The Hartford Courant
The school bus driver involved in a 2010 crash that killed a Rocky Hill teenager was talking on his cellphone when the bus was struck by another vehicle and careened down an embankment, attorneys for the teen’s family, and injured students charge in newly amended civil lawsuits.
The charge raises questions about the thoroughness of the state police investigation into the crash on I-84 in Hartford and provides a glimpse at a legal strategy likely to be deployed in any potential civil trials.
The charge against driver Paul Burns is included as part of 10 civil lawsuits filed by victims of the crash.
“The records show that [Burns] was on a cellphone call for 11-17 minutes when the accident actually happened,” said attorney Andrew Groher, who is representing the family of 16-year-old Vikas Parikh, the student who died in the Jan. 9, 2010, crash.
Groher filed an amended lawsuit this week against Burns, Autumn Transportation and Specialty Transportation (the companies that owned the bus and that employed the driver, respectively), and Christopher Toppi, the driver of the car that collided with the bus. Toppi, who was 16 at the time, was charged by state police with negligent homicide.
The amended lawsuit cites Burns for “using a hand-held mobile telephone or other electronic devices, including those with hands-free accessories while operating a moving school bus.”
State law prohibits school bus drivers from talking on a cellphone while driving, regardless of whether a hands-free device is used.
Additionally, the lawsuit claims that Burns might have been unusually fatigued on the morning of the crash. Sources familiar with the case said that cellphone records show that Burns was on his cellphone from 2 to 6 a.m. on the day of the crash, which occurred about 8 a.m.
In a deposition, Burns denied being on his cellphone while driving, sources said. His attorney, Jeffrey Polinsky, said Thursday that he could not comment on the allegation, but that regardless of whether it was true, Burns did not cause the accident.
“This is just lawyers trying to defer responsibility from their client for driving sideways into a school bus and causing it to crash,” Polinsky said. “There is no other version of how the accident occurred. This is just an attempt to get a bigger pool of insurance money.”
Groher said that the new information about Burns’ cellphone usage would be a big issue in the pending civil cases.
“Even if Toppi set the whole thing in motion if Burns was on his phone, then he is clearly distracted from his driving and that certainly would have affected how he responded during the accident,” Groher said.
Toppi, of Glastonbury, was charged by state police with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, failure to drive in the proper lane, and traveling too fast for conditions. His case was transferred to juvenile court and has been adjudicated. The results of the criminal case are sealed.
But Toppi’s criminal attorney, Michael Georgetti, said the new information raises serious questions about the original state police investigation. Georgetti accused the state police of immediately focusing on Toppi and making him a “scapegoat.”
“I have firsthand knowledge of the entire criminal case and I can tell you that there was never any search warrant applied for to get the bus driver’s cellphone records and one wonders why,” Georgetti said, adding that investigators did get Toppi’s cellphone records, which showed he was not on his phone at the time of the crash.
State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said that during the investigation, no information was developed that would have given police probable cause to get a search warrant for Burns’ cellphone records.
State police did not bring charges against Burns, although the investigation revealed that he did not have the proper license to drive a school bus the size of the one that crashed. State police determined that the lack of a proper license did not contribute to the crash.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Burns’ privilege to drive a school bus after the crash. His license was reinstated last July by a hearing officer who ruled that Burns was “no longer an imminent threat” to the safety of the public.
DMV spokesman William Seymour said Thursday that the state police handled the criminal investigation and asked DMV to inspect the school bus.
“We inspected the bus and discovered the licensing issue,” Seymour said. “The state police asked us to handle that aspect only. The state police conducted the accident investigation which, along with any violations related to the accident, would have included an investigation into cellphone use if that was alleged.”
The bus was heading west on I-84 carrying one teacher and 16 students from the Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science. It was headed to a robotics competition in Farmington.
State police found that Toppi’s Volvo was traveling at a speed faster than that of the bus and, for an unknown reason, left its lane and went into the left shoulder and back across to the center lane, where it made contact with the bus.
The Volvo struck the driver’s side front wheel of the bus, preventing the bus from continuing through the curve of the roadway, according to the state police arrest warrant.
The bus careened through a guardrail on the north side of the highway and plunged down an embankment, stopping 20 feet below.
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