$7M award upheld for girl disabled after jumping from moving school bus

TORONTO — A bus company is on the hook for a $7 million award to a girl who suffered a brain injury when she jumped from a moving vehicle in keeping with an informal last-day-of-school tradition, Ontario's top court has ruled.

In rejecting most arguments from the bus company, the Court of Appeal found no issues with how the trial judge had instructed the jury in the case of Sarah Little, of Barrie, Ont., who was 13 years old when she jumped out of the rear emergency exit in June 2011.

"The trial judge did not misdirect on causation, and there was ample evidence to support the jury's verdict and apportionment of liability," the Appeal Court said. "As such, the liability verdict is reasonable."

The incident happened on the last day of Grade 8 when Little and other students were on their way home from their area public school. She and her twin sister had ridden the bus for years and Sarah, as a bus patroller, knew how to open the emergency doors.

Evidence was that the risky practice of jumping from moving buses had become something of a tradition among graduating Grade 8 students at their school. Despite knowing how dangerous it was and despite efforts of her sister and other students to dissuade her, Little jumped from the bus before it stopped to let her off. She smashed her head on the sidewalk.

Sarah cannot care for herself and will likely never live or work independently, court records show.

After a four-week trial, jurors found the teen 25 per cent responsible for her own injuries, and the bus company, which now operates as Landmark Bus Lines, for the rest. In May 2018, the Superior Court jury awarded Little $7 million for her share of damages.

Among other things, jurors found the company didn't follow its own policies by failing to tell schools about previously known instances of students jumping from buses on their last day.

On appeal, the company called for either a new trial or a reduction in the award. It argued Justice Elizabeth Quinlan made legal errors in her instructions to jurors, who should have put more blame on Little for what happened to her.

The higher court rejected the arguments. Quinlan, the court said, had clearly set out the factors that led to the teen's injuries, and jurors were aware of those. Both sides also had a hand in drafting the jury instructions and neither had objected when Quinlan delivered them, the court said.

"There is no question that the jury was alive to the defence position that Ms. Little should be principally responsible for her tragic decision to jump from a moving school bus," the Appeal Court said. "In assessing Ms. Little's contributory negligence at 25 per cent, the jury rejected her argument that the (company) should bear 80 to 90 per cent of the fault."

Little's lawyer, Troy Lehman, said in an email the family welcomed the decision.

"This is a case where a young girl made one bad decision and the adults responsible for the safety of children made a series of bad decisions," Lehman said.

The family was looking forward so that Little could move on with her life and get the care she needs, he said.

The Appeal Court did find Quinlan made a mistake in instructing the jury about whether Little had failed to lessen her pre-trial losses by having psychiatric treatment or by moving to a group home. However, the panel said the error was not material given the lack of evidence her prognosis would have been any different.

The court did side with the company on one aspect: It ordered a new trial to decide whether the award to Little should have been reduced by the amount of statutory accident benefits she received.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press