June 23, 2022 – Can e-bikes zoom in on auto and home coverage? With rising gas prices, more and more people are turning to e-bikes as alternatives to cars. On January 21, 2022, Bloomberg reported that US consumers bought more e-bikes (nearly 790,000) than electric vehicles (652,000) in 2021. (“America’s Best-Selling Electric Vehicles Ride on Two Wheels”, Bloomberg .com)
Electric bicycles, or e-bikes for short, are bicycles equipped with a motor. The motor of e-bikes is usually battery-powered and helps the rider to pedal. E-bike motor-assisted speeds are typically capped at 20 mph, but some e-bikes can reach up to 28 mph before motor assistance stops.
Types of e-bikes vary. Some need to be pedaled to activate the motor, and others have throttle-activated motors that propel the bike without pedaling. Some have both.
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Unlike motorcycles, e-bikes are like regular bicycles in that they can be pedaled and may not be subject to licensing or compulsory insurance. Because they look like regular bikes, riders are naturally inclined to use their e-bike anywhere they would ride a regular bike, including sidewalks and driveways.
Although 20 mph might not seem very fast, an e-bike hitting a pedestrian at 20 mph would deliver more force than a professional boxer’s punch. This means that accidents between e-bikes and pedestrians can lead to serious injuries (and serious liabilities).
Although there is e-bike insurance, to put it mildly, not all e-bike owners have an e-bike policy. If you collide with someone while riding an e-bike, or if you are unlucky enough to be hit by someone, what insurance would cover liability caused by the collision?
Although state-specific vehicle laws may require motorists to have minimum motor vehicle insurance, state mandatory coverage may not apply to e-bikes.
For example, Florida statute section 324.01 defines a “motor vehicle” as not including a “bicycle, electric bicycle, or moped”. In the unreported 2006 Florida Middle District Court case, Geico Gen. Ins. Co. c. Schwinn, the court determined that a dirt bike and an ATV were not “motor vehicles” and did not require minimum motor vehicle liability insurance.
If we apply this same logic, e-bike owners are probably not required to insure liabilities arising from their e-bikes.
Sally does not have e-bike insurance. Sally nevertheless rides her e-bike on an empty sidewalk. At the turn of a bend, Sally runs over a pedestrian she hadn’t seen, causing serious injuries.
She wonders if her home or auto policy could cover the pedestrian’s medical expenses. Otherwise, Sally could face serious financial problems.
Personal lines insurance policies, such as auto and home, cover certain accidents resulting in bodily injury. However, depending on their wording, auto and home liability insurance may not cover collisions with e-bikes.
Automobile policy coverage for four-wheeled vehicles
Sally might look to her auto insurance policy for liability coverage, thinking a motorized bicycle is similar to a motor vehicle. Automobile insurance generally covers certain auto accidents involving an insured’s vehicle. Coverage for collisions with e-bikes is probably unlikely under automobile policies, if the definitions and exclusions limit coverage to four-wheeled vehicles or vehicles owned, the policy lists the insured vehicles.
While Sally’s auto policy covers certain damage resulting from an “insured vehicle” defined as a four-wheeled vehicle listed on the policy, there would be no coverage for the e-bike. His two-wheeled e-bike is not listed as a covered vehicle on the motor vehicle policy.
Additionally, Sally’s automobile policy may exclude coverage for accidents involving vehicles with less than four wheels. Courts have applied this type of exclusion to prohibit liability coverage for two-wheeled vehicles. For example, a 1993 Louisiana appellate case, Gunn v. Automotive Case. Ins. Co., applied the exclusion for vehicles with less than four wheels to exclude coverage for a motorcycle accident.
Owners Policy ‘Motor Vehicle Exclusion’
In contrast, home insurance generally covers liability for accidents caused by an insured, whether inside or outside the home. Sally can assume that her home insurance policy covers liabilities caused by accidentally hitting the pedestrian with her e-bike.
However, a common feature of home insurance policies is an almost universal exclusion for damage resulting from the use of a motor vehicle. Whether Sally’s e-bike could be a “motor vehicle” is first determined by how it is defined in the policy.
If Sally’s owners policy defines a “motor vehicle” to include e-bikes, then her e-bike is an excluded motor vehicle. But if “motor vehicle” means a “motor vehicle capable of self-propulsion,” there could be collision coverage. Sally could argue that her e-bike is not fully self-propelled because she has to pedal it to activate the motor, so her e-bike does not fall under the definition of a “motor vehicle”.
In the 1988 United States Court of Appeals 9th Circuit case in Hawaii, Allstate Ins. Co. v. Pacheco, the court found that a non-pedal-assist moped was not a “motorized land vehicle” subject to the owners’ policy motorized land vehicle exclusion. Because the policy did not define “motorized land vehicle”, the court turned to Webster’s dictionary, which defined “motorized” as meaning “to equip with motor vehicles” or “automobiles” or “to design or adapt…for a direct operation in particular. by an electric motor….” The court determined that it was reasonable for an insured to expect owners coverage for his moped, particularly if Hawaiian laws stated that “the term ‘motor vehicle’ does not include “mopeds”.
While Sally’s Owners Policy is silent on the definition of “motor vehicle”, the specific state laws defining “motor vehicle” for various purposes may determine whether the motor vehicle exclusion will apply.
Given the growing popularity of e-bikes, many states have their own legislative definition of “e-bike”.
States such as Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Vermont and others have laws stating that an electric bicycle is not a motor vehicle, at least for registration and licensing purposes. . Could these laws support an argument against enforcing the motor vehicle exclusion from a home insurance policy? Unless the policy definition includes e-bikes, they could.
Liability coverage for pedestrian injuries likely depends on whether Sally’s e-bike qualifies as a “motor vehicle” as defined in policies and under state law. If the electric bicycle does not come under the “motor vehicle” exclusion of the home policy, the insurer could compensate the injured party up to the limits of liability.
As e-bikes become more popular (and cause more serious injuries), insurers are likely to respond by revising homeowners’ policies to more aggressively exclude e-bikes. For example, insurers could define a “motor vehicle” as “a land or amphibious vehicle that is self-propelled or capable of being self-propelled”, which would exclude most e-bikes.
If Sally had an e-bike policy with liability coverage, the insurer would likely cover injuries and damage resulting from the collision. But if Sally expects her owners or car policy to cover e-bike liabilities, she might be in for a shock.
While there may be general trends in how states assess e-bike coverage under home and auto insurance, policy language and state laws vary and appear to be evolving. When an e-bike collision occurs, those who haven’t purchased e-bike coverage will need to review their policies and hope for the best.
Erin Mindoro Ezra is a regular insurance coverage columnist for Reuters Legal News and Westlaw Today.
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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and non-partisanship by principles of trust. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently from Reuters News.