Viewpoint: Subrogating Pedestrian Accidents

By Gary Wickert | May 3, 2024

Claims Journal recently reported on a new Ohio State University study, which examines who is at fault when cars hit pedestrians shows that vehicle/pedestrian accidents occur much more frequently in certain environments than in others.

The study showed that pedestrians were much more likely to be at fault when there was a high volume of cars moving at a faster speed. Taken by itself, this result is somewhat obvious and intuitive. However, the study also showed that more incidents occur, and pedestrians are more likely to be at fault, in areas where crosswalks are fewer and farther apart. In busy urban areas, where crosswalks were plentiful, the study found that the vehicle driver was more likely to be at fault. The study focused on road design and the built environment which contributes to crashes.

Only a few years ago, another analysis of pedestrian safety by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) revealed that pedestrian fatalities are sharply on the rise. In fact, the report revealed the astonishing news that an average of nearly 22 pedestrians per day were struck and killed by automobiles in the U.S. in 2020, and that number is on the rise. This number doesn’t include thousands of non-fatality accidents resulting in serious injury.

In New York City alone, in 2018, there were 277,971 auto accidents. Nearly 6% of those accidents involved a pedestrian and many of those injured or killed were on the job when the accident occurred. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data for 2020, most pedestrian traffic deaths occurred in urban settings (80%), on the open road (76%) versus intersections (24%), and during dark lighting conditions (76%). The GHSA report also predicts that 2022 will be a 40-year high for pedestrian deaths.

Gary L. Wickert

In an effort to address this growing public safety concern, state legislatures are scrambling to pass new laws which regulate and define who is at fault when a pedestrian is struck.

These laws cover circumstances when a vehicle must stop or yield to a pedestrian crossing the street at an uncontrolled crosswalk—one where there is no traffic control device governing and/or directing when it is safe to cross the street.

For example, a growing number of states require motorists to stop and yield to pedestrians in an uncontrolled crosswalk; an obligation many motorists have had a hard time adjusting to.

In Minnesota, the law now requires a vehicle to stop when a pedestrian is in any portion of the roadway—controlled or uncontrolled. Drivers in that state must now stop for crossing pedestrians at marked crosswalks and at all intersections without crosswalks or stop lights. Although Minnesota pedestrians must not enter a crosswalk if a vehicle is approaching and it is impossible for the driver to stop, there is no defined distance that a pedestrian must abide by before entering the crosswalk. Furthermore, when a vehicle is stopped at a Minnesota intersection to allow pedestrians to cross the roadway, it is illegal for drivers of other vehicles approaching from the rear to pass the stopped vehicle.

Interestingly, at common law, the rights of pedestrians and motorists at crossings were equal and neither had a superior right over the other. Bartlett v. Melzo, 88 N.W.2d 518 (Mich. 1958). Today, however, most states treat pedestrian rights and vehicle obligations at controlled and uncontrolled crosswalks differently.

Controlled crosswalks are typically striped and delineated, as such a crosswalk could be marked or unmarked. The language and definitions differ from state to state. In general, vehicles must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at plainly marked crosswalks and at intersections where stop signs or flashing red signals are in place. On the other hand, pedestrians must generally yield the right-of-way to vehicles when crossing outside of a marked crosswalk or an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

The laws do vary from state to state, however.

In New Jersey, vehicles must stop for a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk but must only yield the right-of-way to pedestrians crossing within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. Nineteen states put the burden on vehicles to stop and yield if a pedestrian is located anywhere in the roadway.

Other states, like Louisiana, require a vehicle to yield only if the pedestrian is on their half of the road, but not if they are on the other half; requiring the pedestrian to stop and wait as traffic passes. Nebraska requires yielding if the pedestrian is on the same half of the roadway or within one lane of the vehicle. Massachusetts is an example of a state that requires the vehicle to stop and yield if the pedestrian is on the same half of the roadway or within 10 feet of the motorist. Despite this, some states—including Hawaii, Georgia, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington treat controlled and uncontrolled crosswalks the same.

In general, drivers of motor vehicles must exercise reasonable care to avoid striking a pedestrian. The laws of many states impose a higher duty of care when it comes to pedestrians who are children. At the same time, a pedestrian cannot blindly walk into the roadway without exercising reasonable care and keeping a proper lookout. A pedestrian who fails to do this is guilty of contributory negligence.

A legal culture sea transformation is underway and claims and subrogation professionals must be aware of this change. The University of Minnesota recently conducted research at “high-risk” intersections in St. Paul as part of a study to track pedestrian and driver behavior. Only 31% of drivers yielded to the pedestrians as required by Minnesota law.

Minnesota refers to it as the “Stop for Me” campaign—a public campaign to protect pedestrians and educate drivers that they must stop and let pedestrians cross, even when there isn’t a red light.

From 2013 to 2017, 835 pedestrians in St. Paul were struck by vehicles. Of those, 17 died and 747 were injured. Of those hurt, 87 were children 10 years of age and under, and 100 were ages 11 to 17. In Minnesota, pedestrians are allowed to cross the street wherever they choose, so long as they (1) act reasonably to ensure their own safety, (2) follow traffic laws and rules, and (3) are not otherwise prohibited from crossing in a specific location. Minn. Stat. §§ 169 (Minnesota Statutes “Traffic Regulations” chapter).

When crossing at a marked crosswalk where traffic control signals are present, pedestrians must obey the signals and may only cross the road within the marked crosswalk. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 1, 3(c). If crossing at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection without a marked crosswalk where no traffic control signals are present, both motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists must allow pedestrians already crossing the road to cross the entire road first before driving further through the intersection. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 2(a). Similarly, pedestrians must allow traffic in the roadway to pass before attempting to cross at locations without traffic signals, such as at crosswalks, intersections, and undesignated locations like the middle of the street where there is no crosswalk. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 2(a), 3(a).

Complicating matters even more are some of the more complex traffic control signs and devices which assist pedestrians in crossing the street. Pedestrians in many states are considered to be lawfully crossing the road within an intersection or crosswalk with traffic control signals when doing so according to a defined set of rules. In Minnesota, these rules are as follows according to the Public Health Law Center:

  • Where there is only one set of lights applicable to all traffic, the following rules apply:
    • Green Signal:
      • Pedestrians facing any green signal (except when the only green signal is a turn arrow) may proceed across the road within any marked or unmarked crosswalk.
      • Every driver of a vehicle must allow pedestrians to cross the road first — except, pedestrians must allow vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that the green signal indication is first shown to proceed before crossing.
    • Steady Yellow Signal: Pedestrians facing a circular yellow signal are notified that there is not enough time to cross the road before a red signal is shown and are prohibited from starting to cross the road.
    • Steady Red Signal: Pedestrians facing a steady red signal alone must not enter the road.
  • Whenever special pedestrian control signals with the words Walk or Don’t Walk or symbols of a walking person or upraised hand are in place, the signals or symbols indicate as follows:
    • Steady Walk signal or the symbol of a walking person:
      • A pedestrian facing either of these signals may proceed across the road in the direction of the signal, possibly in conflict with turning vehicles.
      • Every driver of a vehicle must allow pedestrians to cross before driving further — except that the pedestrian must let vehicles that are lawfully within the intersection at the time that the signal indication is first shown to pass first.
    • Don’t Walk signal or the symbol of an upraised hand (flashing or steady):
      • A pedestrian is prohibited from starting to cross the road in the direction of either signal.
      • BUT — Any pedestrian who has partially crossed on the Walk or walking person signal must proceed to a sidewalk or safety island while the signal is showing.

Distracted Walking Laws

Closely related to the laws regarding pedestrians and street crossing is the growing body of laws which regulate what a pedestrian can and can’t do while crossing a street. These laws are referred to as “Distracted Walking Laws,” but more creative names such as “Phones Down, Heads Up Act” have been used.

The use of headphones, smartphones, or other electronic devices while crossing the road has contributed to pedestrian/vehicle accidents, injuries, and deaths. A growing number of municipalities across the country have criminalized the ordinary act of walking by making it illegal to walk across the street while using smartphones or wearing earphones.

This movement is sweeping the nation the same way the campaign against drunk and distracted driving proliferated. Cities, towns, and villages across America are passing ordinances making it illegal to cross the street while involved in a phone call, viewing a mobile electronic device, or with both ears obstructed by personal audio equipment. While public safety is certainly a concern across the country, some of these laws border on the absurd—both in terms of enforceability and failure to reflect the realities of everyday life. A 2017 Honolulu ordinance makes it illegal to cross the street and even “look” at a cellphone, an innocent act no more distracting than looking at one’s watch and quite normal for those who rely on smartphones in place of a wristwatch.

Some people have suggested legislation making use of a device called a “textalyzer,” under development by a firm in Israel, that can scan a driver’s phone for activity like texting, Facebooking, and Snapchatting in the moments leading up to a collision. One such bill in New York proposed that anyone who refused to hand over their phone would surrender their license, much like refusal to submit to a breath test is grounds for a license suspension.

Critics of the growing number of distracted walking laws claim that these laws do not target the real public safety threat. They argue that people slow down their walking when they’re looking at electronic devices, enabling them to avoid obstacles and not walk into trouble inadvertently. They claim that you can’t legislate common sense.

A report from the Office of Ontario’s Chief Coroner revealed that a mere seven out of 95 pedestrians killed in 2010 were distracted by a cell phone or handheld device—roughly 7%. They argue that jaywalking is already against the law, so if someone crosses an active roadway illegally, notwithstanding the use of a handheld device, there’s already a law for that.

Besides, they say, many pedestrian laws allow the pedestrian to rely on the fact that a vehicle will not violate the law and strike them when they have the right-of-way. What’s more, in only 23% of collisions with pedestrians was the driver found to be driving properly. They argue that the most serious cause of pedestrian accidents is driver inattention or reckless driving.

White Cane Laws

Complicating the pedestrian mosaic further is the fact many states and municipalities have enacted laws and ordinances with the objective of protecting pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired. When a pedestrian is yielding a white cane, an entire new body of laws and duties enter the picture.

Each state handles the situation differently, with some states requiring that the driver yield to a white cane, some requiring that the driver come to a complete stop, some requiring only caution be used by the driver, and still others providing for no extra rights and protections to the visually impaired. Obviously, as with distracted walking laws and ordinances, white cane laws are also part of the legal mosaic which is created when there is a pedestrian injury. A chart detailing the white cane laws for each state can be found here.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 12101 to 12213; P.L. 101-336, Table 2, Statutes at Large, U.S.C.A., P.L. 101-336. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.

One might wonder what this massive federal law has to do with crosswalks, but it has begun to play a role because today’s crosswalks are often constructed by municipalities with ramps and other features accommodating to Americans with disabilities. Under Project Civic Access (PCA), the U.S. Civil Rights Division works with local governments nationwide to help them achieve compliance with Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The ADA has many requirements for curb ramps at pedestrian crossings that are currently enforced by the Division under PCA. The guidelines promulgated cover pedestrian access to sidewalks and streets, including crosswalks, curb ramps, street furnishings, pedestrian signals, parking, and other parts of the public right-of-way. Another source of information about the federal accessibility requirements for public rights-of-way is the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Following ADA, the U.S. Access Board has developed specific accessibility guidelines, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), for the design of certain pedestrian facilities.

The Ohio State University study referenced at the beginning of this article published recently in the Journal of Transport and Land Use also portends new and innovative subrogation possibilities where the design of roadways and the placement of crosswalks contributes to a catastrophic pedestrian accident. It reveals the importance of a Safe System Approach to designing roads and crosswalks to minimize the effects of human errors and allow pedestrians, as well as cars, to move safely through the city. A Safe System Approach prioritizes the elimination of crashes that result in death and serious injuries.

Municipalities are charged with the responsibility of ensuring street and road planning and traffic control measures are such that protect pedestrians and provide for their safety when engaging in spaces occupied by vehicles.

An aggressive subrogation program should look beyond the vehicle and the pedestrian for possible avenues of recovery. State and local government enjoy immunity from most lawsuits. Yet, poorly-designed and poorly-planned roads and crosswalks contribute heavily to a large number of vehicle/pedestrian accidents which occur. Municipalities may indeed be found negligent in a vehicle/pedestrian accident claim when traffic control devices fail to properly regulate traffic flow.

For instance, if traffic control lights in both directions of an intersection are green at the same time and a pedestrian enters the intersection not really understanding that the traffic light for oncoming traffic is also green, the municipality may be held liable for any resulting accident. If, however, the pedestrian has noticed that both lights in the intersection were green at the same time and still crossed the street, they may be on the hook for their own injuries. Likewise, if a traffic officer gives confusing signals waving through oncoming traffic while not stopping pedestrian traffic, the municipality may be found liable for any resulting injuries. There could be lapses in municipal planning which make certain areas more dangerous than they need to be.

To help recognize true subrogation potential when a pedestrian injury or death is involved, MWL has created a chart representing an amalgamation of laws from all 50 states addressing the relationship between and the duties of motor vehicles and pedestrians crossing the street. That chart may be viewed here.

It should be remembered that individual cities and villages may also have ordinances which affect the duties and liabilities of drivers and pedestrians. Claims adjusters and subrogation professionals should not automatically assume that a pedestrian is at fault merely because he or she was struck while crossing the road. Society is changing and the burden and duty to avoid a collision is rapidly shifting to the driver of the motor vehicle.

Wickert is a shareholder with Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C. With nearly four decades of litigation experience, he is the author of several subrogation books and legal treatises. He is licensed in both Texas and Wisconsin, and is double board-certified in both personal injury law and civil trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also dual board-certified as a Civil Trial Advocate and Civil Pretrial Practice Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Those with questions may contact Wickert at

image of Gary Wickert

About Gary Wickert

Gary Wickert is an insurance trial lawyer and a partner with Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C., and is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on insurance subrogation. He is the author of several subrogation books and legal treatises and is a national and international speaker and lecturer on subrogation and motivational topics. He can be reached at More from Gary Wickert

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