In the largest jury verdict in California involving the death of a minor, a couple of parties who were involved in the Starline tour bus crash that resulted in the death of a 16-year-old Mira Costa High School student were found liable to pay $26 million in damages to the boy’s family. The verdict was handed down in Compton Superior Court after the conclusion of a long trial.
Background of the case
Mason Zisette was invited to attend a friend’s 16th birthday party on a Starline tour bus on July 10, 2014. Before heading to the party, he texted some friends and reportedly stated that he was planning to drink alcohol before he arrived. His friends testified that he drank three beers in 30 minutes before getting on the bus. In addition to the bus driver, there was a tour guide who was present along with the parents of the girl who was having the party. The mother of the girl who was having the party purchased six bottles of Smirnoff vodka, handed them to her daughter and told her to share them with her friends. There were 35 teenagers on the bus for the party. The teens went to the upper deck while the four adults remained on the lower level.
The tour bus took the teens to a hot dog restaurant and an ice cream shop. After the teens reboarded, the bus driver then drove onto the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles headed south. The bus was 13.3 feet tall and passed under several overpasses, including some with clearances of only 15 feet and 1 inch. The teens were unrestrained, standing and dancing on the open-air upper deck of the tour bus while the bus driver and tour guide blasted music over the loudspeakers. Zisette stood on an 18-inch ledge on the upper deck. While he made it under two underpasses, he struck the back of his head on the third one. He immediately was knocked unconscious and died two days later. His parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Starline Tours, the bus driver, the tour guide and the parents of the girl holding the birthday party.
The plaintiffs argued that all of the adults on board failed to take any precautionary measures to protect the safety of the teenagers, including their son. The teenagers were not told that they needed to remain seated or to wear their seatbelts. Instead, the teens were left to their own devices on the upper level, and the girl’s mother supplied them with vodka. They also argued that the bus driver and the tour guide allowed the teenagers to dance and to drink alcohol upstairs while they were traveling along the freeway. Zisette’s parents also said that all that they knew was that the birthday girl’s parents were taking the teenagers on a tour of Hollywood for the party. They were otherwise unaware of the alcohol and lack of supervision that entailed. They argued that the negligent acts of all of the adults and of Starline tours resulted in the accident and their son’s death.
Each defendant argued something slightly different. Starline argued that Mason Zisette was responsible for his own accident and resulting death because of his ingestion of alcohol, beginning prior to boarding the tour bus. The bus driver testified that he was never told that he had to give safety instructions to passengers and argued that it was the tour guide’s job to do so. The tour guide argued that he also was never given any safety instructions and that the safety on the upper deck was the bus driver’s responsibility. Starline also placed blame on the girl’s parents for failing to supervise the teens and providing them with alcohol. The girl’s parents argued that alcohol was not to blame for what happened. Instead, they argued that Starline was simply trying to deflect the blame and that the accident was totally the fault of the company.
After deliberating, the jury returned a verdict of $26 million in the plaintiffs’ favor. The jury found that Starline Tours was 70 percent liable for the accident, the girl’s parents were 25 percent liable and Zisette was 5 percent liable. Under the state’s comparative fault rules, that meant that the gross verdict was reduced by 5 percent. The Zisettes stated that they planned to use some of the money in an effort to improve safety on tour buses so that other deaths could be prevented.
Common carriers and tour bus owner-operator liability in California
In California, bus and tour bus drivers are held to the highest standard of care for their passengers. They have a duty to exercise the utmost care when transporting passengers under the law. When they fail to do so to even the slightest degree, they may be held to be responsible for the payment of damages to people who are injured or to the families of people who are killed.
Owners and owner-operators of tour buses are also deemed to be vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their employees. Beyond that liability, in this case, Starline Tours also appears to have been negligent in its training of both the bus driver and the tour guide. In response to the lawsuit, the company now forbids consuming alcohol on its tour buses, and it has signs instructing passengers to remain in their seats and to use their seatbelts.