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No jail time for driver who hit schoolgirl

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | June 10, 2021 4:18 PM

A Eureka woman who struck and nearly killed a little girl while driving on U.S. 93 near Whitefish more than 18 months ago will serve no jail time.

Patricia Ann Berliner, 67, who entered a guilty by Alford plea on one felony count of child endangerment to Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson in March, received a six-year deferred sentence Thursday afternoon. An Alford plea means Berliner did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence for a conviction if the case went to trial.

Berliner also must perform 100 hours of community service and pay $900 in fees related to the case. Berliner’s court-appointed attorney, Alisha Rapkoc, argued the fees be waived because of an inability to pay.

But Wilson was unmoved by the arguments Rapkoch made after he determined Berliner’s worth to be at least $100,000.

Part of Thursday’s hearing was Berliner’s criminal history, which included citations for speeding, a right-of-way violation and driving without a valid license.

Law enforcement officials said Berliner was driving between 25 and 40 mph when she failed to stop for a school bus and struck 8-year-old Jordana Hubble on 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.

Jordana’s mother, Veronica “Vo” Hubble, spoke tearfully at times of the effects of the tragedy on her child and their entire family, as well as her belief Berliner still doesn’t understand the full ramifications.

“I struggle with the overall feeling that she knows what she did, but she still doesn’t get it in terms of how much different my daughter’s life will be,” Hubble said. “It’s goning to be difficult for Jordana for the rest of her life. She’s a fighter and very determined, but it's a real struggle watching her struggle.”

Hubble said Jordana is walking and talking now, but added, “it’s not what you expect from an 8-year-old, though,” Veronica said.

The mother of three, including two of Jordana’s siblings who were at the bus stop when she was struck, also spoke of her daughter’s difficult recovery.

“She spent two months in Montana Children’s Hospital and seven months in Houston. She had a collapsed lung, pneumonia, infections, she had to be fed by a tube in her stomach and she still takes her medications through a tube in her stomach.

“She hates the medicine procedure every day and she’s said she hates her life,” Veronica said. “I don’t hate you, but I don’t forgive you for changing my daughter’s life forever.”

Berliner also took the stand to share what she has experienced since the incident.

“I’d like to answer some of Jordan’s mother’s concerns that are troubling her,” Berliner said. “She says I don’t understand what happened, but I know she was terribly hurt.

“She also says I don’t have feelings, but it’s not true. I went through trauma, too. Every day I think about the accident and I’m shocked I participated in this horrible, horrible incident,” Berliner said. “I have a lot of physical suffering, but I don’t want to make this all about me. Jordana will have to live with this the rest of her life.

“But I have nausea and migraines. If the opportunity exists for me to be part of changing laws I would and if I can do anything for her and her family, I would.”

Judge Wilson then said he wasn’t sure if he had heard an apology and gave Berliner an opportunity to do so.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Berliner said. “I’m greatly sorry and I’m sorry this has put Jordana and her family in the position they’re in.

“As a child at 2, I suffered from immense abuse from within my family unit and it’s altered my life, so I know what it’s like to have something follow me all my life.”

DURING THE March 25 plea 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.

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 stated 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.

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.”

Judge 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.

Scott Shindledecker may be reached at sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com or 406-758-4441.

photo

Veronica "Vo" Hubble, mother of Jordana, wipes away tears as she speaks during a sentencing hearing for Patricia Berliner in Flathead County District Court in Kalispell on Thursday, June 10. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)