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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: May 2024

Adventures in the Law: Can You Operate a Parked Car?

Norm Tabler


  • Having car insurance is a mandatory requirement.
  • Does a car have to be turned on to be considered that you are operating it?
  • Is a parked car considered to be operated by the person in the driver's seat?
Adventures in the Law: Can You Operate a Parked Car?

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Virtually all of us have sat in the driver’s seat of a parked car thousands of times. On these occasions, were we operating the car? Or does the car need to be moving in order for us to be operating it?

Was the engine running? If it wasn’t, were we nevertheless operating the car? Or does the engine need to be running for that to be the case?

How about the condition of the engine? If the parked car's engine was dead, were we operating the car?

Where was the car, and how did it get there? If I sit in the driver’s seat of a car with a dead engine long parked in my garage, presumably, I am not operating it. But what if I had driven it several miles on the highway when it died, and I pulled onto the shoulder? As I sit there reflecting on my bad luck, am I operating the car?

Who cares? you’re thinking. Well, right now, one court does because it’s deciding a case that raises these very questions. And insurance coverage, money, and public policy are possibly at stake.

One fine day, Robert climbed into his car and drove for about 50 minutes before pulling onto the shoulder and stopping. While Robert sat in his parked car, the engine of Neal’s truck died. Neal guided his dying truck onto the shoulder—the same shoulder and spot where Robert’s car was parked. Neal’s truck collided with Robert’s car.

When Robert sued Neal and Neal’s employer, seeking damages for pain and suffering, it came to light that Robert had never bothered to insure his car, despite a statute in his state mandating insurance. The trial court dismissed Robert’s claim, citing a provision of the state’s insurance law barring noneconomic damages for drivers operating uninsured vehicles.

Robert appealed, arguing that he was not operating an uninsured car. He explained that he was merely sitting in the car, not operating it. The car's engine was dead, and, he argued, no one could operate a car with a dead engine.

The appeals court found enough merit in Robert’s argument to reverse the trial court and rule that a jury should determine whether Robert was operating his car.

In an argument before that state’s supreme court, Robert’s lawyer advocated a “dictionary definition” of operate. He also cited a recent decision involving a delivery driver who had put his truck in park as he prepared to exit it to make his delivery. The court ruled that he was not operating the vehicle at that moment.

Neal’s lawyer pushed for a broad definition of operating; the one used in the state’s drunk driving law:

Once a person using a motor vehicle has put the motor vehicle in motion or a position posing a significant risk of collision, such a person continues to operate the vehicle until the vehicle is returned to a position posing no such risk.

Neal’s lawyer also focused on public policy considerations. The legislature had a sound reason for mandating that uninsured drivers be prohibited from suing for damages: They shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from a system that they refuse—illegally—to contribute to.

In this case, Neal’s lawyer continued, Robert was trying to do precisely what the legislature wanted to prevent: benefit from a system he refused to support. Robert had knowingly driven an uninsured car for nearly an hour before pulling onto the shoulder. It shouldn’t matter whether his car was moving or stopped at the moment of collision or whether the engine was dead.

Apparently persuaded by that argument, one justice added that the court had only Robert’s word that his engine was dead. “It seems to me the evidence on that is pretty thin.”