Becnel victory stands up in state’s highest court

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Editor and Publisher

RESERVE — One of the more complicated cases St. John Parish attorney Danny Becnel became involved with has been given another final verdict in favor of his clients.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently denied a writ filed by the State of Louisiana, seeking to overturn Becnel’s court victory in the Mother’s Day bus crash.

Becnel originally won the district court trial case over the Louisiana Department of Transportation (DOTD), in which the state was found 50 percent liable, along with bus driver Frank Bedell, in the May 9, 1999 bus crash on Interstate 610 where 22 of the 43 passengers on the bus were killed.

Becnel has been handling a multitude of lawsuits ever since the tragic accident, that involved a number of people from the River Region.

Becnel has sued and won against Custom Bus Lines, the manufacturers of the bus, the casino where the bus was headed, the doctors who certified the bus driver’s health for his license, and most recently, the state of Louisiana.

The thing that has made this case especially impressive is that many lawyers did not want to take on the state of Louisiana in the case, Becnel said, especially since state governments frequently get protection from the courts and do not have to pay off in lawsuits.

“From the beginning there were a lot of lawyers who didn’t want anything to do with this case,” Becnel told L’Observateur on Monday. “And it is very difficult to beat a state agency.”

Becnel won the initial case against the state where he argued that the guardrail was improperly designed and put in place, then making a case involving the guardrail posts, which were found to have termites in them.

(See SUIT, pg. 6A)

“I went out to the scene of that accident and personally investigated it myself for two days. I measured skid marks, investigated the guardrails, the posts and everything,” Becnel said. “There aren’t any other lawyers who want to do that. And I’m not about to take the word of a police report.”

Becnel presented pieces of the actual railing posts in court, showing them in a deteriorated state from termites, and making the case that the state had not inspected frequently enough to find the problem, which clearly weakened the railing when the bus came crashing into it that day.

Becnel originally won the case against the bus driver and Custom Bus Lines, since driver Frank Bedell was found to be under the influence of drugs that day. He also won a case against the doctor who certified the bus driver as healthy enough to be driving the bus, and he won a case against the casino company that had entered into an agreement with the bus lines to bring people to their casino.

“That case was a slam dunk against the driver,” Becnel said. “Any kindergartner could have won that. But the bus lines only had a $5 million insurance policy and that wasn’t going to help all the people who had lost loved ones, or those who were permanently injured.”

The accident occurred along Interstate 610 in New Orleans where it runs through the golf course in City Park. The bus was en route to Casino Magic in Mississippi and was being driven by Bedell, who according to eyewitness testimony, began to veer to the right for unknown reasons.

Bedell unexpectedly drove the bus off the roadway, breaking through a guardrail at a speed of 50 to 60 miles per hour, and then went airborne over a ravine and a golf path. The bus ultimately crashed into the opposite bank of the ravine, crushing the front upon impact, and causing the center of the bus to crumple.

Becnel said he actually drew from some knowledge he gained from the first case he ever had, in which he earned the first $1 million settlement in Louisiana history. In that case, he had an expert of highway barrier design help him win as Dr. I. Robert Erlich, a dean of research at Stephens University, showed Becnel that even though guardrails clearly cannot stop a 35,000 pound bus, they still are made to redirect a vehicle to a safer area.

“In this case, the guardrail posts had termites and were weakened considerably, and the state should have taken care of that problem,” Becnel noted. “I remember working on barriers in my first case and this one kind of brought me back to that. It all helps to get experience like that since you never know when it will become helpful again.”

“Most people think guardrails are supposed to stop vehicles, but clearly they can’t stop cars or trucks weighing thousands of pounds. However they are designed to redirect vehicles to a safer area, and in that particular area, there was a smooth, flat spot the bus should have been directed to. If that would have happened, all those people could still be alive,” he explained.

Becnel said that he positively believes the majority of people on the bus that day would have survived if the barrier system would have done its job.

“Even though it’s too late for those people now, there was something good about this case since the state filled up that ravine after this lawsuit,” he said.

DOTD had the golf cart-ravine area designed in 1987 and 1988, but design plans actually indicated at the time that the golf cart path was “an area of concern.” At the original trial, Becnel’s experts testified that federal guidelines at the time of the reconstruction of the highway recommended that states consider installing guardrails capable of redirecting much heavier vehicles, such as buses.

DOTD countered by having their experts testify that at the time of the accident, federal laws did not, in fact, require such a threshold. DOTD lawyers also tried to put all the blame for the accident on Bedell, saying he was solely liable for the accident since he did nothing to try to regain control of the bus.

DOTD appealed to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but lost at that level, then appealed with a writ to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was recently denied.

Becnel is now trying each individual case, having won his initial case. He recently wrote a letter to Judge Rosemary Ledet, asking for a judgement in that initial case on behalf of Lelia Marie Tassin. From there, he is hoping to get the other seven cases consolidated with a decision favoring them all.