What does it mean to operate a motor vehicle?  It seems to be a simple question.  Get a bunch of lawyers and judges involved, and it becomes anything but.  Although alleged drunk driving cases are where this question is asked most often, this week’s "Case of the Week" asks it in a different setting.

What about when that motor vehicle is attacked by a swarm of bees?

Unhappy Hive

One May day in 2009, Michael Corpus called animal control for the city of McAllen, Tex.  It seems he was having a bit of a problem with a beehive.

City of McAllen Animal Control Officer Roberto Mata responded to the call, and upon arrival at the scene, Mr. Corpus asked Officer Mata to accompany him to the hive with the swarming army of displeased bees.

Possibly remembering what happened to the fools who tried to approach the Death Star in Star Wars, Officer Mata said something along the lines of: “I don't think so; Homey don’t play that,” and refused.  Officer Mata insisted Mr. Corpus accompany him to the hive.

So the two gentlemen entered Officer Mata’s animal control vehicle, equipped with animal protection equipment.  Officer Mata donned protective gear and approached the hive of danger, but he instructed Mr. Corpus to remain safely in the animal control vessel as the engine remained running.

Things would have been just fine and dandy had Officer Mata not done something that may have been somewhat unwise.

Insects Attack!

Not unlike a Saturday Morning Super Hero—decked out in protective gear as he makes Saturday mornings safe for kiddie sales of sugary cereal and overpriced toys—Officer Mata approached the hive in his protective animal control gear.  Then, the swashbuckling hero of animal protection began spraying the bees.

Guess what happened next?

Shockingly, the bees attacked.  But, no worries.  Officer Mata was protected by his animal control gear.  The problem was what Officer Mata did next.

To escape the mighty swarm, Officer Mata ran to the truck, opened the door, and hopped in.

The only problem, of course, was that, when he opened the door to the animal control truck, he let in a bunch of very angry bees…who proceeded to have a field day biting the [expletive deleted] out of the unprotected corpus of Mr. Corpus.

Mr. Corpus was not amused.

What do unamused people do in this column?  They sue.

The Law of Bees and Cars

Mr. Corpus sued the city of McAllen, alleging Officer Mata’s negligent operation of his city-owned vehicle cased serious injuries to Mr. Corpus.

Operating a motor vehicle?  What about spraying the bee hive and opening the truck door so the bees could turn Mr. Corpus into a walking, talking pin cushion.

Actually, Mr. Corpus had a smart lawyer.

You see, government entities are usually only liable in civil suits if they waive what lawyers call “sovereign immunity,” the government’s immunity from legal actions.  Governments waive sovereign immunity for certain activities.  Basically, you can sue the government only if the government says you can sue the government.

One of the exceptions to sovereign immunity in Texas is for operation of motor vehicles.  If Mr. Corpus’ lawyer could show Officer Mata was operating the animal control truck, then he would have a case under the exception to sovereign immunity.

So just what does it take to be “operating” a motor vehicle.

If you asked a bunch of convicted drunk drivers, they would probably tell you Officer Mata was operating the animal control truck.  That’s because courts have held that, to be guilty of drunk driving, all one must do is sit in the driver’s seat with the key in the ignition.

Bud or Bees?

For instance, in People v. Wood, Andrew Wood had a very unfortunate night at McDonald’s.  When he pulled up to the drive-up window in his van, he passed out…with his car running…and—giving new meaning to the phrase, “This Bud’s for you”—he had a can of Budweiser between his legs.  At least it wasn’t hot coffee.  Oh yeah, he also had a cooler full of marijuana on the front seat.

The legal story from the bad night at the Golden Arches wasn’t so bad for Mr. Wood at first.  Both a trial court and an intermediate state appellate court threw out the evidence against him, holding he was not “operating” his van at the time of the arrest and search.

However, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed both courts and held Mr. Wood was operating the motor vehicle even though his van wasn’t moving, and he had his foot on the brake.  Noting that his van was running and in drive, the state’s high court held he was operating the vehicle because he had put the vehicle in motion, was still in control of it, and the vehicle still posed a danger to the public.  In doing so, the court reversed two previous Michigan cases that held one could not be sleeping and operating a motor vehicle at the same time.

“Actual physical control” of the vehicle is the standard used by many jurisdictions, and in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada, that control can be maintained while sleeping. 

Putting the key in the ignition will get you in some states, including Vermont.  In the Vermont Supreme Court case, State v. Helton, one hapless, inebriated fellow was convicted of DUI for merely putting his keys in the ignition to roll up his car windows…after he had gone to retrieve his vodka from the car. 

Note to self: Appoint a designated sober window operator.

So what about Officer Mata, was he in control of the vehicle and thus operating it for purposes of Mr. Corpus’ bee attack case?

Departing from the case law of other states, both the trial court and the Texas Thirteenth Court of Appeals said "no."

“The animal control truck was not in operation; it was parked. Corpus was injured when the bees entered the cab of the truck where he happened to be sitting. Although we do not condone Mata opening the truck door and exposing a passenger not wearing protective gear to agitated bees, we nonetheless cannot conclude that Corpus's injuries resulted from the operation or the use of the truck,” Judge Nelda Rodriguez wrote for the court.

So for this week, we’ve established that you are operating a vehicle in Michigan if you’re asleep at the wheel in the McDonald’s drive-through with weed on the seat and Budweiser between your legs, but that you’re not operating a running vehicle in Texas with a swarm of bees on the seat and between your legs.

Either way, it’s not a Happy Meal.

David Horrigan is a Washington, DC, attorney, analyst at The 451 Group, editorial director at courtweek.com, and former staff reporter and assistant editor at The National Law Journal.  His articles have appeared also in Law Technology News, The American Lawyer, The New York Law Journal, Corporate Counsel, Texas Lawyer, Florida Lawyer, and Daily Business Review. E-Mail: dhorrigan@courtweek.com