Student wins a victory 7 years after horrific bus crash

More than seven years ago, four young people were killed and 17 were injured in Cottonwood, Minn., when Olga Franco blew through a stop sign and slammed into their school bus.

She’s in prison now but a case decided at the Minnesota Supreme Court today reveals that some survivors of the crash are still paying a price.

Franco not only didn’t have a driver’s license, she wasn’t covered by the insurance on the minivan she was driving.

A special master determined that the total damages for the victims was $5,302,800. But the school bus company’s coverage for damages from an uninsured motorist didn’t come close to covering that.

In one case, that of Cody Sleiter, his $140,000 in damages was only covered for about $35,000.

So Sleiter sought additional benefits — $65,000 — under his family’s own auto insurance coverage for uninsured motorists, but American Family rejected the attempt, citing state law that Sleiter’s damages of $140,000 did not exceed the $1 million coverage available under the school bus company’s policy, even though that amount had to be split among all of those injured on the bus.

Sleiter’s family sued and lost at trial, but the Minnesota Supreme Court was asked to decide what is the amount of the coverage available: the total amount to all the victims, or the amount recovered by a single victim?

Today the court sided with Sleiter.

“The coverage available from the UIM (uninsured motorist) proceeds was inadequate to fully compensate all of the injured passengers,” Justice Alan Page wrote in his opinion (pdf). “Thus, in accidents involving a large number of injured passengers, Sleiter’s reading of ‘coverage available’ is the more natural reading because it is more consistent with the legislative purpose of preventing injured passengers from being undercompensated.”

“American Family’s interpretation, while reasonable in the context of a single-victim accident… is unreasonable in the context of accidents involving multiple injured passengers,” Page said. “American Family’s interpretation leaves victims insufficiently compensated for their injuries and unable to access the coverage limits they purchased.”

That brought a dissent from Justice David Stras, who acknowledged Sleiter’s case is “tragic” and that he and his family did not receive proper compensation for his injuries. But he shouldn’t have under state law, he said.

“Inexplicably, however, the court simply refuses to look to the statute’s first sentence, which answers the precise question posed by the court of how to identify the limit of the coverage available from the occupied vehicle in an accident involving multiple victims,” Stras said.

This is the first sentence of the law:

If at the time of the accident the injured person is occupying a motor vehicle, the limit of liability for uninsured and underinsured motorist coverages available to the injured person is the limit specified for that motor vehicle.

“It is quite a logical leap to hypothesize, without any objective evidence, that the Legislature failed to consider the exceedingly common situation in which a car accident results in injuries to multiple people,” Stras wrote.

As for Sleiter, he’s grown up now. He graduated from Lakeview High School in 2012 and is an agriculture business major at Southwest Minnesota State University.

  • Kassie

    “Franco not only didn’t have a driver’s license, she wasn’t covered by the insurance on the minivan she was driving.” Because she was undocumented therefore cannot get a license or insurance. We need to allow for a way for undocumented immigrants to get licenses and insurance. It makes us all safer.

    • Stop being sensible!

    • jon

      If we allow immigrants to be insured then we’ll have some one to cover the costs of immigrants destroying this country.

      Then who will we blame for all of our problems!?

  • Geezer

    It is not undocumented it is ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT !!! They broke the law !!! They are trespassing!!! Get it?

    • Joseph

      Again, we have an anger bear with no answers.

    • Thomas Mercier

      The strictest application of laws doesn’t always achieve the fundamental principal of laws, utilitarianism. And if the fundamental principal is eroded has not the effect of strict adherence to the law actually been to lessen the value of the law rather than support it?
      Undocumented/illegal immigrant. Toe-may-toe/Toh-mah-toh. Let’s just focus on the strengthening the fabric of our community by supporting the pursuit of happiness for all.

    • Kassie

      Sorry, no. I work for the government. We call people who are in the US without proper papers undocumented immigrants.

    • The question of immigration is relatively irrelevant in this case. So, no, we’re not going to have a thread hijacking here today.

  • Joseph

    What we really need is a way to keep fools like David Stras from becoming judges – a positions the are not fit for. We ahve the same problem on SCOTUS with Clarence Thomas.

    • I don’t know that that’s fair. I’ve read plenty of Stras decisions and while people may disagree with them, they’re not without principles and merit. His clearly is that the job of the court to interpret existing law and legislative intent.

      I don’t know if you actually read the dissent, but you should. He makes an argument and supports it, including demanding consistency from the court.

      So does Page, by the way.

      • Joseph

        We you start injecting words like consistency, principles and merit into a legal discussion it is time to go for another beer.

        Those are all foreign concepts to people that fondle the law. None of those words have meaning in a legal context.

        • How about stare decisis?

          • Joseph

            Just some legal baffle gab for a short cut. Or lets do this in the same order as other mindless geezers. Mostly the law provides away for otherwise rational men to avoid making a decision.

  • kennedy

    There is an argument to be made, and Stras has a point. The law does clearly state that the coverage available to an injured individual is derived from the limit of the vehicle they occupy at the time of the injury. The law does not make any mention of injuries to multiple occupants. The crucial matter is whether or not it is implied that the coverage available to multiple injured occupants is a share of the vehicle limit. The majority opinion makes more sense to me.