The Orange Unified School District has reached a $10 million settlement with the families of five children injured in a 2014 school bus crash in Anahim Hills, a law firm announced Tuesday.
Several children were seriously injured when bus driver Gerald Rupple passed out and smashed the coach into a tree while driving 11 children home from El Rancho Charter Middle School.
Rupple, now 27, is facing felony charges of child abuse and endangerment, inflicting great bodily injury, and perjury for allegedly lying to the Department of Motor Vehicles and school officials about his medical condition. He is scheduled to face trial in February.
Five families filed a negligence lawsuit against Orange Unified accusing the district of ignoring “clear warning signs” of Rupple’s medical condition. The families argued that the district should be held accountable for having a medically impaired driver behind the wheel.
Michael Penn, an attorney for Aitken Aitken Cohn, which represented two of the children, said the school district has admitted liability in the case. The civil trial was to begin this week in Orange County Superior Court, but the case was settled Monday.
“It is our understanding that the district’s insurance carrier negotiated settlements with the families of the students involved in the school bus accident of April 24, 2014,” Superintendent Michael Christensen said in a statement. “We pray for the continued recovery of the students involved and know that no amount of money will make up for the injuries, both physical and emotional, that the students and their families suffered.”
Insurance will cover the settlement and lawyer fees.
Penn said said that though Rupple allegedly failed to disclose his condition, the district failed to adequately investigate prior safety concerns. Penn said Rupple suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure that impacts the heart and lungs.
“He’s a young gentleman, but he’s very sick,” Penn said.
About three months before the crash, an Orange Unified employee called the district to report that Rupple was behaving oddly and may have health issues, Penn said. The lawyer said the district asked Rupple to submit to a drug test but then failed to further investigate when the test’s result came back negative.
Rupple’s father is also a bus driver for the district, he added.
The case was consolidated from five separate lawsuits. Aitken Aitken Cohn represented students Tyler Taing, now 16, and JoHanna Iversen, 15. Iversen suffered a broken clavicle in the crash, while Taing suffered a traumatic brain injury, he said.
Taing, who will receive $4 million of the settlement, continues to struggle with his injury and may require long-term neurological care, Penn said.
“He’s a very smart and hard-working young man, and fortunately it did not damage his intellect, but it has impacted his processing speed,” Penn said. “Fortunately, with the settlement, they can direct all the energies in getting him back to where he needs to be.”
The other students represented in the lawsuit were Rasneek Singh, Juliana Larosa and Delaney Yourstone.
Penn said the case is a reminder for all school districts to be extra vigilant. He noted that the accident occurred on a newer bus outfitted with seat belts, and that all of the children were wearing their seat belts, which possibly saved them from further injuries.
“I think this sends a strong message to school districts that they need to take care when transporting the precious cargo of all parents,” Penn said. “It’s very important to take all complaints seriously and do your due diligence in investigating.”