Pasco County jury awards $1.6 million to teen injured in school bus crash

Marcus Button, 19, puts his head down during the case against the Pasco School District last week. Button was in a car hit by a school bus in 2006.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Marcus Button, 19, puts his head down during the case against the Pasco School District last week. Button was in a car hit by a school bus in 2006.

DADE CITY — Robin Button became her son's full-time caregiver after a 2006 crash with a school bus left him with brain damage, vision problems and a need for lifelong medical care.

She had to reacquaint herself with Marcus, who emerged from the accident with a different personality and an unrelenting dependency.

On Monday, as a jury awarded $1.625 million to the Buttons for their medical expenses, pain and suffering and future costs of Marcus' care, his mother's expression of fatigued sorrow did not change.

The money will help, Robin Button said after the verdict, but will it last?

"He can't even clean his own room," she said. Marcus, now 19, appears healthy and functional, but he has trouble concentrating, controlling his anger and staying on task.

Because the Buttons won an award against a government agency, collecting any money above $200,000 will require a claims bill approved by the state Legislature.

The six jurors deliberated for almost three hours Monday in the case that began more than two weeks ago.

Marcus was a front-seat passenger in his friend's Dodge Neon the morning of Sept. 22, 2006, heading eastbound on State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel. At the intersection with Meadow Pointe Boulevard, where there was not yet a traffic signal, a school bus pulled out to make a left turn and struck the Neon.

Investigators deemed the school bus driver was at fault for violating the Neon's right of way.

Marcus' parents, Mark and Robin, sued the Pasco County School Board for negligence in 2007.

Their attorney argued that the bus route itself was a hazard, and that the driver didn't follow the district's policy of using care and caution on the road.

Attorneys for the School Board argued that the Neon's driver, Jessica Juettner, had time to avoid the crash had she been paying closer attention to her driving.

Complicated recovery

An issue that remains in dispute is whether Marcus was wearing a seat belt. Juettner testified that she remembered asking him to put it on. Marcus said it was his habit to wear one. But neither specifically remembered him fastening it. Emergency workers who responded to the crash did not find one on him.

Defense attorneys said if Marcus had been wearing a seat belt, his injuries wouldn't have been so severe.

The seat belt issue may have factored into the verdict. The jury found Marcus and Juettner each partly negligent in the crash, which lessened the amount of money the School Board must pay.

Marcus himself took the stand last week and said his recovery has been complicated.

"I wake up every morning, find out about one tiny little detail that I have to compensate for on top of all the things I'm already compensating for," he said.

He wants to finish school and get a job, maybe become a chef or a photographer, but he is easily distracted and has trouble getting along with people. Plus, he said, he's just plain lazy.

"That 'I don't want to' feeling is a lot stronger in me," he said. "It's not just that I don't want to. It's that I'm so lazy, thinking of doing (something) makes me mad."

An economist hired by the plaintiffs threw out staggering dollar figures for Marcus' long-term needs: more than $500,000 for his lost wages from now until he would have retired; between $6 million and $10 million for his future medical care, either with an in-home nurse or at a residential facility.

The Buttons already owe more than $100,000 for Marcus' past treatment. He takes numerous medications and sees an array of doctors and therapists.

"Those folks have done all that they could," attorney J. Steele Olmstead told jurors, referring to the medical providers. "This is what's left."

School Board attorneys did not push for a verdict in their favor — which would have given no money to the Buttons — but rather for one that didn't lay blame for all of Marcus' problems on the accident alone.

Attorney Paul Meeker cited the teen's poor grades, psychiatric problems, behavior trouble at school and possible drug and alcohol abuse as issues that plagued him before the crash.

"They cannot say that his current cognitive and behavioral problems are solely a result of this accident," Meeker told the jury.

Juettner, who was wearing a seat belt, sustained only minor injuries. She too sued the school district and settled this year for $27,000, records show.

The jury's decision Monday evening will help ensure Marcus' needs are met, his mother said.

"I do think it's going to help," Robin Button said as the court emptied out. "We're not going to have our son move out. We're not going to have time to grow old together. But we'll manage."

Pasco County jury awards $1.6 million to teen injured in school bus crash 07/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2009 10:11pm]

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