The jury in the civil trial stemming from a 2006 fatal accident involving the Cat Tracker fan bus has found Briggs Auto Group not liable.
“I’m extremely happy with the verdict,” Briggs Auto Group Chief Financial Officer Boyd Johnson said moments after the verdict was announced Tuesday afternoon in Douglas County District Court. “But the Briggs group is extremely sorry for the loss of John Green, and our heart goes out to Samantha Green and the little girl, Addison. It was a tragic accident and nothing can bring him back.”
Green, 27, was killed on Nov. 18, 2006, while standing atop the double-decker bus. His head struck an overpass on Iowa Street, as the bus was driving toward Memorial Stadium for a football game between Kansas University and Kansas State University.
His widow, Samantha Green, sued Briggs Auto Group, claiming the Manhattan automobile dealership put an unsafe vehicle on the road.
The trial boiled down to whether jurors believed the defendant’s assertion that Briggs gave a 1988 yellow school bus away as a gift in August 2003, well before any modifications were made. Ultimately, the jurors did believe the defendant.
“We do feel vindicated that we did give away a yellow school bus and had nothing to do with that after we gave the school bus away,” Johnson said. “Since the beginning of the trial, our name has been dragged through the mud, and at some point in time you need to stand up and fight for what you believe. We didn’t do anything wrong, and Russ Briggs has always stood up for what he believes. If we thought we had done something wrong, then we’d just admit to it.”
The plaintiff argued the vehicle was not a gift. James Thompson, attorney for Samantha Green, claimed the evidence showed the bus was sold to Manhattan attorney Robert Pottroff for $1,000 and that the transfer of ownership didn’t occur until February 2005, after the bus had already been painted purple and the upper deck had been added.
Attorneys for both sides made their closing arguments Tuesday morning.
“On Nov. 18, 2006, a defective bus took its first life,” Thompson told jurors. “The clock ran out on the Cat Tracker. It was a vehicle that had been in operation since the early ’90s. It wasn’t used any differently on Nov. 18, 2006, than it was used time and time and time again before that.”
Thompson said there should be little doubt in the jurors’ minds that the Cat Tracker should not have been on the road and that it was Briggs’ responsibility to keep that from happening.
“Sellers of vehicles have an obligation to protect the public,” Thompson said. “Dangerous vehicles should not be on our streets.”
Thompson claimed Briggs Auto Group falsified documents before being called in for a deposition in April 2008 to make the sales transaction appear to be a donation.
“Their explanations and excuses make no sense,” Thompson said. “With 30-plus years in the business, why is this so difficult to get right? They give cars away to seniors at Manhattan High School. ... Cash changed hands here.”
But Terry Iles, attorney for Briggs Auto Group, said five witnesses testified that the bus was given away on Aug. 17, 2003, as a 50th birthday present to Pottroff.
“He took possession of the gift that day,” Iles said. “Counsel would have you believe that this was a sale. These documents are all over the place and Briggs knows that. If they truly wanted to mislead somebody, wouldn’t they have dated them Aug. 17, 2003?”
Iles also asked jurors to look at the personal responsibility of everyone involved in the accident, from the driver of the bus to John Green himself.
“He controlled his destiny,” Iles said. “They all knew how high they were, and they all agreed to pay attention ... They knew it was dangerous, and they voluntarily elected to stay up on that bus.”
Only 10 of the 12 jurors needed to agree in order to reach a verdict in the case. Jurors deliberated for just over three hours before returning with the verdict before 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Nearly a dozen other defendants previously settled with the plaintiff. The details of those settlements remain sealed.