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Girl struck by car as she walked to 'unsafe' school bus stop awarded $36.1 million by San Bernardino jury

Every morning on her way to first grade at Bonnie Oehl Elementary School in Highland, Isabella Sanchez crossed a residential street mid-block to catch her bus.

One morning about two months into the 2012 school year, she dashed across and was struck by a car. She flew 70 feet into the air, her attorney said, before landing on the pavement and going into cardiac arrest several times.

Isabella, 6 at the time, survived. But she was in a coma for three months, and had a traumatic brain injury and fractures to her neck, arm, leg and pelvis. She was in a wheelchair and needed 24-hour care.

“You’re her arms, you’re her body, you’re her eyes, you’re her feelings, everything,” her mother, Carina Sanchez, 38, told The Times on Thursday. “For us to rest, like a regular person, that hasn’t happened since the day of the accident.”

Now, five years later, a jury has awarded the girl $36.1 million, ruling that Durham School Services, a private school bus company, and one of its drivers were negligent when they failed to notify the San Bernardino City Unified School District about a pattern of unsafe crossings at that bus stop.

The attorney representing the company could not be reached Thursday.

The company “is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the school district to monitor all things that are unsafe that occur out at the bus stops,” said Geoffrey Wells, an attorney who represented the Sanchez family. “Everyone admitted that bus driver had an absolute duty to report that and get the safety people out there right away.”

The verdict comes after a five-week trial in which four mothers, Wells said, testified that they jaywalked daily in front of the bus driver to get to the bus stop. A traffic light stood about four houses down the block.

Wells said the school district’s transportation director testified that the district relies on drivers to report dangerous conditions at bus stops, including unsafe mid-block crossings.

Two bus drivers also testified, Wells said, that they didn’t see the dangerous crossings. Neither was fired, he added.

The jury deliberated for two days, Wells said, before reaching the 11-1 verdict.

The jury also found Isabella’s mother negligent, which Wells said he admitted, and 20% responsible for her daughter’s harm because she endorsed the dangerous route to school. She was not there the day of the crash, Wells said. Isabella walked to the bus stop with a neighbor.

Andy Basseri, an attorney who also represented the family, said Friday that he was gratified that “the jury found the bus company liable for their failure to report crossings. I hope this verdict shows bus companies that there will be major consequences if they don't follow their own rules. Hopefully this verdict will prevent future accidents like this.”

After the verdict, Sanchez said she felt relieved that her daughter could get the medical care she needs.

“More than anything I don’t want any other little kid to go through what I’ve been going through,” Sanchez said. “We’re trusting the bus companies with our kids, for them to have a better future, and we don’t want nothing to happen to them.”

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek

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UPDATES:

5:05 p.m. Sept. 22: This article was updated with a comment from an attorney who also represented the family.

This article was originally published at 8:55 p.m. Sept. 20.

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