NBC 5 Investigates has obtained new records showing Dallas County Schools, a government agency that serves as the bus contractor for 12 local school districts, has spent more than $2.3 million settling hundreds of claims involving school bus accidents in the last three years.
Behind the number of claims settled are real people like Michael and Stephanie Phillips, who said a DCS school bus driver’s careless actions nearly cost their daughter’s life in 2015.
Michael Phillips said he was driving an SUV at a south Dallas intersection when a school bus driver made a left hand turn in front of him. The crash sent their 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, to the hospital for emergency surgery to repair a ruptured spleen.
A police report said the bus driver failed to yield to the right of way and was inattentive.
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When Sarah’s mom arrived at the scene she couldn’t believe it was a school bus.
"We employ them. We pay taxes and we employ them to do the right thing, so it was very shocking," said Stephanie Phillips. "I mean this time it wasn't a fatality but next time it could be one."
The Phillipses sued Dallas County Schools for Sarah’s injuries.
Records show DCS admitted no fault but paid $100,000 to settle the case.
It’s one of more than 680 claims detailed in a database obtained by NBC 5 Investigates through an open records request.
It shows in fewer than 36 months, DCS settled close to $2.4 million in claims related to accidents that ranged from minor fender-benders to injury collisions.
Settlement payments have increased over the last three years from more than $473,000 in 2014 to $600,000 in 2015 to $1.3 million in the first 10 months of 2016.
On top of paying the claims, DCS also has to fix the damage to their buses, and NBC 5 Investigates found that costs even more.
Monthly check records show DCS has spent another $1.3 million for collision repairs at local body shops since 2014. It’s not clear from the records if DCS recovered any of that money from other drivers involved in collisions.
NBC 5 Investigates wanted to ask the man in charge of DCS about the costs, but superintendent Rick Sorrells has not responded to multiple requests for an interview or specific questions about the records.
Instead, a public relation’s firm hired by DCS responded by email saying that 680 claims does not mean there were 680 crashes.
"If a school bus is hit from behind by a vehicle, it’s possible that every child/family on the bus could file a claim," the firm said by email.
It went on to say that NBC 5 Investigates’ questions “…now require DCS to review every claim for the last three years and determine the facts about each situation. That takes time.”
Late Friday, the PR firm sent an additional statement saying, "Dallas County schools chooses to self-insure its fleet because it saves the taxpayers $1 million in premiums every year. We've saved money each year we've self-insured."
They said, "approximately half of our accidents are 'not-at-fault' and thus another party would be financially responsible for our vehicle damage costs." The firm then added, “we cannot talk about the specifics of settlement cases.”
Settling a case does not mean DCS admitted fault. In fact, that’s the case in most legal settlements.
The Phillips family is still dealing with what happened to them. Michael Phillips is also suing DCS for back injuries, and his lawyers are still questioning the bus agency.
“We certainly want to look into how this driver was trained and specifically how he was trained to deal with intersections,” said attorney, Martin Futrell.
The Phillipses want DCS to monitor driver behavior more closely and to spend more time training them to be safe.
“Just think what you’re carrying. You’re carrying a life – people’s children. Need to be just a little more responsible,” said Michael Phillips.
The amount paid to settle cases would likely be even higher except for the fact that DCS is a government agency. In Texas the law puts a $100,000 limit on damages a person can collect for injuries from local governments.
The Phillipses said that amount was not enough to cover all that they went through.