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Mule-Drawn Carriage Ride Prompts Complicated Insurance Lawsuit

Is a “parade” the same thing as a “fair” or a “charitable function”? You probably never stopped to think about this comparison before, yet it is a central legal question in an ongoing personal injury case that was the subject of a recent Georgia Court of Appeals opinion.

Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company v. Claxton

The somewhat unusual facts of this case revolve around a mule-drawn carriage. The driver of said carriage offered a free ride to a passenger after the vehicle participated in a local Christmas parade in Telfair County. During this ride, a car rear-ended the carriage and injured the passenger.

Both the driver and the passenger had insurance policies from the same company, which is the plaintiff in this case. (The passenger has filed a separate personal injury claim against the driver for damages arising from the accident.) The insurer asked a trial judge for a declaration that it was not liable for coverage under either policy. With respect to the driver, the insurer said the applicable policy excluded coverage for any vehicles operated by “livestock or other animal” for the purpose of “providing rides to any person for a fee or in connection with or during a fair, charitable function, or similar type of event.” As for the passenger, who held an Uninsured Motorist (UM) policy, the insurer argued coverage only applied to a “trailer” that was “designed to be pulled by” a motor vehicle.

The trial court denied summary judgment to the insurer with respect to both policies. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed in part. It agreed with the insurer that the passenger’s UM policy did not cover this accident. Nobody disputed the uninsured vehicle in question–the mule-drawn carriage–“was designed only to be drawn by an animal and that it specifically could not be attached to or pulled by a motor vehicle.”

The applicability of the driver’s policy was a more complicated question for two reasons. First, the appeals court said there was a “genuine issue of fact” as to whether or a “Christmas parade” was a “similar type of event” relative to a fair or charitable function. Given that Georgia law requires strictly construing the terms of any insurance exclusions “against the insurer,” the Court of Appeals it was unclear, at this stage of the litigation, whether the parade qualified as an excluded event.

Second, even if the parade was an excluded event, it was not clear whether giving a ride to a passenger after the parade ended was an act that occurred “in connection with” said event. Again, the Court of Appeals concluded this was a factual question best resolved by a jury, not a judge at the summary judgment stage.

Finally, it should be noted that the Court of Appeals said the trial judge erred in its own reasons for denying the insurer summary judgment on the subject of the driver’s policy. The trial court read the policy exclusion as inapplicable because the driver did not charge the passenger a fee for the carriage ride. The appeals court explained the policy actually excludes coverage when a ride is given “for a free in connection with or during a fair” or similar event. The trial judge omitted the “or,” and thus misinterpreted the policy as covering any free rides offered in connection with an otherwise excluded event.