It took just one day for attorneys for Briggs Auto Group to present their case in a civil trial that stems from the Cat Tracker fatality accident in Lawrence on Nov. 18, 2006.
Much of Monday’s testimony in Douglas County District Court focused on the issue at the center of the trial: Did Briggs Auto Group sell the 1988 school bus that eventually became the Cat Tracker, or was it given away as a gift?
Several witnesses for the defendant took the stand, saying they were present at a 50th birthday party for Manhattan attorney Bob Pottroff when Russell Briggs gave the school bus away as a gift.
Jurors saw a picture of a 1988 school bus with black spray paint that read “Happy 50th Bob.”
Briggs Auto Group general sales manager Scott Teenor testified that the auto dealership is not in the business of converting school buses and selling them.
“How many school buses are for sale on your lot?” attorney Larry Tyrl asked.
“Zero,” Teenor replied.
He also said it wasn’t unusual for Briggs to allow someone else to keep property on the lot.
The plaintiff, Samantha Green, whose husband, John Green, died in the accident, has claimed that Briggs Auto Group owned the bus while the conversion took place.
Attorney James Thompson argued that paperwork from the dealership shows the bus was involved in a sales transaction that took place on Feb. 9, 2005, where the bus was sold for $1,000 with Pottroff paying the sales taxes.
But witnesses for the dealership testified that giving the vehicle away as a gift was a unique situation, and they filled out the standard sales forms to show the transfer of ownership.
“The whole thing fell out of the normal process,” dealership owner Russ Briggs said. “There was no coming to the dealership and negotiating. It was, take it to his office and it was a gift.”
Earlier in the day, Topeka attorney LJ Leatherman, a member of the so-called “Cat Tracker Crew,” was the first defense witness called to the stand.
Leatherman was with the caravan that was traveling with the Cat Tracker when two people riding on the upper deck struck an overpass on Iowa Street.
John Green, 27, was killed almost instantly. Another passenger, Chris Orr, who was 34 at the time, suffered critical injuries but survived.
Families of both men filed a lawsuit against the owners, operators and manufacturers of the modified fan bus. All of the parties settled out of court, except Briggs Auto Group.
Green’s attorneys argue that Briggs purchased the original school bus that eventually was transformed into the Cat Tracker II, putting a defective and dangerous vehicle on the road.
Leatherman testified that he saw passengers on the top deck of the bus, when the vehicle made a stop at the Miller Mart at Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive on its way to the Kansas University vs. Kansas State University football game.
He said he issued repeated warnings to them to get down.
“I said, ‘Look guys, you can’t be up there because stuff is a lot lower than it looks,’” Leatherman testified. “It’s not safe, and you need to get down. But if you’re not going to listen to me, at least make sure you are always looking forward.”
The defense attorneys rested their case Monday.
The judge ordered jurors to return to court at 10 a.m. Tuesday to hear closing arguments in the case. They will then begin their deliberations.