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Family of woman struck and killed by TUSD bus files $7 million claim

Family of woman struck and killed by TUSD bus files $7 million claim

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Kerry O’Donnell, a 61-year old mother and former model, was crossing the street on her daily walk to the park to feed the birds and rabbits one cool February morning when she was struck and killed by a school bus that ran a red light.

Now, her daughter is preparing to sue the Tucson Unified School District in a wrongful-death suit that claims the district was negligent in hiring, training and supervising the driver.

In a notice of claim dated March 8, attorneys for Kaela Von Zwol, O’Donnell’s daughter, offered to settle the case for $7 million. Tucson Unified School District has until May 13 to settle or be served with a lawsuit.

The driver, David Hewston, was heading north on Swan Road when he should have turned left onto westbound Fort Lowell Road on his daily route to pick up children for school.

The light turned yellow, then red. O’Donnell stepped out into the street.

“The route is flat. The streets are dry. The weather is clear. There is no sun or shadows compromising the driver’s view. Visibility is absolutely unimpaired. It is a typical Tucson morning,” attorney Dev K. Sethi wrote in the notice of claim.

Eight seconds after the light turned red, and five seconds after she stepped out into the street, the school bus plowed through the intersection, striking and killing O’Donnell, according to the attorney’s review of on-board video of the crash.

“Hewston did not yield, slow, or stop. Instead he drove his 26,000+ pound bus right through Ms. O’Donnell,” Sethi wrote.

“(H)er fate was sealed on contact. The left side of her face and body were crushed and ripped apart by the strike of a 13-ton bus,” he wrote.

Two children were on board the bus at the time. They were uninjured.

The notice claims TUSD hired Hewston in late 2008, though attorneys were unclear whether he had or has a commercial driver’s license.

The driver had at least six driving-related incidents since being hired, including at least three accidents and one speeding ticket while driving school buses.

“Because there appears to be inconsistent and incomplete documentation of these incidents in the (TUSD) file, we believe this is an incomplete number of the mishaps Mr. Hewston had behind the wheel,” attorneys wrote.

“You all are wholly responsible for this death and all the harms that flow from it,” Sethi wrote to the school district.

TUSD general counsel Rob Ross did not return calls for comment. District spokeswoman Michelle Valenzuela said the driver is on administrative leave pending results of an investigation. Sethi said the district has not offered to settle, and he expects to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks.

The driver’s attorney, Matthew Wright, also did not return a call for comment.

The attorney also filed a $500,000 claim with the city of Tucson and another with Pima County, saying based on information provided by the district, Hewston suggests the layout of the intersection might have tricked him into reading the wrong traffic signal.

“Given this, you may bear some comparative fault for this fatality crash,” he wrote in a claim dated April 5.

The attorney said the $7 million claim is appropriate given TUSD had substantial knowledge Hewston was an appropriate candidate for the position. The attorneys noted that despite the driver causing several incidents, “some resulting in substantial damage and others caused by his disregard of basic traffic safety rules,” TUSD management “took no steps to investigate his ongoing appropriateness for the job or to evaluate whether he should be transitioned into a different, non-driving position.”

Hewston’s employment file contains no documented evaluations or reviews since April 2010, the notice claims.

The attorney wrote that the daughter’s suffering is exacerbated by the “horrific manner of her mom’s death.”

“The death and ripple of this loss extend forever,” he wrote.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight


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