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Seattle Bicycle Accidents: No Presumptive Liability for Drivers

Greater Seattle and Eastside Personal Injury Law

Seattle Bicycle Accidents: No Presumptive Liability for Drivers

Bicyclists Hit by a Motor Vehicle have the Initial Burden of Proving Liability

In personal injury cases, such as when a driver of a motor vehicle is injured by another driver, the plaintiff normally has the initial burden of proving that: (1) the defendant was negligent; (2) the plaintiff was injured; and (3) that negligence of the defendant was a proximate cause of injury to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must prove these facts by a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ which equates to a more-likely-than-not standard.

The law provides certain exceptions to this initial burden, however, such as when a following vehicle collides with the vehicle in front of it, in which case negligence on the part of the following driver will be presumed. Interestingly, the law provides no exception for this burden of proof in the case of collisions between bicyclists and motor vehicles. Subject to only narrow exceptions, bicyclists who are hit by a motor vehicle still have to meet this initial burden of proving liability on the part of the motor vehicle driver.

Washington statute provides the default rule that bicyclists are subject to the same laws as motor vehicles, explaining that:

Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle…except as to special regulations of this chapter…and except as those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application.

RCW 46.61.755. One notable case-law exception to this general rule is that a bicyclist in a crosswalk is not subject to general traffic rules and is entitled instead to the protections of a pedestrian.[1]

Should the Law Create a Presumption of Liability for Drivers?

While the plaintiff’s initial burden of proof is likely appropriate in the context of a collision between two motor vehicle drivers, some commentators argue that this burden is inappropriate for collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles. For example, proponents of presumptive liability legislation assert that, by presuming liability of motor vehicle drivers who collide with cyclists, the law would:

  • take into consideration the power imbalance between motor vehicles and bicycles;
  • increase bicycle ridership; and
  • account for the fact that many bicyclists suffer memory loss because of head injuries and have difficulty meeting their burden of proof.[2]

Presumptive liability for motor vehicle drivers is not a concept unique to the United States. On the contrary, several European countries have adopted legal systems where motor vehicle drivers are presumed liable in collisions with pedestrians or bicyclists, including the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France.

Opponents of imposing presumptive liability on drivers argue that our legal system is based upon the presumption of innocence, and that presumptive liability violates this basic principle. Furthermore, opponents highlight the fact that Personal Injury Protection (PIP) is fairly common in Washington, and provides no-fault injury coverage for medical treatment, thereby avoiding injustice while the injured bicyclist or pedestrian argues his/her case.

Conclusion: Be Aware of Your Rights and Responsibilities

This concept of presumptive liability will likely be debated in the future, as urban cities shift towards alternative modes of transportation to adjust for growing populations and limited space. With no change to the law apparent in the near future, however, it is important the bicyclists involved in a collision with a motor vehicle understand that they have the same general rights and responsibilities as motor vehicle drivers. This means that an injured bicyclist, much like an injured motor vehicle driver, will have the initial burden of proving liability.

The same common recommendations for injured motor vehicle drivers therefore apply to injured bicyclists:

  • exchange information with the other party;
  • talk to witnesses and get their contact information;
  • take pictures if possible; and
  • keep track of any medical treatments received after the collision.

If you believe the initial burden of proof should not rest on the injured cyclist, contact one of your local advocacy groups in order to pressure the Legislature to adopt presumptive liability legislation.

Have questions regarding your rights in a bicycle accident? Contact one of our personal injury attorneys.

[1] Pudmaroff v. Allen, 138 Wn.2d at 60–66; Crawford v. Miller, 18 Wn. App. 151, 566 P.2d 1264 (1977).


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