Bluffton bus crash: Judge removes insurers from lawsuit

BLUFFTON – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown used Monday’s two-year anniversary of the Bluffton University bus crash in Atlanta to push for stronger safety legislation for motorcoaches.

The anniversary also brought news of an Allen County court ruling that the two insurance companies for the school cannot be held liable for the accident.

The fatal crash on Interstate 75 in Atlanta in 2007 killed seven people, including five members of the school’s baseball team.

Brown and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced plans to reintroduce the safety legislation in the Senate. Companion legislation in the U.S. House is being sponsored by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

“In the two years since the Bluffton University bus crash, it has become clear that we need motorcoach safety reform and we need it now,” Brown said.

The legislation would require:

• Safety belts and stronger seating systems to ensure occupants stay in their seats during a crash.

• Anti-ejection glazing on windows to prevent passengers from being easily thrown outside the motorcoach.

• Strong, crush-resistant roofs that can withstand rollovers.

• Improved protection against fires by reducing flammability of the motorcoach interior, and better training for operators in the case of fire.

• Improved commercial driver training. Currently, no training is required by federal regulation.

• Electronic On-Board Recorders with real-time capabilities to track precise vehicle location, and recorded data not accessible to manipulation by a driver or motor carrier.

Lewis said the legislation has bipartisan support and that delaying its passage could cost lives.

“The Bluffton accident reminds us all that buses carry precious cargo – our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and grandparents,” Lewis said. “That is why we must take the steps to ensure that passengers are as safe on buses as they are in cars and require U.S. Department of Transportation to demand improved protection standards of bus manufacturers.”

Several lawsuits have been filed concerning the crash.

Judge Richard Warren, of Allen County Common Pleas Court, last week dismissed Federal Insurance Co. and American Alternative Insurance Corp. from a lawsuit filed in the crash. The companies insured the university for $20 million.

Warren said Executive Coach, not Bluffton University, was responsible for the conduct of bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer. The bus company controlled who drove the bus, not the university, the judge said in his ruling.

Furthermore, the university did not have control over Niemeyer’s employment because he was an employee of the bus company, Warren said.

Because Niemeyer was an employee of the bus company the university was not responsible for his actions and bears no liability, the judge said.

Niemeyer was driving a bus for Executive Coach on March 2, 2007, taking the Bluffton University baseball team to a tournament in Florida. He drove the bus up a left-lane exit ramp that feeds a bridge over Interstate 75 in Atlanta. The bus went off the bridge and landed on the interstate below.

Niemeyer and his wife were killed along with the five players. Numerous others on the bus were injured. Officials reviewing the crash speculated Niemeyer mistook the exit ramp for a highway lane and drove up it at full speed.

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