It took the Texas Supreme Court 27 pages and 17 lengthy footnotes to explain what we all knew all along. A “golf cart” is not a car. I put “golf cart” in quotes because that’s what the court did in this opinion.
This was a fight over insurance coverage. The school district was sued by a student who alleged that she was thrown out of a golf cart that was driven recklessly by a school employee. The district had insurance with the Texas Political Subdivisions Property/Casualty Joint Self Insurance Fund. That Fund asserted that it was not responsible for defending the district on this claim because the policy covered “motor vehicles” and a “golf cart” is not a motor vehicle.
Well, it has a motor. And it will get you from here to there. So is a “golf cart” a “motor vehicle”?
As usual with legal arguments, particularly those involving the fine print of an insurance contract, the definition of terms is crucial. This policy covered injuries arising from the ownership, maintenance or use of a “covered auto.”
What’s an “auto”? The policy said it was “a land motor vehicle…designed for travel on public roads but does not include mobile equipment.”
What’s “mobile equipment”? The policy said this term covers “bulldozers, farm machinery, forklifts and other vehicles designed for use principally off public roads.”
The case would have been simpler if the policy had specifically placed “golf cart” in the “auto” category or the “mobile equipment” category, but it didn’t. So the lawyers had a field day arguing over definitions. Our state’s highest court ultimately focused on one word in the policy: “designed.” A golf cart might be driven on a public road, but it’s not designed for that. It’s designed to carry a golfer or two and their equipment around a golf course. So a “golf cart” is not an “auto” and the Fund had no duty to defend the district from this claim.
One more part of this case struck my fancy. It introduced a new piece of legal jargon to me: “the eight-corners” rule. What??? I remember well from law school the “four corners” rule. This is the rule that courts cite to explain that they will interpret a contract based only on what is contained in the document. If it’s not contained within the “four corners” of the written document, it’s not relevant. In this case, the court based its decision on two written documents: the insurance policy and the Plaintiff’s complaint. Thus two documents, and eight corners.
The term “four corners” in legal cases also makes me think of college basketball, and since the Final Four is about to happen, let me explain. I suspect that many Loyal Daily Dawg Readers are not old enough to remember college hoops before there was a shot clock. Back in those days the North Carolina Tar Heels employed an aggravating strategy devised by legendary coach Dean Smith. They called it the “four corners offense” but it was not much of an offense. It was a carefully choreographed game of “keep away” to be used to run out the clock when the Tar Heels had the lead. Players would occupy the “four corners” of the court and toss the ball around while the clock ran down. It worked.
So that’s your history lesson for today.
Today’s case is Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD v. Texas Political Subdivisions Property/Casualty Joint Self Insurance Fund, decided by the Texas Supreme Court on February 11, 2022. It’s published at 2022 WL 420491.
DAWG BONE: READ THE FINE PRINT IN THE POLICY CAREFULLY.
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Tomorrow: new Title IX case from the 6th Circuit