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4 Lawsuits Filed in Crash of Scout Bus in Mountains

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Girl Scouts injured in a Palm Springs bus crash have filed lawsuits against the vehicle’s operator and manufacturer, blaming design defects, improper maintenance, inadequate driver training and a host of other factors for the wreck that killed seven.

A fourth lawsuit was filed by Arthur Schaeffer, the husband of a Girl Scout adviser who was thrown through a window of the bus and killed instantly in the July 31 crash.

Meanwhile, investigators with the Palm Springs Police Department said Monday that they have concluded their inquiry and would not pursue felony charges against Mayflower Contract Services Inc., the Kansas-based operator of ill-fated Bus No. 369.

Instead, Sgt. Mike Hanavan said he would recommend today the filing of an assortment of misdemeanor charges against several Mayflower officials by the Riverside County district attorney’s office.

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“We investigated several possibilities that might have led to (felony manslaughter) charges, but they all proved futile for one reason or another,” Hanavan said. “We’re confident that what we’ve come up with represents the proper response.”

Hanavan said the misdemeanor charges would include failure to correct all vehicle defects in a timely manner, failure to document all repairs on maintenance records and failure to maintain buses in a safe and proper operating condition. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

All four lawsuits allege that the accident, which occurred when the chartered yellow bus plunged nose-first into a rocky gully below the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, could have been prevented if Mayflower had not been negligent in its maintenance practices.

Investigators examining the mangled wreckage found the front brakes were so badly out of adjustment that the bus would have been pulled off the road had it been inspected by the California Highway Patrol.

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The lawsuits also claim that Mayflower’s training program was inadequate and failed to prepare driver Richard Gonzales for his assignment through mountainous terrain on the day of the crash. Investigators concluded that an experienced driver could have brought the bus safely down the hill.

Gonzales, 23, of Bloomington, Calif., had been employed by the bus company for about a year and was one of three adults and four Scouts killed in the crash. Forty-seven people were injured.

As for the bus manufacturer, the lawsuits allege that the Blue Bird Body Co. of Ft. Valley, Ga., was responsible for numerous design defects, including failing to properly attach the body to the chassis.

“All in all, what we had here was a bad bus,” said Los Angeles lawyer George Murgatroyd III, who filed three of the lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Friday.

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“When you take all of these factors combined, it’s no wonder that this awful, horrible tragedy, occurred,” said Thomas Anderson, an Indio attorney who filed the fourth lawsuit.

Officials with Blue Bird and Mayflower could not be reached for comment Monday.

Three of the lawsuits, all of which seek unspecified damages, were filed on behalf of Girl Scouts Carrie Meese, 18, of Lawton, Okla.; Jennifer Auld, 16, of Oviedo, Fla., and Catherine Henson, 16, of Chesterfield, Va. The fourth was filed in the death of Doneta Schaeffer, 46, a Scout adviser from Davenport, Iowa.

In a telephone interview Monday, Ron Auld said his daughter is doing “as well as can be expected” but suffers troubling memories of the wreck. Jennifer, a high school junior, was hospitalized for a bruised lung and other injuries.

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“We feel very lucky that our daughter survived this accident,” Auld said. “But once we got past that, we felt very strongly about the whole school bus safety issue. We felt we had to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again, that no one else gets hurt.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still in progress.


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