Fired Hawkins bus driver wins $96K gender discrimination lawsuit

Jeff Bobo • Aug 10, 2018 at 9:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — A former school bus driver who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit after she was fired in 2015 for leaving a child on her bus was awarded $96,830 by a Hawkins County Chancery Court jury Thursday.

Loretta Depew claimed that she was the victim of gender discrimination because a male Hawkins County school bus driver who had committed the same violation — leaving a child on his bus after an evening route a year and a half earlier — was suspended for three days, but wasn’t fired.

Under normal circumstances, Hawkins County Schools would be responsible for paying Depew’s lost wages and benefits totaling $56,830, and the school system's liability insurance provider, Tennessee Risk Management, would have covered the $40,000 in damages and attorney fees.

What the Hawkins County Board of Education didn’t find out until Thursday evening, however, is that Depew offered to settle the case Wednesday morning prior to the trial for $78,000, and Tennessee Risk Management turned down that offer without consulting with the BOE.

As a result, Tennessee Risk Management has agreed to pay $21,000 toward lost benefits and wages as well, which reduces the school system’s cost to $35,830.

BOE Chairman Bob Larkins said action on that payment will be reserved until the judgment is received by the board. Tennessee Risk Management also has 30 days to decide if it will appeal the jury’s verdict to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The jury’s decision

The jury determined that Depew’s termination on Jan. 28, 2015 by former Director of Schools Steve Starnes constituted illegal gender discrimination under the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA).

It took the jury a little more than two hours to render a decision. Depew was represented by lead counsel Link A. Gibbons of Morristown and co-counsel Herb Holcomb of Rogersville.

“Ms. Depew attempted to file a complaint of gender discrimination with Mr. Starnes on the day of her termination back in January of 2015 and was never given the chance,” Gibbons said in a written statement. “She was forced to file a lawsuit in order to be heard. We certainly appreciate the jury’s time and attention to the evidence in this matter and are very pleased with the verdict.”

Why was she fired?

On Jan. 13, 2015. a 6-year-old was left on Depew’s school bus after she finished her route. That child was later found walking down the road and was picked up by a passing neighbor, who took the child home.

Depew claimed that she inspected her bus after completing her route, but she didn’t see the child who was hiding. The school board’s position was that the child was sleeping; that Depew failed to perform a post trip inspection of her bus; and her failure to perform a post trip inspection “endangered the life of a student.”

Depew was suspended until Jan. 27, 2015, when she was informed by Starnes that she was fired.

She said she was denied an appeal, and she reminded Starnes that a male bus driver who had also left a child on his bus about a year and a half earlier had only received a three-day suspension form former Director of Schools Charlotte Britton.

A previous suspension

Depew’s only previous suspension during her eight years as a Hawkins County school bus driver occurred on May 14, 2012 after the TBI launched an investigation into the gunshot wounding of her husband at the time, former HCSO narcotics detective Brad Depew.

Brad Depew was awaiting trial on burglary and narcotics theft charges, and no charges were filed as a result of the shooting investigation.

The school board’s defense

Attorneys for the BOE argued that Loretta Depew’s termination was the result of her violating the Tennessee Highway Patrol Pupil Transportation Rules, which mandates post trip inspections to specifically look for “sleeping students.”

BOE attorneys also argued that as an at-will employee, she was subject to termination for that violation and barred from any recovery.

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