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Trial Starts in Laguna Niguel Schoolboy’s Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of a 7-year-old boy struck and killed by a pickup after he got off a school bus at the wrong stop asked a jury Wednesday to hold the school district responsible.

“Tommy Lanni can’t come back,” the family’s attorney, Steven R. Young, told jurors as the trial began in Orange County Superior Court. ". . . We’re not seeking your sympathy; we are seeking justice. And we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

An attorney for the Capistrano Unified School District told jurors that no one is to blame for the April 1994 accident in Laguna Niguel, although he criticized the driver who hit the boy for not slowing down more.

Don H. Zell said the bus driver and administrators were following safety laws, and that no one will ever know why the boy decided to cross the street.

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Thomas and Barbara Lanni allege in their suit that the school bus driver acted improperly by neither flashing his warning lights nor escorting the first-grader, who was riding the bus for the first time, across the street. The couple also alleged district officials failed to design an adequate plan to prevent students from getting off a bus at a wrong stop.

A school bus driver is required by state law to activate flashing red lights when children will be crossing the street.

But school officials said the bus driver, Jack Rueweler, did not use the flashing lights because he believed all six students who got off at the stop lived on the same side of the street and would not be crossing.

Tommy, who had moved with his family from New York just a week earlier, was going home from Marian Bergeson Elementary School and was the first student off the bus that afternoon at Aliso Niguel Road, authorities said.

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He mistakenly got off one stop before the place where his mother was waiting for him.

Barbara Lanni had told the bus driver that morning, “This is his first day on the bus. Can you take care of him?” Young told jurors.

Another student, Young said, heard Tommy ask the driver, “Is this my stop?”

But the school district’s attorney told jurors Tommy never asked the bus driver for help, and said there is a factual dispute over what was said earlier between the driver and mother.

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Several weeks after the accident, the district attorney’s office said there was insufficient evidence to ticket the 38-year-old bus driver. The driver of the pickup also was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. That motorist testified Wednesday that he had been driving at 25 mph and didn’t see the child until it was too late.

The boy’s death sparked a warning for districts throughout the county, with many schools issuing special safety reminders to drivers.

The Lannis are seeking unspecified general and punitive damages in court. They had sought at least $10 million in a claim rejected by the school district.

The trial before Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner is expected to last about 10 days.

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