CHARLESTON – An all-terrain vehicle isn't an "uninsured motor vehicle" because an owner doesn't have to get it registered and licensed and doesn't have to carry liability insurance on it, according to a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Therefore, a Brooke circuit judge was wrong to grant summary judgment to a woman who was injured while riding on an ATV operated by a man whose insurance company refused to compensate her.
Jennifer Boniey argued that since the Supreme Court previously had ruled that an ATV is a "motor vehicle" under state law, she could be compensated for her injuries through her uninsured motorist coverage with State Farm.
Boniey was on the back of an ATV being driven off-road by Brian Kuchinski when she was injured. Kuchinski's insurance company, GEICO, denied him liability coverage for the crash.
Boniey then submitted a claim to State Farm, but the company denied the claim, saying that an ATV couldn't be considered an uninsured motor vehicle because it was being operated off-road.
According to the opinion filed May 14 by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, the State Farm policy said that "An uninsured motor vehicle does not include a motor vehicle ... Designed for use mainly off public roads, except while on public roads."
Boniey sued State Farm. On Sept. 14, 2007, Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found in favor of Boniey, saying that State Farm's denial of coverage "violated the letter and spirit of the uninsured motorist statute."
Benjamin in his opinion reversing and remanding Recht's order, stated that, foremost, the policy language is clear. And Recht was wrong in interpreting the state's laws pertaining to uninsured motorists.
"… we have declared that 'the primary, if not sole purpose of mandatory uninsured motorist coverage is to protect innocent victims from the hardships caused by negligent, financially irresponsible drivers," the opinion notes.
Benjamin notes that lawmakers have not specifically required citizens to maintain insurance coverage on all types of vehicles, including ATVs.
State law only requires insurance coverage on vehicles that have to be registered and licensed, Benjamin says.
"Where no liability insurance coverage is required on a motor vehicle under the financial responsibility law, obviously no uninsured motorist coverage is mandated to provide the equivalent of such coverage," Benjamin wrote. "Consequently it would not further the purpose of the uninsured motorist statute to construe the statute to require uninsured motorist insurance to cover" vehicles not required by law to carry insurance.
Benjamin added: "The purpose of protecting persons injured on public highways is not advanced by requiring an automobile insurance policy's uninsured motorist provision to cover off-road ATVs."
E. Kay Fuller represented State Farm. Joseph J. John and Daniel L. McCune represented Boniey.
Supreme Court case number: 34152