From the desk of Joshua P. Hayward: The Washington Court of Appeals recently considered a trial court’s ruling that denied PIP benefits to an insured claimant who sustained injuries while riding a bicycle after determining that the term “pedestrian” does not include bicyclists.
Case Pointer: In this case from the Washington Court of Appeals, an insured argued that even though he was on a bicycle when he struck an open car door he qualified as a pedestrian. The PIP policy did not define the term “pedestrian.” Did a cyclist qualify as a pedestrian? Read on to find out.
McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co., 9 Wn. App. 2d 675 (Aug. 12, 2019).
Plaintiff, Todd McLaughlin, was injured after he struck an open car door while riding his bicycle on a busy Seattle street. Plaintiff was insured under a Travelers policy that offered PIP benefits related to injuries sustained by a “pedestrian.” The policy did not define the term “pedestrian.” When Plaintiff sought coverage under his plan, Travelers denied the claim, explaining that McLaughlin was not a “pedestrian” because he was riding a bicycle when he was injured. The trial court granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the ordinary, common meaning of “pedestrian” does not include bicyclists. Plaintiff appealed.
The specific language of Plaintiff’s policy defined an “insured” as, in relevant part:
“You or any ‘resident relative’ as a pedestrian when struck by a motor vehicle designed for use mainly on public roads […].”
Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in assigning only the plain, common meaning to the word “pedestrian.” The Court of Appeals did not agree. Importantly, the Court noted that insurance policies are to be interpreted as contracts. This meant that, under Boeing Co. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 113 Wn.2d 869 (1990), undefined terms would be given their “plain, ordinary, and popular meaning.” In Webster’s International Dictionary, the definition of the word “pedestrian” does not include cyclists. It reads: “one who walks for pleasure, sport, or exercise: hiker […].” Unfortunately for Plaintiff, another portion of the Webster’s definition specifically distinguishes a pedestrian from a cyclist, reading: “one walking as distinguished from one travelling by car or cycle.” This plain, ordinary meaning defeated Plaintiff’s argument that a bicyclist should be included in the definition of “pedestrian.”
Plaintiff next argued that there was a conflict between the Webster’s definition of “pedestrian” and the definition of “pedestrian” as used in RCW 48.22.005(11) – part of Washington’s Insurance Code. That statute defines a pedestrian as “a natural person not occupying a motor vehicle as defined in RCW 46.04.320.”
The court, however, pointed out that when interpreting a statute, courts attempt to derive the legislature’s intent solely from the text of the provision at issue, the context of the statute, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. The related provisions analysis ended up sinking Plaintiff’s statutory argument.
The court pointed out that the legislature referred to Title 46 RCW in its definition of “pedestrian” under RCW 48.22.005(11), meaning that Title 46’s definitions became “related provisions.” RCW 46.04.670 defines “vehicle” to include bicycles. Additionally, RCW 46.04.400 defines “pedestrian” as a “person who is afoot or who is using a wheelchair, a power wheelchair, or a means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle.” (Emphasis added). Because Title 46’s related provisions clearly excluded cyclists from the definition of “pedestrian,” Plaintiff’s second argument failed as well.
Plaintiff attempted to argue that the court was required to read the original definition of RCW 48.22.005(11) extremely narrowly as only incorporating RCW 46.04.320’s definition of “motor vehicle” and nothing else. What this argument ignored was the fact that the maxims of statutory construction require courts to determine the legislature’s intent in part by reading a statute within the context of its related provisions and the statutory scheme as a whole. The court could not simply ignore the rest of Title 46 as Plaintiff argued.
Plaintiff also made a number of alternative arguments. For example, he attempted to argue for the application of the doctrine of reasonable expectations (which would require the court to interpret the policy from the standpoint of Plaintiff’s own expectations). This failed, as the Washington Supreme Court has expressly declined to adopt that doctrine. Boeing, 113 Wn.2d; Quadrant Corp. v. Am. States Ins. Co., 154 Wn.2d 165 (2005). Finally, Plaintiff attempted to argue that public policy concerns require a cyclist to be included in the definition of “pedestrian.” He cited no authority, however, to counter the requirement that an unidentified term in an insurance policy be given its plain, ordinary, and popular meaning.
Ultimately, the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Travelers. But stay tuned! The Washington Supreme Court accepted Plaintiff’s petition for review on January 8, 2020 and held oral arguments on May 28, 2020. We will update you as soon as the Supreme Court issues its ruling.