The family of Cherese Laulhere, the 21-year-old daughter of a well-known Whittier businessman, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Institute for Shipboard Education and the University of Pittsburgh in connection with her death in a bus crash in India. A senior UCLA geography major, Cherese and three other American college students in the Semester at Sea program were killed in March 1996 when the bus they were riding in creened off a village road into a ditch near the Taj Mahal, outside of New Delhi, India.
Pittsburgh attorney Charles Evans, representing the Laulhere's in the suit against the program and the university, as well as other families, said organizers were negligent in their care of the 550 students.
"When you take on passengers, you take on the highest duty of care, which means you protect them," he said.
Attorney Jack Lillis, representing the Institute of Shipboard Education and the University of Pittsburgh, denies his clients were negligent.
"We don't think that it was an unsafe situation," he said.
Evans said program officials didn't make sure the tour guides hired for the India portion of the trip were qualified. While the itinerary stated that the students would be flying to the Taj Mahal, they were forced to travel by bus when the guide couldn't get plane tickets, Evans said.
"We believe the single most dangerous thing to do in India is to travel at night by bus," he said, citing obstacles of people and animals walking on the road, and lack of lighting or speed-limit enforcement.
Cherese's parents, Chris and Larry Laulhere, said they didn't find out the details of the crash and the fact that their daughter had traveled by bus instead of by plane until they began pursuing the lawsuit.
"It's such a horrible, senseless tragedy that should never have happened," said Chris Laulhere.
Evans said Semester at Sea officials knew about the change in itinerary two weeks before the bus trip, but didn't tell the students, possibly for fear some would demand a refund.
In addition to the dangerous road conditions, the bus driver may not have slept for 30 hours prior to the trip, Evans said.
"The (program) hire the wrong people who couldn't deliver and hired a bad bus company with a sleepy driver," he said. "They don't pay attention to the details."
Lillis said program officials didn't inform the students in advance of the bus situation because "it was treated as a normal, appropriate, operational change."
"People travel on this road 24 hours a day," he said of the paved, two-lane, Indian federal highway.
According to Lillis, the Semester at Sea program adheres to U.S. Department of State guidelines when it comes to foreign travel. At the time of the accident, there was no warning against nighttime travel in India by bus, he said.
However, the State Department issued a travel advisory several months later - a result of the bus accident, he said.
"Now, (students) are no longer traveling by motor coach at night," Lillis said.
Chris Laulhere said her family isn't suing for the money - it's suing for the lives of other students like Cherese. She said, as a parent, she would want to know about safety issues before sending a son or daughter on the trip.
"We're trying to get as much exposure as we can," she said. "If it can save one child from going and losing his or her life, this is important."
Evans said it could be years before the case goes to trial, if it's not settled out of court.
If the Laulheres win the case, the money will be spent on establishing a scholarship in Cherese's name, said Chris Laulhere.
"It's so important that nobody ever forgets her, I want them to be able to be touched by her."
The Cherese Mari Laulhere Foundation, found on the World Wide Web at http://www.cherese.org, is a scholarship fund to help pay expenses for children who need organ transplants, Laulhere said.
"We knew it would have to be for children," she said.
Chris and Larry Laulhere decided to establish the foundation after recovering from the shock of Cherese's death and reading her diary of the first half of her trip.
"Of all the amazing things my daughter saw, one of the things that touched her the most were the children's orphanages in Africa," said Chris Laulhere.
Now living in Long Beach, Chris Laulhere grew up in Whittier and Larry Laulhere owns the Hood Corp., a pipeline and construction company on Sorenson Avenue.
Cherese planned to become a high school geography teacher; she would have graduated in June form UCLA.
Semester at Sea, accredited by the University of Pittsburgh, sends American students abroad for three months of study and travel on a converted passenger ship.
It was modeled after a program created by Whittier residents Gerald Black, a dentist, and businessman Bill Hughes in 1963, said Paul Watson, a spokesman for Semester at Sea.