When is a Tractor Not a Tractor?

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered an extremely significant decision in the case of Damijan Vnuk v Zavarovalnica Triglav (2014), regarding the issue whether a vehicle used on private land should be insured against civil liability, and concerning the use of vehicles as per Article 3(1) of the First Motor Insurance Directive, which is an EU Directive.

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The facts of the case will sound uncomfortably familiar to those who use vehicles on private property. Mr Vnuk suffered an injury after being knocked off a ladder whilst working on a farm. The accident was caused by a tractor with a trailer reversing in the farm courtyard. The initial position of the Slovenian domestic courts was that a compulsory insurance policy on the tractor, from which Mr Vnuk was trying to claim compensation, would not offer protection when a tractor was used as an agricultural machine on private land. Mr Vnuk was, however, of the view that 'use of the vehicle' should not be limited only to journeys on public roads.

The Slovenian Supreme Court raised a question with the ECJ, enquiring whether “the use of vehicles” phrase should be limited only to road traffic accidents.

Landmark Ruling

The ECJ, in its landmark ruling, held that the term “use of vehicle” indeed extends to a vehicle being used “as a means of transport or as machines, in any area, both public and private, in which risks inherent in the use of vehicles may arise, whether those vehicles are moving or not”. Furthermore, it covers any use which is consistent with the normal function of that vehicle.

The ECJ also considered the term “vehicle” which, in the First Motor Insurance Directive, is defined as “any motor vehicle intended to travel on land and propelled by mechanical power, but not running on rails, and any trailer, whether or not coupled”. The ECJ ruled that the definition of the vehicle is not connected to the use of the vehicle, and therefore a tractor with a trailer fulfils that definition, even if it is used as an agricultural machine.

Bringing the Law Back Home

The implications in the case of Vnuk are significant as it appears some provisions of domestic legislation, being the Road Traffic Act 1988, are in fact in breach of the First Motor Insurance Directive. Firstly, the duty to take out third party motor insurance is limited to the “use of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place”. Secondly, the term “motor vehicle” is defined as “a mechanically propelled vehicle intended or adapted for use on roads”.

The amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 are yet to be seen. The Road Traffic Act 1988 excludes some vehicles from the obligation to take out third party insurance, for example some local authority owned vehicles, and the Act may in future be amended to exclude other types of vehicles, as this is allowed under the European law.

However, at this point in time, owners of agricultural vehicles, forklifts, ride-on-lawnmowers, golf buggies and go-karts could find themselves potentially liable for injuries caused on private land but not covered by their insurance. Legal representatives of those injured in accidents involving vehicles on private land, will be citing the case of Vnuk which is directly applicable in the UK, in support of their clients' claims and may consider bringing a legal action against the British Government for a failure to implement EU law properly.