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State Supreme Court rules against BNSF in Springfield car wreck suit

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The Missouri Supreme Court on July 3 ruled against BNSF Railway Co. and its insurer, Old Republic Insurance Co., in a 2009 crash involving a company-owned vehicle.

The state’s top court voted to vacate an earlier judgment by Greene County Circuit Court and remand it back to the local court for future proceedings, according to court documents.

Through a suit, Ricky Griffitts sought $1.5 million after being rear-ended by former BNSF employee James Campbell, who was intoxicated at the time of the collision in Springfield near a Ruby Tuesday on North Glenstone Avenue. Subsequent testing found Campbell’s blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit, and after an internal investigation, BNSF fired him in April 2009 for violating company rules.

BNSF had issued Campbell a company-owned vehicle to commute between his Tennessee home and a Springfield job site. According to court documents, Campbell was not told he could not use the vehicle for personal reasons, and other employees testified to using vehicles for the same purposes. However, a BNSF rule prohibits the use or possession of alcohol “while on BNSF property, on duty or operating BNSF work equipment or vehicles.” Further, the company’s rules prohibit “the use or possession of alcoholic beverages while on duty or on company property.”

On the day of the accident, Campbell traveled from Tennessee to a Springfield motel, where he was staying near a BNSF job site. He joined other BNSF employees at a party, and after being walked back to his room by coworkers to sleep, he awoke and left the motel in the company vehicle. According to the court documents, Campbell rear-ended Griffitts’ vehicles at a traffic light, and Griffitts sustained serious injuries.

The circuit court entered a $1.5 million judgment in favor of Griffitts against Campbell, but the judgment went unsatisfied for 30 days, leading to Griffitts seeking that judgment from BNSF and Old Republic Insurance.

The circuit court ruled Campbell did not have permission to use the company vehicle at the time of the accident and therefore was not a permissive user under BNSF’s rules.

The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed.

“Because Campbell had broad, almost unfettered permission to use the company vehicle at the time of the accident, it does not matter, for purposes of insurance coverage under BNSF’s omnibus clause, that Campbell was drunk,” the Missouri Supreme court opinion reads. “Accordingly, this court holds the circuit court erroneously declared the law when it concluded Campbell’s violation of BNSF’s rules regarding vehicle operation were sufficient to preclude coverage under the omnibus clause of BNSF’s insurance policy.”

The Springfield News-Leader was first to report on the ruling.

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