The Explainer: Whacking a salmon
I think this is probably a topic you don’t deal with all that often, but I am an avid cyclist, a bike racer, a commuter, a cycling advocate and more. In short I am a bike geek … and think I am about to be sued for hitting a guy on a bike with my car.
About a month ago, I came home from work and had to run to the store for groceries. I grabbed the car, did my shopping and began my trip home again. At the end of the parking lot, I made a right turn and bang: I ran right into a guy riding his bike against traffic.
He bounced off my hood, fell to the curb and broke his arm. His bike was destroyed. The police came, I told my story, and so did a couple of witnesses. The cops didn’t write a ticket to anyone and the guy was taken to the hospital. I felt awful for the guy, but I don’t think I did anything wrong, at least in a legal sense. I keep thinking back and wondering why I didn’t see him when I glanced to my right when making the turn.
Anyway, yesterday I got home and I found a letter from a lawyer trying to tell me that I was responsible for the guy’s injuries and that he wants to be compensated for his medical costs, his bike, loss of income and “pain and suffering.”
What the @#$&? What did I do wrong? What am I supposed to do now?
Man oh man – to quote a recent president – I feel your pain. As a cyclist, it’s my major pet peeve, since these boneheads not only put themselves at risk, they give the rest of us a bad name. I live in a college town and, especially around campus, there are hordes of young, seemingly oblivious, undergrads who seem to think that riding on the left side of the road is somehow “safer” because “I can see what’s coming.”
Unfortunately, that myth fails to take into account the reasons it’s not safe, namely the situation you just described. There are other hazards, including faster closing speeds and the need for greater braking distances. But most of our readers are relatively experienced cyclists, so I don’t need to rehash all of those. Most of us know to ride in the same direction as the flow of traffic.
Still, we’ve all seen people – most of whom are not avid riders – who insist that riding against traffic is safer. Telling them otherwise, especially when you’re on the road, often results in the extension of a single digit in your direction. I actually had a collision involving similar facts, except I was on my bike and got creamed by a wrong-way rider at an intersection. (Apparently, he not only believed that he could ride on the wrong side of the road, but that since the stop sign wasn’t facing him, he wasn’t constrained by that rule, either.)
So, if your description of events is accurate – and for purposes of this answer, let’s assume that it is – you didn’t do anything wrong. Nowhere in these United States is it legal for a cyclist to ride against traffic. The cyclist should have, despite his injuries, been ticketed for that. Maybe the cop felt sorry for the guy and didn’t write him up because he was getting hauled off to the hospital. The bottom line is that all cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as those operating a motor vehicle on a public road. Those responsibilities include obeying applicable traffic laws and, no, riding against traffic is not an option for cars, so it can’t be for bikes.
Anyway, let’s start with the letter. My first bit of advice is don’t sweat it. It’s probably a shot over the bow and little, if anything, will ever come of it.
That said, do not blow it off, though. The first thing you need to do is contact your insurance company. Actually, I am surprised that the guy’s lawyer didn’t contact the insurance company directly, instead of bothering you with this claim. He certainly should have. I do have to assume you have liability insurance on your car, since you probably would have been ticketed for that had you been driving in an uninsured vehicle.
It sounds like the amount of the claim will fall well within even the most minimal liability coverage, so you’re good to go. Your insurance company is responsible for paying any claim and, as will probably be the case here, rejecting those that aren’t valid. If there’s a lawsuit, the insurance company handles the defense, although you will need to make yourself available in the unlikely event this thing goes to trial. If you do have liability insurance, your insurance company will end up doing all the background work.
Now, on the off chance that you don’t have insurance, you may have to do some of that legwork yourself. First, contact the police agency that handled the accident and see if you can get the officer’s report of the incident. There is a chance that the rider was, in fact, ticketed at the hospital.
Even if there weren’t citations issued, there should be an accident report and you have a right to see that. Hopefully, the report will note that the rider was traveling against the normal flow of traffic. If so, you’re in pretty good shape. Still, I would advise you to seek legal counsel at that point. If you’re going to get into an argument with someone who has a lawyer on his side, you may need to get one yourself.
Again, if things are as you described and the police report notes that the cyclist was at fault, your lawyer may be able to solve this thing with a response letter that points out that it was the victim’s failure to comply with traffic laws that caused the accident and not your negligence.
If the police report doesn’t mention that the rider was violating applicable traffic rules, you may have a problem. You mentioned that there were witnesses and that can prove helpful. I’ll guess that you didn’t get their contact information, but again, that should be in the police report.
If you are sued, the plaintiff – the cyclist – will have to show that you were somehow responsible for the accident. He’ll have to show that the accident occurred do to your negligence and not his. From the sounds of it, that will be a pretty big hurdle for him to overcome.
Like anyone behind the wheel of an automobile, you have what is called a “duty of care,” to anyone else out on the road. You “breach” that duty by not acting in a reasonable fashion when you’re driving and if that breach is a cause of someone else’s injury, then you can be found negligent and will be ordered by the court to compensate the victim.
But in your case, you appear to have been operating your vehicle in that reasonable manner and it was he who violated his duty of care by riding his bike against the normal flow of traffic. Indeed, if by being hit by your car, he somehow damaged it, you could have reason to file a counter-suit.
Again, if you have the requisite insurance coverage, you won’t have to worry about any of that.
Good luck and let us know how it turns out.