In October 2013, a deadly church bus crash in East Tennessee captured national headlines. Eight people died, including 24-year-old Trent Roberts of Powell.
Now his family is sharing his story, their heartache and mission to have a Tennessee law amended.
The say their efforts won’t change the outcome but they hope it will help others who face a tragic loss.
In a bedroom filled with memories and mementos of Trent's favorite things, his parents Cathy and Bobby share story after story of their youngest son.
“He told people when he grew up, he wanted to be like daddy. That makes you feel good,” Bobby said.
Five years ago, the Roberts’ world forever changed. Trent, his father, brother and friends were on their way back from a fishing trip traveling on Interstate 40 in Jefferson County.
A church bus heading in the opposite direction lost control when its tire blew. It careened across the median and slammed in to a semi-truck as well as the SUV Trent was riding in.
Bobby was in the car behind them and witnessed the deadly collision. He ran toward the crash looking for Trent. As he looked up, he saw Trent lying face down in the woods.
“I just put my hand on him and knelt down and said to God ‘This is our buddy, I know you will, but please take care of him.’”
Trent was one of eight people killed in the crash, including six members of a Statesville, N.C. church returning home from a music convention in Gatlinburg. More than a dozen other church members were injured.
In their grief the Roberts reached out to the mourning members of Front Street Baptist.
“We visited them in the hospital shortly after Trent’s funeral and we were able to pray with those precious people,” Cathy said.
An exhaustive investigation found a defective tire on the bus caused the crash.
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The Roberts and members of Front Street Baptist made the decision to sue the South Korean tire manufacturer, Hankook. They claimed the tire was negligently and defectively designed and manufactured. The Roberts wanted the tire off the road for good.
“If this happened to another family and we did not do anything, we would always feel we should have done something to prevent this from happening to someone else,” said Bobby.
During the lengthy legal battle, the Roberts learned a Tennessee law caps the amount of money a jury can award a family for non-economic damages in a wrongful death case at $750,000.
“You can’t quantify your child’s life on a spread sheet,” Cathy said. “We feel like that cap needs to be amended.”
The Roberts believe the amount of money that is awarded in a wrongful death case should not be dictated by a law but rather a jury that hears the evidence and testimony. Knoxville defense attorney Don Bosch says the Tennessee cap was put in place in for a reason.
“The insurance industry is trying to prevent catastrophic type verdicts, even if warranted, so they have been able to pass the legislation,” said Bosch
Tennessee is among a handful of states that caps damages in wrongful death cases. Though, in recent years several states have overturned their caps after a court ruled them unconstitutional.
“If someone were able to rule it unconstitutional, or even if a lower court ruled the cap constitutional, as has been done already in Tennessee, this is fertile ground for litigation,” Bosch said. “There is some chance it can get reversed even with a business-friendly Supreme Court that we have in Tennessee right now.”
The Roberts ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount of money. But for them it isn’t over.
“We understand why the cap is there and we support the reasoning why the cap is there, but there ought to be some balance,” Bobby said.
Cathy added, “We are the face of this tragedy. We want to continue to show the world the sufficiency of Christ even in the midst of tragedy first and foremost, but we also feel an obligation to see if Tennessee lawmakers can come long side us to help amend this law.
The Roberts have met with some state lawmakers and Lt. Governor Randy McNally. Cathy says they’re willing to recount the stories of their son’s life and tragic death and their heartache and hope for a reason.
“This is for Trent.”