Chester County, Tennessee School Bus Accident Exposes Legal Issues

The Chester County school bus crash in Nashville injuring 23 students (with 20 more seeking a medical evaluation) provides a good opportunity to remind our readers of one of the most unfair provisions of Tennessee law.  That’s saying a lot – there are lots of unfair parts of Tennessee personal injury and wrongful death law – but this one is a biggie.

Most people think that people and companies who harm others should be held accountable for the harm they cause.  But, when a local government causes harm, its accountability is very limited.  Local governments (and the state and federal government) can only be sued under certain circumstances and when they can be sued special rules apply.  The special rules are set forth in the Tennessee governmental tort liability act and the relevant case law.  (Claims against the State of Tennessee are addressed in a separate law.)

The Chester County school bus crash shines the light on two of the special rules.  Before I discuss them please know that I know nothing of the facts of the accident.  I have seen the news reports, but cannot vouch for their accuracy or completeness.

That said, under Tennessee law the school bus driver  (assuming the driver is a local government employee) cannot be sued.  If an employee of a private company causes harm while he or she is on the job, both employee and the employer can be held responsible for the harm caused.  But,  with two exceptions (doctors and nurses) local government employees who negligently cause injuries to others are immune from suit under Tennessee law.

Second, if the school bus driver was employed by Chester County and if the driver was negligent and caused the wreck, Chester County can be sued for that negligence but Chester County’s liability is limited to $300,000 per person but no more than $700,000 for the entire wreck.

What that means is this.  If one person is hurt in the wreck, Chester County does not have to pay any more than $300,000, regardless of medical bills or lifelong impact of the injuries.   If two people are hurt, Chester County does not have to pay more than $300,000 per person. If three or more (like 23 or whatever the final number turns out to be) people are hurt, Chester County does not have to pay more than $700,000 for everyone and, out of that total sum, no one person can receive more than $300,000.

Doing the math on this not simple.  Remember, the total amount paid can be no more than $700,000.  But that does not mean that each person hurt in the bus accident gets $40,434 ($700,000 divided by 23 injured people).  Rather, the value of all of the cases is added up and then each person gets a pro rata share of $700,000 available but no one person gets more $300,000.

So, just do so easy math, if the value of the compensatory damages for all people injured in the wreck was $7,000,000, each person who be entitled to receive only 10 cents on the dollar for his or her claim so that Chester County would not have to pay out more than $700,000.  Exception:  if one person’s claim was worth more than $3,000,000, he or she could not receive more than $300,000 because the cap on liability to any one person is $300,000. Under the circumstances, the math for the remaining 22 people would need to be re-done.

Let me hasten to add again that I have no idea of the merits of any case, the value of any claim, much less the claim of all people hurt in the bus wreck (and the value of the claims will not be able to be ascertained for many months).  However, assuming that the wreck was caused by the negligence of a local government employee and no one else, I use the above numbers to simply point out (a) the unfairness of a law where a government can avoid full responsibility to causing harm to its citizens and (b) how complicated awarding damages can be in a case where there are multiple injuries and limited financial responsibility for those injuries.

Three final points.  First, Chester County may or may not be the responsible entity here.  It may be the Chester County School Board or a County Transportation Department.  Different counties in Tennessee are structured differently.  However, unless the school bus is owned by a private entity and the driver is an employee of the private entity, the government liability cap will apply except as noted below.  Any responsible lawyer would investigate whether any other person or entity bears responsibility for the wreck and, if a person or company is involved other than a Chester County employee, different rules apply.

Second, it is possible for a local government to waive the cap on damages and pay more than required by law.  Research would have to be done to see if that has occurred.  (I doubt it.)

Third,  Chester County, Tennessee  will not directly pay for the harm caused.  Chester County is almost certainly insured by the insurance arm of the Tennessee Municipal League (The TML Pool), which insures many counties, cities and towns in Tennessee.