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A recent decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union holds that fire damage, caused by a car catching fire more than 24 hours after it has been parked in a garage, was “use of a vehicle”

By 17th July 2019 No Comments

OPINION OF ADVOCATE GENERAL

BOT

delivered on 28 February 2019 (1)

Case C100/18

Línea Directa Aseguradora, S.A.

v

Segurcaixa, Sociedad Anónima de Seguros y Reaseguros

(Request for a preliminary ruling from the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court, Spain))

(Reference for a preliminary ruling — Insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles — Directive 2009/103/EC — Article 3, first paragraph — Concept of ‘use of vehicles’ — Damage to property as a result of a fire in a vehicle parked in the private garage of the property — Compulsory insurance cover)

 

I.      Introduction

1.        The request for a preliminary ruling from the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court, Spain) concerns the interpretation of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 September 2009 relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles, and the enforcement of the obligation to insure against such liability. (2)

2.        This request was lodged in the context of a dispute between two insurance companies, Línea Directa Aseguradora, S.A. (‘Línea Directa’) and Segurcaixa, Sociedad Anónima de Seguros y Reaseguros (‘Segurcaixa’), in respect of motor vehicle insurance cover for damage caused to a private dwelling by a fire in a vehicle parked in its garage.

3.        The questions raised by the referring court concern whether the concept of ‘use of vehicles’, set out in the first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103, can be interpreted as applicable to circumstances in which a vehicle caught fire when it had been parked in a private parking space for over twenty-four hours and, according to that court, where the fire originated in the mechanisms necessary to performing the transport function of the vehicle.

4.        My analysis will conclude that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ should be interpreted as applicable to an accident involving a vehicle, used consistently with its function as a means of transport, in a parking space intended for that purpose.

5.        I will propose that the facts in the main proceedings do not justify any adjustments to the definition of that concept, whether it be a spatial limit excluding parking in a private lock-up garage, a time limit between materialisation of the risk and the earlier movement of the parked vehicle, or a causal limit pertaining to the mechanical origin of the accident.

II.    Legal context

A.      EU law

6.        Article 1(1), of Directive 2009/103 provides:

‘For the purposes of this Directive:

(1)      “vehicle” means any motor vehicle intended for travel on land and propelled by mechanical power, but not running on rails, and any trailer, whether or not coupled;’

7.        Article 3 of that Directive provides:

‘Each Member State shall, subject to Article 5, take all appropriate measures to ensure that civil liability in respect of the use of vehicles normally based in its territory is covered by insurance.

The extent of the liability covered and the terms and conditions of the cover shall be determined on the basis of the measures referred to in the first paragraph.

The insurance referred to in the first paragraph shall cover compulsorily both damage to property and personal injuries.’

8.        The first paragraph of Article 13(1)(c) of that Directive provides:

‘Each Member State shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that any statutory provision or any contractual clause contained in an insurance policy issued in accordance with Article 3 shall be deemed to be void in respect of claims by third parties who have been victims of an accident where that statutory provision or contractual clause excludes from insurance the use or driving of vehicles by:

(c)      persons who are in breach of the statutory technical requirements concerning the condition and safety of the vehicle concerned.’

9.        Article 29 of that Directive provides:

‘Directives 72/166/EEC [(3)], 84/5/EEC [(4)], 90/232/EEC [(5)], 2000/26/EC [(6)] and 2005/14/EC [(7)] … are hereby repealed …

References to the repealed Directives shall be construed as references to this Directive and shall be read in accordance with the correlation table in Annex II.’

B.      Spanish law

10.      Article 1(1) of the Ley sobre responsabilidad civil y seguro en la circulación de vehículos a motor (Law on civil liability and motor vehicle insurance), as codified by the Real Decreto Legislativo 8/2004 (Royal Legislative Decree 8/2004) of 29 October 2004, (8) in the version applicable to the facts, provides:

‘Because of the risk involved in driving motor vehicles, drivers shall be liable for damage caused to persons or property as a consequence of its use.

Drivers shall be exempt from liability for damage to persons only upon proving that the damage is exclusively due to the fault of the victim or to force majeure unconnected with the driving or operation of the vehicle; vehicle defects or breakdown or failure of any of its mechanisms or parts are not considered cases of force majeure.

The driver shall be liable to third parties for damage to property if he bears civil liability under the provisions of Article 1902 et seq. of the Código Civil (Spanish Civil Code), Article 109 et seq. of the Código Penal (Spanish Criminal Code) or the provisions of this Law.

If both the driver and the victim have been negligent, liability shall beImage not found apportioned fairly and compensation calculated on the basis of the liability of each party.

Vehicle owners who were not driving and are related to the driver in one of the ways set out in Article 1903 of the Civil Code and Article 120(5) of the Criminal Code shall be liable for any physical injury or damage to property caused by the driver. The owner shall not be liable upon providing proof that he acted with all due care to prevent the damage.

If the owner of a vehicle who was not driving is not covered by compulsory insurance, he shall bear joint civil liability with the driver for any physical injury or damage to property caused by the vehicle, unless he proves that the vehicle was stolen.’

11.      Article 2(1) of the Reglamento del seguro obligatorio de responsabilidad civil en la circulación de vehículos a motor (Regulation on compulsory civil liability insurance in respect of the use of motor vehicles), as codified by Real Decreto 1507/2008 (Royal Decree No 1507/2008) of 12 September 2008, (9) provides:

‘For the purposes of civil liability in respect of motor vehicles and the compulsory insurance cover governed by this Regulation, incidents arising from use of a vehicle refer to any incident stemming from the risk created by the use of motor vehicles referred to in the previous article, both in garages and parking areas and on public and private roads, or terrain suitable for traffic, urban and interurban, and on roads or terrain which, although unsuitable, are in general use.’

III. The facts of the dispute in the main proceedings and the questions referred for a preliminary ruling

12.      On the afternoon of 19 August 2013, Luis Salazar Rodes parked his vehicle, which he had purchased 10 days earlier, in the garage of a private dwelling owned by Industrial Software Indusoft.

13.      On the afternoon of 20 August 2013, Luis Salazar Rodes started the car, but it did not move.

14.      Some hours later, at approximately 3 a.m., Mr Salazar Rodes’ vehicle, which had not been driven for over 24 hours, caught fire and damaged the house adjoining the garage. The fire originated in the electrical circuit of the vehicle.

15.      The civil liability in respect of the use of the vehicle belonging to Luis Salazar Rodes was covered by the insurance taken out with Línea Directa.

16.      The owner of the private dwelling, Industrial Software Indusoft, which had taken out a home insurance policy with Segurcaixa, received compensation of EUR 44 704.34 for damage caused to the house by the fire in the vehicle in question.

17.      On 5 March 2014, Segurcaixa brought an action against Línea Directa before the Juzgado de Primera Instancia de Vitoria-Gasteiz (Court of First Instance, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain) seeking an order that this insurance company pay the sum of EUR 44 704.34, together with statutory interest, on the grounds that the accident originated in a use of a vehicle covered by the vehicle insurance of Luis Salazar Rodes. That court held that the fire could not be qualified as ‘use’ covered by the vehicle insurance and rejected Segurcaixa’s claim.

18.      Segurcaixa appealed the judgment. The Audiencia Provincial de Álava (Provincial Court of Alava, Spain) set aside the decision and upheld Segurcaixa’s claim, adopting a broad interpretation of the concept of ‘use of a vehicle’, (10) whereby ‘a fire in a vehicle parked in a non-permanent way by its owner in a parking space, when the combustion is the result of causes intrinsic to the vehicle without the interference of an act of a third party constitutes use of a vehicle’.

19.      Línea Directa lodged an appeal on a point of law against that judgment before the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court).

20.      That court stated that the Spanish law transposing Directive 2009/103 identifies the objective scope of civil liability in respect of the use of vehicles, to which Article 3 of that Directive refers, and regards ‘acts classifiable as the use of a vehicle’ to be ‘acts attendant upon the risk created by the driving of motor vehicles’, both in garages and parking areas and on public and private roads or terrain suitable for use by motor vehicles, urban or interurban, and on roads or terrain which, although unsuitable, are ordinarily so used.

21.      The Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court) added that in accordance with this broad interpretation of the risk resulting from the use of motor vehicles, cases where a vehicle is at a stop or whose engine has been stopped were covered by compulsory insurance when the incident was connected with the transport function of the vehicle, as well as cases where a vehicle has caught fire during a journey.

22.      However, it excluded cases where a vehicle caught fire when stationary and protected by frost covers.

23.      The Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court) specifies that although, under Spanish law, the driver of a vehicle is not liable for damage due to force majeure, defects in the vehicle or failure of any of its mechanisms do not constitute force majeure. Moreover, if the accident were the result of a defect in the vehicle, that fact alone would not preclude the compulsory insurance cover, nor a claim against the manufacturer if the conditions were fulfilled.

24.      That court is therefore asking whether a finding that motor insurance covers an accident involving a vehicle parked in the garage of a private dwelling and which has its engine switched off, with no direct connection with use and when it posed no risk to road users, is compatible with Directive 2009/103/EC. The case might more easily be said to fall within the scope of liability of the owner of something potentially dangerous.

25.      Nevertheless, the referring court notes that the objective of protecting the victims of accidents caused by vehicles, as pursued by EU legislation, could justify coverage of the consequences of a fire in a stationary vehicle if it originated in a function necessary to, or useful for driving the vehicle, that situation thus being connected to the normal transport function of the vehicle.

26.      However, there may be circumstances in which a parked vehicle does not fall within the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ when, owing to the lack of proximity in time between the earlier use of the vehicle and the accident or to the way in which the accident took place, there is no direct connection between the risk and the use of the vehicle.

27.      In this respect, the referring court highlights that an interpretation omitting a temporal connection between the earlier use of the vehicle and the occurrence of the accident could result in compulsory insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles being placed on the same footing as homeowner’s insurance covering liability arising from the mere possession or ownership of a vehicle.

28.      In those circumstances, the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘(1)      Does Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 preclude an interpretation that includes in the compulsory insurance cover damage caused by a fire in a stationary vehicle when the fire has its origin in the mechanisms necessary to performing the transport function of the vehicle?

(2)      If the answer to the first question is negative, does Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 preclude an interpretation that includes in the compulsory insurance cover damage caused by a fire in a vehicle when the fire cannot be linked to previous movement of the vehicle, in such a way that no connection with a journey can be discerned?

(3)      If the answer to the second question is negative, does Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 preclude an interpretation that includes in the compulsory insurance cover the damage caused by a fire in a vehicle when the vehicle is parked in a closed private garage?’

IV.    My assessment

A.      Admissibility of the first referred question

29.      Línea Directa argues that the first referred question is inadmissible on grounds of its hypothetical nature. In essence, that insurance company argues that the referring court has assumed that the fire had its origin in the mechanisms necessary to performing the transport function of the vehicle, whereas this is not borne out by the facts in the main proceedings. According to Línea Directa, only the fact that the fire originated in the vehicle’s electrical circuit has been established.

30.      According to settled case-law of the Court, ‘it is solely for the national court before which the dispute has been brought, and which must assume responsibility for the subsequent judicial decision, to determine in the light of the particular circumstances of the case both the need for a preliminary ruling in order to enable it to deliver judgment and the relevance of the questions which it submits to the Court. Consequently, where the questions submitted concern the interpretation of a rule of EU law, the Court is in principle bound to give a ruling … It follows that questions concerning EU law enjoy a presumption of relevance. The Court may refuse to rule on a question referred for a preliminary ruling by a national court only where it is quite obvious that the interpretation of EU law that is sought bears no relation to the actual facts of the main action or its purpose, where the problem is hypothetical, or where the Court does not have before it the factual or legal material necessary to give a useful answer to the questions submitted …’. (11)

31.      This is not the case here. The facts of the case as described by the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court), which led it to question the scope of compulsory vehicle insurance, are not limited to the origin of the fire in the vehicle in question. The requested interpretation of the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ needs to be given to rule on the case. Its relevance, in light of previous judgments of the Court, has been demonstrated.

32.      Therefore, I propose that the Court consider this first question admissible.

B.      Substance

33.      In its questions for a preliminary ruling, which should be examined together, the referring court asks, in essence, whether the first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 should be interpreted as meaning that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers a situation in which a fire originating in the electrical circuit of a vehicle parked in a private garage for over twenty-four hours caused damage to the house adjoining the garage.

34.      The referring court highlights that the case, involving an accident in a vehicle which had been parked for some time in a private parking area, is the first of its kind in the case-law of the Court.

35.      Although some insight can be gleaned from the Court’s earlier decisions, the provisions of the first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 must be examined anew to determine whether the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers a spontaneous fire in a parked vehicle that had not been in motion immediately beforehand.

36.      In the first place, it should be noted that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ is an autonomous concept of EU law that cannot be left to the assessment of each Member State and must be interpreted in light of the context and the objectives pursued by rules on civil liability insurance in respect of the use of motor vehicles. (12)

37.      In the second place, it is apparent that the interpretation of that concept has developed according to the various situations brought to the Court’s attention.

38.      The Court has ruled that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers any use of a vehicle that is consistent with the normal function of that vehicle, namely with its function as a means of transport. (13)

39.      Accordingly, the Court has found that situations in which a vehicle is stationary in a parking space, (14) regardless of whether the engine is running at the time of the accident, (15) can be regarded as being covered by the compulsory insurance.

40.      The Court has also ruled that the use of a vehicle consistent with its function as a means of transport is not limited to driving, but extends to related acts, such as passengers using the doors to get out of a parked vehicle. (16)

41.      Similarly, the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers any situation where a vehicle is used, not only on public roads, but also on public or private land, (17) and the scope of that concept does not depend on the characteristics of the terrain on which the vehicle is used. (18)

42.      Therefore, as the case-law of the Court stands, there is no doubt that this concept covers situations in which damage has been caused when the vehicle was parked in a private area intended for that purpose.

43.      However, the common factor in the various cases referred to the Court is the involvement of a vehicle that was either in use or had just been used.

44.      The only real question is whether the fact that the vehicle was not used within a sufficiently short time preceding the accident may constitute grounds to exclude the protection afforded by EU legislation on civil liability in respect of the use of vehicles and, if the answer to that question is negative, whether a technical causal link should be required.

45.      I am of the opinion that there are three reasons to answer the main question in the negative. First, it may be noted that, with regard to the implementation of protection for the victims of accidents caused by vehicles, the EU legislature has not provided for limits in relation to when the accident occurs.

46.      Secondly, the history of the case-law of the Court shows that its aim is to give effect to this objective of protection, which has been consistently pursued and strengthened by the EU legislature, (19) whenever a vehicle, the definition of which the Court recently restated, (20) is used or is intended to be used consistently with its function as a means of transport.

47.      Thirdly, I am of the opinion that a case-by-case analysis of when the vehicle was last used would be a source of legal uncertainty, which would run counter to the above objective.

48.      I conclude that only circumstances in which an accident occurs when the vehicle is or has been used for a purpose other than transport, for example as a machine for carrying out work (21) or as a weapon, or even as living accommodation, do not fall within the meaning of ‘use of vehicles’.

49.      If the Court follows the case-law and holds it to be immaterial that the accident did not occur in the immediate aftermath of its use as a means of transport, and the mere fact that the vehicle was parked is sufficient for it to fall within the scope of the ‘use of vehicles’, in order to respond to the referring court’s first question, it remains to be decided whether limits should be set as to the origin of the damage, namely the mechanisms of the vehicle necessary to performing the transport function of the vehicle.

50.      First, it should be noted that the European Union legislature has not laid down any such conditions. Secondly, given the specific factual circumstances of the main proceedings, namely a spontaneous fire caused by a vehicle, I am of the opinion that a finding that the vehicle was involved is sufficient, as would be the case in an accidental explosion of the vehicle or if the damage had been caused by a chemical or fluid which had leaked from the vehicle. (22)

51.      Since that type of risk is inherent in the transport function of the vehicle, there is no need to seek any specific action or source of the damage caused by any particular mechanism or part of the vehicle necessary or useful to performing the transport function of the vehicle.

52.      Such an interpretation (23) is consistent with the objective pursued by the European Union legislature to ensure that victims of accidents caused by vehicles receive comparable treatment irrespective of where in the European Union the accident occurred, (24) which has led it, moreover, to refrain from introducing limits on the risks covered by motor vehicle insurance, in particular when the vehicle is in breach of the statutory technical requirements concerning the condition and safety of the vehicle concerned, resulting from the first paragraph of Article 13(1)(c) of Directive 2009/103.

53.      I am therefore of the opinion that a vehicle, used consistently with its function as a means of transport, could be said to be involved in an accident merely upon a finding that it contributed in some way to its occurrence.

54.      Hence, it is my opinion that the first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103 may be interpreted as meaning that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers a situation in which a vehicle, used consistently with its function as a means of transport, is involved in a fire occurring in an area intended for parking, regardless of the fact that it occurred in a private garage or that the vehicle had been stationary for a long period.

V.      Conclusion

55.      In the light of the foregoing, I propose that the Court answer the questions referred for a preliminary ruling by the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court, Spain) as follows:

The first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 2009/103/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 September 2009 relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles, and the enforcement of the obligation to insure against such liability, must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ covers a situation in which a vehicle, used consistently with its function as a means of transport, is involved in a fire occurring in an area intended for parking, regardless of the fact that it occurred in a private garage or that the vehicle had been stationary for a long period.


1      Original language: French.


2      OJ 2009 L 263, p. 11


3      Council Directive of 24 April 1972 on the approximation of the laws of Member States relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles, and to the enforcement of the obligation to insure against such liability (OJ 1972 L 103, p. 1).


4      Second Council Directive of 30 December 1983 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles (OJ 1984 L 8, p. 17).


5      Third Council Directive of 14 May 1990 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles (OJ 1990 L 129, p. 33).


6      Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 May 2000 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles and amending Council Directives 73/239/EEC and 88/357/EEC (Fourth motor insurance Directive) (OJ 2000 L 181, p. 65).


7      Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 May 2005 amending Council Directives 72/166/EEC, 84/5/EEC, 88/357/EEC and 90/232/EEC and Directive 2000/26/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles (OJ 2005 L 149, p. 14).


8      BOE No 267 of 5 November 2004 p. 36662.


9      BOE No 222 of 13 September 2008, p. 37487.


10      See point 11 of this Opinion, regarding this concept as laid down in Spanish law.


11      See, in particular, judgment of 10 December 2018, Wightman and Others (C‑621/18, EU:C:2018:999, paragraphs 26 and 27 and the case-law cited).


12      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraph 31 and the case-law cited).


13      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraph 44). According to the correlation table in Annex II of Directive 2009/103, the first sentence of the first paragraph of Article 3 of Directive 72/166, referred to in this paragraph, corresponds to the first paragraph of Article 3 of the latter, which applies in the present case (see point 9 of this Opinion). See also, European Commission Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2009/103 (COM(2018) 336 final), in particular Article 1 of that Directive, by inserting a paragraph 1b into Article 1 of Directive 2009/103 containing a definition of “use of a vehicle” to take account of the case-law of the Court and for reasons of legal certainty.


14      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraphs 37, 38 and 40 and the case-law cited).


15      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraph 39 and case-law cited).


16      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraphs 36 and 45).


17      See the facts of the case in the judgments of 4 September 2014, Vnuk, (C‑162/13, EU:C:2014:2146, paragraphs 19 and 59. It involved a manoeuvre in the courtyard of a farm), and of 28 November 2017, Rodrigues de Andrade (C‑514/16, EU:C:2017:908, paragraphs 7 and 9. The accident occurred in the vineyard of agricultural holders).


18      See judgment of 20 December 2017, Núñez Torreiro (C‑334/16, EU:C:2017:1007, paragraph 30 and the case-law cited).


19      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraph 33 and the case-law cited).


20      See judgement of 4 September 2018, Juliana (C‑80/17, EU:C:2018:661, paragraphs 39 and 42).


21      See judgement of 28 November 2017, Rodrigues de Andrade (C‑514/16, EU:C:2017:908, paragraphs 40 and 42).


22      See, by way of illustration, pending case Bueno Ruiz (C‑431/18), relating to the damage caused to a driver by an oil leak from a vehicle parked next to her own, which caused her to slip and fall.


23      To approximate the written submissions of the European Commission and Spanish legislation (see point 23 of this Opinion).


24      See judgment of 15 November 2018, BTA Baltic Insurance Company (C‑648/17, EU:C:2018:917, paragraph 32 and the case-law cited). See also, considering recital 20 of Directive 2009/103 and the explanatory memorandum in the Commission’s proposal, as cited in footnote 13 of this Opinion, also intending to enhance the protection of traffic accident victims where the insurer is insolvent and to improve the recognition of claims history statements, especially in a cross-border context. This proposal also addresses the issue of insurance checks to prevent uninsured driving and the harmonisation of minimum amounts of cover (p. 2).

Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly

Tim is a highly qualified Independent Engineer with over 20 years experience as an Engineering Assessor of damaged vehicles.