As a Miami car accident lawyer, I know some of Florida’s more affluent and other smaller communities allow people to drive around public roadways on golf carts. In some areas—like the Village in Key Biscayne or Fisher Island, both in Miami-Dade County, as well as in many retirement communities across Florida. Residents participate in an undeclared competition by customizing their golf carts and by replicating Rolls Royces or Ferraris and other brands. These modifications extend beyond just appearance by actually increasing the horsepower, building special exhaust systems, and adding suspension kits.
GOLF CART ACCIDENTS IN FLORIDA
In Florida, golf carts incapable of exceeding speeds of 20 miles per hour are permitted for use only on golf courses or for recreational purposes. Golf carts in Florida do not require a licensed driver or insurance and can be operated on roads only where permitted by the community’s local ordinance.
However, Miami car accident lawyer know that in contrast, a “low-speed vehicle” is one whose top speed is greater than 20 miles per hour but no more than 25 miles per hour, a category which includes neighborhood electric vehicles, which must comply with the certain safety standards, such as . . .
- Must be registered with the State of Florida.
- Must be insured if they are operated on a public road.
- Must be driven by a person with a valid driver’s license.
- Must be equipped with head- and brake lights, turn signals, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, seatbelts, and license tags.
Recently, at the Villages, a retirement community in Florida, where many of the residents utilize golf carts as their only means of transportation, a modified golf cart driven by Ralph Snyder sideswiped a car and then crashed into another golf cart that was lawfully parked, injuring the occupant, John Angelotta. Snyder had a previous conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) and had purchased auto insurance for his car (not the golf cart) from Security National Insurance Company.
Angelotta was hurt in the crash and sued the driver for compensation for the injuries he sustained as a result of the collision. However, Snyder’s car insurance company refused to cover the claim or provide him a defense at trial for the golf cart accident. Insurance policies are in essence contracts between an insurance company (insurer) and the customer (insured) to cover certain financial risks as well as provide lawyers to defend claims.
Security National claimed it was not legally responsible to provide coverage for the following reasons:
- The golf cart was not designed for use on the street and therefore was not a “covered auto” under Snyder’s policy since it was not technically a motor vehicle.
- The golf car was leased by Snyder and was not listed on his auto insurance policy.
In response, Mr. Angelotta argued that, since Mr. Snyder’s golf cart had been modified to exceed 20 miles per hour, it should now be considered a “motor vehicle” under Florida law.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY REFUSES TO PAY OR DEFEND?
The jury returned a verdict for Mr. Angelotta for $70,515.29. At this point, Mr. Snyder had a potential claim against Security National for breaching its contract (the policy) to pay Angelotta’s claim and for failing to provide a legal defense. Instead, the two men made an arrangement which, as a Miami car accident lawyer, is very common, yet complicated, where a defendant sells his right to sue his insurance company to the injured plaintiff in exchange for the promise not to try to collect or execute the judgment. These types of deals are permitted in Florida and are the basis for cases known as Bad Faith Insurance Claims.
In this case, the two arranged such a deal, and Mr. Snyder transferred to Mr. Angelotta
his right to sue Security National for neither covering the claim nor defending him–which led Mr. Angelotta to sue Security National to collect the $70,515.29.
The first step in these claims is known as a declaratory judgment, which is to determine if in fact Security National breached the contract of the insurance policy.
The Financial Responsibility clause states that “all owners of the motor vehicle are to be protected from liability for any damages that arise out of its use” or “any other in any other vehicle operated by the insured.” In other words, Mr. Snyder’s insurance is supposed to cover him in accidents in his own car or while operating someone else’s car.
The trial court dismissed Mr. Angelotta’s claim against Security National, and an appeal followed to Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal. The appellate court reversed the dismissal, declaring that Security National was obligated to provide coverage for the accident, based upon the following:
- The modified golf cart driven by Mr. Snyder was in fact a “motor vehicle” by definition and therefore falls under Florida’s Financial Responsibility Law, and consequently was covered by his insurance.
The court went on to say that Florida’s Financial Responsibility Law is for the “benefit of the public using highways of this state” and therefore cannot contain exclusions that destroy the effectiveness of the policy.
As a Miami car accident lawyer, I applaud any case that forces an insurance company to go out of its way to accept accountability to both their insured and those that are injured by them. This case is particularly interesting because it clarifies the legal and insurance obligations for both those who drive golf carts and those who own and operate modified low-speed vehicles.
Unfortunately, Mr. Angelotta died during the pendency of the appeal. But as lawyers who sue insurance companies in Florida, we celebrate his victory in his memory. We are passionate about representing the legal rights of the injured against insurance companies like Security, Allstate, State Farm, and Progressive. If you have a question about a car insurance claim, Email me, Miami car accident lawyer Spencer Aronfeld, or call our office for a free initial legal consultation, at 305-441-0440 or toll free: 866-597-4529.