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By Daniel R. Laurence

If you are injured by a motor vehicle while riding your bicycle, the Washington Supreme Court has given you a hand up by allowing you to claim uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits under your own motor vehicle insurance covering injuries to you as a “pedestrian.”

In an opinion filed on December 10, 2020, McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Insurance,  our highest state court overturned the lower appeals court and ruled that the Washington statute defining pedestrian for purposes of casualty insurance, RCW 48.22.005(11), includes bicyclists.

The case arose after Mr. McLaughlin was “doored” – While riding his bicycle, a parked driver opened a car door into his path. He was badly injured. The driver did not have enough insurance to pay for all of Mr. McLaughlin’s damages.  But Mr. McLaughlin had automobile insurance with Travelers that provided underinsured motorist insurance for him as a pedestrian.  The insurer denied coverage, claiming that Mr. McLaughlin was not a “pedestrian” while riding his bicycle.

There are at least two definitions of “pedestrian” in Washington statutes.  One pertains to the “Rules of the Road,” RCW 46.04.400, which differentiates between motor vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, as all drivers understand.  Another definition comes from Washington’s insurance statute RCW 48.22.005(11), which defines “pedestrian” as a natural person not occupying a motor vehicle.

Mr. McLaughlin sued his insurer for coverage, arguing that the insurance statute’s definition should apply.   The Supreme Court held that the lower court had incorrectly looked to the motor vehicle code’s definition of “pedestrian”, RCW 46.04.400, and similarly found the definition in RCW 47.04.010(23), part of the public highways and transportation code, inapplicable.  Our Supreme Court concludes that the average person would expect “pedestrian” to include any person “not occupying a motor vehicle” under the insurance statute: “McLaughlin’s bicycle did not contain a motor and thus was not a motor vehicle…. [A]ccordingly, he was ‘a pedestrian’…and thus an ‘insured’ under the Travelers policy.” 

It remains to be seen if insurers will attempt to write policies to exclude bicyclists from the definition of “pedestrian,” and therefore from coverage.  On the one hand, insurers can generally choose their own definitions and choose what risks to cover, as long as the policies are not deceptive of consumers.  On the other hand, where the Supreme Court rules that the average person would expect “pedestrian” coverage to include bicycles, it will be risky for insurers to argue that a contrary definition is fair and enforceable.