On 12 October 2023, the European Court of Justice (the "ECJ") responded to a request for preliminary ruling from the Belgian Court of Cassation (the "Referring Court"). The Referring Court's request emanated from civil proceedings between KBC Verzekeringen NV ("KBC") and P&V Verzekeringen CVBA ("P&V"). The main point of contention throughout these proceedings was whether a Pedelec – which is an electric bicycle whose engine is only used to provide either pedalling assistance or a speed boost whilst in motion – constitutes to a 'vehicle' as defined under the EU Directive 2009/103/EC relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles (the "Directive").
On 14 October 2017, a Belgian individual was struck by a car whilst riding a Pedelec, incurring injuries so serious that they eventually led to his passing on 11 April 2018. Within this context, P&V was the occupational accident insurer of the victim's former employer, whereas KBC was the insurer of the car which struck the victim. Since the accident fell within the scope of the insurance policy held by the victim's employer, P&V compensated the victim's successors in title, and subsequently filed an action against KBC before the Police Court in Bruges for the reimbursement of its expenses relating to this accident. P&V claimed to be entitled to do so because, under Belgian Law, any damage incurred by victims of traffic accidents who were not driving a vehicle, is to be compensated by the insurers of the motor vehicles involved in the accident. KBC lodged a counterclaim to this action, stating that they should not have reimbursed P&V since the victim was riding a Pedelec when the accident occurred, which they interpret to constitute to a motor vehicle under Belgian law. The Police Court resolved in favour of P&V's stance, as it deemed that Pedelecs do not constitute to motor vehicles as KBC claimed. KBC appealed the judgement and brought it before the Court of First Instance in Bruges, followed by a counter-appeal by P&V before the same court. The Court of First Instance agreed with the Police Court as it upheld P&V's cross-appeal whilst dismissing KBC's appeal. KBC eventually brought the case before the Referring Court, arguing that the definition of a 'vehicle', as transposed from the Directive into Belgian law, only excludes vehicles that are exclusively propelled by muscular power from its scope. Therefore, in line with their reasoning, Pedelecs, which are partially propelled by mechanical power, would still qualify to be 'vehicles' under Belgian law. In response, the Referring Court opted to stay the proceedings and referred this case's point of contention to the ECJ.
The ECJ's Assessment
In commencement of its considerations, the ECJ firstly pointed out how the term 'vehicle' is defined in Article 1(1) of the Directive to refer to, "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'. In this regard, the ECJ explained that, at face value, this definition refers to vehicles that are meant to be means of transportation which utilizes mechanical power, apart from vehicles that run on rails. The ECJ also mentioned how this interpretation is not sufficient for the context at hand, as this definition does not indicate whether the vehicles in question need to be exclusively propelled by mechanical power so as to fall within said definition.
Faced with this insufficiency, the ECJ referred to the various versions of Article 1(1) of the Directive as interpreted and transposed by the EU Member States within their own languages. The interpretations of Article 1(1) as transposed in French, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch favour KBC's argument, as they state that a vehicle 'may' be propelled by mechanical power, implying that this requirement is not exhaustive vis-à-vis the definition's scope. On the other hand, other versions, such as the Spanish, German, English and Greek versions, are worded in a manner which do not convey the same implications as their counterparts.
Considering the differing transpositions of this definition amongst EU Member States, the ECJ opted to interpret the term in light of the Directive's overall context and spirit, so as to better understand what the EU legislators intended whilst drafting this definition. With this in mind, the ECJ identified three instances from the Directive which shed light on the matter at hand.
Firstly, recital 2 of the Directive makes reference to the term 'motor insurance', which typically encompasses insurance against civil liability incurred whilst using vehicles such as cars, trucks or motorcycles – all of which are exclusively propelled mechanically. Secondly, Article 13(1)(b) of the Directive prohibits any motor insurance policy from including a clause which indemnifies the insurer from compensating the liability incurred by victims when the insured vehicle was driven by someone who did not possess a valid and appropriate driving license. According to the ECJ, this provision implies that the vehicles being considered within this Directive are ones which require their driver to possess a driving license, something which is not required for one to drive Pedelecs. Thirdly, the ECJ notes that the Directive essentially strives to protect victims of accidents caused by motor vehicles by ensuring that they receive proper treatment irrespective of where the accident occurred within the EU. In this regard, Pedelecs typically have a maximum speed of 20km/h without pedalling, which is not comparable to the maximum speed of motorcycles, cars or trucks. This implies that the use of Pedelecs is significantly less prone to cause the level of bodily and material damage that is expected in accidents involving motorcycles or cars, which can achieve much higher speeds.
In consideration of all the above, the ECJ's conclusion favoured P&V, as it confirmed that a Pedelec does not qualify as a 'vehicle' as defined in Article 1(1) of the Directive.
This article was first published in The Malta Independent on 18/10/2023.
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