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Court rules for victims, survivors

December 29, 2010

    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In a legal victory for victims’ families, Ohio’s highest court ruled Tuesday that a university’s insurance coverage extended to a charter bus that crashed in 2007, killing five student baseball players and two others.
    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.
    (Three South Adams High School graduates were involved in the 2007 Bluffton College bus crash: Will Grandlinard, Lukas Baumgartner and Tyler Sprunger.
    Baumgartner and Sprunger suffered only minor scrapes and bruises, while Grandlinard had internal injuries, along with a broken left arm and broken ribs.
    Sprunger is a 2004 graduate of South Adams while Grandlinard and Baumgartner graduated in 2006.)
    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.
    Bluffton University, 50 miles south of Toledo, has 1,150 students and is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA. It’s one of about 20 Mennonite groups in North America, all of which trace their roots to the 16th century Anabaptist movement that called for more radical reforms than those promoted by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.
 

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