New Jersey Appellate Division Holds That ATVs Are Not “Private Passenger Vehicles” Covered Under Automobile Insurance Policy

In Starner v. Haemmerle, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court considered an action arising from an accident involving an all-terrain vehicle driven on a public road by a fourteen-year old girl, who drove the vehicle with the permission of its adult owner. The ATV flipped, injuring one of the passengers. As the ATV was uninsured, the driver sought coverage for the accident under her parents’ automobile policy, which provided coverage for accidents involving non-owned private passenger automobiles driven by an insured or resident relative. The term “private passenger automobile” was defined in the policy as “a four-wheel private passenger…auto.” The automobile insurer denied coverage and was subsequently named as a third-party defendant in a lawsuit brought by the injured passenger against the driver and other parties.

Following discovery, the driver and the insurer filed motions for summary judgment. In its motion, the insurer contended that as the ATV was not a private passenger automobile, accidents involving the ATV did not fall within the scope of coverage. The trial court granted the driver’s motion for summary judgment and denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment. The court determined that the ATV qualified as a “four-wheel private passenger auto” for purposes of insurance coverage because it had four wheels and the capacity to transport passengers. The trial court also noted that New Jersey law authorizes the operation of ATVs on public roadways.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court has previously recognized that dune buggies are not “private passenger automobiles” for purposes of automobile insurance, given dune buggies’ construction and intended use as high-risk off-road recreational vehicles. The Court also observed that New Jersey statutory law defines an automobile as “all motor vehicles except motorcycles,” and in turn defines “vehicles” as “every device in, upon or by which a person or property is or may be transported upon a highway.” In contrast, New Jersey statutory law defines an ATV as a “motor vehicle, designed and manufactured for off-road use only.” New Jersey law also precludes the use of ATVs on limited access highways, and only authorizes the use of ATVs on public roads only to cross roads or drive parallel to the roads when necessary to reach an off-road location. The Court also noted that the requirement that ATV owners obtain insurance is set forth in a separate statute, rather than being included within the insurance requirement for automobiles. Finally, the Court observed that New Jersey law does not require operators to have driver’s licenses.

Based upon these statutory provisions and the Supreme Court precedent discussed above, the Appellate Division concluded that an ATV is not a “private passenger automobile” covered under the subject automobile insurance policy. The Court therefore reversed the trial court’s decision, and directed the trial court to enter summary judgment in the insurer’s favor.