Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Spriesterbach v. Holland (Cal. Ct. App. - April 9, 2013)

This case should be required reading for anyone who drives.  Which is to say, virtually everyone.

Admittedly, I'm biased.  I'll say that up front.  The case is about where you are allowed to ride a bicycle, and the duty of drivers of motor vehicles to look out for them; i.e., not to smash into them.  Even ordinary people should care about not driving over bicyclists.  But I'm particularly interested in the opinion since I routinely bike to and from my work here at USD.  So I have an especially strong desire that people who ride bicycles not be injured or killed by inattentive motorists.

Fortunately, thus far, I've not been hit.  But that's likely partially due to the fact that most of my route consists of separate bicycle lanes or paths.  As well as luck.  Which hopefully will persist.

But there's ample reason to believe it won't.  The facts here are incredibly common.  Driver's waiting to exit a parking lot.  Bicyclist is initially biking along the road in the same direction of traffic, but confronts construction on that side of the road that makes it dangerous to continue, so crosses over to the other side of the road and bikes on the sidewalk for a while (against traffic).  Driver's primarily looking at oncoming traffic on her left -- waiting for a break so she can pull out -- and not really looking much to her right.  So Driver pulls out of the parking lot and smashes into Bicyclist, who has entered the intersection (from the sidewalk) at the same time.  Bicyclist is injured and incurs $80,000 in medical expenses for required surgery.

Who responsible?

On the one hand, we expect drivers to be attentive.  Motorists normally have a duty to make sure it's safe when they pull out -- that's what Section 21804 of the Vehicle Code says -- so they're ordinarily responsible when there's an accident.  But, at the same, time, motorists don't normally expect vehicles from their right, since that's against traffic.  We all know, however, that sometimes bicycles go on the "wrong" side of the road.  Is that the biker's fault?  Or do motorists have a duty to watch for 'em?

More critically, what about sidewalks?  Bikers often ride on roads, but sometimes travel on sidewalks.  Is that okay?  When a car pulls into traffic, they surely have a duty to not hit a pedestrian who's walking on a sidewalk and enters the intersection at the same time.  Is the rule the same when it's a biker?  Or does the fact that a bike travels much faster than a pedestrian -- making them harder to spot -- and generally travel on the road (rather than the sidewalk) require a different rule?

So we've got to figure out what the legal rules are.  Or -- perhaps even more importantly -- how far we need to look up the sidewalk to our right each of the hundreds of times every day we pull into an intersection while driving our cars.

So what's the rule?

It's actually a pretty hard question.  You might want to say that bikes should be on roads, not on sidewalks, so it's the biker's fault.  To tell you the truth, I'm somewhat sympathetic to this rule.

But sometimes -- as (perhaps) in this case -- it may indeed be much safer for the bike to travel on the sidewalk rather than on the road.  I've done so myself on rare occasions.

More importantly, however, listen to what Justice Suzukawa says about this topic.  Because he's unquestionably correct:

"We note that local regulations concerning bicycle riding on sidewalks vary tremendously by jurisdiction. According to the "L.A. County Sidewalk Riding Guide" maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) Bike Blog, sidewalk riding is permitted in 12 cities in Los Angeles County and is prohibited in 32 cities and the county itself. In 25 cities, sidewalk riding is not permitted in "business districts;" in another 19 cities, there is no clear language in the municipal code concerning sidewalk bicycle riding. (http://ladotbikeblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/la-county-sidewalk-riding-epilogue/ [as of Mar. 27, 2013].)

The LADOT Bike Blog observes as follows: "If you take a close look at the sidewalk riding map, you‟ll see quite a jumble of rules and regulations across LA County. Think about if that jumble were applied to another moving vehicle, like, say, a car. What would it be like were the „right turn on red‟ law to be applied city by city instead of state by state? Endless accidents by drivers unsure of what to do next; lawsuits; deaths; lots and lots of tickets for moving violations; it would be total chaos. Traffic rules demand a certain amount of uniformity, which is why most guidelines governing how cars move through space are dictated at the state level. [¶] . . . [¶] If bicycles are supposed to be considered vehicles with responsibilities and rights equal to automobiles, like [California Vehicle Code section] 21200 states, then bicyclists deserve to have rules for their operation that are at least as uniform as the rules for operating an automobile." (http://ladotbikeblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/la-county-sidewalk-riding-epilogue/ [as of Mar. 27, 2013].)

We echo the sentiments of the LADOT Bike Blog and urge the Legislature to adopt uniform legislation governing bicycle riding on sidewalks. In the absence of such uniform legislation, we fear that collisions like the one here will continue to occur." Word. In short, when you're driving, you currently have no idea whether a biker is allowed to be on the sidewalk.  So you'd better look. So what about this case.  Was the motorist negligent? The jury said "No."  And the Court of Appeal affirms.  She wasn't automatically liable under Section 21804 -- I agree with that result -- and it's a question for the jury.  Which decided in a special verdict that the motorist was not guilty of negligence.  Done deal. I think that's a plausible result.  Maybe not what I would have decided were I on the jury.  But then again, maybe it is.  Depends on how fast the bike was going, and how I felt about the parties.  It's a result within the range of reasonable.  Tough call. Interestingly, however, I think the following fact might well explain the jury's decision.  One that's totally -- totally -- legally irrelevant, and yet might practically make a big difference.  Maybe even to someone like me, who would want to do the right thing. Here's what Driver said at the trial about the accident:

"Holland testified that upon leaving the Ralphs parking lot at about 4:40 p.m., she came to a complete stop behind the line separating the parking lot from the sidewalk. . . . As she took her foot off the brake and began to move forward, Spriesterbach [the bicyclist] rode directly in front of her and she drove her car into him. She immediately braked and stopped about 18 inches into the sidewalk area. She saw Spriesterbach make contact with the hood of her car; he then fell forward and disappeared from her view. He had been coming from the right, opposite the flow of traffic on the roadway.

Holland immediately got out of her car and asked Spriesterbach if he was okay. He said, 'You fucking bitch. I'm going to sue you.' He picked up his bicycle and threw it, and then picked it up again and threw it against a tree. He pulled earplugs from his ears and called the police."

I know I'm not supposed to make value judgments about the participants when I'm deciding liability.  But I can't help it.  When you've got one person who's allegedly nice, and jumping out of their car to ask an injured party if he's okay, and the other party calling her a "bitch," immediately threatening to sue, and throwing a bicycle around, I'm going to have a hard time finding the "bitch" liable for your alleged shoulder injury.  A seriously hard time.

And I bet I'm not alone.  Which may, in part, help explain the jury's "no negligence" finding.

There's only one part of this opinion that I'm not so sure about.  And it's an important one, and may well mean that the court decided the case the wrong way.

The trial judge instructed the jury that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic was negligence per se because it's impermissible under the Vehicle Code.  The Court of Appeal holds that this instruction was erroneous.  That's important, and seems right to me.

But the Court of Appeal holds that the instruction was harmless because the jury didn't find that the bicyclist was contributorily negligent (a question further on down in the special verdict form that the jury never had to reach), and instead concluded that the driver wasn't negligent.  So no blood no foul since the erroneous instruction only related to the defense of contributory negligence.

This has some superficial appeal.  I can see why the Court of Appeal so decides.  But it bespeaks an assurance in the jury that I do not share.

I think the instruction is in part about the defense but also, in part, about the initial negligence case as well.  If the jury's told -- as it was here -- that it's impermissible for a bicyclist to be on the sidewalk, that fact may well influence it assessment about whether a driver has a duty to be on the lookout for a bicycle travelling thereupon.  Heck, even I might so conclude, and I'm a lawyer who understands full well the difference between negligence and contributory negligence.  I think lay jurors would come to this same conclusion even more readily. 

So I think the Court of Appeal might well have decided this individual case incorrectly.  In light of the erroneous instruction, I think there's a chance -- indeed, a very real chance -- that the jury may have reached its "no negligence" finding as a result of a legal error.  So I'd remand for a new trial.  Maybe they'd have reached this same conclusion even without the instruction that says that the bicyclist should ever have been on the sidewalk in the first place.  But I'm certainly not sure that's the case.  And think there's ample reason to think otherwise.  So I'd have reversed and remanded in order to allow a jury to decide the case pursuant to an accurate recitation of the relevant legal principles.

So an important case.  For everyone.  Bikers and drivers alike.