The family of an Illinois 7-year-old killed by a school bus has filed a wrongful death lawsuit and wants the bus driver, the bus company and the district to be held accountable.
The second-grader’s shocking death left his parents grief-stricken and the man behind the wheel pleading the fifth after he failed to follow safety protocols and kept driving after running over the boy.
“Connor’s death has caused a pain and emptiness that cannot be put into words,” Rockeal King and Frank Kaczmarski said in a statement.
Connor Kaczmarski’s family is suing the school bus driver, Kickert School Bus Line and Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163. It accuses them of negligence, employing the driver without a valid license and not following state law.
Around 3:13 p.m. on Jan. 20 in Park Forest, Illinois about 34 miles south of Chicago, Connor Kaczmarski, 7, was one of the final four students getting off of their school bus near his home. He exited the bus at a residential intersection and needed to cross the street to reach his home a block away.
Kaczmarski started running onto Walnut Street to reach his home, the same street on which the bus turned.
As the bus completed the right turn, Kaczmarski ran directly in front of the bus as it continued down Walnut Street. The 7-year-old was hit on the front passenger side bumper knocking him to the ground.
Ring Doorbell camera video detailed in the police report says a “thud” noise is heard, followed by two honks of a horn as well as a rising and falling motion of the bus as if the passenger-side wheels of the bus were running over a large bump in the road. However, it’s unclear which vehicle honked the horn.
The driver of the bus, Darryl Downs, 62, was accused of violating state law by not directing off-loading children wishing to cross the street to be 10 feet in front of the bus or on the shoulder of the road. He is also accused of continuing to drive after the collision rather than help the boy left lying motionless in the street.
According to Kaczmarski’s attorneys, Downs was not licensed to drive the school bus at the time of the accident.
“He did not meet the minimum requirements necessary to be a commercial driver’s license holder, and his license was canceled and not active at the time of the incident,” Bradley Cosgrove said at a news conference.
“Mr. Downs made a right-hand turn onto Walnut Street and did not allow the children to pass in front of the bus safely,” Cosgrove said.
“Mr. Downs crashed into Connor, and Mr. Downs continued on and never stopped,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove said Downs was later called back to the scene of the collision by dispatch, although it’s unclear the length of time it took for Downs to return.
The commotion brought out Kaczmarski’s family across the street from where he was struck. His family tried to render aid and called 911 around 3:15 that afternoon, according to news reports. Police on scene asked juveniles who witnessed the crash, and they told them “Brother Darryl” was the driver of the bus.
The 7-year-old was later pronounced dead at the hospital after succumbing to his injuries.
“To know that bus was all the way around the corner. I don’t even know if he knew he hit him. It’s just horrible,” the Kaczmarski’s neighbor Jackie Lemarier told WLS.
“The 7-year-old child could have been dropped off in front of his home at the very least the same side of the street where he lived. If they were going to drop him off on the opposite side of the street, the bus driver should have signaled it was safe to cross the street,” attorney Joseph Murphy said.
In the days that followed, Kaczmarki’s attorney alleged Downs refused to provide a blood sample for toxicology testing, and a court order was needed to get a blood sample. They alleged Downs’ refusal to cooperate with the investigation continued until he pleaded the fifth.
WGN reported Park Forest police determined Downs was not at fault and no charges would be filed although he was charged with a misdemeanor and ticketed for not having a valid commercial driver’s license.
After learning more details about the fatal accident, neighbors’ anger was more evident against the bus driver.
“You should wait. Never ever move that bus. Wait until you know everything is clear. Whether you’re the driver of the bus or somebody going down the street, you should never ever go. Just wait. There’s no rush,” Lemarier said.
“He was a joy to all of his teachers, kind-hearted, smart and funny; always with a smile on his face,” Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 Superintendent Caletha White said to WMAQ.
The wrongful death lawsuit is for an amount exceeding $50,000 in damages. Kaczmarski’s parents hope the civil suit helps bring about change.
“We are filing this lawsuit to help prevent another senseless death of a young child,” Kaczmarski’s parents said.
“The safety of our children should be the utmost importance, and it should be demanded when every child leaves the house into the care of those who have been entrusted with the most precious of lives,” Kaczmarski’s parents added.