Ontario Court says an ATV is an Automobile

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The Ontario Superior Court has recently released a decision that is instructive on the “what is an automobile” analysis.  On April 24, 2013 the Court found in favour of the plaintiff who, in this case, was a farmer driving his ATV on a gravel road just outside his farm property when he was struck from behind and injured by another automobile.  The decision is: Matheson, et al v. Lanark Mutual Insurance Company, et al, 2013 ONSC 2441.

The plaintiff in this matter, Arthur Matheson, was a 55 year old farmer residing and farming in a largely rural community.  On October 11th, 2008, in the course of his normal farming practice, the plaintiff needed to go and check on sheep that were just up the road less than half a kilometre from his house. His evidence was that, depending on how busy he was, he would either walk up the road or use his Honda ATV. He stated that the portion of the farm where the sheep were at the time was accessible without leaving the farm, but it was faster just to go out on the front driveway, turn left, and drive up the road, which would take about thirty seconds or less.  While driving on that gravel road, at or near a gated entrance to one of his fields, he was struck from behind by a truck driven by the defendant, Gary Wayne Lewis. As a result of that collision, Arthur Matheson suffered a catastrophic injury.  The Arthur Matheson’s ATV was uninsured.

The essential issue before the Court was whether Arthur Matheson’s ATV on October 18th, 2008, was a “self-propelled implement of husbandry”. If so, it would be specifically excluded from Ontario’s compulsory insurance regime (Compulsory Automobile Insurance ActCAIA”) and the plaintiff would not suffer any sanction to his accident benefits and he also would be able to maintain a claim in tort against the defendant driver. If his ATV was not a “self-propelled implement of husbandry”, then the plaintiff was in violation of the CAIA, his accident benefits would be sanctioned and he would be statue-barred from bringing a claim against the defendant pursuant to section 267.6(1) of the Insurance Act.  In other words, a finding that the ATV met the definition of self-propelled implement of husbandry meant it was exempted from the requirement of having an automobile insurance policy in place pursuant to the CAIA.

The Court ultimately found that the ATV was a self-propelled implement of husbandry.  The court took judicial notice of the fact that farming, like most other industries, businesses and professions, has undergone significant changes and advances in the use of equipment and technology.  The Court was guided in that regard by various facts and circumstances relevant to the plaintiff and his community, as detailed in affidavit evidence including that of the plaintiff, other Lanark County farmers stating how indispensible ATVs are in the modern era to farming and how they are unaware of any other farmer in the county who does not use one, and the affidavit of an ATV distributor.  The Court also accepted materials by the ATV manufacturer that demonstrated the ATV was marketed for use in farming.

The Court’s analysis also included statutory interpretation and a view to the legislative intent of the CAIA, whereby the Court stated the CAIA’s purpose is to protect the public and specifically innocent people who are injured in motor vehicle accidents.  While this analysis was not determinative on the issue before the court, the Court drew upon it as support for its conclusion.

It is also noteworthy that while the Court stated its finding was based on the “time of the accident”, the Court did not provide any specific discussion of the recent Director’s Delegate decision (Motors Insurance Corp v. Bourchard [2012] O.F.S.C.D. No. 77) wherein it was concluded that the relevant analysis disregards past use of the vehicle and looks at the precise circumstances of the accident in question.

This decision underscores the multiplicity of definitions in the “automobile” analysis and how factual distinctions can alter the result of one or more definitions in the analysis.  The decision also demonstrates how previous court decisions interpreting the definition of “automobile” can expire (often quickly) as a result of technological changes.  It is apparent that in most cases where the “automobile” analysis arises, a detailed review of all the facts will be necessary so one can ascertain the implications of those facts as per the definitions in play.