The Chester church that owned a bus carrying a Rock Hill football team that crashed in North Carolina in September, killing four people, has denied wrongdoing, claiming the accident was unavoidable and a sudden emergency.
However, the lawyer for 21 people injured in the wreck said evidence is “overwhelming” that Sandy River Baptist Church was renting out its bus without regard to safety rules, and has shown neither sympathy or accountability.
The church, owner of the bus carrying the Ramah JUCO football team from Rock Hill, wants a lawsuit filed last month in Chester thrown out. The suit was filed by 21 players and coaches that alleged the church failed to properly maintain, service and inspect the bus and its tires.
A blown tire led to the bus hitting a guardrail and a bridge, police said. The crash killed four people, including the driver, who was a church member, and injured 39 others. Federal officials have said the bus was not licensed for for-hire service, yet the team chartered the bus.
A response to the lawsuit from the church and the Sandy River Baptist Association claims the “accident was unavoidable” and “pleads the doctrine of sudden emergency as a defense,” court documents show.
The church denying wrongdoing came at the same time late Monday that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials ordered that the church shut down bus service because it is a threat to public safety.
Federal investigators found the church failed to have any monitoring of its drivers, calling it reckless and unsupervised, with a complete and utter lack of compliance with federal safety regulations.
Joel Hamilton of Rock Hill, lead lawyer for the 21 people injured, said the response was expected but does not change what is indisputable from both his office’s investigation and that of the federal government: That the church was operating a bus service outside the rules required for for-hire buses.
“From day one, Sandy River has publicly demonstrated a lack of accountability or even sympathy for the victims of this wreck,” Hamilton said. “Their answer contains nothing unexpected and we would certainly be surprised if anyone admitted to wrongdoing in an answer.”
“However, in this case the facts are indisputable,” he said. “Yesterday’s order issued by the FMCSA corroborates everything we found in our own investigation and proves that Sandy River was operating beyond the scope of their authority with impunity and complete disregard for federal regulation.”
Hamilton said the investigation continues and the people injured deserve justice.
“We will continue to be aggressive in holding this organization accountable,” Hamilton said. “Over the last several weeks we have been collecting information relating to this case and the accumulated evidence is overwhelming.”
Robert Davis, a Spartanburg lawyer representing the church, declined to comment further on the lawsuit filed against the church or the federal shut-down of its bus service that described the service as a public safety hazard.
The impact of the shutdown appears to be minimal, however, as the church had only one bus registered with federal officials, records show, and that bus was destroyed in the crash.
Killed in the crash carrying about two dozen Clinton College students among 43 people on board were the bus driver, Brian Andre Kirkpatrick, 43, of Chester; Clinton College students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla; and Darice Lamont Hicks Jr., 8, of Rock Hill. Hicks’ father was a coach on the team and was injured.