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What if is a Child is Left on a School Bus or Day Care Center Van? Legal Rights of the Child

School Bus - BlueBy David Wolf, Attorney

Published by Child Injury Lawyer Network

In the State of Washington and other States, schools and day care centers transport our most precious and important passengers – our children. In doing so, the school and day care center drivers have a legal responsibility to drive in a safe manner, obey traffic regulations and signs, and otherwise use their best efforts and judgment to get the children from one place to another.  One of the easiest tasks is the responsibility to make sure that all children are removed from the bus at the appropriate stop and certainly by the end of the run.   While this is a somewhat simple task, it is one that is commonly overlooked by day care center / school bus drivers and attendants.  It certainly requires more that merely checking the rear view mirror or completing a quick glance towards the back of the van or bus.  A school bus driver should conduct a visible sweep of the school bus. In other words, a school bus driver should safety park the bus and then get out of his or her seat and walk from the front of the bus or van and look in every seat and aisle all the way to the back and make sure that all children are removed from the bus.  It is also a good way to see if any children left any items on the bus like book bags, books, lunches, sports equipment, mobile phones, etc.  It is also a good idea to conduct a visible sweep two times for good measure.  If there is both a school bus driver and an attendant, then it is recommended by some school and child safety experts that each person (the school bus driver and the attendant) conduct the visible sweep of the bus.

In addition to the visible sweep of the bus, a checklist should be completed and documented as to the visible sweep and as to each child who was transported that day and dropped off at a particular location.   By following these simple measures, a child should not be left behind on a school bus.  Unfortunately, children continue to left on school buses due to inattention and quick glances rather than taking the extra minute or two to thoroughly check through the bus as noted above.
It was reported that a North Thurston Public School bus driver resigned after a 6-year old boy with special needs was mistakenly left on a school bus for seven hours.  Fortunately, the child was eventually located at 10:30 p.m. by school officials in the school bus at the school bus depot.   An investigation involved interviewing the school bus drive and witnesses. There was also video available to review as well.  The North Thurston Public School bus driver was upset over the incident and later resigned. You can read more about this story at Kindergarten Student Left on School Bus in North Thurston, Washington. 
When a child is left on a school bus or day care center van for an extended period of time, what are the rights of the child to compensation?  There is no simple answer to this question. It requires an analysis of the facts and circumstances.  Certainly, a child has the right to adequate and appropriate supervision especially when there is a special needs child involved.  The violation of rights does not necessarily equate with compensation from a legal and / or practical standpoint in every instance.  Again, each case must be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances and then applied to the facts of that particular State or jurisdiction.  Typically, there are four elements to prove in pursuing a legal case for compensation as follows:
1. Duty;
2. Breach of Duty;
3. Causation; and
4. Damages.
There is a duty to thoroughly visibly inspect the bus after every run and make sure that all children get to the assigned drop off point.  With respect to the North Thurston incident, there appears to be a breach of this duty when the child was not dropped off as required.   The next element causation refers to the relationship to the breach of duty and damages or harm caused to the child.  In some jurisdictions depending on the incident or type of case, a case can be pursued for purely emotional damages, mental anguish, stress, and related injuries when there are no physical injuries involved; however, these cases can be quite challenging to prove especially when there is a special needs child involved.
Of course, if a child is left unattended and suffers physical injuries requiring medical care and attention, these cases are easier to prove and present.   As stated herein, each case must be evaluated on its own facts and merits.
The book titled – The ABCs of Child Injury – Legal Rights of the Injured Child – What Every Parent Should Know – has chapters on Automobile Accidents, Day Care Center Injuries, School Injuries, and other topics. You can get this book for free at The ABCs of Child Injury