Lawsuits have been filed against a bus company following the tragic deaths of four college softball players in a bus crash in 2014. Now, some critics are calling for a Champion Defender bus recall arguing the entire fleet of medium-size Defender buses is unsafe and should be pulled from the road. Despite arguments from Champion that its buses are not defective, a safety report from an independent expert allegedly highlights serious deficiencies on the buses, and the National Transportation Safety Board expressed concern that medium-size buses, like the one involved in the crash, could offer better passenger protection. Meanwhile, the debate continues regarding the safety of passengers on buses.
Four Softball Players Killed in Oklahoma Bus Crash
On Friday, September 26, 2014, the North Central Texas College girl’s softball team was on a bus returning home from a game with Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. At around 9:00 p.m., the bus collided with a semi-truck that was headed northbound on I-35. The bus, which was driven by Van Hendrick, the team’s head coach, rolled over. Four players were killed in the bus crash, with eleven more injured. The driver of the semi-truck involved in the crash was also injured.
“This would rank at the top of the list of severe crashes,” said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton at the time. “You have to understand, a lot of times it’s not so much the damage that makes these things very dramatic, it’s the age and the quantity of the people that were killed.”
Killed in the accident were 20-year-old Brooke Deckard, 20-year-old Jaiden Pelton, 19-year-old Meagan Richardson, and 18-year-old Katelynn Woodlee.
Three of the players died at the scene of the accident while the fourth died later in the hospital. First responders to the accident described the scene as chaotic and noted that it took an hour before the semi was located because it drove off the road after hitting the bus.
Driver of Truck Involved in Bus Crash Commits Suicide
Russell Staley, the driver of the semi-truck, survived his injuries but was found responsible for the accident. He was charged with four counts of first-degree manslaughter in June 2015, after a National Transportation Safety Board report listed the probable cause of the accident as a failure by Staley to maintain control of his vehicle “due to incapacitation likely stemming from his use of synthetic cannabinoids.”
An investigation uncovered a synthetic cannabinoid called “K2” in Staley’s truck, although Staley’s drug tests provided inconclusive results. According to Staley, he lost control of his truck when he reached into a cooler to grab a soft drink. Lawsuits were filed against Staley and Quickway Transportation, the trucking company involved in the accident. Two of those cases were dismissed.
In January 2017, approximately two months before his trial was set to begin, Staley committed suicide.
Critics Demand Champion Defender Bus Recall
Although the National Transportation Safety Board report cited Staley’s use of synthetic cannabinoids as a factor in the crash, the report also noted that bus passengers were not wearing seat belts, and the bus lacked crash-worthiness standards. All four players who died were either fully or partially ejected from the bus.
“Contributing to the severity of injuries were the lack of restraint use by the bus passengers and the lack of appropriate crashworthiness standards for medium-size buses,” the report noted.
The families of three players who died in the accident say they plan to sue Champion Bus, and called for a Champion Defender bus recall, noting the crash would not have been as deadly if the bus had adequate crash-resistance measures. Such measures are not legally required for a medium-size bus, but critics argue bus makers are responsible for ensuring passengers are safe, even if they are not legally required to meet safety obligations.
A full report from the National Transportation Safety Board regarding the accident noted that there are no crashworthiness standards for medium-size buses regarding side impacts or occupant protection, but following the more strict rules concerning large buses would provide more protection for occupants of medium-size buses. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced new rules regarding seatbelts in large, over-the-road buses.
“The level of injury among bus occupants would have been reduced if the accident bus had met the current and future federal standards for large buses—for occupant protection and for rollover structural integrity,” the report noted. “Further, side-impact protection standards would enhance the crashworthiness of medium-size buses.”
Report Suggests Safety Issues with Champion Defender Bus
In preparation for a lawsuit, an independent expert was asked by the plaintiffs to examine the bus for structural integrity. Null Consulting wrote in its report that the Champion Defender bus, “contains numerous manufacturing defects that rendered the bus defective” and “unreasonably dangerous and unsuitable for service.”
Furthermore, the report noted, those defects were caused by a lack of manufacturing controls designed to ensure safety and roadworthiness and “provide meaningful protection in the event of an accident.”
Among the issues cited by Null Consulting were missing welds, incomplete welds, and weld discontinuities that led to a weakened structure.
Other allegations made in support of a Champion Defender bus recall were that the bus had weakened framing, seatbelts that were out of date, and windows that were not properly sealed. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say if the bus had been built with stronger materials, no one would have suffered serious injuries.
The bus involved in the crash was a 2008 Champion Defender 32-passenger medium-size bus. Champion has stated that its bus complies with all safety requirements and the National Transportation Safety Board did not find the bus defective. There has so far not been a move by regulators or the bus company to undertake a Champion Defender bus recall.