Nearly four years after 23 Bellaire nursing home residents died in a fiery bus while evacuating from Hurricane Rita, their families have reached an $80 million settlement with the Defendants. The bus caught fire just 35 miles from its destination in Dallas. In the week leading up to Hurricane Rita, Brighton Gardens, a Bellaire nursing home owned by Sunrise Senior Living Services of McLean, Virginia, ordered buses for its residents and staff so they could evacuate to a sister facility in Dallas. On September 23, 2005, as Rita moved through the Gulf of Mexico, nursing home residents and staff boarded two buses provided by Global Limo Inc., of Pharr, Texas. On the way to Dallas, one of the buses caught fire and 23 persons on board died.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later determined the probable cause of the accident was insufficient lubrication of a rear axle, which overheated and caused a fire in the wheel well that quickly filled the 1998 bus with flames and heavy smoke. The settlement was disclosed on June 4th to a South Texas court by Richard Mithoff, the Plaintiffs’ lead liaison lawyer.

The families claimed Brighton Gardens’ corporate parent and its bus broker failed to screen Global Limo properly before contracting with them and that Global Limo then used a bus that was unsafe. The Plaintiffs contended that Motor Coach Industries, the bus manufacturer, along with component makers, were aware of a design defect in the hub and axle system that could fail and result in injuries. The settlement includes a prior agreement in 2007 to end a lawsuit against the nursing home’s corporate owner. It adds the bus manufacturer and operator, as well as several parties who designed or fixed components on the 1998 Motor Coach Industries bus, as parties to the settlement.

Those added as Defendants were MCI, the bus manufacturer; ArvinMeritor Inc., the designer of the axle and rear wheel assembly; SKF Industries, a component maker; Global Charter, the bus broker; The Bus Bank; Global Limo, the bus operator; Valley Volvo, which serviced the bus shortly before the trip to Houston; and K&S Towing, which changed a tire in the wheel area where the fire began, just hours before it erupted. The lawyers representing Plaintiffs in the case bought a similar bus for their own investigation into the fire. This allowed them – during testing – to learn that too much heat was generated in the hub assembly, which showed a design defect.

The investigation of the incident led the Plaintiffs’ lawyers to conclude there was more to the cause of the fire than just insufficient lubrication of an axle. Richard Mithoff was the lead lawyer in the litigation, and he, along with Randy Sorrels, represented the families of the deceased passengers.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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