Lawyers for 11 Pennsylvania residents injured in 2013 when their charter bus slammed into an overpass on Soldiers Field Road are suing two GPS device manufacturers and others, seeking more than $15 million in damages.
The lawsuit filed last month in Suffolk Superior Court alleges that TomTom NV, Garmin International Inc., and their subsidiaries sold GPS units to consumers without warning against their use on commercial vehicles, which are prohibited from some roads because of height restrictions.
The devices also distract drivers, said Philadelphia lawyer Jim Ronca, who represents an 18-year-old high school student who was paralyzed from the waist down in the crash.
“People rely on these things and tend not to remember that they have flaws, too,” Ronca said in a recent interview.
The driver, Samuel J. Jackson, told police he drove the 11-foot-high bus onto Soldiers Field Road, which is off-limits to vehicles more than 10 feet high, because he was “following the GPS.” At least one sign warning of this restriction was missing or damaged, and construction on the Harvard Street overpass obstructed other warning signs, the suit said.
In total, 35 people were hurt around 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2013, when the bus struck the Western Avenue bridge. The roof of the bus collapsed backward, causing the luggage rack and television monitors to fall onto the heads and necks of passengers, the suit says.
The passengers included a group of high school students and their chaperones from the Philadelphia area who were visiting Harvard University for the day with the Destined for a Dream Foundation Inc. The organization serves underprivileged and disadvantaged youth, according to its website. The crash happened just minutes after the bus started heading back to Pennsylvania.
Ronca’s client, Matthew Cruz, then 16, was the most seriously hurt in the accident, suffering an injury to his spinal cord.
Ronca said that he had not heard of any previous lawsuits against Global Positioning System device manufacturers that address the problems of distracted driving and other accidents caused by GPS units that give faulty directions onto height-restricted roadways.
A month after the crash, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued official recommendations for GPS systems approved for use in commercial vehicles to reduce accidents caused by low bridges. The agency also created visor cards to warn commercial vehicle drivers about the dangers of using GPS systems that lack instructions about low bridges.
The suit alleges that TomTom and Garmin “acted in disregard of a foreseeable and foreseen risk of serious injury to passengers in vehicles who were sent on roadways with height restrictions at the direction” of the GPS devices.
Jackson is believed to have had two GPS devices with him at the time of the crash, but it is unclear which one he was using, Ronca said. One was made by TomTom and seized by police at the scene, he said. Jackson said he took the other, which was made by Garmin, with him after the collision, according to Ronca.
Neither device was designed for use in a commercial vehicle, though both companies make units for such purpose with features that account for height restrictions, Ronca said.
The models cited in the complaint do not warn about height restrictions, do not warn against their use in commercial vehicles, or give drivers the option to enter the height of their vehicle in order to avoid height-restricted roadways, the suit said.
Representatives for TomTom and Garmin declined to comment.
A Brighton Municipal Court jury acquitted Jackson in September of a criminal charge of negligent operation of a motor vehicle, though a judge found him civilly liable for operating a bus on a restricted roadway and for failing to obey road signs.
A telephone listing for Jackson was not in service. His criminal defense attorney did not say whether he was representing Jackson in the civil suit.
Jackson’s employer, Raymond Talmadge, operator of Calvary Coach in Philadelphia, said Thursday he could not answer questions.
The suit also names Prevost Car Inc., manufacturer of the bus that crashed, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation as defendants. DCR is responsible for Soldiers Field Road.
Both declined to comment.
Ronca said Cruz, a former track runner and basketball player, now has limited use of his arms and cannot extend his fingers.
Despite his physical limitations, Ronca said, Cruz has learned to get around in a wheelchair, sign his name, and use his knuckles to type on a screen keyboard like an iPad.
“His attitude has been very mature for the most part about trying to improve himself,” he said.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.