The recent court case of Damijan Vnuk v Zararovalnica Triglav, which I will refer to as ‘Vnuk’, has shaken up the law surrounding motor accident claims.
The scope of compulsory motor insurance cover has been dramatically increased and UK law on the subject is now in need of review. The Vnuk case has been described as the most important court decision concerning motor insurance cover for decades.
Motor insurance law in the UK
Upon commencing a personal injury claim, it is important to check whether the driver that caused the accident, otherwise known as the ‘defendant’, is insured. UK law requires users of motor vehicles on the roads to insure against the risk of personal injury and death. Failing to insure a motor vehicle on the road is a criminal offence. There are however exceptions to the requirement to have insurance and there are also exclusions which insurers have relied upon in order to avoid paying out compensation.
UK law only requires insurance for driving ‘on a road or other public place’. This means that motor accidents that occur on private land will not be covered by motor insurance. Over the years insurers have managed to successfully fight off a significant number of cases that have involved motor accidents on private land.
Furthermore, UK law currently requires ‘motor vehicles’ to be insured. ‘Motor vehicles’ are defined by law as “mechanically propelled vehicles intended for or adapted for use on roads.” The issue of whether a particular vehicle is ‘mechanically propelled’ and whether it is ‘intended or adapted’ for use on the roads are questions that have been argued within UK courts on numerous occasions.
Under UK law, there is no obligation for insurers to provide cover for any ‘use’ of a vehicle. Insurers are only required to pay compensation to accident victims if the way in which the defendant was using the vehicle at the time was covered by the terms of the policy. For example, if a driver is only insured to use their car for social and domestic purposes and that driver then causes an accident whilst using the car as a taxi, the insurer will not be required to pay out compensation to any injured victims in that accident.
Insurers have saved millions of pounds every year defending claims made by victims who have been run down on private land, or by vehicles meant for use off road, or by vehicles being used for a purpose not specified within the insurance policy.
Changes to motor insurance law
The Vnuk case came about following a work place accident on private land in rural Slovenia. Mr Vnuk, a farm worker, was standing on a ladder that was knocked over by a reversing tractor and trailer. Mr Vnuk brought a personal injury claim against the insurers of the tractor in the local courts of Slovenia.
Mr Vnuk’s claim initially failed. The court decided that the insurance policy only covered the tractor in respect of its ‘use’ as a ‘means of transport’, not as a ‘machine or propulsion device’. As is the law in the UK, Slovenian law does not oblige insurers to provide cover for any ‘use’ of a vehicle.
Mr Vnuk appealed to the European Court where the relevant European law, which applies to the UK and other member states, was considered. The European Court decided that motor vehicle ‘use’ should be interpreted to cover “any use of a vehicle that is consistent with the normal function of that vehicle.”
The outcome of the Vnuk case now means that all insurance restrictions on vehicle ‘use’ have been removed. So, provided that the use is consistent with the normal function of a vehicle, the insurance will be valid. This definition also suggests that all technical and geographical restrictions have been removed.
Therefore, what this means is that the duty to insure now applies to any motor vehicle and includes accidents occurring on private land.
A personal injury solicitor’s view
As a solicitor who specialises in personal injury claims, I find it troubling that so many injured victims have been denied the compensation that they ought to have been entitled to on the basis of such trivial legal technicalities that have been incorrectly implemented by the UK and other member states for so many years.
Now that the difference between European law and UK law has been brought to light, it is my hope that UK law will be appropriately amended and unlawful restrictions within motor insurance policies will be removed.
In my view, Vnuk is a step in the right direction towards helping injured motor accident victims obtain the compensation that they deserve.