The family of an autistic teenager who died in 2015 after being left alone for hours on a sweltering bus has reached a $23.5-million settlement with the bus agency, attorneys said.
Hun Joon "Paul" Lee, 19, was found on the floor of a bus parked in a Whittier bus yard on Sept. 11, 2015 — a 96-degree day — and the non-verbal teenager was pronounced dead after life-saving efforts failed. The bus driver, Armando Abel Ramirez of Rialto, did not check the rear of the bus to ensure Lee had left.
In December 2015, Lee's parents filed a lawsuit against the bus agency, Pupil Transportation Cooperative, and the Whittier Union High School District. The district was dropped as a defendant when it became clear "the evidence was overwhelmingly against the bus company," Brian Panish, the family's lawyer, said.
Ramirez was sentenced to two years in prison in January for felony dependent adult abuse resulting in death.
According to court documents, Lee had boarded a bus bound for the Sierra Vista Adult School about 8 a.m. He was one of three students on the bus. When Lee did not return home at 3:30 p.m. as usual, his parents grew frantic and contacted the school, which in turn contacted the bus company. A driver found Lee slumped in an aisle of the bus.
When police arrived at the scene, several drivers were performing CPR on the young man. He was pronounced dead after having spent seven hours alone in the bus.
On Monday, lawyers for the family and the bus company confirmed the settlement.
"It has been our priority to reach a resolution with the family of Paul Lee," read a statement from Steve Bui, the chief executive officer of Pupil Transportation Cooperative. "Though nothing will ever ease the pain they have endured, we have worked diligently to refine our policies to ensure that something like this never happens again. PTC remains dedicated to providing safe, high-quality transportation services to the children and families in our communities."
The incident involving Lee was not the first time the company's drivers had left children on their buses.
In a deposition conducted by the family's lawyers, Debbie LaJoie — director of transportation for the company at the time of Lee's death — said that to her knowledge, four special-education students besides Lee had been left on a bus between 2006 and 2015. None of the drivers had been terminated after those incidents, LaJoie said.
In 2016, Lee's parents lobbied the state to pass regulations aimed at improving child safety on buses. Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law requirements that all buses in California be equipped with child safety alarms to be deactivated by a driver before leaving the bus.
The law, which will go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year, will also mandate that drivers receive annual training for child safety to renew their bus driver safety certificate.
Panish said Lee's parents are relieved to have "some sort of closure now."
"They are very happy and hopeful that no other family will not have to go through what they did," Panish said, adding that the family can now "privately continue their grieving."
After what Panish described as a "long effort," the family will pursue no further litigation.
"Really it's about a lot more than money," Panish said.
5:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with details on the case.