Mason Zisette would be 18 now, a Mira Costa High School graduate in his freshman year at college. The Manhattan Beach teen was thinking Duke or Southern Methodist, with plans to take courses in finance.
“He was full of joy. He was exuberant,” his mother, Amy Zisette, recalls. “He woke up every day and looked for the good in the day ... He was the sweetest, kindest heart ever and was a joy for us.”
More than 1,800 people attended Mason’s funeral in 2014 following his death from a freak accident aboard a double-decker Starline Tours bus.
Severe brain injury
Attending a friend’s Sweet 16 party on July 10, 2014, Mason hit his head against the Spruce Street pedestrian bridge as he stood upstairs on the open air bus that was traveling south along the 405 Freeway in Inglewood.
Although it appeared he suffered only a bump on the head, Mason immediately lost consciousness from a severe brain injury and never awakened. His family donated his organs to others in need.
“If I had seen that bus, I would have done everything I could have to pull it over,” Mason’s mother said. “It was a bunch of teens standing up, flying down the freeway, and that just shouldn’t have ever been the case.”
Two weeks ago, concluding a lengthy civil trial in Compton Superior Court, jurors found the bus company and birthday girl’s parents primarily responsible for Mason’s death. The panel awarded $26 million to the Zisettes, an amount believed to be the largest jury verdict ever awarded in California for the wrongful death of a minor child, said Victor George, the Zisettes’ attorney.
The jury found the bus company 70 percent at fault for what happened; the girl’s parents, Jolie and Jason Schlossberg, 25 percent to blame; and Mason 5 percent responsible for his own demise.
Occasionally wiping tears from her eyes in a recent interview, Mason’s mother said the money cannot bring her son back, so she plans to put it to use, working with legislators to change laws to improve bus safety, especially following a recent school bus crash in Tennessee in which six children died.
“I think with this verdict, we’ve been given a voice and it’s a powerful voice,” Zisette said. “There are just so many things where children are involved and children are vulnerable, where there are not laws in place, there’s not adequate safety in place.”
Wrongful death claim
The claim in Zisette’s wrongful death lawsuit was fairly simple: What happened to their son should never have happened. The adults on board—a bus driver, tour guide and the Schlossbergs—never took any safety precautions to protect the 35 teenagers on board, like telling them to sit down and put on seat belts. Instead, the Zisettes claimed, Jolie Schlossberg provided vodka to the teenagers, and the bus employees allowed them to drink and dance upstairs while traveling along the freeway.
Starline’s defense team argued Mason was to blame. He drank three beers before getting on board, carried an Arrowhead water bottle containing vodka and a bottle of Fireball whiskey aboard, and stood high on an 18-inch riser at the front of the bus.
“These kids texted back and forth and decided they were all going to bring alcohol,” said attorney Lisa Collinson, one of the Starline defense team.
Tatum Schlossberg’s Sweet 16 celebration began about 3 p.m. that summer day. Tatum sent text messages to her mostly 16-year-old friends to invite them. The five-hour bus trip to Hollywood would begin and end at her house on 10th Street, George said.
Mason’s mother said she knew the Schlossbergs were “taking the kids for a Hollywood tour,” but no other details about the party.
“On that day, I said, ‘Be safe. I love you,’” Zisette said. “My last words were ‘I love you’ to him. He had a really deep voice and he said, ‘I love you, mom.’ That’s my last little memory.”
The bus headed into Hollywood, traveling only on surface streets from 3-7 p.m., George said. In Hollywood, attorneys said, Jolie Schlossberg purchased six flasks of Smirnoff vodka and gave them to her daughter, telling her daughter to “spread them around.”
Michael Schonbuch, who represented Starline, said none of the teenagers aboard the bus could testify that they saw Mason drink the vodka, but his blood-alcohol level in the hospital registered 0.118 percent, above the 0.08 percent measure where it is illegal to drive in California. At 16, five years under the legal age for drinking, Mason’s blood-alcohol level should have measured zero.
The coroner’s office measured the level at 0.107, George said.
Bus enters freeway
About 7 p.m., after a trip to Pink’s Hot Dogs and an ice cream shop where they ate cookies and sang “Happy Birthday,” the bus entered the southbound 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles. As the bus made its way toward the South Bay, music was broadcast over the bus’ loudspeaker system. The tour guide, Mike Sonksen, and the Schlossbergs remained downstairs with the bus driver, George said.
Upstairs, Mason and other teens stood, danced and partied. Seat belts on the open air seats went unused.
“An eyewitness driving next to the Starline bus on the 405 Freeway testified she saw the kids standing and dancing on the upper deck for 15 minutes before the accident,” George said. “The kids were so loud that she could hear them yelling and singing two lanes away with her car windows rolled up."
The bus, George said, stood at 13.3 feet tall. Some of the overpasses were as low as 15 feet 1 inch. Mason, at 5 feet, 11 inches tall, climbed onto an 18-inch riser toward the front of the bus that put him above the vehicle’s “safety envelope,” George said.
The bus moved safely under overpasses at Manchester and Hillcrest boulevards, although the clearance was close.
“They all ducked and they said, ‘Whoa,’” Schonbuch said.
Seven seconds later, as Mason faced backward on the bus, his head hit the next bridge. The bridge hit the top two inches of the back of his head.
His stunned friends carried him downstairs as the bus pulled over at El Segundo Boulevard. He died two days later.
Mason left behind his grieving parents and younger siblings, Caroline, Johnny and Katherine.
Days later, American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach filled with mourners, the attendance second only to the Jan. 3, 1994, funeral for Manhattan Beach police Officer Martin Ganz, his department’s only officer shot to death on duty.
Hundreds more people honored Mason with a “paddle out” off Manhattan Beach, linking hands while on surfboards to remember the junior lifeguard and fellow surfer, who also played tennis for his high school’s varsity team.
“He was just a good kid,” his mother said. “I can’t tell you how amazing he is.”
The Zisettes filed their lawsuit in January 2015, and the trial finally began in September.
George argued the bus driver and tour guide ignored safety and what was happening up top. Instead, they blasted music over the loudspeaker system that promoted the upstairs dancing. The tour guide, along with the Schlossbergs, stayed on the bottom level.
“All four adults were aware that the kids on top of the bus were standing while on the 405 Freeway,” George said. “Yet all four adults never went upstairs to tell the kids to sit down or use seat belts.”
The driver, Jose Curiel, had worked for Starline for three months, George said. Curiel testified he had never driven a double-decker bus before his job at Starline and had never taken it onto the 405.
Curiel testified it was the tour guide’s responsibility to deal with safety on the upper deck and that his Starline bosses never told him he had to provide safety instructions to his passengers. Sonksen testified that safety was the bus driver’s job, not his, and that he had never received any safety training, George said.
Sonksen said he had no idea the upper deck had seat belts until after Mason was killed, George said.
On the other side, Starline’s attorneys tried to convince jurors that Mason used “bad judgment” that resulted in his own death, Schonbuch said.
“We had a 16-year-old who was drinking alcohol, and he had consumed alcohol in the past, and he had been disciplined on numerous occasions in the past for drinking alcohol,” Schonbuch said. “On this day, according to the testimony, he sent a text to one of his friends saying they are going to pick up some alcohol and drink before they got on the bus.”
Schonbuch said teenagers testified that Mason drank three beers in 30 minutes before getting on the bus. They testified Mason drank his vodka, along with blue Bacardi rum and Fireball whisky, Schonbuch said.
“We were arguing that at 16 years old, you should not be drinking, and that it affects your judgment and your good decision-making,” Schonbuch said.
Starline attorneys also blamed the Schlossbergs for providing alcohol to teenagers and not supervising them in the rolling vehicle.
“They were supposed to be chaperoning these kids,” Schonbuch said.
George and the Schlossbergs’ attorney, Nicole Whyte, however, argued the alcohol was not to blame.
“The bus company tried to make it all about the alcohol,” Whyte said. “This was really about the bus company’s wrongdoing. They should have made safety announcements.”
Whyte said the bus never should have entered the freeway or provided music. The music, she said, created a “pack mentality,” where the teens all got up to dance. And, she said, Mason was tall and stood on the riser.
“That’s what 16-year-old boys do,” Whyte said. “This would have happened even if none of these kids had been drinking.”
George called the alcohol claim a “red herring.”
George clinched the case, the attorneys said, with testimony from Lauren Guerra, a woman who was injured in Los Angeles while attending a Halloween party aboard a Starline Tours bus on Oct. 26, 2013. Guerra, standing on the upper deck, was hit with a tree branch, suffering a fractured eye socket.
George argued Starline did nothing after the incident to improve safety. Nine months later, Mason was dead.
Jurors spent about 2 1/2 days calculating $26 million for the loss of past and future love.
Mason’s mother said the money cannot replace her son. She hopes the verdict will change the bus industry and save lives.
Zisette said her family will work in her son’s name to improve hiring practices and background checks for bus employees, and create laws mandating the use of seat belts and improving overall safe driving procedures.
“What happened to our son should never had happened and we will do everything we can to save other families from suffering the same kind of immeasurable loss,” she said. “The jury rendered such a strong message to the defendants and, hopefully, others in the transportation industry that things need to drastically improve. “
Since Mason’s death, Schonbuch said, Starline does not allow alcohol on its buses at any time, has placed stickers on them warning passengers to stay seated, and requires security guards to work on the top deck of every bus.