A Florida jury found the Pasco County school district negligent in a 2006 crash that severely injured a 16-year-old boy.
The jury awarded Marcus Button, now 19, and his parents, Robin and Mark Button, $1.625 M in damages, which his mother has said she will use to pay for his continuing medical care.
Marcus Button was injured Sept. 22, 2006, when the car he was riding in collided with a Pasco County school bus. Button was riding in the front passenger seat in a car driven by Juettner, and sustained facial and skull fractures, brain damage and vision loss.
The teens were on their way to school at Wesley Chapel High when bus driver John E. Kinne pulled a 35-foot bus onto State Road 54. Juettner was driving her Neon east on 54 and her car struck the bus between the wheels, then slipped underneath it.
Kinne was cited for failing to yield the right of way. He and his backup driver, Linda Bone, were the only people on the bus and neither was seriously hurt.
Marcus was airlifted to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, where he spent three weeks recovering. He was then transferred to Tampa General Hospital for rehabilitation. He returned home in November 2006, but his parents testified last week that their son isn’t the same person who left for school that September morning.
“My son who woke up [in the hospital] was not the same son I gave birth to,” Robin Button testified last week. “He was but he wasn’t. It was him, his skin, but it wasn’t him in his skin. Different kid. The son I knew is gone. He died on that day.”
The Buttons sued the school system for negligence in 2007, and the case went to trial July 13. The proceedings stretched into a third week Monday with closing statements and jury deliberations.
The jury of five men and one woman found the school district 65 percent responsible for the crash.
Juettner was found to be 20 percent responsible and Marcus 10 percent. The allocation of responsibility away from the school district reduced the award by roughly $875,000.
Marcus will need care for the rest of his life. He continues to suffer from memory loss, has no sense of smell, limited taste and cannot feel textures. He has trouble sleeping and struggles to concentrate or stay on task. He is also nearly blind in his right eye.
Much of the trial argument was over whether Marcus should bear some of the responsibility for his injuries for failing to wear a seatbelt.
School district attorneys Paul Meeker and Dennis Alfonso called a crash expert. No witnesses – paramedics or passers-by who stopped to help – could testify that Marcus was wearing a seatbelt when they arrived at the crash.
Jurors agreed that Marcus wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as they allocated to him some responsibility for his injuries.
Meeker and Alfonso also put on evidence that showed Marcus had had behavioral and psychiatric issues prior to the accident.
“Prior to the accident, Marcus Button had significant behavior problems,” Meeker said in his closing. “Sadness, depression, fatigue, lack of social skills and significant problems with anger. They want you to compensate him for his current condition but they also want you to compensate him for conditions he’s had all his life.”
Meeker and Alfonso attempted to shift part of the blame to Juettner. When she testified, Juettner said she didn’t notice the bus until Marcus pointed it out to her and she “looked up” or “looked over” to see it.
A defense crash expert also testified that Juettner had time to stop or slow down before impact, but no witnesses said they heard any tires screeching prior to the accident.
“Jessica Juettner had plenty of space and plenty of time to slow down and stop but she didn’t do it,” Meeker said.
The jury again agreed with the defense, allocating 20 percent of responsibility to Juettner.
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