Patricia Ann Berliner, the woman who struck a 6-year-old child with her car as the young girl exited a school bus, will serve no jail time and has agreed to assist the victim’s family in promoting bus safety per the terms of an agreement reached through mediation.
Berliner, 68, entered an Alford plea to one count of felony criminal endangerment in Flathead County District Court on March 25, a plea that allows her to maintain her innocence but admit that enough evidence exists for a jury to convict her of the charge. Berliner met with the family of 6-year-old Jordana Hubble and county prosecutors to resolve the case through criminal mediation, a rarely used instrument of the justice system first approved in Montana in 2007. Judge Dan Wilson will impose his sentence on June 10 and could reject the agreement, although there has been no indication he will do so.
The mediation agreement, dated March 25, recommends that Berliner receive a deferred sentence for six years, meaning she could be re-sentenced if at any point in the next six years she violates her probation. The charge of criminal endangerment carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The deferred sentence also means that Berliner will have the incident stricken from her record if she completes the six-year term without any violations.
In addition to the deferred sentence, the agreement recommends Berliner perform 100 hours of community service, that she apologize to the victim and her family at the upcoming sentencing hearing, and that she “support the victim’s family in efforts to raise awareness about bus safety.” The mediation agreement goes on to note that any financial restitution will be “addressed in some other litigation or legal manner” and that no restitution has been awarded as a result of this mediation. There are no pending civil suits against Berliner in Flathead County District Court.
A massive outpouring of community support followed the Nov. 12, 2019 accident, including the formation of a nonprofit, Jordana’s Alliance for Bus Safety, to promote awareness. Hubble was badly injured in the accident and court documents indicate she will continue to recover from her injuries “for her entire life,” although she has returned home after a lengthy hospital stay. Hubble’s family had also pushed for statewide legislation regarding bus safety but a bill requested by Rep. Frank Garner (R-Kalispell) to revise bus safety laws was never drafted during this Legislative session.
In open court on March 25, Judge Wilson read the stipulated facts submitted by all parties, a document created through mediation that paints a murky picture of what happened in the moments leading up to the accident. Berliner was one of two cars approaching the bus from the opposite direction on U.S. Highway 93 and the car in front of her made no attempt to stop, speeding past the bus with its lights activated. When that happened, the bus driver prevented several children from leaving the bus, either by closing the door or simply by telling them to wait. If the bus driver had closed the door it would have automatically deactivated the flashing red lights on the bus, and a man driving behind the bus said he did see the door close as the children tried to leave. The bus driver claimed she did not close the door.
An expert who reviewed the case believed the testimony of the man driving behind the bus because it was “most consistent” and determined the bus driver was at fault for the accident. Berliner’s car was traveling between 25 and 30 miles per hour when the crash occurred, well below the posted 70 mile per hour speed limit, an indication that she had at least slowed considerably approaching the crash scene. Whether or not the bus driver had closed the door at some point, the red lights would have been on when the accident happened since Jordana was leaving the bus through an open door.
Prosecutors say that they would have argued that “simply the presence of a stopped school bus placed a heightened responsibility of awareness on the part of other motorists,” insinuating Berliner was at fault regardless of whether or not the red lights on the bus were turned on — or turned back on — in time for Berliner to recognize them and avoid a collision.
There is no indication Berliner was distracted by a cell phone, car radio or anything else at the time of the accident, and a blood test found nothing in her system that would have impacted her ability to drive safely.
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