The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld a $500,000 cap on damages paid by a rural school district in response to the fatal 2015 collision between a freight train and a school bus.
An investigation by the state highway patrol found that the driver of the Larimore Public School District bus, Max Danner, was the sole cause of the collision, by allegedly misjudging the nongated railroad crossing that intersected a gravel road. The bus skidded to a stop with the nose extending over the tracks. The train hit seconds later.
Danner and 17-year-old student Cassidy Sandstrom were killed, while 12 other students ranging in age from 5 to 16 years old were also injured. The crash occurred the afternoon of the first day back at school following the Christmas break.
The statutory cap on liability at the time of the incident was limited to a total of $500,000 for injury to three or more persons. The court’s ruling stated that the law has since been amended to increase liability to $1 million for any number of claims.
A group of parents and healthcare providers counter-claimed against the district and its government self-insurance pool that the damage cap was unconstitutional, but a district court upheld the damages, and discharged the school district and insurance pool from further liability.
The parents then argued that the damage cap for tort claims against political subdivisions in state law violates the open court, jury trial, equal protection and special law provisions of the North Dakota Constitution.
The supreme court ruled on Monday that the cap does not violate equal protection provisions of the state constitution. The court also agreed with the district court’s ruling that the damage cap did not create a special law. “If a statute operates to treat all persons or members of a class within the scope of the statute equally, the statute is general and not special,” the court said. “A general law operates alike on all persons and property similarly situated.”