Misadventures in Cleveland Bike Commuting

My client, Samantha, never bothered to get her driver’s license. As a city kid growing up in Cleveland, she memorized the relevant bus and rapid schedules. Take the 79A to the market. The red line from West Park to the Jake. (Some of us still call it the Jake). These days, Sam lets the forecast determine whether she’ll ride her old beater hybrid to work, or opt for the bus instead.

It happened on a cloud thick, overcast spring morning, with that typical Cleveland weatherman’s hedge: 30% chance of showers. Sam had twenty minutes to make the short trip up Ridge Road to her job at Ridge Park Square. She decided to risk the rain and bike it.

Rush hour by the Square marries caffeine fueled road rage to traffic congestion. Mini-vans pull arena-cross moves to jostle into position, poised to get onto I-480, as local commuters come in droves to take their posts at the various businesses littered along the road. Because Sam would never risk riding out on Ridge in traffic, she slowly made her way down the sidewalk, northbound toward the Square. As is her practice, she kept the bike in a hard gear to feel the resistance, and pedaled slowly, steadily, with plenty of time to spare.

 Sam told me she best remembers placing her hands on the truck’s hood, palms out, just above its grill.  The driver pulled out from a parking lot and ran right over her and her bike, lodging her face up on her back, underneath the front bumper. Sam’s bike lay out on the apron near the roadway, twisted and bent. She screamed for the driver to back up. He hadn’t even seen her, and still didn’t know he’d just run her over. She was sure he’d continue on into the roadway. That he would crush her to death under the truck’s oversized tires as he turned to drive off down the road.  Fortunately, the driver finally heard Sam’s screams and backed the truck up. She lay on the sidewalk in agonizing pain, her head cut and bleeding. Her right ankle shattered. Paramedics took Sam via ambulance to a local emergency room. X-rays followed. Then ankle surgery. She missed months of wages when she couldn’t work. The pins drilled into Sam’s bones pressed painfully against her skin. She felt them whenever she put weight on her leg, crutches notwithstanding.

Sounds like a pretty clear cut case, right? Truck driver mows down bicyclist riding slowly on the sidewalk of a busy street at rush hour. Good guys win? Justice shall prevail?

We presented Sam’s claim to the driver’s insurance company, which refused to pay her for her medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The company’s lawyer claimed that Sam was at fault for riding down the sidewalk in a business district in violation of the local riding ordinance. Typical victim blaming.

Cleveland Ordinance 473.09 covers “Riding on Sidewalks”, and provides: “[n]o person shall ride a bicycle, skateboard or roller skates upon a sidewalk within a business district.” Sam was, indeed, riding down a sidewalk in the middle of a business district. But just what was the alternative? It would have been insane for her to have negotiated rush hour traffic at 6mph down Ridge. The local ordinance – and Cleveland driving culture- failed to provide Sam a safe way to ride her bike to work.

Aside from his “evil sidewalk rider” argument, the insurance company’s lawyer claimed that because the driver couldn’t see over some landscaping, he couldn’t have been negligent.  This argument was patently absurd, for two reasons. First, the driver who crushed Sam was riding so high in his “Behemoth” or “Hemi” or “Juggernaut” V8 that he could obviously see over the low hedgerow. It was tantamount to claiming that a pilot can’t see over the tree line from five hundred feet in the air. Also, if the driver’s view were really obscured, he should have been extra careful to pull out slowly for fear that he could hit a pedestrian.

The truth is, the driver was so busy looking to his left for a break in southbound traffic, in anticipation of his right turn, that he failed to check for oncoming cyclists and pedestrians, and so knocked Sam right off of her bike without even knowing it.

Despite the victim blaming lawyer, we successfully resolved Sam’s case without having to try it in court to a jury. I learned several important lessons from this one.  First: our local car culture and riding ordinances must change to account for increased bicycle commuting and recreational use. Second: insurance companies and their lawyers will say anything, however intellectually dishonest, to try to weasel out of taking responsibility for the actions of their insureds.

Ride safely, everybody. Check those local ordinances before you plan your next neighborhood ride or route to work. And remember to tell Cleveland drivers- 3 FEET TO PASS. SHARE THE ROAD.

Joe Dunson can be reached at clevelandbikelawyer.com.  

Joseph Dunson

I'm a casual rider who putzes around town on my road bike or fixed gear and focuses more on trail riding. I'm interested in helping change the car culture in NE Ohio so motorists learn to share the road. I'm a trial lawyer who represents injured riders in court.

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Volume 1, Issue 8, Posted 8:06 AM, 07.02.2013