Families settle suits in deadly Rita bus fire

June 4, 2009 9:22:12 PM PDT
Nearly two dozen families who lost loved ones in a bus explosion three years ago have reached $80 million worth of settlements. The victims were elderly nursing home residents, trying to flee to Dallas, ahead of Hurricane Rita. That is a lot of money, but families know it won't bring back their loved ones. However, they hope this settlement at least sends a strong message.

When family members threw Rebecca Elledge a birthday party, they had no idea it would be one of her last.

The 80-year-old was one of 23 victims, including her own sister, Maxcy, who died on the bus when it exploded.

Now nearly four years after that accident, the settlement came that the family members had been seeking.

"I think the most we can say is that hopefully everyone has learned something," said Richard Mithoff, the families' attorney.

It was back in 2005, when 38 nursing home residents of Brighton Gardens left Bellaire on their way to Dallas to escape Hurricane Rita. About 15 hours into the trip, the bus erupted into flames and several elderly residents found themselves trapped inside.

"There was eyewitness testimony that some of these people were actually frozen in place, unable to move, and some were physically unable to move quickly enough to get off," said Mithoff.

According to the lawsuit, the explosion was caused by a mechanical malfunction, causing a fire in one of the bus' wheel hub assemblies.

Named in the lawsuit were the bus company, the nursing home, and the bus manufacturer. While not admitting any wrongdoing Thursday, each of them agreed to pay the families.

The daughter of Rebecca Elledge and niece of Maxcy Hathorn released this statement saying, "This is not a reward for the families. It's a punishment for the companies. If that's the only way to make them sit up and learn, then it has to be done."

Mithoff echos those words, saying, "I think that's all we can really hope for because money is not going to undo what's been done here."

Not named in this settlement is the bus driver as well as two leasing companies. Those parties are set to be tried in September.

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