(CN) - An insurer must defend a "donkey basketball" company against claims from two players thrown off their donkeys during a game, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute stems from a negligence suit that Amanda Sciolla and Meredith Hopkins, two teachers in the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pa., filed several years ago against Buckeye Donkey Ball LLC.
The teachers said they were thrown to the ground while participating in one of Buckeye's donkey ball shows - which involve people playing basketball while riding donkeys - at the Charles Boehm Middle School on Nov. 13, 2009.
But Buckeye's insurer, West Bend Mutual Insurance Co., has denied having any duty to defend or indemnify Buckeye in the personal injury suit.
In a letter to Buckeye dated March 31, 2010, the insurer disclaimed liability, citing "exclusion CG2101" - a policy provision excluding coverage for bodily injury to participants in any Buckeye-sponsored sports contests.
Buckeye, in turn, assigned its rights to Sciolla and Hopkins to assert claims directly against West Bend, which the teachers then sued, seeking declaratory relief.
Sciolla and Hopkins argued that the exclusion does not apply under 10th Circuit precedent from the 2000 case Zurich Reinsurance (London) Ltd. v. Westville Riding Club Inc., a case filed after a rodeo attendee was head-butted by a bull while trying to untie a ribbon from its horns to win $50 in a game called "Money the Hard Way."
In that case, the court affirmed that, in order for exclusion CG2101 to apply, the injured person must have been practicing for or participating in a contest or exhibition of "an athletic or sports nature" that was sponsored by the named insured.
U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno awarded the teachers summary judgment on Dec. 18, finding that Buckeye did not necessarily sponsor the Donkey Ball show at issue.
"As it would be applied to this set of facts, the most common dictionary definition for the term 'sponsor' is one that finances a project or an event carried out by another person or group," Robreno wrote. "That is the definition used by the court in Zurich (which defendant offers as relevant case law), present in the majority of dictionary definitions of sponsor, and used in Buckeye's agreement with the [Family, Career and Community Leaders of America] FCCLA.
"Given the lack of a universally accepted definition of the term 'sponsor' by dictionaries and by the courts, the court concludes that the term is subject to more than one interpretation when applied to the present set of facts, and it is therefore ambiguous," the judge added.
West Bend meanwhile lost its cross-motion for summary judgment.
"Plaintiffs' complaint in Hopkins, et al. v. Buckeye Donkey Ball LLC alleges facts that are within the policy's coverage," Robreno wrote. "As Buckeye was covered by the insurance contract and exclusion CG2101 does not apply, defendant has a duty to defend. If plaintiffs establish liability at trial, defendant has a duty to indemnify."
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