Judge Rules Insurance Policies Do Not Cover Golf Carts as ‘Passenger Autos’

Although golf carts are designed for courses and trails, with top speeds typically in the range of 10 to 20 mph, there are people who nevertheless drive them on busy public roads—spawning a federal case in Florida.

A recent ruling by a judge in Miami centers on whether insurance companies’ automobile policies extend to carts when they’re driven alongside cars.

“Given the quality of drivers in Miami-Dade County, and our exceedingly high insurance rates that lead the nation,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres wrote in his May 10 opinion in Geico v. Gonzalez, “it would come as a surprise to some that use of golf carts on our roadways is becoming more common. This trend seems unwise, to put it mildly, 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 refers involved a serious accident on July 4, 2016. An EZ-GO golf cart driven by a 16-year-old girl ran a stop sign on a public road and moved into the path of a Dodge Caliber. The ensuing collision caused the cart to flip and eject passengers, all of whom were children. The accident led to personal injury litigation and a finding of driver liability.

The driver was insured through a Geico family automobile insurance policy. The policy contains bodily injury limits of $10,000 for each person and $20,000 for each occurrence. Last year Geico filed a declaratory action, seeking a court declaration that coverage didn’t exist for the cart and thus Geico had no duty to defend or indemnify. Soon thereafter, both the driver and injured passengers argued that Geico had breached the insurance contract.

The legal dispute turns on the meaning of “private passenger auto” in the policy. The term is defined as “a four-wheel private passenger, station wagon or jeep-type auto, including a farm or utility auto as defined.” That definition, the parties maintain, could be interpreted quite differently.

In court filings, Geico argues that the ordinary meaning of a “private passenger auto” consists of a vehicle that is safe to drive on a public road or highway. Here, the company stresses, the cart “cannot safely or legally transport passengers on public roads.” Geico also distinguishes this cart from a passenger vehicle. It lacks seatbelts, a windshield, windshield wipers, gauges, license plates, a vehicle identification number, rearview mirrors, turn signals, tail lights and brake lights.

Attorneys representing the driver and passengers sharply disagree with Geico’s interpretation. They stress the cart has four wheels and was, in fact, “designed to transport passengers.” They also contend the cart was capable under Florida law of legal and safe operation on public roads—it possessed efficient brakes, a reliable steering apparatus and safe tires. Further, the attorneys cite another Florida golf cart case where the insurance policy covered “any auto” and any “auto accident.” There, the court held against the insurance company, reasoning it created ambiguity by not clarifying the meaning of “auto.” That court emphasized in instances of ambiguity, Florida law favors the insured.

Judge Torres sided with Geico. He underscored that Geico’s policy never refers to “auto” as a singular term. Instead, he observed, “auto” is always “connected to other terms, and when those terms are linked, the policy provides a concrete definition.” This is a crucial grammatical distinction, Judge Torres reasoned, from cases where “auto” is unlinked and left open to interpretation. The judge also stressed Florida law making it illegal to drive a cart on public roads unless the cart has (among other features) rear-view mirrors and red warning devices—two features that this cart, available evidence suggested, lacked.

The controversy of golf carts as transportation vehicles goes well beyond this case. State laws vary widely on when, how and by whom such carts can be driven. Type of road, speed of cart and age of driver are all relevant considerations.

The case doesn’t end with Judge Torres’ order, which is a recommendation to the district court judge, Kathleen Williams. The parties have until late May to file written objections with Judge Williams.

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