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Lawyers find bike-accident cases can be a bumpy road

Author / Coordinator: Dan Heilman Staff Writer
Minnesota Lawyer
May 2008

By the Numbers:

5,000 Minnesotans per year are hurt in bike accidents

500 of those injuries are from collisions with motor vehicles

Source: Minnesota Department of Health
Most everyone who’s spent much time on a bicycle knows the feeling of dread that comes with seeing a car come your way — and realizing the driver doesn’t see you. Most such encounters only result in a racing heartbeat, a honked horn and a narrow escape. But some end in injury, lost work time and occasionally even death.
That’s where personal-injury attorneys come in, and while local P.I. lawyers say bike-collision lawsuits remain uncommon, they have the potential to increase. The Twin Cities was recently ranked behind only Seattle as the most bike-friendly metro area in the United States. However, with the growing desire of commuters to escape high gas prices, the use of bikes is increasing more rapidly than local infrastructure can keep up.
That means that not only are there more bikes out there, but that there’s more tension between those riding them and drivers who resent having to accommodate them, said veteran Minneapolis P.I. attorney Jim Schwebel.
“There’s a them-versus-us mentality,” said Schwebel. “Once we have a greater percentage of our population getting around by bicycle, that might change. But I don’t consider the Twin Cities to be bicycle-friendly. If you want to see bicycle-friendly, go to Europe. Every other street is off-limits to motorists.”
Most personal-injury lawyers who spoke with Minnesota Lawyer said they currently see no more than one or two bike-related cases per month — and only take on the ones where there was clear negligence on the part of the motorist involved.
“The cases we handle are the ones where the fault clearly lies with the other party,” said Minneapolis attorney Fred Pritzker. “Most of the people who call us have done that self-filtering already, and they’re aware of whether they have a case or not.”
Minnetonka attorney John Wood has a similar philosophy about bicycle cases. “When someone gets hit because they darted out between two parked cars, there’s not a whole lot I can do for them,” said Wood, who recently settled a bike-collision case for $28,000 in nonmedical damages.
Occasionally, there’s even an accident-related suit against a bicyclist — as in a case Chad Wm. Schulze currently has in litigation. In that case, a triathlete in training was biking along a country road with headphones on when she made a sudden U-turn in front of a motorcycle behind her, causing the motorcycle to spill, killing its passenger.
“It’s an awful thing,” said Schulze. “But it shows that if anything, bicyclists have to be far more defensive than the driver of a motor vehicle.”
A hostile jury?
In Minnesota, more than 5,000 people are hurt in bike accidents each year, according to the state Department of Health. About one out of 10 of those injuries reportedly results from collisions with motor vehicles. (On rare occasions, bike accidents are found to be caused by deficient street maintenance or product liability.)
While the vast majority of those mishaps aren’t serious, enough of them result in injury that personal-injury lawyers find it worthwhile to keep up to date on laws regarding bike safety.
Schulze said one of the fundamental state laws when it comes to car-bike collisions is Minn. Stat. 169.222 (4f), which dictates that a person operating a bicycle across a roadway or crosswalk has all the rights of a pedestrian.
“Juries hear a specific instruction based on that statute,” he said. “That usually tips the scales [in favor of the bicyclist], because now they think of the bicyclist as a pedestrian instead of someone operating a vehicle.”
But Schwebel said bike-related cases that go to trial can be a challenge because in most cases, the jury is made up not just of motorists, but motorists who resent bicyclists.
“When you start litigating these cases, and you assume there’s a level playing field and they’re going to be held to the same standard of care that a motorist would, that doesn’t happen,” he said. “There’s a lot of prejudice against bicyclists — more than there is against motorcyclists.”
Pritzker, an avid bicyclist, said the hostility toward bike riders that’s sometimes displayed in a courtroom isn’t surprising, considering the attitude that’s sometimes shown by motorists in the street. He said that he’s often honked at by motorist, and has even had things thrown at him while biking.
“There’s a fair amount of antipathy toward bicyclists on the part of the driving public,” he said. “But the flipside of that is that some bicyclists do some pretty stupid things, too.”
Schwebel said he always views bicycle accident cases as difficult — even when they should be straightforward. “Juries are more likely to return an award in favor of a motorist than a bicyclist, even when the circumstances of a car-bike collision are identical,” he explained.
‘If they screw up, they can die’
Another reason bicycle cases can be challenging is that more often than not, the bicyclist is at least partly at fault in the accident because he ran a stop sign or wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings.
“Rarely do you find cases of straightforward liability,” said Schulze. “There’s almost always at least some negligence on the part of both the bicyclist and the driver.”
At the core of most bicycle cases, said Schwebel, are perception and conspicuity — bikes are small and not covered with lights, so they’re not as visible as they should be. For that reason, bicyclists need to be far more alert than car drivers.
“Clearly, you’ve got a huge disparity between the objects that are colliding,” said Pritzker. “Because of that disparity between the mass and energy of a car and a bike, you see injuries that are a lot more severe.”
Schwebel was even more blunt: “Bicyclists have to learn to be totally focused on their environment, because if they screw up, they can die.”