Washington Court Finds Bicyclist Was Not a Pedestrian Under His Insurance Policy

In a Washington automobile accident, an injured person may have some coverage through his or her own insurance policy.  This first party coverage may include personal injury protection (PIP), which includes medical expenses and lost wages.  When filing a claim against your own insurer, the terms of the policy, including the definitions, are critical in determining whether coverage applies.

In a recent case, an injured man challenged his insurer’s denial of his PIP claim. According to the court’s opinion, a driver parked on the street opened his door and struck the plaintiff, who was riding his bicycle.  The plaintiff was covered by a California insurance policy with up to $5,000 in medical expenses for an “insured” under the PIP benefit.  The relevant language in the definition of “insured” was “a pedestrian when struck by” a motor vehicle.  The policy did not define “pedestrian.”

The insurer denied the plaintiff’s claim on the grounds he was not a pedestrian because he was riding his bicycle when the accident occurred.  The plaintiff sued the insurer.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer, finding the term “pedestrian,” under its ordinary and common meaning, does not include a person riding a bicycle.  The plaintiff appealed.

Insurance policies are interpreted like contracts and are considered as a whole.  Courts give undefined terms their “plain, ordinary, and popular” meaning and reference standard dictionaries to determine that meaning.  The appeals court considered the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary definition of “pedestrian”, which states in part: “one walking as distinguished from one travelling by car or cycle.”  The appeals court found this definition distinguished a “pedestrian” from a bicyclist.

The plaintiff argued the definition of “pedestrian” in RCW 48.22.005(11) is incorporated into an insurance policy.  Under the statute, a pedestrian is “a natural person not occupying a motor vehicle as defined in RCW 46.04.320.” The appeals court found the plaintiff had not cited any authority asserting an undefined term in an insurance policy is given the definition of that term in the Insurance Code. The appeals court also found the plaintiff had not shown that the definition in the statute include a bicyclist.  The statute refers to Title 46 for the definition of “motor vehicle.” The appeals court noted that Title 46 also defines pedestrian as “any person who is afoot or who is using . . . a means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle.”  Because the definition in RCW 48.22.005 specifically referenced Title 46, the appeals court tried to “harmonize” the two definitions, and found that could be accomplished by excluding “bicyclists” from the definition.

The plaintiff argued the court should only incorporate the definition of “motor vehicle” in Title 46 into RCW 48.22.005(11). The appeals court found, however, that the principles of statutory interpretation required it to determine the legislative intent, and doing so involved reading the statute in the context of related statutes.

The plaintiff also argued public policy favored considering bicyclists “pedestrians” because they were also “particularly vulnerable and susceptible to injury on the roadway.”  He did not provide any authority supporting policy concerns over the plain meaning of a term that is not defined.

The plaintiff also argued any ambiguity in the policy should be construed against the insurer as the drafter of the policy.  The appeals court found, however, that “pedestrian” was not an ambiguous term and did not have to be construed in the plaintiff’s favor.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment.

A person injured in an automobile accident caused by another person’s negligence may have multiple sources of recovery.  An experienced Washington personal injury attorney can help you identify the potential sources of recovery.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.