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Suit Filed by Family of Girl Fatally Hurt in Bus Doors

September 03, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

The family of a 3-year-old Montebello girl who died after she was caught in the doors of a Montebello bus and dragged along the street has sued the city and called for criminal prosecution of the bus driver.

Sylvia de Luna fell into a coma after the May 5 accident and died May 15 of multiple injuries, officials said.

Attorney Miguel F. Garcia filed the Superior Court complaint last week, naming as defendants the city, bus driver George C. Schacht and General Motors Corp., manufacturer of the bus. The suit seeks unspecified damages from the city and $5 million in punitive damages from Schacht.

In an Aug. 26 letter to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Garcia urged that Schacht be prosecuted for felony vehicular manslaughter. Conviction carries a maximum sentence of six years in state prison.

"The negligence of the bus driver was at the level of gross negligence bordering on wanton disregard for human life," Garcia said in a recent interview. "He ignored the safety mechanisms in the bus."

Reiner's office initially decided to charge Schacht with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, but delayed the filing to review the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Nelson said. A misdemeanor charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in County Jail.

Nelson said a criminal charge will soon be filed because Schacht "had a higher duty to his passengers, especially his children passengers, to make sure they had safely disembarked."

Montebello will defend Schacht, who has been a driver for nine years, against any criminal charges arising from the death, according to Richard Torres, Montebello director of transportation and maintenance.

"The City of Montebello believes the (criminal) charge in the ill-fated accident is unjustified and that there is no criminal liability in this matter," Torres said. He declined further comment on the case, citing the pending litigation.

Schacht has not been relieved of his duties.

The accident occurred shortly after Sylvia and her grandmother, Rosalie de Luna, and a neighbor's child boarded the bus near the family's Montebello home, Garcia said. The grandmother was on her way to make a mortgage payment.

The bus arrived at a stop on Whittier Boulevard, near Oakford Drive in East Los Angeles, and passengers began getting off.

Rosalie de Luna stepped out the rear door with her neighbor's 2-year-old child in her arms. Sylvia stood on the bottom step holding her grandmother's hand, waiting to be helped off the bus, Garcia said.

A California Highway Patrol accident report said the bus doors closed on Sylvia's left leg as she tried to step onto the sidewalk, and the bus dragged her along the ground for about 25 feet.

Schacht told the investigating officer that he heard people banging frantically on the side of the bus, but he thought they were would-be passengers trying to get him to stop so they could belatedly board, the report said. Schacht stopped after passengers told him the girl had been caught, the report said.

Garcia said further questioning of witnesses by his investigator revealed that the bus doors first closed on Sylvia's torso and reopened automatically when safety sensors detected that something was caught. Garcia alleges that Schacht manually closed the doors even though a warning buzzer and a warning light were probably on and in doing so caught Sylvia's leg. The doors did not open automatically a second time because the girl's leg was too small to trigger the sensors, Garcia contends.

Nelson said his interviews with witnesses also indicated that the doors had shut twice on Sylvia de Luna.

Garcia said the death could have been prevented if Schacht had properly used his rear-view mirrors and heeded the warning signals.

"If the bus driver had looked in the mirror he would have seen the stairwell and seen little Sylvia there," he said.

Garcia said he is advocating a felony conviction as a message to other bus drivers that they must be careful. "I don't think the bus driver should be sent to state prison, but I think he should do some jail time," Garcia said.

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