Appellate Court Revives Negligence Lawsuit Against School District

A township family’s negligence lawsuit against the Board of Education was given new life recently by a state Appellate Court panel.

The three judges remanded to Superior Court the lawsuit brought by Freddy Florian and his mother, Carmela, which a Superior Court judge sitting in New Brunswick had dismissed on summary judgment.

The case stemmed from an accident in which Freddy Florian, then a 6th grader, was struck by a car while crossing the street from a school bus stop on his way home.

The Florian family contended the school district was negligent in its processing of a change of address filed by Carmela Florian in January 2011, which resulted in her son taking his old bus and necessitating him crossing near the intersection of Whitehall Lane and Westminster Road. The Florians had recently moved from one building in the Somerset Park apartment complex to another building in the same complex. The move required Freddy to take a different bus to school.

According to court records, Carmela Florian testified that she was told Freddy could continue to ride his old bus until his new bus pass arrived in the mail. District personnel testified that parents are told that a student cannot ride any bus during that interim period, and they must make their own arrangements for transportation to and from school.

During the initial court case, the district moved for summary dismissal – a ruling from a judge prior to a case coming to trial – because, it claimed, its actions in processing change of addresses were reasonable and therefore immunized the district against negligence claims.

The three-judge panel saw differently.

In their Oct. 29 decision, the judges found that the district’s notice given to parents when they register children or submit change of addresses did not clearly state that parents would be responsible for their children’s transportation until a bus pass is issued in cases such as the Florians’.

“The fact that she was given this document as a receipt does not necessarily mean that the language contained in this section of the document applied to her request for a new bus pass for Freddy, who was already a student within the district,” the opinion stated. “Arguably, however, the receipt form may not be interpreted accurately by a parent seeking a new bus pass due to a change in address. Thus, a trier of fact may reasonably conclude that this document does not fulfill the Board’s notice obligation to a parent regarding his or her interim obligations when a child for which bus transportation is being provided moves within the district.”

Further, the lower court judge “accepted the Board’s version of the facts, without considering Carmela’s testimony as to what she was told,” the opinion stated. “In accepting the Board’s evidence that Carmela was told that it was her responsibility to transport Freddy to and from school during the interim, the motion judge engaged in a weighing analysis, rather than viewing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs.”

“The existence and reasonableness of the Board’s notice procedures here and whether Carmela was in fact given adequate notice of her responsibility to transport Freddy to and from school during the interim period when Freddy was without a new bus pass, raises genuinely disputed issues sufficient to defeat summary judgment in favor of the Board,” the panel concluded.

School district spokeswoman Mary Clark said the district does not comment on litigation.

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