Last week, the Supreme Court of Texas addressed the seemingly pedestrian question of whether a golf cart is an “auto” within the meaning of an auto liability policy.  In Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Tex. Political Subdivisions Prop./Cas. Joint Self Ins. Fund, No. 20-0033, 2021 WL 6881108 (Tex. Sept. 14, 2021) the claimant was injured after being thrown from a golf cart during a sudden turn, and the insured sought coverage for the claim under its auto liability policy.  Coverage turned on whether a golf cart is an “auto” and therefore at least potentially covered under the policy, or something else, such as “mobile equipment,” which is not covered. 

Although the term “golf cart” did not appear in the insurance policy, the policy defined “auto” to mean “a land motor vehicle ... designed for travel on public roads but does not include mobile equipment.”  It went on to define “mobile equipment” as certain types of land vehicles, including “[b]ulldozers, farm machinery, forklifts and other vehicles designed for use principally off public roads.

Extrinsic evidence was offered to show the golf cart in question was not street legal, was not used on public roads, and was only driven on sidewalks and private drives on school property.  But the high court concluded none of this evidence was necessary, and coverage could be determined solely on the plain meaning of the term “golf cart,” which was the term used in the petition to describe the vehicle.  Notably, the court applied the “ordinary and generally accepted meaning” standard, typically used to determine the meaning of terms in contracts, to this term used not in a contract, but in a pleading.  Looking to dictionary definitions and to uses of the term “golf cart” in the Texas Transportation Code, the court concluded a golf cart is not designed for use on public roads and therefore was not an “auto.”  The court rejected arguments that golf carts can be legally used on certain public roads under certain circumstances, noting that permission to be occasionally used on public roads is not the same as being “designed” for travel on public roads, as required by the policy.

Editor’s Note: This ruling does not put to rest the question of whether a variety of “low-speed vehicles” or “neighborhood electric vehicles” which are similar to golf carts, but can be registered for use on certain low-speed public roads, and which require additional safety features to be registered, may qualify as “autos” for insurance purposes.

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