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Over $1 Billion in Verdicts and Recoveries
$14 Million Settlement Shows Increasing Value of Children's Lives
Amy Johnson

3/10/1997

A $14 million settlement is quite extraordinary, especially in the death of a teenager who had no wage-earning history. But this recent case reflects the trend toward valuing children's lives in non-economic terms.

For defense lawyer Stephen Novack, who represented the bus company sued for wrongful death, settling the case seemed the wise thing to do.

His opponent, Anita Porte Robb, had won two of the largest verdicts in the country in 1995 in wrongful death cases tried before the same judge trying this case.

Further, juries in Jackson County, Mo., have a reputation as "runaway jurors," Novack says. And the boy who died, 14-year-old Ryan Sayles, was an outstanding teen who was lauded by the Mayor of Kansas City.

For Novack, it was clear that the settlement - a symbolic amount representing $1 million for each year of the boy's life - was far less than a jury might have awarded.

On the part of the plaintiff, the settlement meant avoiding a long and emotionally draining trial.

Settlement "is what my client wanted," says attorney Robb , speaking of Ryan's mother.

Novack credits a court-appointed mediator with resolving the case in just two mediation sessions, despite the fact that the parties were far apart initially.

"Never underestimate the value of a mediator," he says.

The settlement is not an admission of liability, says Novack. The company insists it was not at fault for the accident, which occurred after a drawstring on Ryan's jacket got caught in the bus door. The bus dragged Ryan until he finally pulled his jacket off, only to be run over by the bus' rear wheels.

According to plaintiffs' attorney Robb, the settlement amount shows that the way children's lives are valued in litigation is continuing to change.

"The courts have done a 180-degree turn on how they value a human life," she says. No longer are juries and judges confined to basing an award on lost wages and medical and economic damages.

In this case, the medical damages were only a few hundred dollars, as Ryan died shortly after the accident. And he was not employed, so there were no economic damages or lost wages. Instead, Ryan's life was valued according to more intangible qualities, such as his potential and worth as a human being.

The money is being used to set up college scholarships in his name as well as a national foundation promoting school bus safety.

A Stellar Teen

If there is such a thing as a perfect 14-year-old boy, it was Ryan Sayles. A freshman at private Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Ryan was an "A" student and president of the school's Higher Expectations Club, a group of primarily African-American students hoping to attain college degrees and executive careers.

Though just a freshman, Ryan was nominated to the school's Homecoming Court, an honor usually reserved for seniors.

Ryan was always willing to help others, Robb said. He volunteered for the Urban League, and he came to know the mayor of Kansas City, Emanuel Cleaver, after he won a city-sponsored essay contest. Ryan was also involved in his school's Reserve Officer Training Corps. He had a bright personality, tremendous leadership skills and was respected by peers and adults alike, Robb says.

On May 17, 1995, Ryan's bus dropped him off at his usual stop one block from his home. As he walked down the steps out of the bus, a toggle at the bottom of a drawstring on his jacket became wedged in a crevice between a handrail and the door of the bus.

The driver closed the doors after Ryan was off the bus and continued on his route, not noticing that the boy's jacket was caught and that Ryan was being dragged along.

A boy who got off the bus tried to get the driver's attention while Ryan banged on the door. "The children in the bus tried to alert the driver, too," Robb said.

But Ryan was dragged for several hundred feet while he struggled to remove his jacket.

He finally pulled his jacket off. But seconds later he was run over by the rear wheels of the bus. Ryan was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead 30 minutes later.

In the summer following Ryan's death, his mother, Kim Sayles, wanted answers. Why did this happen?

Who was responsible? She met with Robb and filed suit against the bus company, the bus driver, the school district and the superintendent of transportation, alleging that the district had hired an unqualified and unsafe driver, and that the bus was unsafe.

According to Robb, Ryan's death was not unique. More than 20 deaths and many more serious injuries have been blamed on clothing and backpacks getting caught in the handrail crevice on schools buses, she says.

In 1993, school bus manufacturers ordered a safety retrofit to correct the problem, Robb says. The adjustment takes just five minutes and involves placing a piece of foam at the point where the handrail and the door meet.

A Greater Tragedy

As she proceeded into the case, Robb, who practices with her husband, Gary Robb, in Kansas City and won two record-breaking verdicts with him in 1995, learned that it had broader implications than she first imagined.

"When we initially looked at this case, we thought it was just a very tragic accident," she says. "We had no idea there were issues of training and qualifications; we didn't know the handrail was important.

It shows the importance of keeping an open mind as to what the issues are."

In the course of 18 months of discovery, Robb took 80 depositions. She also submitted 780 pleadings, including motions to compel evidence and motions to produce witnesses for depositions.

"It was a discovery-intense case," says Robb, who took most of the depositions herself.

Numerous witnesses said they were unsure whether the bus driver had received proper training from Vancom, the bus company, especially regarding the bus' "danger zone," a blind-spot 10 feet around the bus in any direction.

Novack planned to counter those witnesses with testimony that Vancom did train the driver, and that the danger zone was a large part of this training. And he says that three nationally known safety experts testified in depositions that Vancom's training program exceeded national standards.

But Novack faced other problems.

During discovery, Robb learned that the bus driver was a convicted sex offender with a history of traffic violations. He should have been disqualified from driving a bus based on those facts along, Robb says.

Novack contends that the driver's record was within acceptable parameters of state and school-district
requirements. And the sex offense was a conviction for soliciting prostitution more than 10 years before the accident, he notes.

Still, Robb says, state law prohibits people from working in any position supervising students if they have been convicted of a sex offense of any kind.

Robb also uncovered evidence that suggested the retrofit was never conducted on the bus that killed Ryan, and probably not on any other bus in the Kansas City fleet until after the accident.

Novack denies this allegation. He says that Vancom complied with the retrofit nearly 18 months before Ryan's death, and says he had depositions to that effect from the mechanic who performed the retrofit as well as his supervisor.

Novack also says that he had expert testimony from Larry Reagan of Failure Analysis in San Franciso, who testified that even with the retrofit, drawstrings and other objects still can get caught in the handrail crevice. This past January, a girl was killed in Georgia after her backpack caught on a bus that had been retrofitted, Novack notes.

Conditions of Settlement

Novack came into the case late, replacing the original defense counsel. At that point, a court-ordered mediation session in June 1996 had already failed. A second session was ordered for January 1997, at which Novack was present.

In this session, the plaintiff's original demand was $17 million, while the first written defense offer was $6.5 million. Over a matter of hours, the parties negotiated back and forth until they agreed on the symbolic amount.

The plaintiff may have received a larger amount had the case gone to trial, notes Robb, who landed a $70 million verdict and a $350 million verdict in 1995 in two wrongful death cases against Turbomeca, a
French helicopter manufacturer. However, Robb and Ryan's mother agreed that the $14 million had the symbolic significance of $1 million for each year Ryan had been alive.

Ryan's mother insisted on other conditions: Vancom agreed to notify the parents of all students on its 150 school bus routes nationwide about the hazards of student's clothing.

And the family also asked for a signed expression of condolences from all the defendants. She also agreed that Vancom could retain its right to sue any party it believes is responsible for Ryan's death.

Evidence of a Life

Before approving the settlement, Judge Lee Wells asked that the plaintiff present evidence on damages at a hearing. Robb presented one videotaped deposition and called 13 live witnesses, who painted a portrait of an exceptional young man.

The Mayor of Kansas City and the President of the Urban League both spoke of Ryan's personality and potential, as did Ryan's former teachers and parents of Ryan's friends.

The videotaped deposition was from Kansas City Chiefs' linebacker Derrick Thomas, who had come to know Ryan through a reading program for inner-city students. They all testified about Ryan's outstanding character and the type of student he was.

Robb also called the boy who witnessed the accident, as well as the county medical examiner, who testified about Ryan's injuries and subsequent pain and suffering. Ryan's mother, grandfather and cousin testified about the void in their family since the accident.

The only cross-examination was of Ryan's mother, to establish that she understood the terms of the settlement. Novack took that opportunity to express his condolences, according to the hearing transcripts.

Novack says that the case demonstrates the value of mediation in reaching a settlement.

"It shows the usefulness of having a neutral third party helping" to move the case to settlement, Novack says.

The settlement money will not only set up college scholarships in Ryan's name but is also being used by his mother to establish "Ride With Safety," a foundation that uses Ryan's initials -RWS- and will mount national school bus safety campaigns.




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Personal Injury Lawyers - Kansas City, Missouri

Personal injury is an area of law that pertains to the injury of an individual. Both physical and emotional injuries fall into this branch of tort law. A personal injury lawyer is generally involved in cases where an injury has occurred due to the negligence of another party.

Examples of cases that a personal injury lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri can assist with include workplace accidents, falling or other accidents in the home, premises liability, defective and hazardous product cases, and dental and medical malpractice cases. If negligence on behalf of another party can be proved in court, compensation may be awarded.

Personal injury attorneys can also assist with industrial disease cases that may include respiratory diseases or a decline in health due to hazardous occupational conditions. These and other medical cases are often very complex, and it is advised that all aspects of the claim be handled by an experienced attorney.

Wrongful Death Lawyers - Kansas City, Missouri

Wrongful death falls under the common law jurisdictions wherein a person may be held liable for a death. It is important to note that wrongful death is the only course of legal action in which a company, rather than an individual, is at fault for a death.

In Kansas City, Missouri, cases involving wrongful death accidents require a preponderance of evidence as the standard of proof. Generally, the suit is filed by close relatives.

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