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THE DARK SIDE: Green Acres is the place for me

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.

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4 comments

  1. C’mon now….the \rube card\ can be an effective legal strategy, as proven by this case.

    Sounds like you want to take the rube card out of the legal playing deck, judging by the dripping cynicism.

    I now one thing for sure, I’d never want to be the \city slicker\ in any case.

    Living in a small town might make one a \half-rube\ after reading this, which may be more helpful than a \full rube\, from a legal standpoint, anyway…buy it could me my sarcasm surplus kicking in again.

  2. Having grown up on a farm and knowing a little about both tractors and the law, I see that your little caveat emptor rant is a bit misleading. While I understand that you favor a pure form of economic Darwinism, with the powerful free to take advantage of the powerless without government intrusion, you are fully aware that your distopian vision is not the law. Ambiguities in contracts are read against the party who drafted it. This is not an issue of rube versus non-rube; it’s simply a matter of common sense and common fairness. As you note, the insurance company had the ability to make clear whether a farm tractor was covered and chose not to do so.

    As for the tractor, while it may be a \motor vehicle\ for some purposes, such as drunk driving laws, it is not designed for use on public roads. While the farmer occasionally will use the tractor on a public road, its primary purpose and design is for use in farm fields.

    I also would note that the definition of \motor vehicle\ applicable to the \financial responsibility\ section of the Wisconsin Statutes, Ch. 344, does not use the \designed for use on public roads\ provision of the contract in Olson and expressly excludes farm tractors from the definition of \motor vehicle.\ Wis. Stat. s.344.01(b).

    So, while your suggestion that elitists are interfering with commerce may ring true to those who don’t know any better, it really doesn’t make sense at all.

  3. I think you’re missing the point of the column, Rob. First, I don’t think the insurance company chose not to include tractors as motor vehicles. I think whoever drafted the policy was grossly malfeasant, and the court was reasonable in holding that he drafted the policy in such an inept fashion that coverage is required.

    Second, and more important, the question i’m raising is, “Does anybody seriously believe that there exists even one farmer in Wisconsin so stupid he doesn’t realize that tractors are considered motor vehicles and need to be insured as such, and are not covered by farmowner policies?”

    I think if you ask any farmer, the answer will be no.

  4. Actually, David, given the definition of “motor vehicle” in Wis. Stat. s.344.01(b) and the requirement contractual requirement that, to be covered, the motor vehicle must be “designed for use on public roads,” I doubt that many farmers would assume that farm tractors would be covered by a “motor vehicles” exclusion. That’s not because they are stupid. Just the opposite — they are well aware that tractors are not considered “motor vehicles” for many purposes.

    I think that you give too little credit to the insurance company. As you no doubt are aware, people (and non-people corporations) who enter into contracts often use ambiguous language when they cannot in fact agree on particular terms, hoping that the issue will never come up later. The insurance company here took the chance that it could avoid liability for farm tractors under the “motor vehicles” exclusion, knowing that a farmer with any smarts would want the tractors covered. The insurance company who drafted the contract no doubt fully understood that and hoped to be able to impose its expansive view of the exclusion later in court should the issue arise while avoiding the likelihood of losing the contract if it insisted on making exclusion of farm tractors explicit.

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