Hun Joon “Paul” Lee, an autistic 19-year-old, passed away on September 11, 2015, following an incident in which he was left alone for several hours in a hot bus on a 96-degree day. The teenager was unable to communicate verbally. He was pronounced dead after first responders discovered him, but life-saving efforts could not revive the boy.
Lee had boarded a bus headed to the Sierra Vista Adult School about 8 a.m. He was one of three students on that route. When Lee did not return home at his usual time, 3:30 p.m., his parents were immediately overcome by panic and contacted the school, which in turn contacted the bus company. Lee was found slumped in an aisle of the bus, and emergency rescue crews were not able to save him. The bus driver, Armando Abel Ramirez, had evidently failed to check the back of the bus to ensure Lee had exited that day.
Lee’s family filed a lawsuit against the bus agency who employed Ramirez, Pupil Transportation Cooperative, and the Whittier Union High School District, where the boy attended. Attorneys have announced that they will receive $23.5 million in a settlement from the agency. The school district was dropped after “the evidence was overwhelmingly against the bus company,” according to Brian Panish, the family’s attorney. Ramirez himself was sentenced to two years in prison in January on charges of felony dependent adult abuse resulting in death.
“It has been our priority to reach a resolution with the family of Paul Lee,” Steve Bui, the chief executive officer of Pupil Transportation Cooperative, said in a statement. “Though nothing will ever ease the pain they have endured, we have worked diligently to refine our policies to ensure that something like this never happens again. PTC remains dedicated to providing safe, high-quality transportation services to the children and families in our communities.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Pupil’s drivers had left children unattended on their buses. Debbie LaJoie — director of transportation for the company at the time of Lee’s death — said on record at her deposition that to her knowledge, four additional special education students had been left on a bus between the years of 2006 and 2015. All drivers involved kept their jobs.
Last year, following lobbying efforts made by Lee’s family, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law requirements that all buses in California be equipped with child safety alarms to be deactivated by a driver before leaving the bus.
The new law will go into effect in 2018, and will also mandate that drivers receive annual training for child safety before being able to renew their safety certificates.
Panish said of Lee’s family, “They are very happy and hopeful that no other family will have to go through what they did.” Adding that they just want to grieve in private and have some closure following all of the attention the case received. Panish confirms his clients do not wish to pursue any additional litigation. “Really it’s about a lot more than money,” he said.