A forklift is a motor vehicle for purposes of Louisiana underinsured motorist ("UM") coverage according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In the recent case of Boyett v. Redland Ins. Co., 741 F.3d 604 (5th Cir. 2014), the Fifth Circuit ruled that a forklift meets the Louisiana statutory definition of motor vehicle and, as such, under Louisiana law, is subject to that state's inclusion of UM coverage in auto liability policies absent an express waiver.
The plaintiff, Clyde Boyett ("Boyett"), was employed by Boeuf River Ventures ("Boeuf River") as a truck driver. Id. at 605. Boeuf River maintained insurance on its tractor-trailers under a commercial lines policy that provided "auto" liability coverage through the defendant, Redland Insurance Co. ("Redland"). Id. "Louisiana statutory law provides for UM coverage for the purpose of providing full recovery for automobile accident victims who suffer damages caused by a tortfeasor who is not covered by adequate liability insurance. Thus, UM coverage will be read into any automobile liability policy unless validly rejected." Id. at 608 (internal citations omitted). The Redland policy contained no provision relating to UM coverage and there was no waiver, by Boeuf River, of UM coverage. Id. at 605.
The underlying accident occurred when Boyett was hauling a load of lumber for delivery to Carolina Lumber & Brick, Ltd. in North Carolina. Id. at 605. During unloading, an employee of Carolina Lumber used a forklift to unload the lumber when some of the lumber fell, striking and severely injuring Boyett. Id. As a result of this accident, Boyett underwent surgery and the lower portion of his right leg was amputated. Id.
Boyett, and his wife, filed suit against Redland in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana alleging that the forklift was an uninsured motor vehicle under Louisiana law and that Boyett was entitled to statutory UM benefits under the Redland's auto policy. Id. at 605-06. The district court dismissed Boyett's claim concluding that, although the Louisiana UM statute applied to the subject accident, the forklift did not meet the statutory definition of a motor vehicle. Id. Boyett timely appealed the district court's decision to the Fifth Circuit. Id.
As an initial matter, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that Louisiana's UM statute was intended to, and did, extend coverage for policies of insurance issued in Louisiana to accidents that occurred in another state. Id. at 608. Accordingly, Boyett's accident, which occurred in North Carolina, was subject to the provisions of the Louisiana UM statute. Id. Turning to the issue at the heart of the appeal – whether a forklift is a motor vehicle – the Fifth Circuit undertook an analysis of the meaning of the word motor vehicle. Louisiana, a civil law jurisdiction, places great weight on Louisiana's Constitution, its codes, and statutes when analyzing the purpose and scope of a statute. Id. at 611. As such, the language of a statute is the "solemn expression of legislative will." Id. Here, however, the UM statute does not define the term motor vehicle. Id. The Louisiana UM statute does distinguish between an insured vehicle and an uninsured vehicle. Id. Although a subtle distinction, this distinction directed the outcome of the case. Under the UM statute, the Fifth Circuit noted that an insured vehicle is one that is "designed for use on public highways and required to be registered in this state." Id. It was this language that Redlands relied on in its argument that a forklift, a vehicle that is not designed for use on highways or required to be registered, was not a motor vehicle. However, the Court noted that the UM statute, when referring to an uninsured vehicle, omitted the modifying language. Id. In other words, only an insured vehicle must be one that is designed for use on public highways and registered; an uninsured vehicle can be any vehicle classified as a motor vehicle. As a result, the statutory interpretation adopted by the Court enable it to broadly define the scope and applicability of the UM statute. Id. at 612.
Examining whether a forklift is in fact a motor vehicle under the UM statute, the Fifth Circuit looked to the Louisiana Highway Regulatory Act's ("LHRA") definition of the terms vehicle and motor vehicle for guidance. Id. at 612-13. The LHRA provides a broad definition of motor vehicle and is defined as "every self-propelled device by which persons or things can be transported upon a public highway." Id. at 613. Using this definition, the Fifth Circuit concluded that a forklift "(1) was self-propelled, (2) carried things (lumber), (3) was physically cable of driving on a public road, and (4) is no less a 'device' than a car or truck." Id. Accordingly, a forklift is a motor vehicle for purposes of UM coverage in Louisiana. Id.
There were several additional factors at play that were considered by the Fifth Circuit in reaching its decision that are worth noting and are common to other jurisdictions. Louisiana law mandates that unless an insured executes a waiver of the statutory UM coverage, UM coverage will be read into all auto liability policies issued in Louisiana. Id. at 608. In this case, Boeuf River did not waive UM coverage and was, therefore, applicable to the subject accident. Id. at 605. Another factor that guided the Court's decision is the public policy behind UM coverage; to protect innocent tort victims. Id. at 610. Such a public policy consideration is shared by many jurisdictions that have enacted similar UM statutes and is often cited as a determining factor when examining coverage issues.
The broad definition of motor vehicle employed by the Fifth Circuit, combined with the lack of a waiver of coverage and the public policy considerations, served as the basis for the Court's ultimate conclusion that a forklift is a motor vehicle and that there was UM coverage for Boyett. If you live or conduct business in a jurisdiction that provides for mandatory UM coverage, in the absence of an express manor, the Boyett case should serve as a reminder of the importance of knowing the limits and extent of coverage under an auto policy.
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