Florida Golf Carts Lose in Clash With Cars as Judge Sides With Geico
Although golf carts are rated for golf courses and trails at top speeds typically in the 10 to 20 mph range, there are people who nonetheless drive them on busy public roads - making a federal case in Florida.
A recent ruling by a Miami judge examines whether insurance companies' motor vehicle policies extend to carts when they are driven next to cars.
"Given the quality of Miami-Dade County's drivers and our extraordinarily high insurance rates that lead the nation," wrote US Judge Edwin Torres in his May 10 statement in Geico vs. Gonzalez, "this would come as a surprise to some. " The use of golf carts on our streets is becoming more common. This trend seems unwise to say the least, because bad things happen when a golf cart meets a two-ton vehicle. And when bad things happen, litigation ensues. Take this case. "
The case to which Judge Torres is referring resulted in a serious accident on July 4, 2016. An EZ-GO golf cart driven by a 16-year-old girl pulled into the path of a Dodge Caliber on a public road with a stop sign on it. The ensuing collision resulted in the car turning over and ejecting passengers who were all children. The accident led to legal disputes over personal injury and the determination of driver liability.
The driver was covered by a Geico family car insurance policy. The policy has personal injury limits of $ 10,000 for each person and $ 20,000 for each event. Last year Geico filed a declaratory action seeking a judicial declaration that the car was under cover and that Geico was not required to defend or pay compensation. Soon after, both the driver and the injured passengers argued that Geico had breached the insurance contract.
The litigation revolves around the meaning of "private passenger car" in the policy. The term is defined as "a four-wheeled private passenger, station wagon or jeep car, including a farm or utility vehicle as defined". According to the parties, this definition could be interpreted quite differently.
In court records, Geico argues that the ordinary meaning of a "private passenger car" is a vehicle that can safely travel on a public road or highway. Here, the company emphasizes, the car “cannot transport passengers safely or legally on public roads”. Geico also distinguishes this car from a passenger car. Seat belts, a windshield, windshield wipers, indicators, license plates, a vehicle identification number, rearview mirrors, turn signals, taillights and brake lights are missing.
Lawyers representing drivers and passengers totally disagree with Geico's interpretation. They emphasize that the car has four wheels and was in fact designed “to carry passengers”. They also claim the Florida law made the car suitable for legal and safe use on public roads - it had efficient brakes, reliable steering, and safe tires. The lawyers also cite another case of golf carts in Florida in which the insurance policy covered "every car" and "every car accident". There the court ruled against the insurance company that it caused confusion by not clarifying the meaning of "car". That court emphasized that Florida law benefited the insured in cases of ambiguity.
Judge Torres sided with Geico. He underlined that Geico's policy never describes "car" as a singular term. Instead, he noted that "auto" is always "linked to other terms, and when those terms are linked, the guideline provides a concrete definition." This is a crucial grammatical distinction, argued Judge Torres, of cases where "car" is not linked and left open for interpretation. The judge also highlighted Florida law that it is illegal to drive a car on public roads unless the car has rear-view mirrors and red warning devices (among other things) - two features this car was known to lack.
The controversy surrounding golf carts as transport vehicles goes well beyond this case. State laws vary greatly in terms of when, how, and by whom such carts can be driven. Road type, speed of the car and age of the driver are all relevant considerations.
The case does not end with the order of Judge Torres, a recommendation to District Court Judge Kathleen Williams. The parties have until the end of May to submit written objections to Judge Williams.
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