School Bus Company First Student to pay $11.5 million to settle SF school-bus lawsuit after driver health and safety whistleblowers sued

School Bus Company First Student to pay $11.5 million to settle SF school-bus lawsuit after driver health and safety whistleblowers sued
By Jill Tucker
May 25, 2016 Updated: May 25, 2016 5:52pm

The company that supplies San Francisco’s school buses will pay $11.5 million to settle a lawsuit claiming the buses had safety violations.
A school bus company has agreed to pay $11.5 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit claiming that the firm used unsafe buses to transport San Francisco students, plaintiffs’ attorneys said Wednesday.

Two mechanics with First Student Inc. filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, claiming that the company’s buses, provided through the subsidiary Laidlaw Transit, had threadbare tires, worn brakes and other problems because of improper maintenance.

The San Francisco Unified School District will receive $3.5 million of the settlement, and the mechanics and their attorneys will receive the rest.

The lawsuit claimed that the alleged safety violations happened from 2006 through 2011. While the California Highway Patrol performed inspections annually as required during that time, officers did not identify issues. The mechanics, William Padilla and Manuel Contreras, provided records that showed the company misrepresented the safety of the vehicles, attorneys said.

Over a nine-month period, for example, First Student’s records showed 300 violations of the requirement that company mechanics inspect vehicles every 45 days, the attorneys said.

In addition, the bus company ignored reports from mechanics and drivers about the condition of the buses, including “metal-on-metal” sounds when braking, the attorneys said.

“This case is a clear example of predatory corporate conduct, where profits are placed at a higher priority than the safety of children,” said Russell Budd, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

First Student representatives could not be reached for comment. The company replaced its San Francisco fleet of 230 buses last fall after signing a new, five-year contract with the school district.

The mechanics filed the suit in San Francisco Unified’s name.

“When the district heard the allegations, we met with First Student and demanded proof that they were maintaining our buses,” school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said in a statement. “First Student assured us that these allegations were untrue and, based on our records, we have not been made aware of any safety incidents related to these allegations.”

The district, however, required First Student to submit more frequent evidence that it was complying with safety requirements. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said First Student is now meeting those requirements.

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: jilltucker