Ben SalangoWILLIAMSON -- Eight victims of a Mingo County school bus accident last week and their families have filed a multimillion lawsuit claiming the driver of the other vehicle was under the influence of drugs and that his employer knew about it.
In the lawsuit, filed Monday in Mingo Circuit Court, eight of the students on the school bus and some of their families claim Asplundh Tree Expert Co. knew driver Bruce W. Collins was using drugs and alcohol on the job before the April 4 accident.
According to the suit, the students were passengers on a Mingo County school bus on April 4 en route from Tug Valley High School to the Mingo County Career and Technical College in Delbarton. Most of the students were Tug Valley High students, but some were third- and fourth-grade gifted students.
Collins, the suit says, was driving an Asplundh "large commercial truck" on Route 65 near Lenore when he "negligently, recklessly, willfully, wantonly and intentionally caused the truck to cross the centerline of Route 65 and collide head-on with the Mingo County School Bush in which the plaintiffs were passengers."
Collins, who lives in Naugatuck, was charged with DUI causing injury and improper lane change. Most of the students were treated at a hospital and released.
The suit goes on to say Collins was "operating the Asplundh truck under the influence of cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs."
"After he was taken to the hospital, he failed drug tests," said Charleston attorney Ben Salango, who is representing the eight students and their families. "Asplundh knew he was using drugs and alcohol on the job months before is accident and did nothing."
The suit claims Collins "regularly arrived at work under the influence of illicit drugs and alcohol and also used illicit drugs and alcohol on the job. Defendant Asplundh disregarded complaints and reports by employees that defendant Collins was using illicit drugs and alcohol on the job. Defendant Asplundh neither disciplined defendant Collins nor offered him treatment for drug and alcohol abuse."
In fact, the suit claims, Asplundh allowed Collins "to act in a supervisory capacity and to operate a large commercial truck on public roads."
The four-count suit seeks compensatory damages from Asplundh and Collins for injuries and damages including physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and suffering, permanent physical impairment, lost wages, loss of capacity to enjoy life, medical expenses past and future and annoyance and inconvenience.
Also, the suit seeks punitive damages because the defendants' "conduct is so reprehensible that punitive damages should be assessed by a jury to punish the defendants and to deter and prevent similar atrocious conduct in the future."
The plaintiffs seek $10 million in punitive damages.
"The punitive damage request is a big one, but I think it's a reasonable one under the circumstances," Salango said. "If ever there was a case to put in front of a West Virginia jury, this is it. You've got a company that we claim knew about the problem and did nothing. You've got a driver who was under the influence at 8 o'clock in the morning and hit a school bus full of kids.
"It's not only to compensate those injured, but to punish the defendants and to keep this from happening again."
Salango said he was contacted by some of the families to represent them because he has been involved in similar trucking accident suits before. He said he presumes the other students on the bus also will file suits.
Suits of this nature typically aren't filed so quickly after the incident. But Salango said the circumstances are different in this one.
"As far as the quickness of the suit, we had all the information we needed," he said. "We did a thorough investigation last week. The sources I have are very reliable."
Salango said his clients have gone through a range of problems since the accident.
"One of the kids has had MRIs on his knees," he said. "A majority of them are having psychological problems. The younger kids … they saw the older kids covered in blood, laying on top of one another. Some of the older students have had uncontrolled bouts of crying and night terrors.
"The 11-year-old suffered a broken foot and a major laceration inside his mouth. The force of the wreck was so hard that it knocked his teeth loose.
"One of the students, one of my clients, flew over four (rows of) seats, hit the fifth seat and completely broke it off its base."
"It's been very difficult on all of them, especially the younger students."
Salango, of Preston & Salango PLLC, said he currently is awaiting more information on the accident from the Mingo County Sheriff's Department and the Mingo County Board of Education.
"This is a very serious case," he said. "This was a bad accident. It shouldn't have happened. And it happened to kids."
Officials with Pennsylvania-based Asplundh did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, Collins still was being held at the Southwestern Regional Jail on $500,000 bond.
In addition to the compensatory and punitive damages, the suit also seeks court costs, attorney fees, pre- and post-judgment interest and other relief.
The plaintiffs request a jury trial. The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury.
Mingo Circuit Court case number: 06-C-123