Applying Alabama’s Guest-Passenger Statute to ATVs
I was recently confronted with a situation in which I had to determine whether the driver of an all-terrain vehicle could be liable for an injury sustained by his passenger when he wrecked the ATV upon entering a highway. If the situation had involved a car, truck, or other vehicle made to operate on highways, the answer would have been easy – unless the driver was acting recklessly, no.
Alabama has a law commonly known as the guest-passenger statute (Alabama Code (1975) § 32-1-2) whereby the operator of a motor vehicle is not liable for loss or damaging arising from injuries to or death of a guest while being transported. There are certain caveats. If the death or injury was a result of driver’s willful or wanton misconduct, he can still be liable. If the guest has paid for the transportation, the driver can be liable.
The fly in the ointment in my scenario was whether Alabama law recognizes ATVs as motor vehicles. The State of Alabama defines a motor vehicle (in pertinent part) as: “Every self-propelled vehicle which is designed for use upon a highway.” Alabama Code (1975) § 32-7-2. That definition does not specifically answer the question. An four-wheeler is certainly self-propelled, but not necessarily designed for use upon the highway. However, Alabama courts have interpreted the law to include ATVs: “The plain, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning of the term ‘motor vehicle’ includes a four-wheeler,” because it is a self-propelled machine. Johnson v. State, 82 So.3d 776, 780 (Ala.Crim.App. 2011).
In the situation that confronted me, the driver of the four-wheeler likely would not be liable for injuries of his passenger.