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Settlement Rejected in Fatal Church Bus Crash

By Terri Langford, April 22, 2003

A Dallas judge on Monday rejected a $5.6 million settlement plan to

resolve most claims following last summer's bus crash near Terrell

because it involved too many conflicts of interest.

While state

District Judge Mary Murphy congratulated the group, which includes 31

minors and their parents, for the plan to resolve the case outside of

trial, she said in her decision issued Monday afternoon that she has to

make sure all the minors' interests in this case are protected.

"The court believes it would be an abuse of discretion to approve the agreement on behalf of the minors," Judge Murphy wrote.

The

case stems from the June 24 crash in which four youths from Metro

Church of Garland were killed when the bus they were riding to summer

church camp veered off of Interstate 20 and careened into a highway

pillar. The driver of the bus also died.

A plan to pool any

damages collected from insurance carriers and distribute them among the

plaintiffs was submitted last month to Judge Murphy, along with the

proposed settlement of $5.6 million negotiated so far.

Two chief

conflicts in the settlement concerned the judge: the fact that many of

the plaintiffs are represented by the same attorney and that parents of

the children killed or injured in the June 24 crash are represented by

the same attorney.

"While the court may determine ultimately that

the agreement is in the best interests of the minors, a conflict of

interest exists between parents who are seeking damages from a limited

fund both individually and separate on behalf of their minor children,"

Judge Murphy wrote.

The settlement could still move forward if a

third party – such as guardians ad litem – reports to the judge that

the settlement is in the best interest of the children involved. Judge

Murphy could decide to appoint one or more guardians for minors to

review the settlement.

Last week, about 40 attorneys involved in

the settlement appeared before the judge. Most were there to support

the proposed settlement, which includes an arbitrator who will decide

what amount the parties get.

Two insurers – one for Metro Church

of Garland and one for Green's Transportation – have already agreed to

give the 31 minors and their parents $5.6 million. Metro Church had not

been named as a defendant, but the church's insurance carrier agreed to

contribute to the fund to avoid possible inclusion as a party in the

future.

Absent from the plaintiffs' group are two people. One is

Nick Stout, whose head and leg injuries from the crash have totaled

more than $1 million. While the health insurance policy covering Nick

has paid for these expenses, there are many more surgeries in Nick's

future, his lawyer Mark Werbner said. At this time, Nick is still

unable to walk.

The other is the father for Amanda Maxwell, one of the four children who died in the crash.

Mr.

Werbner opposed the settlement plan because too many attorneys

represent more than one of the bus passengers. He also said in last

week's hearing that very few of those who survived the crash suffered

injuries on the level of his client. Only two other passengers besides

his client suffered injuries involving more than $100,000.

"I'm

very pleased with [the judge's decision] and I hope that we can get a

fair settlement for everybody who was injured," said Mr. Werbner.

Jeff

Cook, the attorney that helped craft the arbitration plan, said the

judge's opinion still leaves room for the original settlement proposal.

"Far from over" is how Mr. Cook described the case. "She has basically given us a road map … and we can come back."

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