Iowa school district settles lawsuit over fatal fire caused by unfit driver

An Iowa school district has agreed to pay $4.8 million to the parents of a girl who was killed in a bus fire caused by a 74-year-old driver who was in poor health but continued driving despite a history of complaints from parents and students.

Megan Klindt, then 16, and driver Donnie Hendricks died on Dec. 12, 2017, after the driver backed the school bus into a ditch in front of the girl’s home. The bus became stuck in the ditch and a fire erupted in the engine compartment, possibly because the exhaust pipe was blocked.

The fire spread to the passenger cabin of the bus. Klindt, the only passenger, and Hendricks died of soot and smoke inhalation, the National Transportation Safety Board later ruled.

The girl’s parents sued the Riverside Community School District of Carson, Iowa, in 2018, alleging wrongful death and negligence because the school district allowed Hendricks to continue driving after it should have known he was medically unfit.

Although the school district had a policy requiring bus drivers to be medically cleared or pass a physical performance test, it employed a driver “whose limited mobility due to medical conditions might have prevented him from evacuating the bus” following the engine fire, NTSB found.

“The Riverside Community School District exercised poor oversight of driver safety by allowing a driver with known, significantly limited mobility to operate a school bus and by not removing a driver from duty who was unable to perform required safety duties,” stated the NTSB in a probable factors report issued June 18, 2019.

“It is likely that the bus driver’s progressive chronic back disease, which caused severe chronic pain, impaired his ability to evacuate the school bus himself or to assist the passenger to evacuate. If the Riverside Community School District had adhered to the requirements of its transportation policy regarding the physical abilities of school bus drivers and had not allowed the accident driver to operate a bus until he was medically cleared and fit for duty (or could pass a physical performance test), the fatal outcome of what should have been a survivable run-off-road, low-speed crash might have been avoided.”

According to depositions conducted before the settlement was reached, the school district had received 10 complaints about Hendricks’ driving before the bus fire. Local media that reviewed the depositions found that the first complaint had been lodged by Megan Klindt, who said he would not allow students to roll the bus windows down on hot days and also that he did not stop at stop signs.

The high school football coach complained that Hendricks had run off the highway several times while driving the team home after a game. A parent complained that Hendricks cut a turn too short and nearly tipped his bus over into a ditch. She said she then took her children off his bus.

Another incident involved the district superintendent’s truck—Hendricks struck it with his personal vehicle in the school parking lot.

The Iowa media reported that seven people testified that they worried about Hendricks’ abilities because they had seen him using a walker. Two said they had seen him fall while walking.

The father of one of the school’s football players decided he would no longer allow his son to ride a bus driven by Hendricks. The father testified that Hendricks later had sideswiped his car on a highway but kept going.

That father also was a volunteer firefighter who responded to the fatal bus fire. He testified, “I was angry because nothing was done by the people who should have made the decisions.”

In the superintendent’s deposition, he said Hendricks underwent his last performance review in 2010. He said he was planning to ask Hendricks to stop driving—the day after the accident.

KETV-TV quoted the Klindt family attorney, Brad Schroeder, saying “Just days before the accident, the superintendent knows there’s a problem and still isn’t doing anything about it, still is having this guy get on the bus in the morning.”

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