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Lawyers’ Corner: Special Mobile Equipment in Bergman v Cotanche

Most auto accident lawsuits involve traditional cars, trucks, and SUVs. But occasionally a case comes along involving special mobile equipment. A published opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals recently clarified how the Michigan No-Fault Act applies to this unique class of vehicles.

There are vehicles on the road today that do not count as motor vehicles under the Michigan No-Fault Act. Even though the law requires owners to maintain a no-fault insurance policy for every registered vehicle, some exceptions still apply. In the published opinion, Bergman v Cotanche, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently explained one of those exceptions: the “special mobile equipment” exemption in MCL 257.216.

Front-End Loader Accident Raises No-Fault Questions

December 12, 2012, was a snowy day. Bryce Cotanche, an employee of Boyne USA, Inc. was given the job to clear the parking lots using a front-end loader owned by the company. He finished the first lot and turned onto a public road, intending to travel a quarter mile to the next plow site. Before he got there, Donald Bergman, who was driving in the opposite direction, lost control and struck the vehicle.

Bergman sued Cotanche and his employer, Boyne USA, for injuries and reimbursement of no-fault benefits. His claim stated that Boyne, as the owner of the front-end loader, was required to register the vehicle with the state and provide no-fault insurance to cover its use. Because it had failed to do so, Bergman said he was entitled to damages under the Michigan No-Fault Act. But the defendants disagreed. They said that the front-end loader fell within the “special mobile equipment” exception to registration, and therefore did not need to be insured.

Mandatory No-Fault Insurance Has Its Exceptions

The Michigan No-Fault Act requires “[t]he owner or registrant of a motor vehicle required to be registered in the state [to] maintain security for payment of benefits under personal protection insurance, property protection insurance, and residual liability insurance.” But not every vehicle must be registered with the state. The Michigan Vehicle Code excludes “special mobile equipment” from registration. MCL 257.62 defines the term:

“‘Special mobile equipment’ means every vehicle not designed or used primarily for the transportation of persons or property and incidentally operated or moved over the highways, including farm tractors, road construction or maintenance machinery, mobile office trailers, mobile tool shed trailers, mobile trailer units used for housing stationary construction equipment, ditch-digging apparatus, and well-boring and well-servicing apparatus. The foregoing enumeration shall be considered partial and shall not operate to exclude other vehicles which are within the general terms of this definition.”

What Counts as Special Mobile Equipment

The question for the Michigan Court of Appeals was whether the front-end loader fit within the definition of special mobile equipment. Boyne’s attorneys said that because the law included tractor-like equipment similar to the front-end loader, the exception must automatically apply. But the court disagreed. Instead, it relied on an earlier case, Auto-Owners Ins Co v Stenberg Bros Inc, which said:

the vehicle must be (1) incidentally operated or moved over the highway and (2) not designed primarily for transportation of persons or property, or (3) not used primarily for transportation of persons or property; the presence of factor (1) along with the presence of either factor (2) or factor (3) will qualify a vehicle for the exemption.

No one in the case argued that the front-end loader was designed or used primarily to transport people or equipment. The issue was whether the vehicle’s use of public roadways was “incidental.”

Incidental Operation Over the Highway

The court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines “incidental” as:

“Subordinate to something of greater importance; having a minor role.”

This definition matched several previous cases which had ruled the application of the special mobile equipment exception:

  • Batching trucks, used to haul cement, were not except because their primary purpose was transportation.
  • A stationary storage tank pulled over the highway was exempt because the highway use was only incidental.
  • Water trucks, used in well-drilling, did not qualify because they were designed for transportation and were used daily on public highways.

The court ruled that judges must make a determination on whether highway use was incidental to some greater purpose, based on the totality of the circumstances. It noted that the frequency and amount a vehicle uses the highways would be one factor to consider. However, the key to the analysis would be the purpose of the vehicle.

Front-End Loader Snow Plow Counts as Special Mobile Equipment

When the court applied its ruling to Boyne, USA’s front-end loader, it found that the special mobile equipment exemption did apply. It was not designed or used to transport people or property. Its purpose, instead, was to plow snow. The relatively short time and distance the front-end loader was on the road outweighed the fact that winter weather may make that quarter-mile trip occur relatively frequently. The use, the court said, was still incidental.

Special Mobile Equipment and No-Fault Insurance

The Michigan No-Fault Act requires PIP coverage for every vehicle “required to be registered in the state.” But MCL 257.216(d) says “[t]he Secretary of State may issue a special registration to an individual, partnership, corporation, or association. . . to identify special mobile equipment that is driven or moved on a street or highway.” Because special mobile equipment does not need to, but may be registered with the Secretary of State, Boyne, USA, was not required to cover the front-end loader with no-fault insurance. Therefore, Bergman was not entitled to reimbursement of his PIP benefits on the basis of a lack of mandatory insurance.

When auto accident cases involve unusual equipment, the question of whether mandatory insurance laws apply can get complicated. Make sure to consider the purpose of the vehicle before filing suit against the owner for failure to maintain mandatory insurance.

David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has over 25 years’ experience with complex no-fault lawsuits. If your client is facing a complicated no-fault issue, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.