Uninsured Bicyclist Accidents in California

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According to the Los Angeles Times article published on October 27, 2014, California leads the nation in bicycle accident deaths. The LA Times article references a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association. In that study Dr. Allan Williams, found that today 84% of bicycle fatalities were people 20 years and older, vs. 40 years ago when that number was only 20%.

These numbers show us that more and more adults are riding bicycles than ever before. This is particularly true in urban areas such as Modesto, California, which boasts many impressive bicycle trails. In addition, the summertime brings upon more bicyclists which can lead to more fatalities or injuries.

If one is injured in a bicycle accident, what limitations are placed on an uninsured California bicyclist’s rights to recover damages, if he or she is hit by a car and severely injured? The calculation of damages can be complex, especially when an accident victim is an uninsured bicyclist who has not been able to pay his or her own substantial medical bills after a serious accident.

In Bermudez v. Ciolek, a bicyclist was struck in Fountain Valley, California (350 miles south of Modesto) by a car during a traffic light transition from green to red. A first driver going westbound began a left turn as a second driver traveling eastbound entered an intersection. The second driver’s car veered to the southeast corner of the intersection, striking Omar Bermudez, who was standing on the sidewalk astride his bicycle. At the time of the crash, Bermudez didn’t posses medical insurance.

The jury found both defendants had acted with negligence, but it concluded that only the westbound driver caused the bicyclist’s harm. The westbound driver was found 100% responsible for the $3,751,969 in damages.

On appeal, the driver argued this verdict was inconsistent because the jury did find the other driver negligent but didn’t assign him a percentage of fault. Alternatively, she claimed she was entitled to a new trial on damages because there was not enough evidence of the bicyclist’s reasonable medical damages. She faulted the bicyclist for relying on expenses already incurred and expert testimony, and she argued that the plaintiff’s experts needed to do more to show their testimony was based on the market value of the services.

The appellate court explained that multiple witnesses, including three accident reconstruction experts, testified at trial. The westbound driver was negligent due to factors such as the color of the light as she started to turn left, her attentiveness to traffic conditions before her, her reaction when observing the approaching vehicle, and the position of the vehicle at impact.

The appellate court reasoned that the jury credited evidence that tended to show she started her turn before the light turned red, but she wasn’t adequately monitoring the traffic approaching and then braked when she saw the eastbound driver, blocking the traffic lanes.

The appellate court also explained that eyewitnesses had offered different estimates of the eastbound driver’s speed. While the accident reconstruction experts all agreed that he was going 45-48 miles per hour, they agreed his stated speed of 50 mph fit. Only the westbound driver’s expert was of the opinion that the other driver was going more than 60 mph. In general, there was no showing at trial that the eastbound driver’s car wouldn’t have ricocheted into the bicyclist had he been going slower.

The court explained that the jurors had found the eastbound driver negligent but didn’t find it a substantial factor in causing the bicyclist harm. To understand this better, the elements of negligence are (1) duty, (2) breach of duty, (3) actual and proximate cause, and (4) damages. The jury found that the eastbound driver had a duty and breached that duty, but it didn’t find element 3, which is that the breach of duty caused the accident. Since all four elements must exist to hold a defendant responsible for negligence, the appellate court didn’t consider a finding that element 2 existed inconsistent with a finding that element 3 did not exist.

With regard to the amount of damages, the court noted the bicyclist had no medical insurance and sustained multiple injuries. The bicyclist testified the amount of his bills was about $450,000 and that he couldn’t pay any of his bills. Multiple experts testified as to the future medical treatment he would need in the future, and the costs.

The court explained that there is no bright line rule in case law on how to determine the reasonable value of medical bills that uninsured plaintiffs have incurred by not paying medical bills. However, the court concluded that, contrary to the defendant’s argument, the plaintiff’s uninsured status meant that the billed amounts were relevant to what he actually incurred, unlike insured plaintiffs who only really incur the lower amount negotiated by an insurer. These amounts were also relevant and admissible with regard to the reasonable value of his medical expenses.

The court also explained that damages for past medical expenses are the lesser of: (1) what has been paid or incurred for past medical expenses or (2) the reasonable value of the services. In this case, nobody had paid for the plaintiff’s medical expenses, so the operative measure of damages was the jury’s sense of the reasonable value of the services. The court found the jury’s award slightly too high and reduced it, but otherwise it affirmed the judgment.

When a car hits a bicyclist in California and elsewhere, the results can be catastrophic for the bicyclist, while the driver of the car walks away unscathed. If you’ve suffered a bicycle accident in Modesto, the Bogan Law Firm may be able to represent you in a lawsuit for damages. Contact us at (209) 565-3425 or via our online form.

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