State Farm must pay an uninsured motorist claim for injuries caused by an electric motor scooter even though the scooter didn’t match the definition of “motor vehicle” in Florida statutes, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The panel reversed a US District Court decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the insurer. It rejected State Farm’s argument that it offered uninsured motorist coverage only for accidents caused by motor vehicles that conform to definitions in the state Financial Responsibility Law or uninsured motorist statute.
“Certainly, Florida courts may incorporate statutory limitations and requirements into an insurance contract to determine a parties’ contractual rights, but the FRL and UM statute prescribe only the minimum requirements,” the opinion says. “Because State Farm has not defined the term ‘uninsured motor vehicle’ in a way that fails to comply with the FRL or UM statute, we see no reason to redefine a policy term by incorporating a statutory definition.”
Anna Bevilacqua Sprangler was driving a 2015 Nissan Altima insured by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. on US Highway 1 in Brevard County on July 11, 2019 when she collided with a Razor Pocket Mod scooter that turned left in front of her. The driver of the scooter, Edward Allen Leveque, was killed by the accident. Sprangler suffered injuries to her back, neck and left knee.
Sprangler filed a claim with State Farm seeking the uninsured motorist policy limit of $100,000 for her injuries. State Farm denied the claim and filed a lawsuit with the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida seeking a declaratory judgment that there was no coverage under the policy because the scooter was not a motor vehicle.
District Court Judge Paul G. Byron granted a motion for summary judgment filed by State Farm because the scooter was not designed to be driven on public roads, meaning it could not be an “uninsured motor vehicle” as defined in Florida statutes. Sprangler appealed.
The 11th Circuit panel ruled that the statutory definition was irrelevant. The state uninsured motorist statute defines the term “motor vehicle” to ensure a minimum level of coverage is offered, but nothing prevents insurers from providing more coverage than required, the opinion says. The policy that State Farm sold to Sprangler offered uninsured motorist benefits for damage or injuries caused by “land motor vehicles,” but did not define the term.
The panel said the Razor Pocket Mod has a 250-watt electric motor powered by two 12-volt batteries. It was manufactured without a taillight, brake lights or turn signals and had no vehicle identification number of license plate.
The appellate says the plain meaning of the term “land motor vehicle” includes electric scooters such as the Razor Pocket Mod. It is powered by an engine and moves over land. The State Farm policy, moreover, expressly includes coverage for vehicles that are designed to be used primarily off public roads.
State Farm argued that the court should use the definition of motor vehicle included in the Financial Responsibility Law, but the appellate panel said that statutory definition encompasses only motor vehicles that are designed to be used on public roads. The State Farm policy used the word “land” in front of motor vehicle, expanding the scope of the term to include off-road vehicles.
“Because State Farm has not defined the term ‘uninsured motor vehicle’ in a way that fails to comply with the FRL or UM statute, we see no reason to redefine a policy term by incorporating a statutory definition,” the opinion says.
The panel reversed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of State Farm.
Top photo: The Razor Pocket Mod is shown on this screen shot taken from a photo posted on the manufacturer’s website.
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