15-year-old dies after being struck by car at dangerous crossing on way to school bus. $20 million. San Bernardino County.

Summary

School district hides evidence of its negligence in selection of bus stop locations and is sanctioned by court before trial. Later argues value of adopted son's death.

The Case

  • Case Name: Jong Ja Jun v. Chaffey Joint Union High School District and Imelda Hughes
  • Court and Case Number: San Bernardino Superior Court / CIVDS1112258
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Thursday, July 30, 2015
  • Date Action was Filed: Monday, October 24, 2011
  • Type of Action: Dangerous Condition Public Property, Wrongful Death
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Brian S. McCarville
  • Plaintiffs:
    Ja Jun, biological aunt and adoptive mother of decedent.
  • Defendants:
    Chaffey Joint Union High School District
    Imelda Hughes
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $20,500,000
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    The jury found the School District 100 percent responsible for the damages.

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    The jury awarded Jin's mother $4,500,000 in past non-economic damages and $16,000,000 in future non-economic damages, for a total verdict of $20.5 million. 

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 23 days.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 4 hours.
  • Jury Polls: 12-0 past noneconomic; 11-1 future noneconomic; 11-1 100% fault to school district.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Panish, Shea & Boyle, LLP by Rahul Ravipudi, Deborah Chang, Thomas A. Schultz, and Matthew Stumpf, Los Angeles.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    McCune & Harber, LLP by Stephen M. Harber, Los Angeles. (For Chaffey Joint Union High School District).

    Calendo Puckett Sheedy, LLP by Christopher M. Sheedy, Glendale. (For Imelda Hughes).

The Experts

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Augustine C. Zemba, busing, San Diego.

    Edward Stevens, traffic engineering, Olympia, WA.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    David Roseman, traffic engineering, Long Beach.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    On the morning of Dec. 6, 2010, plaintiff's decedent and adopted son, Jin Ouk Burnham, 15, a  sophomore high school student, was attempting to cross Duncan Canyon Road, an uncontrolled five lane highway with east-west traffic, and Serrano Avenue, with north-south traffic, towards a bus stop in the City of Fontana, on a bus route established by the School District. The bus stop was the only one near Jin's home. While crossing Duncan Canyon Road in an unmarked crosswalk at Serrano Avenue, Jin was struck by a vehicle, operated by Imelda Hughes. Jin suffered catastrophic injuries and passed away 15 days later.

    Plaintiff, Jong Ja Jun, Jin's adoptive mother, sued the Chaffey Joint Union High School District, the City of Fontana, the State of California, Hughes and the People of the State of California. The State of California was dismissed before trial commenced. The Court dismissed the case against the City of Fontana on summary judgment and settled the matter with plaintiff.

    When trial commenced, the only defendants were Chaffey Joint Union High School District and Imelda Hughes. 

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Plaintiff contended that the District was responsible because in the year prior to Jin’s death, they had bus stops on both sides of Duncan Canyon Road so that children did not have to cross Duncan Canyon Road to get to a school bus stop.  However, at the start of the 2010 school year, plaintiff contended that the District removed the stop on the south corner of Duncan Canyon Road and Serrano which required Jin and others to cross Duncan Canyon Road to get to the stop on the Northeast Corner.  The traffic on Duncan Canyon Road traveled at freeway speeds averaging 56 miles per hour with a top speed of 71 miles per hour.  Plaintiff contended this was illegal in violation of 13 California Code of Regulation 1238(b)(3) and consequently constituted a dangerous condition of public property.

    By the time of trial (see notes), the court found that defendant School District had created a dangerous condition which was a cause of Jim's death.  At trial, the school district  disputed the value of the loss of the relationship between Jin and his mother, arguing that the jury should award plaintiff only $1,500,000. The District further suggested that the jury find Mrs. Hughes 50% at fault and use its discretion in apportioning the remaining fault between Jin and the District.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    The District denied all of the allegations.  Throughout the pendency of the litigation prior to trial, the District contended that it routinely at year end discards all of its bus stop designation materials and, therefore, produced no relevant documents in discovery.  Through its employees, the District denied every single one of plaintiff’s allegations claiming that it never removed any bus stops, that its bus stops were in effect for years with no prior incidents, that the bus stop at issue was not in violation of 13 CCR 1238(b)(3) because the bus did not stop on a multi-lane highway, but further up a cross street which had traffic controls.  In addition, the District employees claimed there was a stop in effect closer to Jin’s home on the south side of Duncan Canyon so that Jin did not need to cross Duncan Canyon to get to the subject stop.  Finally, the District contended that both the driver, Ms. Hughes, and Jin were the sole negligent and responsible causes of Jin’s death.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Death; loss of society.

    Jin was in a coma for 15 days as a result of the siginificant trauma to his head and body.  He ultimately succumbed to his injuries on December 21, 2015.

    Jong Ja Jun was Jin's biological aunt.  Mrs. Jun and Jin lived with Jong's fiance James Lee, whom Jin referred to as his Uncle.  Mrs. Jun legally adopted Jin in August of 2009, a little more than a year before he died. Mrs. Jun was 54 years old when she adopted Jin.  Mrs. Jun sought recovery for wrongful death damages for the loss of her only child. 

     

Additional Notes

While the District did not produce any documents in discovery, Plaintiff’s counsel reached out to members of the community and citizens who were outraged and concerned following Jin’s injuries – before he died – and who had written correspondence with the District requesting that it cure the dangerous condition and reinstate the south side bus stop.  All of the correspondence was collected and the District’s defense was under scrutiny by the parties and, at the start of trial, by the Court.

The newly acquired evidence supported the contentions by plaintiff that the school bus stop that the School District claimed Jin could have used, was not designated until after his death, and that the School District had hidden this fact. With this evidence, plaintiff brought a pre-trial motion for sanctions. The Court found the absence of evidence questionable and ordered that the District produce witnesses for an investigative hearing and testimony.  During that inquiry by plaintiff’s counsel, it was clear that thousands of pages of documents were withheld. The following day, the District produced some of those documents which included emails between risk management at the District and its employees which confirmed that the District knew of its role in the tragedy and every single defense it raised throughout the four years of litigation were false. The Court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that the School District did hide all evidence it dangerously designated bus stops in violation of 13 California Code of Regulation Section 1238 in the hopes of avoiding responsibility and liability.  The Court then levied issue sanctions finding that the District created a dangerous condition of public property which was a cause of Jin’s death. 

 

 

Disclaimer

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