The meaning of “use”

Car blurred
What constitutes “use” of a vehicle? On the face of it, this seems like a straightforward question to which there should be a straightforward answer. The volume of English and European case law on the issue, however, illustrates that to date it has been anything but. In the 2015 European Court of Justice case of Vnuk v Zavarovalnica Triglav, it was held that in order for a motor insurance to be triggered, the accident had to have been caused by or arisen out of the “use” of the car in the sense that it was a use consistent with the car’s normal function.

In UK Insurance Limited v R&S Pilling T/As Phoenix Engineering, a mechanic obtained permission from his employer, Phoenix, to use Phoenix’s loading bay to carry out some work to his own car. In the course of the work, sparks from welding ignited flammable material in the car. The fire caught hold and caused substantial damage to premises belonging to Phoenix and also to neighbouring premises. Phoenix’s property insurer paid the property damage claim and then brought a subrogated claim against the mechanic. At first instance it was held that it was not a normal function (per Vnuk) of a car to undergo repair and therefore there was no liability on the part of the insurer.

The Court of Appeal has now overturned that decision, finding that the insurance policy in question should not be limited by reference to the provisions of the relevant road traffic legislation requiring compulsory insurance – meaning that coverage was not limited to the use of a vehicle on a road or in a public place and there was no requirement for the insured to be in the vehicle at the time of the accident. Moreover, the repair to the car constituted “use” of the vehicle in accordance with the reasoning in Vnuk – meaning that it was consistent with the normal function of the vehicle.

The Court of Appeal also provided some helpful guidance on the meaning of “use”, taking into account the English and European jurisprudence on the issue. They confirmed that “use” is not confined to the actual operation of the car in the sense of it being driven and that there may be “use” of a car when it is parked or even immobilised and incapable of being driven in the immediate future.