In this episode of On Subrogation: Cyclists and Motorists, Rathbone Group insurance attorney Jason Sullivan talks automotive subrogation when a car accident involves a bicycle. How does a court determine, in a bike vs car subrogation claim, whether the cyclist or the motorist was at fault? The answer largely depends on where you are:

Cyclist vs Motorist Subrogation: 4 Wheels Good, 2 Wheels Bad?

While the rules of the road as they apply to motor vehicles are fairly clear cut, but not with cyclists. Bicyclists are part pedestrian-part driver, and how states regulate their behavior varies. A lot. Where to start? Jason says he always starts with the rules of general negligence:

  • Duty
  • Breach
  • Causation
  • Damages

For negligence (fault) to exist, there must be a specific duty and a clear breach of said duty. The difficulty in motor vehicle accidents that involve cyclists is determining their specific duties vs those of the motorist. And while the laws are clear on how cars are supposed to stop at lights and complete left-hand turns, this is not so when it comes to cyclists. 

Who is At Fault? When General Negligence Doesn’t Cut It

Subrogating counsel must be educated on the statutes and case law in specific jurisdictions that apply to cyclists. Jason discusses four important facets of cyclist operation which states deal with in different ways:

Variation #1: Cycling on Sidewalks

  • In some states, riding a bike on the sidewalk is illegal.
  • In some states, riding a bike on the sidewalk is allowed.
  • Some states allow bikes on sidewalks with stipulations.
    • Ex: In Hawaii, cyclists may not ride on sidewalks in business districts, and must go 10mph or less when riding on sidewalks in approved districts.

Variation #2: Rules of the Road

  • Some states require bicyclists stay as far to the right of the road as possible.
  • Some states have exceptions for left hand turns or passing a stopped vehicle.
  • Some states/cities have mandatory bike lanes, meaning if there is a bike lane, the cyclist must use it.

Variation #3: Vehicles Passing by Cyclists

  • Many states have a 3-foot rule, meaning a driver must leave 3 feet between the outside edge of their side view mirror and the cyclist.
  • Some states simply mandate drivers keep a “reasonable distance” when passing cyclists.

Variation #4: When Stopping is a Suggestion

  • Bicycles are not always subject to the same stringent rules of red lights and stop signs as motor vehicles.
  • Idaho Stop: Applicable in Idaho, some states have adopted variations of this rule. A bicyclists may approach a stop sign or red light, slow down, and, should they determine it is safe to proceed, may continue through the intersection without stopping.
  • Minnesota Exceptions: In this state, cyclists must stop at lights and signs. However, if an intersection’s activity is generated by the presence of a vehicle to change the light, and the cyclist is not enough to trigger the change, they may proceed through the intersection during a red light.

It is ordinances like these, explains Jason, that are important to know in determining fault in a motor vehicle subrogation case that involves a cyclist.

The Law Isn’t Clear on Cyclist Duties – What Now?

If there are no specific statutes or case law that covers the circumstances of an insurance dispute involving a cyclist, the subrogating party must look to the general standard of a “reasonably prudent person”:

  • Where was the bicyclist riding? Was it reasonable?
  • Did the driver act in a reasonable way?

Because things are not often black and white, it is not common to achieve a summary judgment in these types of automotive claims. How the jurisdiction handles comparative vs contributory fault also affects this process. 

(If you would like an in-depth discussion on this topic, view our episode On Subrogation: Comparative vs Contributory Fault.) 

Jason offers three case law examples to illustrate how courts determine fault in these often nuanced subrogation cases:

Iowa Country Road

In this case, a cyclist was riding down a country road. It was late afternoon; the cyclist was riding west. A car approached him from behind and rear ended him.

The motorist claimed it was the cyclist’s fault: 

  1. because he should not have been biking on a country road, and 
  2. the sun was setting: how was the driver supposed to see the biker?

In this case, the court did issue a summary judgment – against the motorist. The court found both the driver’s arguments absurd:

  1. Iowa has no laws about bikers vs drivers using separate lanes/facilities, and 
  2. The sunset argument would not work for another motor vehicle, so it does not work here, either.

New York One-Way Street

In this case, a bicyclist was riding against traffic on a one-way street. They came to an intersection, where a car crossed in from of them and caused a collision.

Was it the cyclist’s fault for riding the wrong way? Or the motorist’s fault for failing to yield?

In this case, the court rejected a motion for summary judgment because there was a dispute of fact. The matter required a judge and jury to compare fault of both parties.

New York Bike Lane

A cyclist in a bike lane noticed a vehicle was trying to make a left turn into a private drive. As he approached the vehicle, he stood up on his pedals to make himself bigger, slowed down, waved at the driver, and tried to make eye contact. When he thought he had, he proceeded. The motorist turned left and collided with the bike.

In this case, the court determined that the cyclist, whose testimony was supported by witnesses, had done everything right, and made a judgment against the driver of the vehicle.

Things to Remember with Bike vs Auto Subrogation Claims

The three things every subrogation professional must keep in mind when handling a motor vehicle subrogation case that involves a cyclist are:

  • The laws vary significantly from one jurisdiction to the next.
  • You will almost always be dealing with cases of comparative fault.
  • You must know exactly what the duties of the cyclist and driver are in order to effectively argue fault.

Interested in learning more about automotive subrogation and other pertinent topics in insurance law? Visit Rathbone Group’s YouTube channel and podcast library for more episodes of On Subrogation. On Subrogation is a free informational resource for subrogation attorneys, specialists and other professionals dedicated to advocating for insurers’ right to recovery.To inquire about Rathbone Group’s subrogation services, reach out at [email protected], and feel free to suggest new topics for future episodes of On Subrogation by emailing us at [email protected].