Upon being spoken to in a condescending fashion, a common response is, “Hey, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, you know.” The implied words being: “I’m not some simple rube who just got to the city from some farm.”
The response itself is rather condescending to anyone who works on a farm, however.
I do not adhere to the view that farmers are simpletons and rubes. Quite the contrary, I believe they are reasonable men and women capable of handling their affairs to their own advantage.
Accordingly, I expect them to be held to their bargains and contracts, just like anyone else.
So, it was with great amusement that I recently read the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Olson v. Farrar, 2012 WI 3. The case reads like an urban meets rural TV sitcom.
At issue in the case was a farmowner’s policy, which, like any other farmowner’s policy, contained a motor vehicle exclusion.
This means the policy doesn’t insure the farmer’s turnip truck. If the farmer wants to drive the turnip truck to town, he needs to buy a motor vehicle policy. Farmers aren’t stupid, as noted above, and they know this very well.
They also know that their tractors are considered motor vehicles, too, and those need to be insured with motor vehicle policies if the farmer wants to take them on the road.
Decades of case law have consistently made that clear: Snorek v. Boyle, 18 Wis.2d 202, 118 N.W.2d 132 (1962); Hakes v. Paul, 34 Wis.2d 209, 148 N.W.2d 699, 702 (1967); Lemon v. Federal Ins. Co., 111 Wis.2d 563, 331 N.W.2d 379 (1983).
And every farmer knows that a tractor is considered a motor vehicle if you drive it down the road while intoxicated. State v. Sohn, 193 Wis.2d 346, 535 N.W.2d 1 (Ct.App.1995).
Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court held that the policy was ambiguous with respect to whether the farmer’s tractor was a motor vehicle “designed for use on public roads.” Finding the policy’s definition of “motor vehicle” ambiguous, the court concluded that the policy must be construed against the slick city boys who wrote the policy and in favor of the poor unsophisticated farmer.
Thus, it held that the insurer was obligated to provide coverage for the tractor, notwithstanding the motor vehicle exclusion.
I don’t have all that much sympathy for the insurance company. They should be capable of writing a definition of “motor vehicle” that is consistent with the Wisconsin statutes and decades of Wisconsin case law.
Nevertheless, let me make perfectly clear what really happened here.
An intelligent businessman, capable of managing his own affairs, made a deliberate decision to save money by not insuring a motor vehicle that he knew wasn’t covered by his business policy. And when that turned out to be a bad decision, the urban sophisticates on the Supreme Court decided he must be a poor rube who just fell off a turnip truck, and forced somebody else to pay for that decision.
Green Acres, we are there.