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Pinellas district settles in girl's death

On a Friday afternoon in October 2004, 16-year-old Rebecca McKinney stepped off a Pinellas County school bus and was hit crossing a busy stretch of McMullen-Booth Road.

Her death two days later shook school officials like few other events in recent memory, exposing the district's bus system as a glaringly lax bureaucracy and leading to changes that improved safety.

Now, that sad but cleansing chapter is headed toward legal closure. The McKinney family on Thursday reached a $1.1-million preliminary settlement with the school district that will end the wrongful death lawsuit they filed against the district in 2005. The School Board is expected to approve the deal Tuesday.

"It wasn't an isolated incident; it was an accident waiting to happen," Steve Yerrid, the high-profile Tampa lawyer who represented the McKinneys, said Thursday evening.

"This case meant something," he said, praising the McKinneys for seeing the case through. "It did promote and help the change that has been instituted. You'll never read about the lives that weren't lost."

Said superintendent Clayton Wilcox: "Because of all the litigation, I've never had the opportunity to express to the family how sorry we are at their loss. We are incredibly sorry that this has happened."

While nothing could wipe away the family's pain, he said, the settlement might offer them "some solace."

Wilcox, who took over the district three weeks after McKinney's death, devised an overhaul of the bus system two months later.

Rebecca, a member of the Clearwater High swim team, was trying to reach her neighborhood on the west side of McMullen-Booth when she was struck by a pickup. Her northbound school bus had dropped her off on the east side of the busy road, south of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

District routers had long been told not to assign such bus stops, but an investigation found that hundreds of stops violated that written directive.

The McKinneys' lawsuit alleged the family had complained repeatedly about the stop. The district said it had no record of those complaints, but also conceded that the system in place at the time did not adequately track complaints and sometimes lost them.

Wilcox ousted a handful of top level employees in the transportation department and reorganized the staff. Bus drivers were encouraged to air concerns and the new system assigned safety "auditors" to look for dangers along bus routes.

A new call center kept better track of complaints and allowed parents to get updates on late buses. Thousands of stops were moved away from busy roads.

But even as the changes were taking hold, another child was killed after exiting a Pinellas school bus. Brooke Ingoldsby, a third-grader at James B. Sanderlin Elementary, died in February 2005 after a bus let her off on the wrong side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N in St. Petersburg. She was struck by an SUV as she tried to cross the street at rush hour.

The district later settled with Ingoldsby's family for $1.2-million, and the Legislature approved an additional payment of $1.3-million.

The accidents came as the district was in the early years of its school choice program, which put a heavy load on the bus system. But the last two years have seen a marked decline in parent complaints and safety problems as the Pinellas bus system assumed a lower profile.

The district does not concede in the settlement that it is liable in the McKinney accident, according to School Board attorney Jim Robinson. He said $100,000 of the settlement award will come from district funds and the remaining $1-million from a district insurance policy. Unlike the Ingoldsby case, there are no plans to seek additional funds from the Legislature.

By law, the plaintiff's lawyers can received no more than 25 percent of the settlement, said Yerrid, the McKinneys' lawyer.

The settlement came after the district recently asserted that Yerrid had failed to take the step of filing a claim with the state Department of Legal Services. The district filed a motion to dismiss the case, and Yerrid strongly contested it, alleging the district also had failed to follow certain procedures to the letter of the law.

The dispute mushroomed into a side issue that threatened to take two to four years to resolve, attorneys for both sides said. Robinson said it was possible there would be a separate trial over the motion to dismiss.

"It's a real messy scenario," he said. "And all the while you're looking at a family who lost a daughter."

Yerrid said the parties were looking at a third trip to appellate court and resetting the trial date for a fourth time.

"Litigation that creates further litigation is counterproductive," Yerrid said. "You've got to say enough is enough."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

Pinellas district settles in girl's death 03/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 2:46pm]
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