Lawyer: Decision not to file charges expedites bus-crash suit

The scene of the February crash in Chesterfield that killed Isabelle Tezsla and injured her sisters and other children.
The scene of the February crash in Chesterfield that killed Isabelle Tezsla and injured her sisters and other children. (DAVID M WARREN / File Photograph)
Posted: December 02, 2013

CHESTERFIELD A lawyer for the parents of an 11-year-old triplet who died in a crash involving a school bus and a dump truck in Chesterfield last year said a prosecutor's recent decision not to file criminal charges against the drivers will expedite a civil lawsuit that has been filed.

"From a civil perspective, it frees things up so we can get things moving forward so that the family can close this sad chapter in their life," said James E. Beasley Jr. of Cherry Hill, who represents the family of Isabelle Tezsla, who died, and her two injured sisters, Natalie and Sophie. "Obviously, this has been very sad and traumatic for the family, but they're not the eye-for-an-eye type of people and would respect the prosecutor's decision."

New Jersey State Trooper Anthony Tezsla and his wife, Susan, could not be reached for comment. They have filed a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit in Burlington County Superior Court seeking unspecified damages from the drivers, their employers, and others involved in the handling and maintenance of the vehicles, saying the Feb. 16 crash in the small Burlington County community could have been avoided.

"This case involves a heartbreaking, preventable tragedy in which an overloaded dump truck traveling at an excessive speed failed to avoid a school bus loaded with children that failed to observe oncoming traffic before attempting to cross a high-speed intersection," the 25-page lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed two months after the accident, also says the state, county, township, and local school district had been put on notice that they could be sued for any liability they may have in the accident.

Last month, County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said he would not seek an indictment against the bus driver, John Tieman, 67, of Beverly, or the truck driver, Michael Caporale, 38, of New Egypt, saying their conduct did "not rise to the required level of recklessness that would be needed to bring criminal charges." Bernardi based his conclusion on probes by his office and by the National Transportation Safety Board, which had begun a full-scale investigation and held a hearing last summer to report on its findings.

The crash occurred shortly after 8 a.m. as the bus carried 25 children to the Chesterfield Elementary School. The bus was hit in the back on the driver's side and spun into a utility pole. In addition to the two Tezsla girls, Jonathan Zdybel, 11, suffered serious injuries. Fourteen other children had minor injuries, according to authorities.

Zdybel's parents and two other families whose children were on the bus also filed negligence lawsuits.

"Now we can start taking depositions because now there are no Fifth Amendment issues," said Beasley, referring to the drivers' rights to remain silent in a criminal matter. He said state Superior Court Judge Marc Baldwin, who sits in Mount Holly, had said he wanted to move the case along quickly and might schedule a trial for next year. Beasley said Baldwin last month ordered the four cases consolidated so subpoenas could be jointly issued and sworn statements scheduled.

The others named in the Tezsla lawsuit are GST Transport Corp., a Southampton firm that employed the school bus driver; and Herman's Trucking Inc., a Wrightstown company that had hired the truck driver. South State Inc. of Bridgeton and Wyndham Construction L.L.C. of Blackwood are also named for their role in loading the dump truck, which, according to the lawsuit, was overweight, exceeding gross-weight, tire-weight, and axle-weight limits.

The lawsuit says the bus driver had been on the job only three weeks and had "already prompted complaints from parents, who had reported Tieman for accelerating after children had begun boarding but before they had taken a seat, causing the children to fall in the aisle." The suit says Tieman was cited for failure to stop or yield for a flashing red light at Old York Road and County Route 528.

The National Transportation Safety Board also determined Tieman had been taking sedating medications and had had only five hours of sleep before the crash. He told the board he did not see the approaching truck.

Laurence T. Bennett, a Mount Laurel lawyer who represents Tieman and GST, could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit also claims that the truck driver had a previous citation for reckless driving and that police issued him a summons after the accident for inadequate braking, carrying an excessive load, and failure to secure and cover the construction debris he was hauling. He told the board he saw the bus enter the intersection but could not stop in time.

Margolis Edelstein, the Mount Laurel law firm representing the trucking company, could not be reached for comment.

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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