Understanding Bicycle Accidents – California

With mild weather almost year long, California was made for outdoor activities, like bicycling. Unfortunately, most streets in the Golden State were not made for bicycles. Back in the day, the car was the king, and road layouts largely match that attitude. There have been some changes recently, but for the most part, bike lanes are narrow or nonexistent and laws are not very favorable. The culture of the car also means that motorists do not always look out for bicyclists.

As a result, California led the way amongst all other U.S. states in bicycle fatalities between 2010 – 2012, with 338 deaths. In fact, when a fast-moving 4,000-pound car hits a slow-moving 15-pound bicycle, the results are almost always tragic for riders. Fortunately, injured victims have a number of legal options in these situations.

Bicycle Accident Causes

Most of these collisions occur during the summer months and during the day, because of the prevalence of child riders during these months and hours. Children are not as visible in traffic and may not be as familiar with the rules of the road as older bikers.

According to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the most common reason for cycling accidents is collision with a car (29%). Riders are normally not seriously injured if the vehicles are moving 20mph or slower, but they are nearly always seriously injured or killed if the vehicles are traveling 40mph or faster. Speed increases the force in a collision and also reduces reaction time. That latter condition is especially important with regard to bicyclist visibility, a point that is discussed below.

While some drivers speed and ignore traffic laws, others should never have gotten behind the wheel at all, because they were already dangerously impaired. Such impairment can come from:

  • Alcohol: After just one drink, most people experience loss of muscle control, and they are also unable to quickly make good decisions.
  • Drugs: Legal painkillers, sleep aids, antidepressants, and other medicine, if they are used improperly, are as dangerous as illegal “street drugs,” like heroin and cocaine.
  • Fatigue: Statistics show that driving after being awake for eighteen consecutive hours is like driving with a .08 BAC.

Moreover, many people operate motor vehicles while they are distracted by eating, using a cellphone, talking to passengers, and countless other non-driving activities.

Damages Available

In California, bicycle crash victims are entitled to cash compensation for their economic, out-of-pocket losses. These damages include items like medical bills, lost wages, physical rehabilitation costs, and medical device expenses. With regard to medical bills and other medical expenses, attorneys often send letters of protection to third-party providers that guarantee payment when the case is resolved. So, victims get the medical care they need without having to pay out-of-pocket or rely on health insurance.

Noneconomic damages are available as well, for things like pain and suffering, loss of consortium (companionship), loss of enjoyment in life, and emotional distress. Although it is impossible to put a dollar value on the quality of life, money damages are normally the only kind of relief that the law allows.

In some cases, victims are entitled to additional punitive damages. In California, the jury may assess additional damages to deter future wrongdoing and punish the tortfeasor (negligent driver) if the victim presents clear and convincing evidence that the tortfeasor intentionally disregarded the property and safety of others by undertaking a course of action known to be dangerous. A cap may apply, in some cases.

Legal Issues In Bicycle Crash Cases

To obtain these damages, victims must prove that the tortfeasor was at fault for the wreck. Such proof must be a preponderance of the evidence, which means there is more evidence in favor of the plaintiff. Put another way, if there are two stacks of paper side by side, and a person adds one sheet to the stack on the left, there is more paper in that stack than there is in the other one. Normally, there is a two-year statute of limitations in negligence cases.

Even if the motorists are clearly at fault, both they and their insurance companies often try to shift blame onto the victims. As mentioned earlier, visibility is sometimes an issue here. Indeed, tortfeasors often make statements at the scene like “he came out of nowhere” and “I never even saw her.” However, lack of visibility is never an excuse for negligence, because if it was, no one would ever cause a car crash at night or in the rain.

Bikers have a reputation for not following some traffic laws, like coming to a complete stop at stop signs or signaling turns. If a bicyclist coasts through a stop sign or makes an illegal lane change, the insurance company often tried to use the sudden emergency defense. This doctrine excuses liability if the tortfeasor was reacting to an unexpected situation. However, traffic law violations are not normally considered unexpected situations, because such events are so common. Therefore, the sudden emergency defense typically is inapplicable in bicycle crashes.

Personal Injury Overview

Personal injury is derived from tort law. The purpose of tort law is to give private parties a legal mechanism through which the aggrieved party can recover for harm inflicted by the “at-fault” party. Whether you’re in California or Nevada, personal injury cases have similarities that transcend state lines.

DUTY

The first question one must understand is whether the person who caused the harm owed you a duty of care. In general, one is held to the “reasonable person” standard. In other words, if you injure someone in the course of your daily activities, the question becomes whether you acted in a reasonable manner.

On the other hand, someone might be held to a higher duty of care based on their relationship to you or professional standing. A doctor will be held to a higher standard when aiding a person in distress than a non-medical professional.

BREACH OF DUTY

A defendant is negligent if he breaches the duty of care owed to the plaintiff. This occurs when the defendant fails to use reasonable care in the performance of his or her duty. Whether the defendant breached the duty care is a question of fact for the jury.

CAUSATION

Causation is an often overlooked, but critical component, of tort law. If the defendant failed to use reasonable care and is found to have been negligent, you must also prove that the defendant’s actions were the cause of your damages. An important concept connected to this is the plaintiff’s duty to mitigate. In other words, after being in a car accident you have a duty to mitigate the damages by seeking medical assistance. If you suffer a broken leg in a car accident, fail to seek medical care, and the injury becomes more serious, the at-fault driver would not be required to pay for additional medical treatment required by your failure to seek prompt medical treatment.

Additionally, the at-fault party is only responsible for the damages directly caused by his or her negligence. In other words, assume again you’re in a car accident. After the accident you drive yourself to the hospital and get into another accident because the first accident resulted in damage to your vision. While you would not have gotten into the second car accident had it not been for the first, the at-fault party in the first accident would not be held liable for the damages you incurred in the second accident.

DAMAGES

Once it is established that the other party was negligent caused your damages, you have the right to seek financial recovery for both economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages include lost wages, medical expenses, and property damage. Non-economic damages includes pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and punitive damages.

However, your reward may be reduced if the court finds that you were partly at-fault for the accident. For example, assume you were in a car accident and it is determined that you were 20% at-fault. In that case, your award will be reduced by twenty-percent.

 

Slip and Fall Accidents

Understanding Landowner Liability In California

One of the most persistent urban legends in premises liability law is the burglar who breaks into someone’s home, is injured, and sues the property owners. In a few cases, California landowners do owe a duty of care to trespassers. But such instances are quite limited. With that said, landowner negligence victims are often entitled to significant compensation.

Legal Responsibility

To determine duty, many states use a common-law sorting system that classifies victims as:

  • Invitees (guests with permission to be on the land and whose presence benefits the landowner),
  • Licensees (guests with permission to be on the land), and
  • Trespassers (guests without permission to be on the land).

However, this system is rather unwieldy, because many of the categories overlap, and arcane, because few people know or care who or what a “licensee” is. So, a little over a decade ago, most California courts started applying a general duty of care in these cases, which varies according to several factors:

  • Property Location: Business-owners and others who encourage people to come onto their property must take better care of it than private homeowners, or commercial owners at least have more of a responsibility to warn about possible safety hazards.
  • Likelihood of Similar Visits: Older adults go to nursing homes and teenagers go to high school athletic fields, so the required degree of care is different.
  • Likelihood of Harm: Generally speaking, swimming pools and construction sites are more dangerous than churches and synagogues.
  • Probable Severity of Harm: For the most part, the possible injuries at construction sites and swimming pools are also much more serious than the ones worshippers may sustain at synagogues and churches.
  • Knowledge of Hazard: Such knowledge can be actual (did know) or constructive (should have known).
  • Possible Protection: Owners could effectively prevent dog bites by digging moats around their property and hiring security guards, but such efforts are clearly too costly.
  • Extent of Control: Owners who lease property to a third party have less liability for falls and other incidents than owners who actually control the premises.

The jury may also consider any other factors that the judge considers to be relevant.

Slip and Falls

Falls are the leading cause of accidental injury in the United States, as there are twice as many fall-related emergency room visits as motor vehicle crash-related visits. The injuries are quite serious, especially among young children and older adults.

Knowledge is often a key issue in landowner liability cases in general, and slip-and-fall cases in particular. Most California court still use the analysis first set forth in Anjou v. Boston Elevated Railway Company (1911), which is also known as the banana peel case.

Ms. Anjou slipped on a banana peel at a busy Boston train terminal. At trial, witnesses consistently testified that the offending peel looked as if it had been “tramped over a good deal,” because it was “flattened down, and black in color;” in fact, “every bit of it was black.” These details loom large in the holding of the case. For its part, the railroad company denied that it knew anything about the peel, and therefore argued that it was not responsible for Ms. Anjou’s injuries.

In finding that the railroad company was indeed liable, Justice Arthur Rugg concluded that knowledge of the defect could be imputed depending on the color of the peel.

  • Yellow Peel: If the hazard had just occurred recently, the plaintiff needs to provide direct evidence of knowledge, such as a bathroom cleaning report about a wet spot on the floor.
  • Black Peel: Since the banana peel was black, the court concluded that it had been on the floor quite some time, and therefore the owner should have known about the hazard.
  • Brown Peel: Pardon the expression, but brown peels are in a grey area, and more evidence is needed to establish or disprove knowledge.

Victims in these case are normally entitled to compensation for both economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

If you have been injured in California, see our guide on finding a good personal injury lawyer.