By Timothy Liam Epstein, Esq.
In Regan v. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co., 2007 Ill. App. LEXIS 894 (1st Dist. Aug. 17, 2007), the Appellate Court of Illinois affirmed the trial court, which granted summary judgment to a collegiate baseball player who sued Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company after being paralyzed while diving into the ocean during a spring break baseball trip in March 2002.
Specifically, the Court found that the school’s insurance policy covered the plaintiff’s injury because the injury occurred during the school trip, and the plaintiff was complying with the rules imposed by the St. Ambrose University baseball team’s coaching staff when injured.
The St. Ambrose University baseball team carried catastrophic athletic injury insurance as required by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The baseball team traveled from Midway Airport in Chicago, Illinois, to Miami to participate in the Homestead Challenge in Homestead, Florida. Players were responsible for their own airfare, hotel and food expenses during the trip, but the University paid for the players’ transportation to and from the airports, the baseball games and the cost of entering the tournament. To raise the necessary funds, the players received money from pledges and sponsors. The players in turn handed the money over to the coach who controlled the funds. The funds were then used to pay for the team’s airfare, hotel and meal expenses during the trip. Upon arrival in Florida, the coaches explained to the players the rules in effect for the entire trip as well as the consequences for breaking said rules. One such rule allowed the players to walk in the area around the hotel, including out onto the beach, without notifying anyone. St. Ambrose was scheduled to play baseball games on March 10, 11, 12 and 14-17; March 13 was their “day off.”
On March 13, 2002, the plaintiff and another teammate went to the beach adjacent to the hotel. The plaintiff ran into the ocean diving headfirst into a wave, hitting his head on a concealed sandbar, and was instantly paralyzed. Thereafter, the insurance company denied coverage for the accident, and refused to pay the plaintiff’s claim.
The Mutual of Omaha policy insured the team for injuries that occurred during “covered travel.”
“‘Covered Travel’ means team or group travel by participants in a Covered Event:
(a) directly to or from a Covered Event;
(b) authorized and paid for or reimbursed by the Sponsoring Organization; and
(c) supervised by staff members or a designated representative of the Sponsoring Organization.
Covered Travel begins with departing from the meeting place for such travel and ends upon the release of the Insured from the Sponsoring Organizations supervision.”
The Court concluded that each subsection of the policy was satisfied. Throughout its analysis, the Court gives weight to the provision that “Covered Travel begins with departing from the meeting place for such travel and ends upon the release of the Insured from the Sponsoring Organizations supervision.”
The Court began by rejecting the defendant’s narrow reading of “travel,” which would only include transportation directly to or from a game or practice. Instead, travel “entails being away from home for a period of time and includes meals and lodging.” Furthermore, the plaintiff’s stay in the hotel and use of the facilities and beach “were all part and parcel of his travel directly to the remainder of the games on the Florida trip.” By reading “travel” broadly the Court concluded that the plaintiff satisfied subsection (a) of the insurance policy.
Subsection (b) of the insurance policy requires the “Covered Travel” “be authorized and paid for or reimbursed by the Sponsoring Organization.” The court found this subsection was satisfied because the players were not in control of the money they raised to cover their trip expenses. Instead, the coach had possession of all the money and used it to secure group rates and pay for the players expenses. Furthermore, the University paid for travel to and from the airports, the games and paid the tournament entry fee.
Subsection (c) requires that the players be “supervised by staff members or a designated representative of the Sponsoring Organization.” While supervision is not defined, the Court was guided by the wording following subsection (c) that reads: “Covered Travel begins with departing from the meeting place for such travel and ends upon the release of the Insured from the Sponsoring Organizations supervision.” From this, the Court was able to conclude that the players were supervised continuously from the beginning to the end of the travel. Throughout the entire trip, the “players were subject to the coaches’ directions as to where they ate, where they slept and where they went outside of the baseball fields or the hotel and area immediately around it.” While the players had more freedom during the “off day,” they were still obligated to follow the rules originally imposed at the beginning of the trip. As the players were subject to the team rules from the beginning of the trip until the end, the players were under supervision during the entire trip. Importantly, the plaintiff was complying with the team rules when injured.
While this ruling is certainly a victory for the student-athlete in this matter (Brendan Regan) and St. Ambrose by obtaining coverage for this loss, the implications are not as clear. For similarly written policies (this was a policy issued to St. Ambrose under the NAIA catastrophic injury insurance program), the Appellate Court of Illinois’ broad interpretation of what is covered under such a policy is much more expansive than the insurer intended, which will likely lead to more specific policy language to exclude these non-playing, recreational events in the future. Such a change may lead to further exposure to student-athletes, team staff, and schools in the future.
With the expansion of team travel from the Los Angeles City College Cubs to the UCLA Bruins, the potential for coverage disputes under such insurance policies varies as the amount and diversity of team events during such travel expands. Sports insurers would be wise to more aggressively investigate what those events might be during team travel, and what level of supervision will take place during said events, thereafter negotiating policy language accordingly with the individual insureds. Similarly, schools need to make sure that individual coaches and team staff are aware of the language in these policies and make sure that team itineraries match as closely as possible so as not to jeopardize coverage for such potentially large losses. Finally, student-athletes, or more likely parents and guardians of student-athletes, need to be aware that even though a student-athlete may be on a team trip, there may not be coverage for an injury while on the trip if the triggering event is outside the scope of the respective policy, and as such, check for appropriate levels of coverage under other personal student-athlete or household policies.
Timothy Liam Epstein (Chicago, IL) has a Sports Law practice at SmithAmundsen LLC, focusing on the litigation needs of players, coaches, teams, and schools. Tim was recently named the Vice-Chair of DRI’s Sports Law Special Litigation Group. He thanks his law clerk, Justin Kaplan, for his research on this piece.