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Woman enters Alford plea in case where girl was hit by car at school bus stop

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | March 25, 2021 12:15 PM

A Fortine woman accused of striking a little girl while driving on U.S. 93 near Whitefish more than a year ago entered an Alford plea in relation to the offense Thursday afternoon in Flathead County District Court.

Patricia Ann Berliner, 67, entered the plea on one felony count of child endangerment to District Court Judge Dan Wilson as she sat by her court-appointed attorney Alisha Rapkoch.

An Alford plea means Berliner did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence for a conviction if the case went to trial.

Law enforcement officials said Berliner was driving between 25 and 40 mph when she failed to stop for a school bus and struck 7-year-old Jordana Hubble Nov. 12, 2019.

Hubble, who was 6 at the time of the accident, was trying to cross the highway after returning home from Olney-Bissell School when she was struck by the vehicle.

Court documents indicate Hubble was thrown 60 feet after impact before landing in a ditch.

During Thursday’s hearing, Wilson shared information from a court document that was the result of a mediation heard by Lewis and Clark County District Judge Michael McMahon. It cast doubt on how the incident occurred and how much blame fell on Berliner and the bus driver.

According to the court filing, on Nov. 12, 2019, a part-time bus driver was driving a new 2020 model school bus that she had driven approximately four times. The driver reported she pushed a button on the bus steering wheel to activate the yellow amber lights 200 feet prior to the intersection of the accident. The bus driver stated the children were sitting down when the yellow lights came on and when the bus came to a stop at the site of the accident, she pushed a button on the steering wheel that simultaneously opened the bus door and triggered the red lights to flash on the bus and the stop sign attached to the bus to extend.

But Montana law requires a bus driver to activate the yellow amber lights approximately 500 feet before the bus stop in areas that are outside of city limits.

Then Wilson said witness testimony began to differ.

THE BUS DRIVER stated when she pushed the button to open the door she saw two different vehicles approaching the bus. She said the first vehicle had plenty of time to stop, but that she could tell it was not going to stop. She stated in an interview that she “told the two kids, stay here, don’t go, because that car is not going to stop. Jordana, at the time, was getting her backpack and coming up to the front.”

The bus driver said she did not close the door when the first vehicle blew through her stop sign and red flashing lights. Berliner’s vehicle was behind the first vehicle and according to the bus driver, appeared to be slowing down.

The children’s step-grandfather, who was driving a UPS delivery truck behind the bus, had a different recollection of events during his interviews. Trevert Adkins stated that he could see into the bus from his vehicle and that he saw his grandchildren exiting the vehicle and the accident as it occurred.

Adkins remembered the yellow lights coming on and then saw the red lights come on as well. Adkins remembered the two older children being in front and Jordana being the last person in the line to get off the bus.

“They’re all going forward up the aisle, they turn and start to make the – down the steps or whatever there, and they start gaining speed,” Adkins said. “And I bust out laughing because the bus driver slams the door shut on them and they all do what I called the ‘three stooges’ into the door bam, bam, bam”.

Adkins distinctly recalled the door being shut to prevent the children from getting hit from the first vehicle. Adkins observed a white car go blowing by the bus at this point, then the bus driver opened the door again and Jordana went running across the road and was struck by Berliner’s vehicle.

IN THE court document, there is a dispute over where the children were at the time of the accident. The driver believes the two older children crossed the road before Jordana, while Adkins believed the two older children did not cross the road and that Jordana was the only one who ran out across the road. The children also state they had not yet begun to cross the road when Jordana was struck by the vehicle.

As part of the investigation, David Rochford reviewed the evidence in this matter, the witness statements, and prepared an accident investigation report. Rochford is an accredited crash reconstructionist with over 40 years of experience investigating traffic crashes. Rockford was also a police officer for 30 years. It is expected that if this matter were to proceed to trial, Rochford would testify that the accident was caused by the bus driver.

Rochford used the statement of Adkins because it was the most consistent statement given among the witnesses. Rochford would have testified that Berliner would have seen the yellow lights on the bus, then the red lights on the bus when Berliner was reducing her speed. Then Berliner would have seen the white car pass the bus and the red lights turn off.

Rochford would have testified that when the red lights appeared the second time, Berliner would have had to try an evasive action or try to stop. Berliner could not steer to the left because of the bus and two additional children on the side of the road. Berliner could not steer to the right because she would have hit both Jordana and her father, then gone over the embankment possibly coming to a rest on top of both individuals.

ANOTHER QUESTION was raised about whether or not Berliner was under the influence of anything that would have impaired her driving abilities at the time of the crash. Berliner supplied the court with a notice she obtained from her medical doctor that indicated she was medically safe to operate a motor vehicle. Additionally, based upon the blood result in this matter, no active impairing substances were found in her blood. There was no evidence Berliner was attending to a cellphone, the car radio or some other distraction during the incident.

The Montana Highway Patrol investigation concluded the “main factor in the crash was Ms. Berliner’s gross negligence.”

Wilson then said the state would have attempted to offer evidence at trial, which included Berliner stating that she was aware that at some point prior to the collision she saw the red lights of the bus flashing. Berliner stated that under the circumstances she did not believe that she was required to stop for the bus. The state would have presented testimony that children lack

experience and awareness when crossing roadways. The state would have also offered testimony and argument that simply the presence of a stopped school bus places a heightened responsibility of awareness on the part of other motorists.

IN DECEMBER 2020, all of the parties attended a mediation session. The statements and contents of the mediation are confidential and private. However, the parties both report Berliner and the victim’s family participated in the mediation. The parties were able to talk to each other, ask questions, and say how they truly felt. At the end of the mediation, all parties, including Jordana’s family, were in agreement with the proposed resolution in this matter.

Hubble suffered a traumatic brain injury, but she has since returned home after treatment at Nexus Children’s Hospital in Houston.

According to witness statements in a charging document, Berliner allegedly said she didn’t think she had to stop because the bus was in the other lane.

Berliner faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in the Montana State Prison. Her sentencing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, June 10.