Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bicycle Injury Case That Led To Correction Of Illinois Law Settles

Our law firm has settled "Lilly's case," a high profile lawsuit which arose when a pregnant Chicago bicyclist was doored on Halloween, 2012.  Though her injuries were not terribly severe, given her pregnant state at the time and how she was treated by the police afterwards, the incident was a truly miserable experience for her.  But, for bicyclists throughout Illinois the event led to some positive legal changes.

"Lilly" was actually Rebecca Resman, the feisty development officer of Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance, and a very experienced city cyclist.  Her response in the immediate aftermath of the collision caused a ripple effect that went all the way to the Executive Mansion in Springfield, and to Chicago's City Hall.  At around 9:15 a.m. on October 31, 2012, Rebecca was riding her bicycle along her ordinary route to work southbound along the 1900 block of North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.  She was five months pregnant at the time.  She was riding along the right side of the roadway in an area designated to be shared by bicycle and motor vehicle traffic.  Cars and trucks were backed up on southbound Lincoln as they were on most days and Rebecca was passing the stopped motor vehicles on the right, a very common practice among city cyclists.  As she attempted to pass a 2000 Buick Electra stopped to her left, a front seat passenger opened his door into Rebecca throwing her hard to the pavement.

Hurt, frightened and angry Rebecca asked the police officer who responded to the scene whether the occupants of the Buick would be ticketed.  The law is quite clear that motor vehicle occupants must look for traffic, including bicycle traffic, before opening their door.  The officer told her that if he was inclined to ticket anyone it would be her.  (In an earlier blog post I wrote that Rebecca was ticketed.  She wasn't.  The officer only threatened her with a ticket.)  He also wrote his police report strongly suggesting that it was Rebecca who was at fault for the collision.  After she hired us to represent her in an injury claim against the driver and passenger we received the following letter from Progressive Insurance Company:

The insurance company had "determined that [our] client, Ms. Rebecca Resman is majority at fault for this accident occurring.  The on-scene police report puts fault on Ms. Resman, states that she improperly overtook on the right causing this collision to occur."  Because of the way the report was written, Progressive was denying the injury claim.

We filed a lawsuit.

We also worked with Rebecca's employer, The Active Transportation Alliance, to get the law clarified.  The police officer was under the mistaken impression that a provision of the Illinois Vehicle Code allowing for right-sided passing only when eight feet of space is available applied to bicyclists. It actually only applied to motorcycles, motorized scooters and the like.  Rarely do Chicago cyclists have eight feet of space available for passing stopped traffic.  As the law was written, however, a cursory read could cause confusion as it had in this case.  We wrote up some simple changes to be inserted into the state statute and into Chicago's municipal code and submitted it to Ron Burke, the executive director at Active Trans.  He and his staff worked hard to find bill sponsors in Springfield and to get our proposal added to pro-bicycle ordinance changes Mayor Emanuel's office had already submitted to the City Counsel.  In Springfield, the bill sailed through both houses of the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Quinn.  In Chicago, we participated in negotiations regarding the language with Ron Burke, representatives from the Chicago Department of Transportation and city lawyers.  Eventually, we reached an agreement and the law was submitted and passed by the City Counsel.   Now, in Chicago and throughout Illinois there can be no question that bicyclists may pass slowed or stopped motor vehicles on the right.  There is no eight foot rule applicable to cyclists, only a requirement that passing be executed if the circumstances made it reasonably safe for the cyclist to do so.  Click here for a thorough description of the law and how it was clarified.  

During the litigation that followed Progressive's rejection Rebecca gave her deposition, during which she answered questions about the crash posed by the insurance company's attorney.  She did a wonderful job of explaining how the crash occurred and gave all those present the distinct impression that she was in no way acting foolishly at the time of the incident.  She established her credibility.  There were three reasons she was able to do this:  First, she is a very smart, awesome person.  Secondly, we spent time working with her to make sure she was well prepared for her deposition.  The importance of working with a client before their deposition cannot be overstated.  For the attorney, depositions are routine affairs, but young lawyers must remember that for the client they are novel and scary events.  Time must be taken to talk with the client and prepare them for what they may expect, the types of questions that will be asked and what the setting will look and sound like.  Rebecca was a good student during preparation and this helped her relax and perform well when the time came.  Thirdly, the facts were on her side.  The truth of the matter was that she was doing everything right when she was hit.  She was the victim of someone else's carelessness.  

Soon after her deposition, the defendants' attorney called me in hopes of reaching a settlement.  After several days of negotiations they made an offer I felt comfortable recommending to Rebecca and the case resolved.

When I work with people who want to learn to ride in the city I teach them to ride confidently.  Understand what your rights are then exercise them.  That does not mean that you will always have smooth sailing.  There are motorists and cops out there that either do not know or do not care about cyclists' rights.  But when you are in the right and something goes wrong there are folks out there who can and will help.  The Active Transportation Alliance is an awesome and powerful group advocating and working for cyclists and pedestrians.  Also, my partner Jim Freeman, me and our kick ass staff are always itching for a fight on behalf of people who ride.

1 comment:

  1. This "passing on the right" issue always bugs me. It's one of the most egregious double standards applied to cyclists. Motorists expect you to pull as far to the as possible* when traffic is moving, but then if traffic is stopped or just slow, filtering alongside the cars, in what is usually the same narrow space that motorists give you when they pass you, is considered "passing on the right". When it's a red light some people even consider it "cutting in line" as if such a concept actually exists for drivers.

    *A lot of states and cities require cyclists to ride as far to the right as "practicable" but when you have angry selfish motorists behind you honking their horns, that really means ride in the gutter.


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