Boating is fun. It also can be dangerous. We sometimes get calls from people who suffer pretty gruesome injuries on Lake Lanier during the holidays. One of the questions we have had to answer is, “does a boat count as a vehicle in Georgia”?
A lawsuit stemming from a boat accident questioned coverage under underinsured/uninsured motorist (“UM”) and underinsured/uninsured watercraft (“UW”) policies after the plaintiff sustained serious injuries when a boat that he was in was struck by another watercraft.
The plaintiff argued that the insurance company owed them UM and UW benefits pursuant to Georgia law. After an unsuccessful trial, the plaintiff appealed.
On June 4, 2019, the plaintiff was a passenger in a boat owned by his friend traveling the Coosa River in Floyd County. As they rounded a bend in the river, another boat coming in the opposite direction collided with them. The plaintiff was thrown to the deck of the boat. He suffered a brain injury, a ruptured diaphragm, a ruptured spleen, a left lung puncture, broken left scapula, numerous broken ribs, and other injuries reportedly resulting in over $500,000 in medical expenses.
On the date of the collision, the plaintiff had three insurance policies in effect from the insurance company:
- A homeowners policy;
- An automobile policy; and
- A personal watercraft policy.
The plaintiff filed a complaint against the other boat operator for negligence, negligence per se, loss of capacity to earn, loss of consortium, and attorney fees and expenses. The insurance company sought to end the case, arguing that Georgia Statute § 33-7-11 is inapplicable to uninsured watercraft claims. The plaintiff responded with an assertion that the statute must be construed broadly to effectuate its remedial purpose, should be construed to include motorized watercraft within the definition of “motor vehicle.”
Does the Term “Uninsured Motor Vehicle” Include Motorized Watercraft?
The plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting the insurance company’s summary judgment motion to end the case because the boat that struck him was an “uninsured motor vehicle” as that term is defined in § 33-7-11 and, as a result, the UM and UW provisions in the plaintiff’s auto and watercraft policies should provide him with benefits. He argued:
- The term “uninsured motor vehicle” includes motorized watercraft;
- Both the plaintiff’s auto and watercraft policies are “motor vehicle liability policies”;
- The insurance company’s purported attempt to limit coverage in the policies is contrary to Georgia’s insurance statutes; and
- The insurance company’s overly narrow definition of “motor vehicle” contravenes Georgia public policy.
Judge Ken Hodges of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote in his opinion that the court must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, consider the text contextually, read the text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would, and seek to avoid a construction that makes some language excessive.
The plaintiff’s primary argument was that motorized watercraft are included within the definition of “uninsured motor vehicle” in Georgia Statute § 33-7-11 and that, as a result, their UM and UW policies provide benefits up to their respective limits. The Court of Appeals did not agree.
What is an “Uninsured Motor Vehicle”?
Judge Hodges wrote that “uninsured motor vehicle” isn’t a term defined in the statutes. In that case, the court will look to other sources for support. The judge found that the term “motor vehicle” is defined as “a road vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine” in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Online entries contain similar definitions, including “an automobile, truck, bus, or similar motor-driven conveyance.”
From this, Judge Hughes concluded that dictionaries consistently define “motor vehicle” as a vehicle used on land. Further, there’s no indication from other provisions in Chapter 7 that the General Assembly intended to include motorized watercraft within the definition of “motor vehicle” in § 33-7-11. Moreover, the judge noted that Chapter 7 itself generally distinguishes between land vehicles and motorized watercraft.
The Court of Appeals concluded that UM benefits pursuant to Georgia Statute § 33-7-11 aren’t available for collisions between motorized watercraft on public waterways in Georgia. As a result, the trial court correctly granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment. The judgment was affirmed. Kelley v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 340 (Ga. App. June 29, 2022).
Questions About Coverage under Your Underinsured/Uninsured Motorist Policy?
Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer whom Atlanta residents trust every day. Please contact Tobin Injury Law. We’ve worked with personal injury victims all across the state with all sorts of issues of insurance coverage.
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