Families and crash survivors have sought to bring claims against Bluffton University's insurance policies over the deadly bus accident in Atlanta. Tuesday's 5-2 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court reverses lower court rulings that had gone in favor of insurers American Alternative Insurance Corp. and Federal Insurance Co. They had argued they could not be liable because the university in northwest Ohio did not own the charter bus and did not hire the driver, who was an employee of the bus company.
The justices concluded that the bus driver was covered under the university's insurance because Bluffton hired the bus and had effectively granted the driver permission to operate it.
"Our clients ... are delighted to have the victory, delighted the Supreme Court read the insurance policy the same the way that we read the insurance policy," said Steven Smith, an attorney representing the estate of David Betts, a Bluffton player killed in the March 2, 2007, crash.
The baseball team was making an annual spring training trip to Florida when the bus flipped off a Georgia overpass and plunged 30 feet onto Interstate 75. Investigators said the bus driver thought he was staying in an HOV lane when he drove onto an elevated ramp just north of Atlanta, plowing through a stop sign at highway speed.
The driver and his wife were killed, along with the five student athletes. Twenty-eight others were injured.
The bus company had $5 million worth of coverage, which was insufficient to pay all the claims resulting from the crash, said Smith and Jim Yavorcik, an attorney representing a Bluffton teammate who was severely injured. The Ohio Supreme Court ruling has the potential to provide up to $21 million in additional coverage, the attorneys said.
"But you have to remember this whole thing arose out of tragic circumstances, so no amount of money compensation can replace the loss these families have suffered," Smith said.
Lawyers for Federal Insurance Co. were reviewing the decision and had no further comment Tuesday, attorney Tim Fitzgerald said. Messages also were left for lawyers representing American Alternative Insurance.
The two Supreme Court justices who were not part of the majority opinion said Bluffton had not "hired" the bus because the bus company selected the vehicle and employed the driver.
"The majority's narrow interpretation expands the scope of coverage beyond what the parties to the insurance policy intended," Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote in her dissent.