The Missouri Supreme Court has determined an employee that drove a company vehicle while drunk is covered under the employer’s insurance policy, regardless of company policy. The decision reverses a circuit court ruling in Greene County which sided with BNSF Railway’s contention that its rules pertaining to vehicle operation stripped coverage from an intoxicated employee who caused an accident.

The high bench, in a unanimous decision, said it’s irrelevant how the employee operated the company vehicle because BNSF had given him almost unfettered permission to use it while working away from home in Springfield. The judgment sends the lawsuit back to the lower court for further proceedings to determine if BNSF and its insurance company must pay a $1.475 million settlement to Ricky Griffitts, who was seriously injured after being rear-ended by a vehicle driven by BNSF employee James Campbell.

Campbell had driven to Springfield from his home in Tennessee the same day and had been drinking heavily while eating barbecue with coworkers at a hotel where they were staying.

He had gone to bed but woke up several hours later and climbed into the pickup truck BNSF had rented him for his out of town work.  Moments after starting to drive, Campbell slammed into a vehicle driven by Griffitts.  Campbell pleaded guilty to felony second-degree assault for causing injury and was ordered to pay Griffitts $46,000.

The collision sparked years of litigation after the 2009 incident and a series of cases that veered for a short time into federal court.  Griffitts’ third negligence lawsuit against Campbell, which resulted in the seven-figure judgment, went unsatisfied for 30 days.

At that point, Griffitts filed an “equitable garnishment” action against BNSF and its insurance company, Old Republic, to obtain the large sum of money.  The circuit court’s decision to deny Griffitts’ claim is what was overturned by the high bench in its hand down this week.

It was the third judge in the lower Greene County bench in Springfield that had rejected Griffitts and sided with BNSF and Old Republic.

Judge Jason Brown said Campbell was not allowed to use the vehicle under the policy because he had been driving a BNSF-provided vehicle in violation of the company’s rules prohibiting alcohol consumption while operating a work vehicle.

The Southern District Missouri Court of Appeals in Springfield upheld Brown’s ruling, leading to Griffitts appeal to the high bench.

Griffitts’ attorney, Daniel Molloy, argued before the Supreme Court in March that there could be disastrous results if the court accepted the BNSF and Old Republic position that insurance didn’t cover Campbell because he was drunk behind the wheel.

He applied their reasoning to a sleepy truck driver who got into a wreck after not getting the required time off. 

“If their position is accepted, then those sleepy truckers going down I-44 highway at 70 miles-per-hour, you wipe out a dozen people, then there would be no coverage for those people or to protect the sleepy driver for his negligence,” said Molloy.

He also argued the point, which was endorsed by the Supreme Court in its hand down, that Missouri’s financial responsibility law requires insurance coverage of anybody who has expressed or implied permission to use the vehicle.

Attorney Laurel Stevenson represented BNSF and Old Republic before the Supreme Court in March, where she said the lower court properly determined coverage could be denied because a drunk driving case differs from other violations of company policy.

“We have a different public policy argument here involving a drunk driver than you do in that situation,” said Stevenson.  “The trial court made that distinction.”

The Griffitts case has proved to be important enough to draw the interest of two of the main attorney groups in the state.  The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA) and the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers (MODL) filed friends of the court documents on opposite sides of the Supreme Court case.

MATA contended that Missouri law centers on whether a person driving a vehicle has permission to use the vehicle, not on whether the person has permission to operate the vehicle in a certain condition or manner.

The Supreme Court’s decision proved to be a victory for MATA over MODL, which had argued that there was no need to differentiate between the “use” and “operation” of a vehicle.

The high bench made a distinction, saying “use” involves the more broad employment of a purpose for the user, whereas the “operation” of a vehicle involves the driver’s direction and control of its mechanism while propelling it as a vehicle.

The court said, “the issue is whether Campbell’s use (as distinct from operation) of the vehicle was within the scope of permission given by BNSF and, therefore, covered under the omnibus insurance clause. This Court holds it was.”

The unanimous decision by the state Supreme court was written by Judge Paul C. Wilson.

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