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February 17, 2012

Bus deaths prompt uneasy questions about responsibility

by Nicole Schlosser

I’m usually excited when a story that I have followed or reported on for METRO makes national news. A few months ago, though, that was not the case. One night, CNN was on the TV in our living room, with a headline emblazoned on the screen referencing the death of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) drum major Robert Champion, allegedly beaten in the back of a motorcoach as part of a hazing incident conducted by his peers.

Since the Nov. 19 incident, more information has come out, with the family of the victim suing motorcoach operator Fabulous Coach Lines of Branford, Fla. The family claims that bus driver Wendy Millette was complicit in Champion’s death. Lawsuit records, according to The Orlando Sentinel, say that Millettte saw Champion vomiting in the parking lot and forced him to return to the bus, where he was subjected to more hazing. Also in the lawsuit, the Sentinel reported, are claims from a driver of another Fabulous Coach Lines bus who saw Millette's bus rocking from side to side on the night of the incident and asked her what was happening. Millette told him "to ignore the activity and move on."

He was not a passenger on the bus where the hazing took place – Bus C. He had traveled on the trip from Tallahassee to Orlando on another bus. Additionally from the Sentinel, “Some drivers, the suit alleges, had complained to company officials about hazing incidents on Bus C and on other buses before Nov. 19 and were instructed to ignore them – that ‘FAMU was paying for it and could do what they want.’"

However, Fabulous Coach Lines has maintained its innocence and is disappointed that it is being targeted, telling the press that Millette did not see any of the hazing, and that it is not responsible for the conduct of individuals riding the buses.

Meanwhile, California is targeting party buses, reacting to an incident from 2010: the death of a 19-year-old man, who, after leaving a party bus, crashed his car. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit. Currently being deliberated in the state Senate is Assembly Bill 45, The Passenger Charter-party Carriers Act. 

The bill would require drivers of limousines operated by a charter-party “under a valid certificate or permit” to find out if any of the passengers are under the age of 21 years, and if so, read a statement to them about the consumption of alcoholic beverages being unlawful, require them to sign the statement, and, if the passenger has been found to have been drinking alcohol during the ride, immediately terminate the contract of hire and return the passenger to the point of origin.

The carrier may also be subjected to “specified civil penalties, based on the number of offenses, for conviction of a driver, or any officer, director, agent, or employee of the carrier, of a violation of the Vehicle Code that prohibits storage of an opened container of an alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle,” according to aroundthecapitol.

Issues with party buses are happening outside of California, too. One Midwestern school, Davenport, Iowa-based St. Ambrose University, recently banned a party bus company from its campus out of concern for the students and “their responsible and legal use of alcohol,” reported. The operator of the bus company countered that by picking up students it is preventing drunk driving.

I just wonder whether there was anything more that could have been done by the carriers in training that could have prevented these tragic incidents. Then again, drivers cannot be expected to control every aspect of every passenger’s behavior. Will more legislation or banning party buses from campuses help? What do you think about these incidents?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "A toast to finding love on transit" here.

Nicole Schlosser

Senior Editor

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  • Brendan McCullough[ February 17th, 2012 @ 11:47am ]

    There will be occasions when a driver is aware of untoward activity going on in the coach and we would expect him/her to act accordingly. However to burden the driver with responsibility for everything that goes on is just unrealistic. A drivers duty is safe driving. This means that he/she will have to filter out a lot of the noise and commotion that a large group of people make to concentrate on the road.

  • LeRoi[ February 17th, 2012 @ 11:56am ]

    I think that the bus companies and drivers need to approach this as school bus drivers and companies do. If something is amiss, they should contact law enforcement. The drivers and the bus companies need to make that clear to the riders and the entities that hire them. It's the right thing to do.

  • Charles[ February 17th, 2012 @ 12:26pm ]

    In terms of whether a bus operator--and the chartering company--is responsible for what happens on the bus, I don't see how it differs from a homeowner who has invited guests. If one of them overimbibes, the homeowner may be held accountable. If the charter company knows that alcohol will be consumed on its bus, its position and responsibility may be no different than the homeowner's.

  • Jan van Eck[ February 17th, 2012 @ 12:52pm ]

    I predict that the insurer will pay the claim to avoid going to trial. The test will shape up to "knew, ought to have known, or could reasonably have foreseen." With the testimony that the student was vomiting in the parking lot, was being "beaten" in the back of the bus, and another driver calling over about the bus "rocking," and management comments that "FAMU hired it and they can do whatever they want," the Company fails the "reasonable duty of care" test.

  • Rich[ February 18th, 2012 @ 10:03am ]

    In reference to the comments below: A home owner generally knows the vast majority if not all the patrons in your home. In a chartered bus, the driver, and or company rarely knows anyone involved in the charter. Not to mention, busses usually travel from point A to point B and so on. What happens in the stops is not necessarily known by the driver or company. It could be a restaraunt, bar, or even a ball game (ETC). The home owner generally supplies or knows what their patrons are invibing on. What happens off the bus is blind to the driver. The fact of the matter is they don't see whats going on because they are not there. A person stumbling or falling down may raise something to pay attention to, although this differs from the home owners as MOST bus companies provide TRANSPORTATION. It is very rare that I have seen or heard of bus companies, or drivers providing alcohol, drugs, food, (etc), to their patrons. Transportation is just that, especially when you aren't the one providing "things" for the patron(s) to partake in. A responsable driver should in fact inform the authorities if they see an issue with a passenger, but unlike a bartender (etc), they are NOT serving the person(s) beyond moving them from point to point. To go much further, would be asking a driver to compromise their position. They are hired, and perform safety sensitive duties which include SAFELY transporting people, Following USDOT hours of service regulations, and other DOT requirements relating to DRIVING a commercial motor vehicle. To add to their duties being a chaperone, or enforcer of the laws and regulations of others, would drastically remove their attention from what needs to be done safley in their job. Driving. As for the company, it is very difficult to maintain what is happening on your equiptment. If you have 25 busses going to a ball game, dinner outing (etc), unless you have 25 people positioned with the group at all times, you cannot know what is really truly going on espec


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