Property owners in California have a duty to keep their premises in a reasonably safe condition so that visitors to their properties will be safe. When a property owner fails to correct a dangerous condition that should have reasonably been discovered or that the property owner knew existed, the property owner may be liable to pay damages if a visitor to the property is injured because of the dangerous condition. In Joseph C. Wessling v. Pacific Bell Telephone Company, et al., Santa Cruz County Superior Court, Case No. CV178079, the liability of a telephone company that owned a manhole in a bicycle accident was explored.
A recent jury verdict in Santa Cruz County shows how bicycle accidents may involve more than one vehicle, and if the second driver fails to take action to avoid hitting the cyclist, the second driver may be held to be civilly liable and ordered to pay damage for his or her percentage of fault.
Background of the case
The case involved a wrongful death case in which a farmworker who was riding his bicycle to work was first struck by a car. After landing in the middle of the lane, the man was reportedly talking and moaning. He was then run over by a Ford F-150 that crushed his head and his chest with its tires. The driver of the first car said that the bicyclist had veered in front of him, making the initial collision unavoidable. People who stopped in an effort to help the man after the first crash reported that they had tried to direct traffic away from the man in order to alert other drivers that he was lying in the roadway before the truck hit him. The man’s wife and adult children filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the driver of the Ford F-150.
Los Angeles bicycle accidents are, unfortunately, on the rise especially in certain parts of L.A. Bicycles have increasingly become popular again as more people move into the larger city areas. The need for transportation in these areas is always in high demand, and own and operating a car is not always practical for city life. Public transportation is not always reliable or available and some people just prefer not to ride a bus or train.
With all of this in mind, cities have been adding bicycle lanes and creating more bike routes to accommodate this increase in bicycle traffic. While these improvement have enabled more people to use their bicycles safely, there are still many bicycle accidents that occur each year.
New Mapping Project Helps Target High Risk Areas For Cyclists
The first U.S. state to require bike helmets for adult riders could be California. The bill that Senator Carol Liu introduced would impose a $25 fine on adults who ride their bicycles without helmets.
The District of Columbia and 21 U.S. states have laws requiring that bicyclists wear helmets. The difference between these laws and the proposed California law is the fact that they only apply to children, and it appears as if they make a difference. Since 1975, bicycle rider fatalities under the age of 20 decreased by 86 percent. In contrast, deaths of bicycle riders 20 years old and above increased by 195 percent during the same period of time.
As reported by the various local news stations, a jury in San Francisco California last week awarded the family of a bicyclist killed by a commercial truck a verdict of $4 Million. While this may seem like a lot to many, I’m sure it is a paltry sum for the loss of a daughter to the two plaintiffs (the cyclists’ mother and father). The victim was Amelie Le Moullac, a 24 year old woman who was riding as her normal commute to work and was struck and killed when a large truck made an abrupt right hand turn in front of her on a busy intersection in downtown San Francisco. As a California bicycle rider’s attorney and advocate, I thought I would try to find some lessons out of this terrible tragedy that may be of use for persons like Amelie who use busy city streets in California for cycling. My thoughts are as follows:
- Intersection Collisions Between Motor Vehicles and Bikes Are The Most Common Type of Accident Scenario: In urban areas like S.F., Los Angeles, San Diego or other large cities in California or the U.S. as a whole, more bicycle accidents occur in and around busy intersections than just about anywhere else. This makes is extremely important to be extra cautious and “defensive” as a cyclist approaching or traveling through an intersection of any type but, especially one where there is a high volume of vehicular traffic. The scenario in this particular case is all too common. A cyclist is traveling straight along the ride hand edge of the roadway as proscribed and allowed by the California Vehicle Code, a larger vehicle fails to observe the cyclist and makes an abrupt right hand turn and a collision occurs. At a minimum, this results in a broadside collision and can result in the biker being dragged underneath the vehicle and crushed. There are several Cal. Vehicle Code (“CVC”) sections that come into play here including the following: (1) CVC 21200 and following, defines a bicycle as a ‘vehicle’ with the rights to use the roadway like any other; (2) CVC 22107, provides a duty on the part of a driver attempting to turn right to make sure that traffic traveling in the same direction of travel is a safe enough distance away to make the turn without coming into contact with any other vehicles.
- Inability/Unwillingness of Criminal Justice System to Deal With Bicycle Crashes: In this case, like many others, the local District Attorney’s office and police were reluctant to charge the driver with any type of criminal offense including but, not limited to reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter. They initially stated there was not enough “evidence” against the driver. The attorney for the victim’s family had to obtain footage from a local surveillance camera to show that the truck never even slowed down and never appeared to look in its side view mirrors prior to turning in front of the cyclist. This was impactful evidence that was very effective in the civil trial for wrongful death and could have certainly been used in a criminal prosecution of the driver.
Bicycle riders will get a three foot buffer from passing motorists under a new California law that was passed by Governor Jerry Brown last month. Bicycle riding advocates in the Golden State have been pushing for this legislation for several years now. The last attempt was vetoed by Brown due to his concerns of ambiguity in the language of the statute. It was re-drafted and re-submitted and passed on this go round. Here is the final version of the bill that was passed (AB 1371 – Three Feet for Safety Act). The prior version of the statute (California Vehicle Code 21750) already required drivers to pass bicycles, “to the left” and “at a safe distance” that “did not interfere with the safe operation of the bike”, however, no specific distance was specified as “safe”. The revised code now states as follows:
“(c) A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.”
Subsection (d), however, provides a caveat that, if the automobile driver cannot provide three feet, they are still allowed to pass the bike but, they should, “slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle, taking into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle and bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the highway.” This allows for the possibility of less than three feet but, only if speed is reduced and the passing maneuver is done in a way that is safe for the biker.
San Francisco, even more so than many other cities in California including Los Angeles, has become more and more a city of bike riders. Cyclists are beginning to commute more to work and home in the “City by the Bay” but, unfortunately, aggressive bike riding recently led to the death of a pedestrian and caused an fairly uncommon scenario, namely, a biker being charged with vehicular manslaughter.
On the morning of March 29th, a software developer by the name of Chris Bucchere was commuting to work on his bike. As he approached the intersection in an area of the city used by many pedestrians, he ran through a red light and struck a 71 year-old man attempting to cross the street. Nearby surveillance cameras caught the incident on tape allowing officials to estimate the cyclist’s speed at approximately 35 miles per hour or more. A story in the New York Times attributed statements to the cyclist as follows: “I laid it down and just plowed through the crosswalk in the least crowded place I could find.” In a fairly unprecedented move, the bike rider was later charged and entered a plea agreement on criminal charges of vehicular manslaughter.
What Can This Incident Teach Us About The Laws As They Relate to Bicycles and Persons Traveling on Foot?