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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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A Republican Lawmaker Calls for Higher Liability Limits

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The train was coming; the whistle was blowing. What followed was the sound of children screaming in pain after a BNSF train and a school bus collided. Several students were thrown from the bus, many of whom were covered in blood and suffering from injuries. One girl was found underneath the engine compartment, her body covered in diesel fuel. In the end, the driver and one student died; a dozen students were treated at area hospitals.

An initial report by the Highway Patrol said that it appeared the bus driver failed to yield to a stop sign at the train tracks, but later reports state that the driver may have experienced a medical event at the time of the accident. The parents of the 17-year-old who died, told family and friends that other students on the bus said the teen was trying to save other students when she was killed. They were told that their daughter noticed the driver slumped over in his seat as the bus sat on the tracks. She told all the students to move to the back of the bus as she went to help the driver. As she tried to release him from the seatbelt, the train collided with the right side of the bus by the folding doors, causing the bus to spin counterclockwise 360 degrees and throw several passengers from the bus. The autopsy report has not been released.

While the investigation is ongoing, the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) said the crossing currently meets federal safety standards. The intersection was marked with a crossbuck, which is a white “X” marked with the words “railroad crossing.” Buses are required by law to stop at those signs. The post carrying the crossbuck also has a stop sign, but the crossing is not marked with flashing lights or a crossing arm. Are safety upgrades needed?

Although liability for the accident has not yet been determined, if the school district, NDDOT, and/or BNSF is found responsible, the current $500,000 damages cap would not be nearly enough to compensate the families. Neither would their health insurance benefits or auto insurance no-fault benefits. In 1971, a North Dakota state law went into effect stating that a school district — as with other public entities — cannot pay out more than $500,000 in damages for injuries resulting from a single accident, no matter how many people were involved in the accident. $500,000 among the 12 injured alone is approximately $41,700. If a jury awards $2 million in non-economic damages, but can only recover $500,000 due to an arbitrary cap, the victim has not received constitutional redress for his/her injuries. Since every case is different – extent of injuries, medical expenses, pain and suffering, how can a “one-price-fits-all” system be fair? Some victims will far exceed that in medical bills alone. These innocent victims could be pushed into bankruptcy.

Last week, Sen. Tom Campbell (R), introduced a bill to raise the $500,000 damages cap to $3 million. “Many businesses have liability coverage limits in the millions of dollars, so why shouldn’t a school district?” he said. Even if the bill is passed, it would not help these victims, so Campbell also proposed a second bill that would establish a one-time $2 million fund for the accident victims’ families. “I think we owe it to the people in these accidents,” he said. Some are concerned the $2 million emergency fund would set a precedent, but what about the negative impact to innocent people by setting damage caps in the first place?

Damage caps simply state that the wrongdoer will only pay a set amount, in this case $500,000, even in the most catastrophic claim. When innocent victims are not fairly compensate, the taxpayers are left to foot the bill because liability caps shift responsibility from the private sector to the taxpayer. Shielding corporations and government entities from liability or damages is not a solution. The solution is improving safety, saving lives, preventing injuries, and holding those responsible accountable for their actions.

Thank you, Senator Campbell, for fighting on behalf of all the people of North Dakota. Each of us is merely one sudden, tragic, incident away from being a victim. Lawsuit Financial urges all citizens of North Dakota to support this bill before it is your rights that are denied. We will be watching to see if the victims of the Larimore accident receive the justice they deserve.

Lawsuit Financial is a constant critic of Republican lawmakers because they are frequently aligned with business interests in support of state and national “tort reform” measures. In this case, it is very refreshing to see a Republican proffer a more sensible position (still a limitation, which we oppose, but, at least, a positive step in the right direction), advocating fairer treatment of and compensation to victims. Hopefully, Senator Campbell’s sensible position will pave the way for other Republicans to take action to prevent the negative effects of tort reform. After all, these politician were elected by and for the benefit of the “people” not the “corporations”. We are not optimistic, but will take a “wait and see” approach. Maybe the Republicans will surprise.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.