Motorized Scooter Was an “Uninsured Motor Vehicle” Sufficient to Trigger UM Coverage

A Razor Pocket Mod scooter that struck a vehicle insured under a State Farm automobile insurance policy was an “uninsured motor vehicle” sufficient to trigger the policy’s Uninsured Motor Vehicle (“UM”) coverage. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Spangler, 64 F.4th 1173 (11th Cir. April 3, 2023).

After Anna Spangler suffered injuries as a result of the collision with the scooter, she and her husband submitted a claim to State Farm under their policy’s UM coverage. The UM section of the Spangler’s State Farm policy, which provided that State Farm would “pay compensatory damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to recover from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle,” defined “uninsured motor vehicle” as a “land motor vehicle,” which term was not further defined. The policy also included an endorsement which provided that an “uninsured motor vehicle” did not include a “land motor vehicle . . . designed for use primarily off public roads except while on public roads.” The policy’s general definitions, to be applied to defined terms appearing in the policy in boldface italics, defined “motor vehicle” as a “vehicle with four or more wheels that[] is self-propelled and is of a type[] designed for[,] and [] required to be licensed for use on Florida highways.” 

State Farm denied the Spanglers’ UM claim on the ground that the scooter was not an “uninsured motor vehicle” under the policy, and brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment to that effect. State Farm argued, first, that the policy’s general definition of “motor vehicle” applied; and, second, that the term “uninsured motor vehicle” should be interpreted consistently with the definition of “motor vehicle” in Florida’s Financial Responsibility Law (“FRL”), which requires that the driver of “[e]very self-propelled vehicle that is designed and required to be licensed for use upon a highway” maintain liability insurance. The district court disagreed with State Farm on the first point but agreed with the second, and on that basis determined that the policy did not provide UM coverage for the collision with the scooter because the scooter was not required to be licensed for use upon a highway. The Spanglers appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit, in a decision written by Judge Jill Pryor and joined by Judges Wilson and Hull, reversed. The court agreed with the district court that the policy’s general definition of “motor vehicle” did not apply. But the court did not agree that the statutory definition should apply, especially in light of the fact that an insurer is free to provide greater UM coverage than is required by law.

Instead, the court looked to the “plain and unambiguous” language of the policy. The UM section of the policy defined “uninsured motor vehicle” as a “land motor vehicle,” and while that term was not further defined, “the fact that a policy term is undefined does not necessarily mean the term is ambiguous.” The court applied Florida’s rules of contract construction to give the term “land motor vehicle” its “plain meaning as understood by the ‘[person]-on-the-street.” Using dictionary definitions, the court determined that the plain meaning of “land motor vehicle” is “(1) a means of carrying or transporting something, (2) on the solid part of the earth, while being (3) powered by an engine that imparts motion.” The scooter, which included a battery-powered motor, fell within that definition. And the conclusion that “land motor vehicle” has a broader meaning than “motor vehicle” was confirmed, the court noted, by the policy’s endorsement, which contemplated that a “land motor vehicle may be primarily designed for off-road use.”

The court distinguished the case before it from Grant v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 638 So. 2d 936 (Fla. 1994), and Carguillo v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 529 So. 2d 276 (Fla. 1988), both of which applied the FRL’s definition of “motor vehicle.” Those decisions, the court observed, “stand only for the proposition that an insurer must provide UM coverage that is consistent with the purposes of the FRL and UM statute. Neither decision requires that an insurer only provide UM coverage for motor vehicles as defined by the FRL.” An insurer is free to provide greater UM coverage than is legally required, and the court determined that State Farm, in defining “motor vehicle” as “land motor vehicle,” “has done just that.”

Posted by Valerie Sanders.

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