Parents seek more than $3 million in damages two years after fatal MCSD bus crash

Two years after a Muscogee County School District bus crash killed driver Roy Newman, parents of children injured in the accident have filed a lawsuit seeking more than $3 million in damages.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in Muscogee County Superior Court, are Sonya Patterson on her own behalf and on behalf of her two minor children and Yarimel Ledezma on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor child, as well as Mario Ledezma on his own behalf.

The defendants are MCSD, superintendent David Lewis in his official capacity, Newman’s estate and an undisclosed John Doe. The lawsuit says, “John Doe(s) are the unknown and unidentified person(s) responsible for maintenance and repair” of the bus Newman drove the morning of Aug. 22, 2016, when he died in the single-vehicle crash.

The crash sent all seven Mathews Elementary School students to Midtown Medical Center, now known as Columbus Regional Hospital’s midtown campus, with undisclosed injuries. Six of the students were treated and released; the condition of the one student who was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital hasn’t been available.

MCSD hasn’t filed its response to the lawsuit. Mercedes Parham, the school district’s communications director, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday, “The Muscogee County School District does not comment on pending litigation.”

The L-E didn’t reach for comment before deadline any lawyers involved in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ children were among the seven students Newman was driving to Mathews Elementary School when the bus left Garrett Road and crashed head-on into a tree.

The lawsuit alleges “negligent maintenance, operation and use” of the bus and claims that MCSD’s “actions and/or inactions” caused the crash.

“As a result of the collision,” the lawsuit says, “Plaintiffs suffered severe physical, mental, emotional and monetary injuries.”

The defendants were negligent in the following manner, according to the lawsuit:

“Failure to travel at the posted speed limit.”

“Driving too fast for conditions.”

“Failing to stay in lane of travel.”

“Failing to maintain school bus without defects.”

“Failing to remove ailing driving from bus driving duties.”

The L-E reported in July 2017 the Columbus Police Department concluded that, although the “exact reason” Newman’s bus left the roadway Aug. 22, 2016, “is unknown,” he was speeding and not wearing his seat belt, which was a “large contributing factor in the direct cause of the accident itself,” according to the CPD investigation’s summary.

CPD’s report also says, “There is no indication of any cover up or conspiracy as pertaining to hiding mechanical defects in relation to this accident.”

The CPD investigation also concluded:

The only sickness Newman, 67, had the morning of the crash “appeared to be that of a cold and that he simply was not feeling well as opposed to an incapacitating illness or medical event. The evidence does not indicate that Newman had any kind of specific medical event which directly caused the crash, nor his death,” the report says.

Although the bus that crashed, No. 99-591, which was 17 years old, “had problems with the power steering the week before the accident … it was repaired prior to its use being transferred” to Newman on Aug. 22. “All evidence indicates that the power steering of the bus was fully operational the entire time Roy Newman was operating it up to the time of the crash,” the report says.

The “exact reason” Newman’s bus left the roadway “is unknown,” the report says. “It is known that he was behind schedule, speeding north on Garrett Road and maneuvering the steering wheel with only one hand.”

Newman wasn’t wearing his seat belt while driving the bus, which was a “large contributing factor in the direct cause of the accident itself,” the report says.

“When the right side of the bus left the edge of the roadway on Garrett Road,” the report says, “it caused the bus to bounce and in turn bounced Newman to the right, completely out of the driver’s seat. From that point, up until the final resting place of the bus, where it collided with a large tree, Newman tried to control the bus with outstretched arms in an awkward position and unable to apply any brakes to stop the bus. Had Newman been wearing the fully operational lap and shoulder restraint for his seated position, he would not have been jarred from the seat and could have maintained better control of the bus and applied the brakes, possibly preventing the accident entirely.”

The cause of death — blunt-force trauma to the head, torso and extremities — was released two days after the crash, but the reason has been a persistent mystery. Eyewitnesses told the Ledger-Enquirer that Newman was driving erratically that morning.

The Ledger-Enquirer previously reported that the autopsy and toxicology reports didn’t find any contributing factor to the crash or death.

In November 2016, Muscogee County coroner Buddy Bryan told the Ledger-Enquirer that lab reports show Newman had “no drugs or alcohol in his system whatsoever.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s lab in Decatur did determine that Newman had atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, a hardening and narrowing of the arteries, but it didn’t indicate the condition was a cause.

“It did not say that he passed out or anything like that,” Muscogee County deputy coroner Freeman Worley said in January 2017. “It’s a mystery why he would be driving around like that, but the autopsy is pretty cut and dried.”

As the Ledger-Enquirer previously reported, Newman was running late Aug. 22 because his regular bus had broken down that morning and he was driving a replacement bus.

According to his MCSD personnel file, Newman signed a July 29, 2016, document attesting to his annual physical examination and declaring health information “to the best of my knowledge is accurately recorded with no pertinent medical data omitted.”

The document states, “At a minimum, the applicant shall have no mental, nervous, organic or functional disease or condition that would interfere with safe driving.”

Dr. Byron Watson is the physician who signed Newman’s form the same day and wrote “no abnormalities” on the comments line.

Newman was a Vietnam War veteran, according to his obituary. His MCSD file says he was honorably discharged after two years of service in the U.S. Army, leaving with the rank of Specialist 4. His previous employers include To-Mar Garden Center and the civilian personnel office at Fort Benning, where he was a photographer and videographer, according to his MCSD file.

His driver’s license never was suspended or revoked, according to his MCSD file, and he didn’t have any traffic violations and wasn’t involved as a driver in any accidents within the previous three years.

As reported Aug. 10, 2017, the Ledger-Enquirer obtained a copy of the on-board bus video from MCSD through an Open Records Request.

Starting at 7:34 a.m.., the 11-minute video, recorded from a stationary camera above the driver’s seat, begins with Newman riding alone in the 17-year-old bus.

At 7:39 a.m., after making its first stop in the Garrett Pines subdivision of northeast Columbus, the bus pulls away with its door still open and a girl standing in the aisle.

At 7:40 a.m., the bus hits a mailbox as it turns left from Southlake Drive onto White Pine Drive. Newman doesn’t stop.

At 7:41 a.m., the bus makes a wide right turn as the camera shows the street’s left curb come into view.

At 7:42 a.m., the girl in the right front seat stands up again.

At 7:45:05 a.m., while continuing to drive with one hand on the wheel and a cup between his legs, Newman turns around and instructs the girl to sit down. She does.

At 7:45:25 a.m., the bus swerves over the center line on Garrett Road.

At 7:45:50 a.m., as the speed of the bus increases to 81 kilometers per hour (about 49 mph), it swerves again. Garrett Road’s speed limit ranges from 35-45 mph at various points. Newman, not wearing his seat belt, overcompensates while he slides to his right and falls off the seat. The video cuts off as Newman hangs on to the steering wheel, this time with both hands, and the bus veers off the road.

MCSD attorney Greg Ellington, a partner in the Columbus office of Hall Booth Smith P.C., said then that the Ledger-Enquirer’s copy of the video doesn’t show the impact of the crash because the original video MCSD retrieved from the recorder on the bus cut off at that time too.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.