AUTO INSURANCE FOR BICYCLISTS 101
By Michael N Katz Esq. Safety and Legislation Coordinator
As Spring approaches and with glee we abandon our indoor trainers for outdoor riding throughout the week (Yay!), now is the perfect time to review your auto insurance policy. What, you may ask, does your auto insurance have to do with you as a cyclist? If you are unlucky to have a close encounter of the wrong kind with a motor vehicle, the answer is “more than you may think”.
Under both Pennsylvania and New Jersey Law, based on your auto insurance policy, limitations can be placed on a bicyclist’s ability to receive appropriate compensation for injuries caused by the actions of a driver of a motor vehicle. These limitations fall into two general categories: 1) limits on your right to sue to obtain damages for your injuries and 2) limits on your ability to recover damages from your own insurance company where the driver of the vehicle either has no insurance or has very low limits of liability coverage that are insufficient to cover the consequences of your injury.
In Pennsylvania, if you select a “Limited Tort” policy, as opposed to “Full Tort”, you can not be compensated for your injuries unless they result in a “serious impairment of bodily functions” which has been interpreted by the courts to mean that on a permanent basis you can not perform activities of daily living. An exception is created for pedestrians who if injured as the result of a motor vehicle will not be subject to the “Limited Tort” restrictions that flow from having a “Limited Tort” auto insurance policy. The “pedestrian” exception has been applied to bicyclists in the past since they are not driving a motor vehicle at the time of the accident. It is firmly believed by experienced Pennsylvania attorney’s, however, that the “pedestrian” exception as applied to bicyclists will not survive court scrutiny in the future, particularly given the recent bicycle related changes to the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code which put bicycles on a much more even playing field with cars both in terms of rights and responsibilities.
In New Jersey, the law is a bit different but with the same practical result. When purchasing an auto insurance policy in New Jersey, you have a choice between a policy without any limitations on your ability to receive compensation for injuries or one that is limited by what is called the “Verbal Threshold” doctrine. Under the “Verbal Threshold” doctrine, a person involved in an auto accident can not receive compensation for injuries unless the injury is to a body part or function that has not healed to its normal functioning ability and which will not heal to that level in the future, or unless the injury involves dislocated fractures.
The Limited Tort and Verbal Threshold standards severely impair the ability of a person to receive fair compensation for a broad range of very real injuries that for one reason or another don’t meet these standards. Under both standards, you can have painful long term soft tissue damage that requires a year of therapy or more to resolve, or even broken bones, and still not meet the required standards to be entitled to compensation for your injuries. The cost savings on insurance premiums for selecting limited tort or verbal threshold policies are relatively small when compared to the costs of the insurance overall. The restrictions and limitations on your ability to obtain fair compensation for your injuries are, however, significant. It is accordingly strongly recommended that all cyclists check their policies and upgrade them if necessary to either a “Full Tort” policy in Pennsylvania or a “No Verbal Threshold” policy in New Jersey. Note that the policy you have a resident of one state can impact on your rights in the other state, something we all should be aware of since most of us ride in Pennsylvania and New Jersey regardless of our state of residence.
Auto insurance policies also have optional coverage known as uninsured and underinsured motorists coverage. Uninsured coverage applies if the driver of the other vehicle doesn’t have any liability coverage. Underinsured coverage applies where your injuries exceed the limits of the other driver’s liability coverage. Having these coverages in your policy gives you the ability to seek compensation from your own insurance company where the other driver either has no coverage or where the other driver’s coverage is inadequate. In Pennsylvania, it is noteworthy that the minimum required liability coverage is $15,000.00 and most drivers have the minimum required by law. Typically, cyclist’s injuries resulting from an incident involving a motor vehicle significantly exceed in value the $15,000.00 minimum. The cost of uninsured and underinsured coverage is very low. It is again strongly recommended that you include these optional coverages in your policy and that you select uninsured and underinsured coverage limits that are at least as great as your general liability limits. Related to this, if you have more than 1 motor vehicle, it is also recommended that you elect what is called the “stacking” option which enables you to aggregate your uninsured and underinsured coverage across all of your covered motor vehicles for purposes of your own policy’s limits for these coverages. For example, if you have $100,000.00 in uninsured and underinsured coverage and two motor vehicles, based on “stacking” you in fact have $200,000.00 of coverage available in the event you bring a claim under your own policy based on uninsured or underinsured coverage.
Hopefully the above information is of some benefit. My firm, as a sponsor of the Club, offers a consultation without cost to Club Members on any personal legal question. Please do not hesitate to call us if you would like us to review your auto insurance policy or to answer any other personal legal question you may have.