Louisiana Court Holds that Bicycles are Not “Motorized Vehicles” Under Louisiana Law Following Ponchatoula Collision

motorcyle_bicyle_old_fazl_0-scaledSometimes words that we think have clear meanings become less than clear when used in the law. For instance, if a state statute prohibits cars from driving on park grounds, we would naturally conclude that a regular passenger vehicle is forbidden from entering the park. However, what about a toy car? Would a toy car be banned as well? It would be ridiculous to think that the legislature intended to forbid toy cars and passenger vehicles from park property. In some cases, courts are called upon to apply statutes to situations that, based on the plain language of the law, are not entirely clear. On the other hand, in cases where the rule is clearly written, Louisiana courts favor a direct application of the law. 

William Foster, Jr. was riding his bicycle westbound on Pine Street in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, when he was struck by a Toyota Sequoia driven by Carol Kinchen. At the hospital, Foster was treated for the injuries he sustained in the collision. The hospital staff also did blood work and found that Foster had a blood alcohol content of 0.084% at the time of the accident. Foster filed a lawsuit seeking to recover for personal injuries against Kinchen, arguing that the accident was caused by Kinchen’s negligence.

Kinchen filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, according to Louisiana Revised Statutes 9:2798.4, she was free from liability because Foster was intoxicated when the accident occurred. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Foster appealed to Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal. He argued that the trial court’s decision was improper because the statute relied upon by Kinchen concerned the operation of “motor vehicles” while under the influence of alcohol, yet, Foster was riding a bicycle at the time of the accident.  

According to Louisiana law, a “motor vehicle” is a self-propelled vehicle or a vehicle that runs on electric power from overhead trolley wires. Louisiana law does not include motorized bicycles under this definition. La. R.S. 32:1. When a statute’s language is clear and unambiguous, a court will apply the language as written without any further interpretation or search of the legislature’s intent. La. R.S 1:4.

On appeal, Kinchen argued that a bicycle was a motor vehicle because specific statutes in Louisiana require that bicyclists be given all the rights that a motor vehicle driver enjoys. Kinchen also cited a law designating a bicycle or a ridden animal as a “vehicle.” However, the Appellate Court was not convinced by Kinchen’s arguments and noted a difference between a “motor vehicle” and a “vehicle.” And that the statute that Foster cited specifically referred to motor vehicles, not vehicles. Because Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:1 defines “motor vehicles” to exclude motorized bicycles, the Court concluded that non-motorized, pedaled bicycles were also excluded. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in Kinchen’s favor and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In general, judges will not go out of their way to interpret a clear and unambiguous statute. Otherwise, judges will essentially become legislators themselves, disrupting the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of the Louisiana government. Still, legislative interpretation is far from an exact science, so anyone involved in a personal injury lawsuit that turns on the specific wording of a statute to establish liability would be well advised to retain an experienced attorney.

Additional Source:  FOSTER v. KINCHEN 

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer:  Peter Lee

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