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What is – or isn’t – a “Motor Carrier” under the Georgia Motor Carrier Act?

In a recent case decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Morney v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, P.A., 2015 WL 1057959 (March 11, 2015), the Court articulated a broad interpretation to an exemption to the definition of “motor carrier” in the Motor Carrier Act, resulting in a narrower application of the law.

In Morney, the plaintiffs filed suit after a family member was injured, and later died from those injuries, when a medical transport vehicle stopped abruptly, causing the wheelchair to flip over. The plaintiffs sued the medical transport company along with the company’s insurer. While insurers are typically not proper parties to a personal injury lawsuit, O.C.G.A. § 40-1-112 (commonly referred to as the Georgia Direct Action statute) allows insurers of motor carriers to name the carrier’s insurance company directly. In this case, the insurer sought dismissal from the lawsuit, asserting it was not a proper party because the medical transport van did not meet the statutory definition of a “motor carrier.” In granting the insurer’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court held that the van at issue fell within an exemption of the definition of “motor carrier” in O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(12)(B)(vii).

In appealing the trial court’s decision and asserting the cited statutory exemption did not apply, the plaintiffs raised three arguments, each rejected by the Georgia Court of Appeals. First, the plaintiffs argued that the statutory exemption did not apply because the van was not used exclusively for medical transport. However, the Court found that, even if the company advertised that the van was offered for other services, there was no evidence refuting testimony that the van was only used for medical transport. Second, the plaintiff argued that the statutory exemption did not apply because the van transported people who were not elderly and disabled. In applying rules of statutory construction, the Court found that the use of the disjunctive “or” in the language of the statute indicates that exempted vehicles include those who transport people who are elderly or disabled or en route to receive medical care or prescription medication or returning after receiving medical care or prescription medication. As such, the Court held that the fact that the van transported people other than the elderly or disabled did not remove it from the exemption. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the statutory exemption did not apply because the van was capable of transporting more than ten people based on its design. The Court rejected this interpretation, holding that because the term “capable” was not specifically defined in the statute, it was subject to its plain and ordinary meaning and there was no evidence in the Act reflecting that the legislature intended “capable” to refer to design. As such, “capable” as used in O.C.G.A. § 40-1-100(12)(B)(vii) refers to the vehicle’s actual seating capacity, not its initial design.

The Court’s decision widens the exemption under the Georgia Motor Carrier Act and, with the increase of medical transport services in business, we could see an increase of insurers being excluded as named defendants against these type of companies. As cases where insurers are named directly can require separate counsel and, in many cases, duplicate defense efforts, this ruling may have the effect of reducing defense costs by removing a named defendant. In addition, since the presence of an insurance company as a named party can be seen as a “billboard” to a jury that insurance is available to cover any judgment, the effect of a narrower application of the law is also a benefit to insurers.

A Petition for Writ of Certiorari has been filed to the Georgia Supreme Court. Check back for additional information on the outcome of this case.

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