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Ohio Supreme Court rules that Bluffton University baseball team members in bus crash can reach school’s liability coverage

In my truck and bus accident law practice in Atlanta, one of the more newsworthy cases in which I have participated arose from the crash of the Bluffton Univeristy tour buss in Atlanta in 2007. In predawn darkness, a bus took a confusingly marked exit ramp and crashed off a bridge, killing the bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer, his wife, and five Bluffton University baseball team members and injuring other passengers. I have been local counsel for ten of the team members.

After the Georgia DOT and the bus company’s insurer paid their coverage limits, litigation was initiated in Ohio seeking to have the university’s liability insurance apply to the bus company and driver.

Recently, teh Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a driver of a rented bus is covered under a university’s auto insurance policy.

The representative parties for our team in Ohio argued that Niemeyer was an insured because he drove a bus, with Bluffton’s permission, that Bluffton hired. The university’s insurers each filed a declaratory judgment action, arguing that the university did not hire but rather contracted for transportation services, making Niemeyer an independent contractor and unforeseen third party they did not intend to cover.

In a 5-2 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, reversing the lower court’s ruling. Considering the plain meaning of “hire” and “permission,” the court held that Niemeyer was an insured.

Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote for the majority, “We are not persuaded by the contention that the driver of a bus that Bluffton rented from a company in the business of renting buses is an unforeseen third party, when a clause in the insurance policy covers ‘anyone else’ driving a hired auto.” He added, “Whether the insurance company intended the clause to apply is immaterial because the language of the policy supports a conclusion that Niemeyer is an insured.”

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton dissented, writing that,. “Today’s opinion unreasonably extends coverage to a third party and effectively opens the door for similar claims under other scenarios because the omnibus clause is standard in many insurance policies.”

This opens the door for additional compensation for injured members of the baseball team.

Ken Shigley is an Atlanta, Georgia, trial attorney. He has been designated a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), one of the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend), and rated “AV Preeminent” by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory. In addition, he is author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (West, 2010), a Certified Civil Trial Attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, and currently president-elect of the 42,000 member State Bar of Georgia. He has extensive experience in litigation and trial of cases involving serious personal injury, wrongful death, trucking accidents, automobile accidents, products liability, premises liability, and insurance. Mr. Shigley is a graduate of Furman University and Emory University Law School. This blog post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.

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