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Farm tractor is not a motor vehicle

It is crystal clear that a farm tractor is a “motor vehicle” under Wisconsin law.

Hon. Gary E. Sherman

Hon. Gary E. Sherman

But if an insurer drafts its own definition of that term, it runs the risk that its definition will be found ambiguous and that its motor vehicle exclusion will not include tractors.

On Nov. 18, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that a farm tractor was not a “motor vehicle” under a policy defining the term as a vehicle “designed for use on public roads.” As a result, the insurer is liable for damages caused by its insured’s use of a tractor on a highway.

Robert Farrar had a farm owners insurance policy with Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Company that excluded personal liability for use of a motor vehicle. Farrar owned a Massey Ferguson 1130 tractor.

Farrar used the tractor one day to move a mobile home belonging to Todd Olson. Olson followed behind the tractor and mobile home in his truck. En route, the tractor stalled on a hill, and the mobile home went backwards into Olson’s truck.

Olson sued Farrar for damages, and Mt. Morris intervened to contest coverage. The circuit court held that there was no coverage and Farrar appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed in an opinion by Judge Gary E. Sherman.

The dispositive issue was whether the tractor was a “motor vehicle.”

The policy defined “motor vehicle” as a vehicle that is either: (1) subject to “motor vehicle” registration (which a farm tractor indisputably is not); or (2) “designed for use on public roads.”

The court found no evidence that the tractor was designed for use on public roads, even though the manual for the tractor recommends that the operator use safety lights and a slow moving vehicle emblem when driving on a road or highway.

Sherman wrote, “there is no evidence that it came equipped with warning lights designed for safer travel on highways. In addition, undisputed averments show that Farrar’s tractor had ‘never had brake lights, tail lights, turn signals or other safety devices for highway use,’ and that it had always been outfitted with ‘field tires,’ rather than tires meant for highway use.”

The court also held that coverage was not precluded by the policy’s “care, custody or control” exclusion.

Even though Farrar was the one driving the tractor and mobile home, Olson was following behind. The court explained, “Olson’s mobile home had not been left in Farrar’s sole possession. The mobile home was being towed by Farrar, but Olson was also present – he apparently assisted in the moving of the mobile home by following behind Olson’s trailer as it towed the mobile home.”

Because neither exclusion applied, the court held that Mt. Morris’ policy covers the accident, and reversed.

Case analysis

Insurers can easily avoid coverage in similar cases, merely by conforming their definitions of “motor vehicle” to statutes and case law.

Farm tractors have long been considered motor vehicles under Wisconsin case law. In Snorek v. Boyle, 18 Wis.2d 202, 118 N.W.2d 132 (1962), the Supreme Court held that a farm tractor being operated on a public highway is a motor vehicle under the insurance statutes. The court found that any self-propelled vehicle is a motor vehicle.

In Hakes v. Paul, 34 Wis.2d 209, 148 N.W.2d 699, 702 (1967), the court iterated this holding.

The court again held that a farm tractor was a motor vehicle in Lemon v. Federal Ins. Co., 111 Wis.2d 563, 331 N.W.2d 379 (1983), relying on the definition of “motor vehicle” in sec. 340.01(35): “‘Motor vehicle’ mean a vehicle which is self-propelled, including a trackless trolley bus, except that a snowmobile shall only be considered a motor vehicle for purposes made specifically applicable by statute.”

In the criminal realm, the Court of Appeals has held that a driver could be convicted of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, where he drove a tractor on a county highway. State v. Sohn, 193 Wis.2d 346, 535 N.W.2d 1 (Ct.App.1995).

The court wrote, “the phrase, ‘motor vehicle’ is generic common usage for all classes of self-propelled vehicles not operating on stationary rails or tracks.” Id., 193 Wis.2d at 359.

As a result, insurers need only stick to statutory language that a motor vehicle is any self-propelled vehicle, and refrain from drafting their own definition of “motor vehicle,” when excluding coverage for injuries caused by negligent use of a tractor on a public road.

However, even if an accident has already occurred, and the policy has a definition of “motor vehicle” that does not track the statutes and case law, a strong argument can still be made that this case was incorrectly decided, and should be overruled by the Supreme Court.

The court’s analysis rests heavily on the fact that the tractor in this case didn’t have standard safety features – it had no warning lights, brake lights, tail lights, turn signals, “or other safety devices for highway use.”

This should not be relevant, however, given the text of sec. 347.22, entitled, “Lamps on farm tractors, self-propelled farm implements, and lightweight utility vehicles.”

The statute provides:

“(1) No person shall operate or park a farm tractor … upon a highway during hours of darkness unless such tractor … carries the lighted headlamps and tail lamps which would required of other motor vehicles under similar circumstances.

(2) No person shall operate or park a farm tractor … upon a highway during hours of darkness with any lamp thereon showing any light to the rear other than red in color.”

It is clear from this statute not only that the Legislature considers a farm tractor to be a motor vehicle, but that it considers tractors roadworthy even in the absence of the safety devices the Court of Appeals considers essential for qualifying as a “motor vehicle.”

The statute makes clear that a farm tractor is a motor vehicle that can be driven on a highway without tail lights, break lights, or turning signals; it just can’t be driven at night without those features.

Perhaps some other argument could be made that a farm tractor is not “designed for use on public roads.” But the explanation given by the Court of Appeals cannot be reconciled with the plain language of sec. 347.22.

What the court held

Case: Olson v. Farrar, No. 2009AP2385

Issues: Is a farm tractor a “motor vehicle” under an insurance policy’s motor vehicle exclusion?

Holdings: No. Where the policy defines “motor vehicle” as a vehicle designed for use on public roads, a tractor is not a motor vehicle.

Attorneys: For Defendant: Michael L. Stoker, La Crosse; For Intervenor: Jeffrey T. Nichols, Stacy K. Luell, Daniel K. Mullin, Milwaukee

One comment

  1. Hello I’m dealing with this here in kaukauna Wisconsin. There trying to tell me my Farmall 1946 tractor is a motor vehicle and there saying it can’t sit in my front yard set back for that reason. It’s been there for a 11 years. One it’s not a motor vehicle and doesn’t say you can’t have farm equipment stored in your front yard set back. Going to appeal Court in Appleton WI. Could use any help I can get right about now. Joe Grundy. Tractor man from kaukauna Wisconsin

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