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OFF BEAT: Insurer must defend Donkey Ball injury claims


An insurer must defend bodily injury claims filed by two players tossed off their donkeys during a “donkey basketball game” because the event is not technically a sport or athletic activity that would be excluded under the organizer's liability coverage, a federal judge has ruled.

The dispute arose from a negligence suit that two teachers in the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pa., filed in 2010 against Buckeye Donkey Ball L.L.C., a company that arranges “Donkey Ball shows” — events that involve people playing basketball while riding donkeys.

The teachers, Amanda Sciolla and Meredith Hopkins, said they were thrown to the ground while participating in one equine spectacle at the Charles Middle School on Nov. 13, 2009, and sought more than $75,000 in damages. But Buckeye's insurer, West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. of West Bend, Wis., denied coverage, citing a policy exclusion that excludes coverage for bodily injury to participants in any “sports or athletic contests or exhibitions which are sponsored by Buckeye Donkey Ball L.L.C.,” court documents state.

Because the Donkey Ball show in which the teachers were injured was not an “athletic or sports” event, but rather was an event designed for “amusement purposes,” the insurer is obligated to pay all damages that Buckeye is legally obligated to pay, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno ruled late last month. Moreover, Buckeye was not, in fact, the sponsor of the particular Donkey Ball show at issue, the judge found.

“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,” Judge Robreno wrote. Though Buckeye did organize the event, it actually was sponsored by another organization — the Family Career and Community Leaders of America — the judge noted.