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Published: Tuesday, 12/28/2010

Ohio Supreme Court rules Bluffton University's insurance policies extend to bus-crash victims

COLUMBUS -- After a lengthy legal battle focusing on legal definitions, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled Tuesday that Bluffton University's insurance policies extend to the victims of a 2007 bus crash that killed seven people, including five members of the university's baseball team.

The 5-2 ruling provides up to $21 million more in insurance money to pay claims to those impacted by the March 2, 2007, crash on a Georgia highway.

In a 7-page opinion written by Justice Paul Pfeifer, the high court ruled that the chartered bus and its driver were insured under the university's many policies.

"The [insurance companies] contend that they never intended to provide coverage for someone like [driver Jerome] Niemeyer, whom they consider an unforeseen third party. We consider this contention disingenuous," the justice wrote. "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."

The insurance companies had argued they were not financially liable because the university did not own the bus. They also claimed that it was the bus company that was responsible for the driver, and not the university.

The position was one with which two lower courts agreed.

But the state's highest court said the driver was in fact covered under the school's insurance because the university hired the bus and had so in turn granted permission to the driver.

The ruling means that those who have suffered injuries are now entitled to move forward, said Toledo attorney Steven R. Smith, who argued the case on behalf of the estate of David Betts.”

Mr. Betts was among the ballplayers killed when the bus driver apparently mistook an I-75 exit ramp near Atlanta for the continuation of a high-occupancy vehicle lane at about 5:38 a.m. on March 2, 2007.

The bus exited the highway at an estimated 65 miles per hour, crossed a street intersection at the top of the ramp, struck a barrier on the far side, flipped over the barrier, and landed 19 feet below back on the highway.

In addition to Mr. Betts, Bluffton students Tyler Williams and Scott Harmon of Lima, Cody Holp of Arcanum, and Zach Arend of Oakwood were killed immediately or died soon after the crash.

Also killed were bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer, and his wife, Jean, of Columbus Grove.

Twenty-eight other players and team staff members were injured, seven of them seriously.

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