Attorney argues Bath schools should be liable

By Greg Sowinski

April 3, 2014

LIMA — An attorney representing a 5-year-old girl sexually assaulted on a school bus argued Thursday that Ohio law that gives school districts immunity from lawsuits does not apply.

Attorney Larry Huffman argued a Bath schools official instructed a bus driver to watch a 17-year-old boy while he was on a bus with kindergarten students. The teenager reportedly has a lower level of intelligence and was a troubled student. The driver was instructed to keep other students from sitting next to him.

Those instructions go beyond existing law, Huffman said. The law gives school districts immunity from lawsuits unless it involves an issue with the operation of the bus, which has been defined as driving the bus.

“They changed the rules and said he’s on the bus — but we can do that safely if the bus driver just follows the rules. They made that decision, but the bus driver didn’t follow that protocol,” Huffman said.

But Bath schools attorney Greg Scott argued the Ohio Supreme Court was clear in a 2009 decision when it ruled the exception to the immunity statue deals with the driving of a bus. A sexual assault on a bus is not driving, he said.

“The seating of students, the oversight of students, student conduct on a bus under (the Ohio Supreme Court ruling) is not causing a motor vehicle to be moved,” Scott said. “What the plaintiff is doing is asking this court to invent an exception.”

Huffman said his client’s case is different, and existing case law does not deal with all the facts present in his client’s case.

“It’s important to let school districts know they can’t carelessly and callously transport school students like a head of cattle,” Huffman said.

Allen County Common Pleas Judge David Cheney heard the arguments based on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Bath schools, which argued the district is immune from such actions. Cheney said he would review the law and issue a decision in the near future.

The lawsuit was filed in December by the mother of the girl who was sexually assaulted on the school bus by the teenager. The woman was seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

The woman’s daughter was a pupil at Bath schools in kindergarten during the 2012-‘13 school year when sexual assaults happened at least four times on a school bus between Aug. 30 and Sept. 12, 2012, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said Bath schools placed a troubled 17-year-old boy from Bath Alternative School on the bus. He was on the bus with elementary school children, the lawsuit said.

The children were assigned seats, but somehow the boy was placed in a seat with the 5-year-old girl, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said Bath schools has a duty to protect young pupils and failed to supervise the conduct of the boy who it said has a “diminished capacity.”

Felony sexual assault charges were filed against the teen at juvenile court, but the outcome of the case was not public record.

The incidents were captured on bus video surveillance, but officials at the school system failed to discover the sexual assaults until the girl’s mother notified them, the lawsuit said.

The teen accused in the assault has an extensive record with Bath schools. School officials should have known he was a threat and failed to take steps to protect other pupils from him, the lawsuit said.