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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2011

Keeping students safe

THE Ohio Supreme Court has sent an important message: Insurers are responsible for the plain language of the policies they issue.

On March 2, 2007, seven people were killed when a charter bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team crashed on I-75 in Atlanta. The driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a high-occupancy vehicle lane, flipped over a barrier, and fell 19 feet to the highway.

Five Bluffton students, the driver, and his wife died. Dozens of students and coaches were injured.

The State of Georgia paid survivors and their families $3 million, the maximum allowed under that state's laws. The bus company paid $5 million. But Bluffton's insurance company claimed it wasn't liable because a driver of a vehicle hired by a university is "an unforeseen third party."

Two lower courts in Ohio agreed. But last week, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. In his majority opinion, Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote that because Bluffton University had hired the bus, the driver was included in the insurance policy that covered "anyone else" driving a hired vehicle.

The court's 5-2 decision means that as much as $21 million more in insurance money will be available to pay claims by the survivors of the crash and the families of those who were killed. More important, it establishes the principle that the insurance liability of colleges - and perhaps high schools - extends to buses or other vehicles they "own, hire, or borrow."

Schools, and especially athletic departments, won't be happy about the decision, which still may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Insurance companies could increase premium costs to pay for their theoretically greater risk, or rewrite policies to exclude this type of loss.

They should do neither.

This is a good ruling that puts pressure on schools to pay more attention to safety when students make school-sponsored trips. Charter companies, in turn, will guard more closely against accidents such as the one that devastated Bluffton University.

This greater emphasis on safety will be worth more than insurance payouts to the parents of athletes and other students who travel to games and other events.

It may even provide some consolation to the families that were torn apart by what happened in Atlanta nearly four years ago.



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