From the desk of Josh Hayward: Last year, the Washington Court of Appeals held that bicyclists were not considered pedestrians in the context of PIP coverage, because the plain meaning of the word “pedestrian” does not include cyclists. The Washington Supreme Court just re-examined the issue. What exactly did the court decide? And how did it arrive at this conclusion? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: According to the Washington Supreme Court, bicyclists are considered pedestrians. This inclusive definition of “pedestrian” applies in the PIP context, but likely also applies in the context of casualty insurance in general.
McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co., No. 97652-0, 2020 Wash. LEXIS 731 (Dec. 10, 2020)
The plaintiff, Todd McLaughlin (“McLaughlin”) was injured while riding his bicycle near downtown Seattle when an unaware motorist opened a vehicle door into him. At the time, McLaughlin had an automobile insurance policy from the defendant, Travelers Commercial Insurance Company (“Travelers”), that was issued in California, where McLaughlin lived prior. The policy included MedPay coverage, which the court determined was essentially California’s version of PIP. In the policy, “insured” was partly defined as “[y]ou . . as a pedestrian when struck by a motor vehicle.” However, “pedestrian” was not defined.
After the accident, McLaughlin filed a claim with Travelers. Travelers denied coverage on the grounds that McLaughlin was not a “pedestrian” at the time of the accident because he was riding his bicycle. McLaughlin then brought suit against Travelers. Both parties filed cross motions for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment because under the ordinary meaning, pedestrian does not include a cyclist. McLaughlin appealed and the Washington Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. McLaughlin then petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review.
The Washington Supreme Court first turned to the Washington legislature’s definition of “pedestrian” because “pedestrian” was not defined in the policy. The Washington legislature has defined “pedestrian” in multiple statutes. Two of the statutes that contain definitions of “pedestrian” explicitly exclude an individual riding a bicycle from the definition. RCW 46.04.400; RCW 47.04.010(23). However, the Washington Supreme Court held that the only definition of “pedestrian” that was relevant to this case was the one contained in RCW 48.22.005(11), which defines a “pedestrian” as “a natural person not occupying a motor vehicle as defined in RCW 46.04.320.”
The court reasoned that Title 48 RCW is the chapter of Washington’s statutes that considers “Casualty Insurance.” While the other definitions of “pedestrian” are contained in Title 46 RCW and Title 47 RCW, which apply to “Motor Vehicles” and “Public Highways and Transportation,” respectively. Therefore, in this case, the court determined that the relevant definition of “pedestrian” is the one contained in RCW 48.22.005(11) which only excludes individuals occupying motor vehicles.
McLaughlin’s bicycle was not a motor vehicle because it did not have a motor. Therefore, according to the court’s reasoning and RCW 48.22.005(11), McLaughlin was a pedestrian when he was injured.
The court further explained its decision in a number of ways. First, the court reasoned that the definition of “pedestrian” contained in RCW 48.22.005(11) was the appropriate place to turn because, in Washington, courts have recognized that relevant and valid statutes should be read into insurance contracts. Second, the court stated that a broader definition of “pedestrian” should apply in this case because Washington favors full compensation for victims of automobile accidents. The court noted that its interpretation of pedestrian provided the insured with the maximum protection of the policy while still not being unfair to the insurer.
Third, the court noted that in Washington, when there is an undefined term, courts should construe insurance contracts in accordance with the meaning an average person purchasing insurance would give the contract. Thus, at best if RCW 48.22.005(11) did not apply, the term “pedestrian” would be considered undefined and ambiguous. The court pointed to the litigation and debate over the word “pedestrian” in the present case as evidence that the term had more than one reasonable interpretation. When there is ambiguity, courts adopt the definition that favors the insured. The court then concluded that the average insured under McLaughlin’s insurance policy would expect to be covered for injuries caused by an automobile accident, regardless of what the insured was doing when injured.
THE BIG PICTURE
The court concluded by reiterating that the legislature defined “pedestrian” for the purposes of casualty insurance in RCW 48.22.005(11). Thus, that definition, which includes cyclists, is the definition relevant to PIP coverage in the state of Washington. Going forward, insurers should be aware that courts, in Washington, will construe the term “pedestrian” to include bicyclists in the context of PIP and potentially casualty insurance in general. Additionally, the court’s analysis of the term’s ambiguity and interpreting it in a way that most favors the insured once again reveals the court’s inclination to find coverage. Ultimately, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals decision and remanded this case to the trial court for further proceedings.