Auto Insurer Cleared on Portuguese Vineyard Death

(CN) – Auto insurance does not apply, Europe’s top court ruled Tuesday, to the death of a Portuguese farm worker who was crushed by a tractor that slid down into a vineyard.

The accident that caused the death of Maria Alves occurred on March 18, 2006. A part-time farmhand, Alves was one of four workers on a vineyard that day owned by Fausto da Silva Rodrigues de Andrade and his wife, Isabel.

The workers were applying herbicide to vines located on sloped area of the vineyard, using a hose connected to a drum mounted on the back part of an agricultural tractor.

Though the tractor was kept stationary on a flat track, its engine was running to drive the herbicide spray pump.

With the land slick from heavy rainfall, other factors, including the vibrations of the engine and the spray pump, ultimately caused a landslip. Alves was killed after the tractor fell down through the terraces, crashing down into the workers.

Though the insurance company that covered occupational accidents on the vineyard issued a payment covering material loss related to Alves’ death, the worker’s widowed husband, Jose Manuel Proenca Salvador, also brought a separate action seeking damages for nonmaterial loss.

This case sought to hold liable either the vineyard owners or the man who managed their farm, Jorge Oliveira Pinto. The tractor that crushed Alves was registered in the name of  Oliveira Pinto’s wife, and Proenca Salvador named her as a defendant as well as CA Seguros, which insured the tractor.

Some of these counts stuck. The trial court found the farm manager liable jointly and severally with the vineyard owners, but it dismissed the claims against the manager’s wife and her auto insurer.

An appeals court in Guimaraes that looked at the case next found this ruling consistent with national precedent, but asked Europe’s highest court to weigh in.

Critical to the case is a European Council regulation known as the First Directive, which coordinates national laws relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles.

For the Luxembourg-based court, the directive’s mention of “use of vehicles” is key. Prior to the Alves case, the court had yet to rule on whether the “use of vehicles” concept also covers the use of a vehicle as a machine generating motive power when the vehicle itself is not traveling.

The court answered in the negative Tuesday.

“In this instance … that tractor was being used to generate the motive power required to drive the pump of the herbicide sprayer attached to it for the purpose of applying herbicide to the vines on a farm,” the ruling states. “Subject to verification, which is a matter for the referring court, it thus appears that such use is principally connected with the function of that tractor as a machine for carrying out work and not as a means of transport, and, therefore, is not covered by the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of the First Directive.”

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