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Published: Thursday, 6/26/2003

Justices deny appeal from parents who lost son


COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that a Wauseon couple cannot turn their farm-owners' policy into an auto insurance policy to collect on an accident that killed their son.

The case is one of several disputes involving uninsured or underinsured coverage that have reached the court as the industry tries to control or reverse the impact of the 1999 Scott-Pontzer case. That controversial 5-4 ruling opened the door for those injured in vehicle accidents to collect on their employers' policies, even if the accidents did not occur in company vehicles or on work time.

In this case, it was a question of whether the Scott-Pontzer reasoning could be extended to what was essentially a homeowner's policy for an accident that occurred away from home and didn't involve farm business.

Derek Burkholder of Wauseon died in 1998 after a car in which he was a passenger crashed into another vehicle. Both drivers were uninsured. Mr. Burkholder's parents, Larry and Karen, filed a claim against their German Mutual Insurance Co. farmowner's policy because it provided for motor-vehicle coverage for resident employees.

The insurance company denied their claim. Lucas County Common Pleas Court, the 6th District Court of Appeals, and now the state Supreme Court agreed with that decision.

The Burkholders had maintained that their policy didn't specify any vehicles and argued that it should be interpreted as an operator's policy, insuring a driver regardless of the vehicle he drives.

The court's unanimous ruling provides few clues as to how it may interpret other cases challenging the Scott-Pontzer decision.

Justice Maureen O'Connor, Gov. Bob Taft's former lieutenant governor, recently replaced retired Justice Andy Douglas, a Toledo Republican and author of the Scott-Pontzer ruling, on the court. Heavily backed by business and insurance interests, her election is believed to have shifted the 5-4 majority in the opposite direction. That has yet to be tested.

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