signal over various portions of the tape – including the relevant minutes right before the collision. At trial, on direct examination by Attorney Jeffrey Beeler, this expert explained his findings to the jury, making use of the exemplar recording system assembled by Plaintiffs’ counsel.
Based on the evidence presented, the trial judge instructed the jury on both spoliation of evidence and evidence of consciousness of liability.
Plaintiff’s liability experts included a collision reconstruction expert, a GPS expert, an audio-visual expert and a surveyor. Each Plaintiff presented their damages case and damages experts. At the closing arguments, by agreement, Attorney Jeffrey Beeler presented the joint liability closing for the Plaintiffs, with counsel for the other Plaintiffs also addressing certain aspects of the Plaintiffs’ liability case.
Following deliberations, the Brockton Superior Court jury awarded a combined damages award of $36.5 Million, the largest verdict of 2019.
The attorneys at Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C. [HBMHLaw] have extensive experience in personal injury cases involving serious injuries including wrongful death, brain injuries, blindness and serious spinal injuries. If a loved one has been hurt or killed due to the negligence or fault of another, please call for a free consultation.