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Second Among Equals

Today, Colorado motorcyclists continue to be excluded from the state's no-fault insurance law ("A Vicious Cycle," July 12). But last week, Denver mayor Wellington Webb announced an effort to improve the status of bikers -- as long as they're members of the Denver Police Department, that is.

Although officers who drive police cars are covered by no-fault whether they're on duty or off, motorcycle cops must use their own insurance if they're injured piloting their bikes after hours. Yet such officers are encouraged to take the cycles home "so there's the presence of a police vehicle in neighborhoods," says mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson, "and because in the event of a major emergency, they'll have instant access to their vehicle."

Officer Andrew Nuanes was following this policy after working at a Colorado Rockies game in August when he was involved in an accident that would have cost him dearly had the city not eventually decided to cover his medical costs. According to Hudson, Webb sees a policy change as a way to avoid confusion over such circumstances in the future while equalizing insurance for all officers.

What form these guidelines will take is uncertain. Says Hudson, "We've given ourselves a thirty-day grace period" to decide whether the city will simply cover a motorcycle officer's claim when he's off duty or supplement his personal insurance up to $150,000. But Representative Peter Groff, a Denver Democrat, has agreed to offer a bill on this subject to the state legislature when the body reconvenes January 9. "Peace officers don't know if they'll get a call when they're on duty or off," Groff says. "There seems to be a hole in the coverage."

Patching the gap won't be simple. In the last legislative session, a bill passed largely because of support from Senate president and gubernatorial candidate Stan Matsunaka causes the current no-fault law to sunset when the next assembly adjourns unless another act extends it. The insurance industry would like to replace the system with one that would make it more difficult for injured parties to sue each other; legislation favored by that faction is being readied for introduction. Meanwhile, a group spearheaded by the Brain Injury Association of Colorado is touting a catastrophic-injury insurance fund that would provide injured parties with up to $1 million for care once their insurance is exhausted. The association's Bill Hanna, who floated the proposal to assorted state agencies last week, concedes that the fund is opposed by insurers "who either think it's too costly to do what we're proposing or want to eliminate no-fault instead of tweaking it."

But the fund won't protect motorcyclists -- at least not right away. A draft summary of the legislation proposes that an evaluation be conducted "to assess the potential for expanding the program" to include people injured in the midst of motorcycling or other activities. During its "pilot" phase, though, it would cover only those injured in vehicles recognized by the no-fault law.

Presumably, motorcycle officers would also be excluded from the fund -- and even if the Webb plan passes, they could be subject to subrogation, a practice that allows insurance companies representing injured persons to collect money from insurers of negligent parties. Personal-injury protection coverage, or PIP, provided by no-fault is exempt from subrogation, but most other insurance isn't.

This irony doesn't escape Dan Levanthal, a motorcyclist badly injured in an accident last year; he's presently recuperating from his latest operation, in which screws were removed from his ankle. After over a year of wrangling, he finally settled with his insurance company, but because the driver who hit him had only liability coverage, the final amount didn't compensate him "for my out-of-pocket expenses or the permanent disabilities I must endure."

Levanthal sees Webb's proposal as a step in the right direction, but one that's far too small. "The issue of discriminatory insurance practices is not particular to motorcyclists," he says, "and certainly not to motorcycle police."

 
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