The family of an 11-year-old student who was hit by a car nearly three years ago while trying to catch a school bus is suing the teen driver who struck the child and also the Wake County school system.
Michael Burgess was a sixth-grade student at West Lake Middle School in September 2014 when he suffered multiple injuries trying to cross the road in southwest Wake to catch the bus. In a lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court, the family accuses the district of putting the bus stop in an unsafe location and the drivers involved of acting negligently.
The lawsuit is making its way through the court system at a time when a shortage of bus drivers in recent years has caused North Carolina’s largest school system to change bus routes and stops each school year. Wake is hoping to raise salaries to try to recruit and retain more bus drivers.
The lawsuit, filed in April, points to how the lack of drivers has impacted the placement of bus stops.
“This is just one of several tragic cases across North Carolina where young children have been seriously injured or killed while crossing the street to do something as simple and necessary as getting on the bus to go to school,” said Marie Lang, an attorney for the family from The Law Offices of James Scott Farrin.
“In many of these cases, the child had to cross a busy road with a high speed limit. No parent should have to worry that their child is being put in harm’s way while going to and from school.”
In a motion requesting dismissal of the lawsuit, attorneys for the school system say the N.C. Industrial Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to hear the case. The family has also filed a case with the Industrial Commission.
It was before dawn nearly three years ago when Burgess crossed Johnson Pond Road to catch a northbound school bus. Before he could reach the bus, he was hit in the southbound lane by a vehicle driven by Lindsey Tight, then 16.
A neighbor described waking up to a “big old boom.” The lawsuit says Burgess’ foot and ankle were caught underneath Tight’s vehicle before he was propelled into the air and landed in a drainage ditch.
The lawsuit says Burgess suffered physical and psychological injuries, including an orbital right bone fracture, multiple right ankle fractures, a concussion, closed head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawsuit says the bus was stopped at the time with its red lights flashing.
On a single day in March, school bus drivers around the state reported 3,174 cases of drivers illegally passing stopped buses. There were 352 violations reported that day in Wake County.
Fourteen students statewide have been killed by cars illegally passing stopped school buses since 1998, with the most recent fatality occurring in March in Onslow County.
Court records show that Tight entered a plea of responsible for failure to reduce speed. A charge of failing to stop for a school bus was dismissed.
In addition to Tight and her mother, the lawsuit names as defendants multiple school employees ranging from the bus driver to Superintendent Jim Merrill.
The suit places much of the blame for the accident on the location of the bus stop at Johnson Pond Road and Oak Park Drive. It’s still a Wake County schools bus stop.
Burgess’ family complained how the district had moved the bus stop outside of the mobile home park to a road with a speed limit of 45 mph.
“School bus locations that require kids as young as six-years-old to cross high speed limit roads in the dark, early morning hours put our children in danger,” said Shawn Howard, an attorney for the family from Maginnis Law. “To keep our kids safe, alternative locations need to be designed that put health and safety first.”
Teresa Leonard contributed.