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Archive for Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Trial to open in party bus accident

Jury selection will start in the civil case that stemmed from the accident.

July 6, 2010

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It was billed as a day 10 lucky Kansas State University fans would never forget, a chance to ride the Cat Tracker fan bus from Manhattan to Lawrence to watch the Wildcats take on the Jayhawks in the Sunflower Showdown on Nov. 18, 2006.

The package sold at an auction benefiting the Kansas State Athletic Department for $5,000, promising K-State fans a chance to “write your own chapter in the history of the infamous Cat Tracker.”

Participants had no idea how infamous that trip would become.

The day ended in tragedy, when, overloaded with 22 passengers — including six children ages 7 to 16 — the modified double-decker fan bus, heading north on Iowa Street on its way to the stadium, drove under the Irving Hill Road overpass with eight passengers standing on the upper deck. The Cat Tracker was designed to hold 14 passengers and a driver.

According to court documents, four passengers standing near the front railing of the upper deck ducked at the last second when they saw the bridge, which has a posted height of 15 feet. Police reports estimate the bus, which was captured on KU surveillance video, was traveling at speeds of up to 40 mph.

Those passengers standing at the back of the bus never saw the overpass coming.

Shawnee resident John Green, 27, was killed instantly.

Christian Orr, then 34, of Salina, suffered debilitating injuries when his head slammed into the bridge.

Another man escaped death or injury by fate; he had bent down to cup a cigar he was trying to light just as the bus approached the overpass.

Families of the two victims filed a civil lawsuit in Douglas County District Court in 2007, claiming the driver, the owners and operators of the Cat Tracker were negligent for allowing people to stand on the upper level when the bus was in motion.

Now, the case will finally go to trial.

A single defendant

Originally, nearly a dozen defendants were named, including Brent Simonsson, 41, the driver, who did not have a commercial driver’s license to operate the bus and, according to the lawsuit, was only allowed to drive a vehicle if it had an ignition interlock device in place.

Other defendants included Cat Tracker owners Robert Pottroff and Larry McBee and McBee’s business, Kat Tracker Promos LLC, as well as about a half-dozen individuals referred to as the “Cat Tracker Crew,” a group that owned, operated and financed the bus’ trips across the country to support the K-State football team.

In the more than three and a half years since the accident, nearly all of the defendants have settled out of court for undisclosed amounts or have been dismissed from the lawsuit. The settlements remain sealed as part of the court file.

One defendant remains: Russell Briggs and Briggs Auto Group of Manhattan.

No warnings

Court records show that Briggs Auto Group purchased a yellow school bus in August 2003 and converted it into the Cat Tracker, retaining ownership of the fan bus until transferring it to Pottroff and McBee in February 2005.

The lawsuit states Briggs owned the Cat Tracker at the time it was “negligently modified, participated in such modifications and subsequently transferred ownership of the vehicle in a dangerous and defective condition, knowing what its intended use was going to be.”

Briggs Auto Group also serviced and inspected the vehicle on June 15, 2005.

The bus contained no signs warning passengers not to enter the upper deck while the bus was traveling, according to the suit. There were no chains or barricades and passengers were not given any verbal warnings. The lawsuit also claims that on previous trips the ladder to the upper deck had been removed. It was still in place on the date of the accident, allowing passengers access to the upper deck.

“The defendants are all well aware, the Cat Tracker was defectively designed and unsafe and lacked the most basic guards, barricades and warnings to render it safe,” the lawsuit states.

Several attorneys involved in the lawsuit would not comment on the case.

Jury selection begins this morning.

Comments

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 5 months ago

"The lawsuit also claims that on previous trips the ladder to the upper deck had been removed. It was still in place on the date of the accident, allowing passengers access to the upper deck."

Briggs Auto Group sold the vehicle in February 2005, and the accident occurred in November, 2006. That is, one year and nine months after Briggs Auto Group sold the vehicle, someone left the ladder in place while the vehicle was moving.

And, the plaintiffs claim that the ladder had always been removed while the vehicle was moving, while Briggs Auto Group owned the vehicle.

I'm certainly not an expert, but I thought that after you sold a vehicle, you are no longer responsible for its operation, unsafe or otherwise. I'm sure the defense will point that out in court.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 5 months ago

Another point: When built by Briggs Auto Group, "The Cat Tracker was designed to hold 14 passengers and a driver."

Much later, the day ended in tragedy while overloaded with 22 passengers.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 5 months ago

It's not that I don't think they have a case - the problem is that they have already reached a settlement with the responsible individuals. Actually, I'm somewhat surprised that they aren't trying to sue the city of Lawrence for not building the bridge higher.

As I recall, the clearance under that bridge was just a bit under 15 feet. That's not a legal problem though, it was very well posted.

imastinker 4 years, 5 months ago

Ron, like all the cases like this one, it's all about the money. The reason they are the only ones that are left is probably because they have the deepest pockets. They don't give the totals, but my guess is that Briggs is probably being sued both at a corporate level and at a personal level, and probably for enough money to take his business and all of his personal assets as well. That's why they made the claim that he was negligent in modifying the vehicle, that's how they pierce the corporate veil. Defending such a case will probably cost upwards of $200k, and that's if he wins.

All that becuase he sold it to someone who used it in an irresponsible fashion and didn't put a sign up telling people not to ride up top when the bus is moving.

What a country we live in!

TheBigW 4 years, 5 months ago

It should have never made it this far in the courts, when you look at photos of the bus it would be clear to most people with a brain that standing on top of that while it's driving is not a good idea, for a number of reasons. Just because you can get stupid when you drink is no excuse for not taking personal responsibility for your own actions. This is one of the problems with inviting loads of people to come to town for ball games and "tailgate" or "block parties" now at the new hotel, it's all code words for get as drunk as you can and act like a moron in support of your team and no one will bitch about it till you do something stupid to kill yourself by acting like a fool, then it will be everyone else's fault for not stopping you.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 4 years, 5 months ago

Actually, I totally agree with holding the dealership responsible. They have to give attention to issues of road-worthiness. An open air "cab" like that is unsafe. If the dealership issued instructions to the owner against allowing people up there, then that changes things, but in general, it's appropriate to hold the "manufacturer" responsible for design failures. In this case, Briggs has become a "manufacturer" by doing the modifications.

imastinker 4 years, 5 months ago

You can call it an open air cab if you want, but they are pretty common as viewing platforms for people that are going to races or for hanging out on. Did it have seat belts? If not, chances are that it was never intended to be used while it was moving.

jaywalker 4 years, 5 months ago

Gotta disagree, OldEnuf. Has nothing to do with the dealership; the operators are responsible. There are plenty of open air double-deckers around, the issue is allowing people to stand on the upper deck when in motion. I agree w/ Big B to a degree, however, 'cuz I'm tired of someone's stupidity being someone else's fault. Then again, that's why there are "Don't operate vehicle with sun visor in place" disclaimers on windshield sun-blocks and stickers of stick figures w/ soda machines falling on them. For me it's Darwin at work; for other's there's always someone else to blame.

impska 4 years, 5 months ago

It looks like the reason that they're the last ones left is that all the other defendants have already settled out of court. Briggs has not agreed to settle (and with good reason, by the sound of it).

imastinker 4 years, 5 months ago

I agree, because they probably want a million or two to settle out of court. Nobody else had any real money, so they settled for relatively little since they couldn't get anything anyway.

tomatogrower 4 years, 5 months ago

If the company is an LLC, then they probably couldn't be sued at a personal level.

imastinker 4 years, 5 months ago

That's definitely not true. There are a half dozen ways to do this. The most common is to claim fraud or negligence. Fraud or negligence are personally committed and allow the plaintiff to sue the defendant both as a company and at a personal level. You can also claim that they are commingling funds between a personal and corporate level (like using business equipment for personal gain), and pierce the corporate veil that way. The thought of losing a business and a lifetime's worth of assets are usually enough to scare people into settling out of court.

The claim doesn't have to be able to win in court, just the thought of hanging their fate to twelve random people that couldn't get out of jury duty is enough to scare most people. They'll be told what an awful guy Mr. Briggs is and how much money he has made off the backs of the little people that work for him, maybe bring in people that think they got cheated by him and establish that he's an all around bad guy, then make a case that his family has been struggling since the accident and he should give them lots of money to make it better.

It's sick how attorneys use this to their advantage. Lots of people really resent anyone that has been successful in life and made more than their "share" of money. They'll see the plaintiff as being one of them and Briggs as the reason they are in the situation they are in. It doesn't take many to find against him and he'll lose everything he has.

dontcallmedan 4 years, 5 months ago

If you listen to the video, Briggs sold the vehicle but continued to be a part owner of the Cat Tracker business and continued to service the vehicle.

thebigspoon 4 years, 5 months ago

If the bus was illegal to operate then you might as well sue the KHP for not pulling it over on its way here from Manhattan. Then you might as well sue Ron Olin and the LPD for not pulling it over while it was operating on the streets of Lawrence.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 4 years, 5 months ago

The part that got my attention was the driver with the history of DUIs who didn't have a license to drive the vehicle. WOW. To me, that's the most amazing part. The rest of the story is mostly about people not paying attention while having a little too much fun. Most of us have been there before (though maybe not to this extreme). The decision to hire the driver is the key failure. It was probably his responsibility to remove the ladder.

impska 4 years, 5 months ago

It was certainly his responsibility not to drive under a bridge without enough clearance for the passengers up top.

geekyhost 4 years, 5 months ago

Not to mention that it was his responsibility to not go under a low clearance bridge at 40 mph. That's the sort of thing you learn about when you get a commercial license - which he didn't have.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 5 months ago

Fifteen feet is not a low clearance bridge.

neolib 4 years, 5 months ago

If Briggs failed to comply with any requirements, permit or otherwise, set forth to regulate vehicle modification, they have at least a limited extent of liability for the tragedy, especially in light of the fact of a common sense awareness that one the primary functions of the vehicle was to transport revelling passengers, of whom it is known that some inbibe to impaired states.

imastinker 4 years, 5 months ago

That must be lawyerspeak for some inane justification for suing this man for probably all he's worth.

No mention that common sense would preclude people riding up on top when the thing is moving.

Kash_Encarri 4 years, 5 months ago

"No mention that common sense would preclude people riding up on top when the thing is moving."

Darwin's Natural Selection at work. If only it was taught in our school systems.

neolib 4 years, 5 months ago

The common sense of the passengers is not at issue in this suit. Look at it this way, if someone wants to mod a car with special excellerating combustion materials, which is allowed only for racing cars under strict guidelines, and the owner has it done at a shadetree mechanic without the proper oversight, then sells it undisclosed to some teenager who careens off a cliff and dies because of it, doesn't "common sense" tell you the seller is at least partially responsible, irrespective of the teenager's carelessness?

morganlefay 4 years, 5 months ago

The only crime committed here is stupidity by the party goers on that bus. Leave it to KSU fans not to duck when there's a bridge up ahead.

flyin_squirrel 4 years, 5 months ago

Briggs is a crook, and even if he isn't responsible, I hope he is found guilty. He has no less than 4 lawsuits against him right now. A signed contract to him is worthless, and I am sure he modified the bus just to make a few extra dollars, not caring about the consequences.

KEITHMILES05 4 years, 5 months ago

Crook or no crook the people on that bus should have had the common sense to conduct themselves appropriately. They didn't and a couple people died or were seriously injured. Amazing how nobody takes responsiblity these days.

flyin_squirrel 4 years, 5 months ago

KEITHMILES05,

I agree Briggs shouldn't be responsible but I hope he loses. I am just saying he is a crook, and karma is a b....

Anyone who does business with this man is asking for trouble.

flyin_squirrel 4 years, 5 months ago

KEITHMILES05,

I agree Briggs shouldn't be responsible but I hope he loses. I am just saying he is a crook, and karma is a b....

Anyone who does business with this man is asking for trouble.

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