The Ohio Supreme Court has rendered a decision that insurance companies from whom colleges and universities purchase liability policies that cover student-athletes while traveling and competing can in reality liable for damages sustained by the student-athletes themselves when transporting student-athletes in vehicles that are owned, borrowed or hired by the institution (Cohen, 2011).
This decision was the result of litigation that came about following a well-publicized accident that occurred in 2007 while the Bluffton College (OH) baseball team was traveling to a tournament in Florida. The driver of the bus unfortunately took an Atlanta freeway exit ramp that he apparently thought was a carpool lane, sending the bus plunging to the highway below. The driver’s company has already paid $5 million in damages and the state of Georgia has paid out $3 million in claims related to the crash. (Cohen, 2011).
The extent to which colleges and universities will be held liable for transporting student-athletes cannot be assessed easily at this point. Certainly, if negligence is involved in the poor maintenance of a university vehicle or if a university employee is not a qualified driver or drives while under the influence, the university should be held to an appropriate measure of liability. However, if schools are to be held responsible for contracted or hired bus companies and their employees, it will have serious consequences on the prospects for team travel in the future.
The insurance companies in the Bluffton College case argued unsuccessfully that the intent of the policies was to provide liability coverage for third party claims against student-athletes and employees of the college who may have committed negligent acts that resulted in damages. The Ohio Supreme Court in effect made new law by expanding the covered class of claimants who could bring damage claims.
There are many questions that need to be asked. Does the mode of travel matter when assessing liability? Will schools be held liable if an accident occurs in an airplane? This is another problem that college athletic administrators now have to contend with when planning travel and budgets.
Craig Bogar, Ed.D.
Dr. Bogar is the Assistant Dean of Academic Administration and Chair of Sports Studies for the United States Sports Academy. He has served as director of athletics for the University of Mobile and Loyola University of New Orleans, and has coached track and swimming.
Cohen, A. (2011). Legal Action. Athletic Business. February 2011, p. 22.