Bicyclists:  Negligence Per Se

Spriesterback v. Holland (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 255, 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 306

A bicyclist who was injured when he was struck on a sidewalk by a car exiting a supermarket parking lot, filed a negligence action against the driver. The plaintiff had been traveling eastbound on a sidewalk on the north side of the street against the flow of vehicular traffic when the car slowly pulled out across his path.  At the request of the defendant, the trial court instructed the jury that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk in the opposite direction of street traffic violated the Vehicle Code and was therefore negligence per se.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendant, the plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court had erred in instructing the jury as to negligence per se.  The court of appeal affirmed the verdict, but agreed that the instruction should not have been given, as it was inconsistent with the language of Vehicle Code § 21650.1:

Section 21650 provides that bicycles may be ridden on a sidewalk: It says that vehicles must be driven on the “right half of the roadway,” but that bicycles may be operated “on any sidewalk, on any bicycle path within a highway, or along any crosswalk or bicycle path crossing, where the operation is not otherwise prohibited by this code or local ordinance.” (Italics added.)  Section 21650.1 governs the direction of bicycle travel in the absence of local ordinance. It provides that a bicycle operated “on a roadway, or the shoulder of a highway, shall be operated in the same direction as vehicles are required to be driven upon the roadway.” (Italics added.) A “highway” thus has two distinct parts: a “roadway,” intended for vehicular travel, and a “sidewalk,” intended for pedestrian travel. While a “highway” includes a “roadway,” the two terms are not synonymous. Instead, a “highway” is composed of both a “roadway” and a “sidewalk.” Accordingly, because section 21650.1 requires bicycles to travel in the same direction as vehicular traffic only when ridden on “a roadway” or the “shoulder of a highway,” it does not by its plain language require bicycles to travel with the flow of traffic when ridden on a “sidewalk.” The court erred by instructing the jury otherwise.

Holland argued in the trial court, and contends on appeal, that section 21650.1 should be interpreted to require bicycles to travel in the same direction as vehicular traffic even when ridden on the sidewalk because, pursuant to section 21200, “[a] person riding a bicycle … upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division … except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.” (§ 21200, subd. (a).) Thus, Holland says, because a motorist is not permitted to ride against the flow of vehicular traffic, a bicyclist should not be permitted to do so either. We do not agree. It is a well-settled principle of statutory interpretation that when harmonizing two statutes relating to the same subject, a “ ‘particular or specific statute will take precedence over a conflicting general statute.’ [Section 21200, which sets out general principles governing bicyclists generally, is far more general than section 21650.1, which governs the direction of bicycle travel. Accordingly, section 21650.1 governs.

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