The Sept. 17 bus crash in North Carolina that killed four people and injured more than 40 during a trip from Rock Hill for a football game, will likely go through a long and detailed probe by both public and private investigators and could lead to court action, legal experts say.
An attorney from Texas who already has signed up some of the people involved in the crash as clients, says that he believes there was negligence concerning the bus.
The bus was carrying 46 team members and others associated with Rock Hill’s Ramah Juco Academy football team – including about two dozen Clinton College students. Police and federal documents state the bus crashed into a guardrail and then a bridge on U.S. 74 in Richmond County, N.C., and is owned by Sandy River Baptist Church in Chester. Yet federal documents show the bus was not registered as a for-hire bus which South Carolina motor coach officials say would require a different set of regulations, safety measures, insurance coverage and other requirements.
Police have said that a tire problem caused the crash. But why the tire failed remains unclear.
So far, no lawsuits or other legal action has been initiated and a three-tiered investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and North Carolina state police is unfinished. But it appears that lawsuits are imminent.
Shaun Hodge, an attorney from the Houston area, who said his firm specializes in bus and tractor-trailer accident cases, said he has already spoken with some bus passengers and is representing several of them. Hodge said that even at this early stage in the investigation, “we believe there is negligence” in the crash.
Hodge said that dozens of investigations into similar crashes usually show that crashes were preventable through proper maintenance.
Hodge said he contacted National Transportation Safety Board investigators already - even though the investigation is not complete - and wants to make sure all evidence is preserved.
“We are certainly focusing on the condition of the tire,” Hodge said in a telephone interview Friday.
Hodge’s firm has placed advertisements in The Herald this week, saying that his legal team is already investigating the crash. More, Hodge will travel to Rock Hill later this week to meet with clients who were on the bus.
Clinton students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill, and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla., were killed along with an 8-year-old Rock Hill boy, Darice Lamont Hicks Jr., and bus driver Brian Andre Kirkpatrick, 43, of Chester. Kirkpatrick’s family said he was a member of Sandy River Baptist Church. Efforts to reach officials with Sandy River Baptist Church since the crash have been unsuccessful.
In 2014, the last year Department of Transportation statistics are available, 44 people died in more than 200 bus crashes investigated by federal officials, documents show. About 22,000 people were injured, records show.
Investigators with both federal and state governments, and likely insurance carriers and other private firms, will want to know whether the bus and the tires were properly maintained, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law school professor who teaches civil law and an expert in transportation law. Investigators will want to know if there is any identifiable cause for the blowout, Smith said.
Additionally, investigators will determine if the bus was properly licensed for the transport it provided that day, the training and licensing of the driver, if he was driving carefully, and if federal and state laws were followed that day, Smith said.
The trip details, and the relationship among the driver, the riders and other details also will be looked into, Smith said.
The seeking of clients by law firms is legal after decades ago lawyers successfully challenged laws barring them from advertising, said Tom McKinney, who practiced law in Rock Hill for more than 50 years. The practice of lawyers advertising and seeking out clients in personal injury cases has both detractors –including McKinney – and proponents, but apparently crosses no ethical or legal lines.
“If they get one client, one case, it could pay off,” McKinney said.
As for the case itself, McKinney said that proving tire defect or any other alleged problem could be “very difficult,” and experts on all sides could voice different findings. However, a full investigation – where attorneys should be involved as soon as possible to protect their clients’ rights – may show what happened in the crash and if rules and laws were followed, McKinney said..
Some bus crash verdicts across the country have yielded multi-million dollar verdicts for those injured or killed.
“This is the kind of case where a plaintiff likely would be seeking millions,” McKinney said.