Washington Supreme Court Rules that People on Bikes are Pedestrians for Insurance Purposes

December 10, 2020

Today, after a very long fight, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that our client was improperly denied no-fault medical payments by his own car insurance company after he was doored by a driver and injured while riding his bicycle.

Our client purchased car insurance in California, but was living in Washington and was involved in a collision in Washington. His insurance said it provided coverage for him “as a pedestrian struck by [] a motor vehicle” and the policy did not define the word “pedestrian.”

Nevertheless, the insurer denied coverage based on definitions of “pedestrian” in dictionaries and the Rules of the Road in California and Washington that exclude people riding bicycles.

We asked it to reconsider, reminding it that people on bikes are frequently referred to as pedestrians, but it refused.

We then notified the Washington Insurance Commissioner of possible bad faith on the part of the insurer, but still the insurer would not budge. We then sued the insurance company.

Unfortunately, the trial court sided with the insurance company and dismissed our client’s claim on summary judgement. We then appealed, with the the appellate law firm of Talmadge/Fitzpatrick providing invaluable support in briefing and at oral arguments.

Sadly, the Division One of the Court of Appeals again sided with the insurance company and upheld the trial court’s dismissal. Worse still, other insurance companies began to use the Court of Appeals’ published opinion to deny other claims by people who were struck by cars while riding bicycles.

Today, the Washington Supreme Court reversed, noting what should have been controlling in the prior decisions:

The policy does not define “pedestrian,” but our legislature has defined “pedestrian” for purposes of casualty insurance in Washington as follows: “‘Pedestrian’ means a natural person not occupying a motor vehicle…”

The Court reasoned that the statutory definition of pedestrian in the insurance context controlled insurance coverage, rather than the definition of pedestrian in the Rules of the Road. It noted:

This court has long acknowledged that insurance policies . . . are simply unlike traditional contracts, i.e., they are not purely private affairs but abound with public policy considerations, one of which is that the risk-spreading theory of such policies should operate to afford to affected members of the public . . . the maximum protection possible consonant with fairness to the insurer.

The Court concluded:

Here, … an insured would expect to be covered when injured in a collision with an automobile whether the insured was walking, skateboarding, using a wheelchair, standing on a sidewalk, sitting on a park bench, riding a bike, or doing something else. The average purchaser of insurance would expect to be covered by this policy when injured by an automobile. Accordingly, we hold that McLaughlin’s injuries are covered by his insurance policy.

Our client was doored more than three years ago and, while we were able to resolve his liability claim some time ago, his own insurance company has still not honored its “no-fault” coverage.

This clear decision by our Supreme Court finally brings this matter to a close. And, because we kept at it– all the way to the Supreme Court– we now have a strong precedent that will prevent insurance companies from denying no-fault benefits to people injured on bicycles.

We appreciate the support of Cascade Bicycle Club, United Policy Holders, and the Washington State Association for Justice Foundation who all filed amicus briefs supporting our client’s position and helped achieve this win for people on bikes.

Dogs of WBL: Millie

Millie’s humans are Jessica and her husband Niels.

Favorite ride: I once got to ride over 100km on Niels’ back in the Outer Banks in North Carolina! I love the beach and being warm so this was my favorite ride!

Favorite treat:  Despite living with two humans who eat a plant-based diet, my favorite treat is dried sweet potato wrapped in chicken jerky.

Pet (ha!) peeve: I hate seeing any of my favorite humans leave on a bike ride without me.  I get so upset that I bark, grumble, and try to chase them down the street.

Favorite thing about your human being a bike lawyer: Since I love going on bike rides either on my human’s back or while being towed in a trailer, I love that my human works somewhere where she is encouraged and even expected to ride her bike to work every day.

Working to Make Vision Zero a Reality

Washington Bike Law doesn’t just represent individual clients, we work to make Vision Zero a reality by holding road designers responsible for unsafe streets.

Vision Zero is an international strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, and equitable mobility for everyone.

Washington Bike Law recently settled a case against the City of Kent involving a dangerous crosswalk, so we can now share with you some things we learned litigating it.

Vision Zero is an ethical framework stemming from the premise that it is unacceptable for people to suffer serious injuries or death as a result of traffic violence. Before Vision Zero, serious injuries and loss of life were merely factors to be considered in the cost-benefit analysis of transportation engineers.

Vision Zero was first approved by the Swedish Parliament in 1997. Seattle produced its first Vision Zero plan in 2015. The state of Washington has been producing its Target Zero Highway Safety Plans since 2000. Washington and Seattle’s plans both call for zero deaths or serious injuries on our roads by 2030.

What about Kent? Here is an excerpt from a deposition of its Transportation Engineering Manager and officially designated speaking agent:

We also took the deposition of Kent’s Police Research and Development Analyst, who was designated as the City’s speaking agent on Vision Zero. She talked about “shared responsibly” and questioned whether drivers even had a duty to stop for pedestrians at intersections. We followed up with her:

We have previously written about how Kent’s streets are dangerous for pedestrians, and these depositions show what the people at the top are thinking (or not thinking).

In another deposition, we asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager:

The intersection in our case involved a marked crosswalk for the Interurban Trail that crosses Willis Street at 74th Ave W. People wanting to use the crosswalk always approach a red light because it defaults to red. They must use what is sometimes called a “beg button” to get a green light.

Meanwhile, drivers approaching the same “T” intersection from 74th Ave have two lanes: one that can only turn left; and one that can only turn right. Drivers in the left-turn lane can only drive through the marked crosswalk. The signals for all the car lanes turn green simultaneously, regardless of whether someone has pressed the beg button to cross the road safely.

This intersection is shown from above on Google Maps:

We asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager how its design compared to the design of demolition derby tracks:

Kent claimed that its design was safe because drivers should know that they have a duty to stop at crosswalks—even though its own speaking agent wasn’t sure what constitutes a crosswalk.

According to the Vision Zero Network, the “Vision Zero approach recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities.”

This means that streets need to be designed to be safe even without perfect human behavior. While road users are required to follow the rules of the road, if users regularly fail to comply (for instance, not stopping for people in crosswalks) then system designers—traffic engineers and lawmakers—need to change the system to make it safer.

This ethical platform loop is illustrated below:

We asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager about this:

Vision Zero means that governments must take into account not just what they think users should do on their streets, but also what they actually do, like not stopping for people in crosswalks.

Vision Zero policies will make our streets safer and better, but there is a learning curve. Road designers, politicians, and the public all need to understand that crashes resulting in serious injuries and deaths on our roads are not accidents.

They are preventable, but we all need to be part of their prevention. At Washington Bike Law, we’d very much prefer for people to not be seriously injured and killed on our streets. But when they are, we work to hold people—and road designers—responsible.

While the City of Kent’s insurance ultimately paid to compensate our client, Kent has yet to make that crosswalk safe. We attempted to negotiate safety improvements, but the City refused. We hope than it will improve it before someone else is seriously injured or killed. Unfortunately, we cannot force our leaders to do the right thing—but litigation and significant verdicts can help make our streets safer.

We still have much work to do, particularly with people who don’t follow this issue. Someone in our community recently wrote in the Seattle Times:

The nonprofit Transportation Alternatives disagrees:

Not accepting that crashes are just accidents is an easy way you can help achieve Vision Zero. There’s even a hashtag, #CrashNotAccident, but please don’t use it while driving.

2019 Awards for Making Streets Safer and Better for People

On August 4, 2019 at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (SNG)’s Feast in the Street celebration, Bob Anderton announced the 2019 award winners.

Bob Anderton announces the 2019 People’s Champion and
Community Enhancer award winners.

In announcing the awards, Bob Anderton said, ” I am a bike lawyer. I’ve been representing people injured on our streets for more than a quarter century. I founded Washington Bike Law not just to represent injured bicyclists, but to help make our streets safer for everyone.”

Anderton continued, “But here’s the deal, my office represents people who’ve already been injured in bike and pedestrian crashes. Mostly what we do is too late.”

“Tonight, with these first-annual awards, we recognize Seattle people and organizations who work to prevent crashes and make Seattle’s streets better for people.”

The annual Washington Bike Law and SNG awards are:

The People’s Champion Award, for outstanding safe streets advocacy and achievement; and

The Community Enhancer Award, for leadership in creating vibrant public space and making streets places where communities can thrive.

Feast in the Street image

Friends of Hing Hay Park is the 2019 winner of the Community Enhancer Award for bringing to life perhaps Seattle’s best new public space at… (wait for it) Hing Hay Park.

Jeff Hou spoke about how the park really serves the community and is actually used by it.

Brie Gyncild and David Seater are the 2019 co-winners of the People’s Champion Award for their work on the Pike/Pine Protected Bike Lanes Community Engagement

Under their co-leadership, Central Seattle Greenways led the multi-year advocacy effort for protected bike lanes connecting Capitol Hill to downtown.

Dogs of WBL: Moses

Moses is Bob’s dog. He and his wife adopted him from the Seattle Humane Society about 3 years ago which makes him about 5 years old. Moses regularly rides to work in a luxurious and relatively safe basket on the front of Bob’s bike.

Favorite ride: Bikes are fine, but paddle boarding is my favorite
Favorite treat: Whatever you’re having
Pet (ha!) peeve: Birds
Favorite thing about your human being a bike lawyer: Riding in a covered basket with a plush blanket.