SAN JOSE, Calif. (MCT) — The operator of a limousine “party bus” involved in a fatal accident Friday on California State Highway 17 was fined for violations in 2010, but passed an inspection in March, state regulators say.
Natasha Noland, 25, died near Los Gatos after she and another woman somehow toppled out of the moving bus after the two had been fighting and Noland was run over by the bus, California Highway Patrol officers said.
The other woman, a 20-year-old Felton resident, has been treated and released from the hospital, the CHP said. Authorities have declined to release her name.
Officers say there were 12 to 15 people in the bus, all inebriated, and that several fled from officers.
Party Bus of Santa Cruz, Calif., through parent company Jon Reno St. James LLC, has a license issued by the state Public Utilities Commission to carry up to 15 passengers.
In 2010, the company was fined $4,500 for a number of violations, including operating with a suspended license, failing to maintain worker’s compensation insurance, failing to drug test employees and enroll them in the state Controlled Substance and Alcohol Testing Certification program, failing to enroll drivers in the DMV Employer Pull Notice program and failing to maintain waybills as required.
Under PUC orders, those waybills are to be drawn up for each trip, and include the name of the person hiring the bus, number or persons in the group, destination and at least one member of the traveling party.
It is not known why Party Bus of Santa Cruz’s license was suspended, but a CHP department that inspects the buses said the company did not pass its inspection in 2009.
The CHP’s Motor Carrier Safety Unit conducts yearly inspections of buses and has inspected Party Bus of Santa Cruz four times since 2009, most recently in March, CHP inspector Bob Black said. Inspectors have not found any problems with the company’s four vehicles recently and have not received any complaints that they were unsafe, Black said.
But in 2009, they were found lax in two regards — employees had failed to complete daily logs of bus inspections and the company failed to enroll all its drivers in a DMV program that provides periodic reports of driving records, he said.
Monday, the Santa Cruz Sentinel verified that the company’s liability insurance was active. St. James also operates Airport Express and A1 Executive Transportation, state records show.
An email to the company was not returned Monday.
CHP investigators say it will take weeks to decipher what happened just before midnight Friday. Officer D.J. Sarabia called the accident shocking and said it’s the first significant problem with a party bus he has seen in his 18 years with the agency.
Officers have seized the black, 1998 Ford model E-350 or E-450 and are re-contacting the 12 to 15 people believed to have been onboard, Sarabia said. All but the driver were inebriated, Sarabia said.
It is not yet know how the door opened, he said.
“I know our investigators are out talking to everyone,” he said. “It’s going to be a long and involved process. It was so chaotic out there.
Everyone is shaking their head and saying, ‘What happened?’”
Noland is the daughter of Pacific Wave surf shop owners Todd and Sue Noland, and she worked at the store as a buyer. The Felton woman has cooperated with officers since the accident, though she was inebriated and distraught initially, Sarabia said.
Others in the bus fled, but some were cooperative later, he said. Two men were arrested.
Bryan Jeffrey Larson, 33, of Santa Cruz, identified as Noland’s boyfriend, was arrested after he allegedly kicked an officer several times and kicked out the window of a patrol car. Hunter John Richardson, 19, of Santa Cruz, was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and obstructing officers.
Officers suspect several people fled because they were underage and had been drinking; there were no obvious signs of drug use on the bus, Sarabia said. It’s unclear how many people onboard were under 21. The driver was found not to be impaired and has a valid Class B license, he said.
“I feel so bad for that lady; I don’t know what she could have done,” Sarabia said.
According to the PUC’s rules for alcohol in limousines, minors are not allowed to drink in the vehicles and if they do, the driver is required to return the customer to the pickup location and terminate the contract.
Party buses have become a growing fixture in the San Francisco Bay Area, ferrying groups of teenagers and adults to nightclubs and bars in big-city hot spots and suburban clubs, weddings and parties. Some buses cater to bachelor or birthday parties while others bring together strangers for a pub crawl or ride to a concert.
Promoted as a safe way to party and travel without getting behind the wheel, the buses recently have drawn criticism on two fronts — for turning a blind eye to teenagers drinking on board and for dumping loads of rowdy, hard-drinking party-goers on specific nightclubs or suburban neighborhoods that don’t want them.
Today’s party bus has evolved from the “prom limousine” of the 1980s, when mischievous teenagers found ways to rent the stretched-out, luxury cars and drink liquor undetected behind dark tinted windows.
Finally catching on, the state stiffened the rules on limousine companies but left the buses alone.
“Booze cruises, a party on wheels,” is how Democratic state Assemblyman Jerry Hill describes them. He has authored a bill to rein in the party bus companies and make them assume responsibility for their passengers, including minors drinking on board.
Hill sought to close the loopholes between party buses and limousines after teenager Brett Studebaker was killed in a car crash two years ago after leaving a party bus on Highway 101 near San Mateo after a night of heavy drinking.
The “Studebaker Law” would require party bus companies and their drivers to assume responsibility for their passengers, ensuring minors do not drink onboard or board the bus intoxicated. If minors are onboard, a chaperone age 25 or older must be on the bus to make sure they don’t drink.
“These incidents caused me to say, ‘Why could these things be happening?’” Hill said Monday. “When these tragedies occurred a couple of years ago, what this new legislation hoped to do was to close that loophole and provide the same restrictions on buses as it does to limousines.”
Although the Greater California Livery Association supports Hill’s legislation, the largest party bus operator in the Bay Area does not.
“He’s flat out wrong to put the burden on the company and not on the parents or the people who signed the contract,” said Mike Lee, a co-owner of Partybus.com. The San Francisco-based company drives people to hotspots in the region’s big cities and from the cities to the new boutique downtowns in suburbs like Campbell and Walnut Creek.
While Hill’s proposal is up for a vote soon, it wouldn’t go into effect until next year, too late to have been enforced on the bus from which Noland fell to her death.
(Sentinel staff reporter Jason Hoppin, San Jose Mercury News reporters Joe Rodriguez and Molly Vorwerck and Mercury News researcher Leigh Poitinger contributed to this report.)