Even though fault seems relatively clear-cut after a recent fatal motorcycle-vehicle crash, the insurance company will almost certainly try to reduce the compensation that the victim’s family receives.
This wreck occurred in Oceanside, on Vista Way near the Via Esmarca intersection. 22-year-old Najee Williams, of Wildomar, was eastbound on Vista Way when a westbound Volkswagen Jetta turned directly into his path to enter a shopping center. The force of the impact propelled Mr. Williams off the bike and into the pavement. First responders rushed him to a local hospital, where he was subsequently pronounced dead.
The motorist’s name was not released.
Left-Turn Motorcycle Crashes
These types of collisions are quite common, and have been for some time. In 1981, the landmark Hurt Report concluded that about two-thirds of serious injury or fatal motorcycle-vehicle crashes occur when the motorist turns directly into the path of an oncoming motorcycle.
The issue may be even worse today. A generation ago, most people drove small cars or perhaps low-profile station wagons. Now, many people drive large SUVs or pickup trucks that restrict visibility even more. To counteract the problem, many proactive bikers turn to some rather unorthodox methods to increase their visibility to other drivers. Some riders wear highly-reflective clothes, honk their horns in traffic, or modify their mufflers to make them louder. There is little or no statistical evidence to support these tricks, and in many cases, they may anger drivers who do not particularly like motorcycle riders to begin with. That point is discussed in detail below.
Motorcycle rider injuries are nearly always serious, because whereas a steel cocoon and multiple restraint layers protect vehicle occupants, motorcycle riders enjoy no such precautions. Moreover, in left-turn crashes, the vehicle is nearly always accelerating from a dead stop to make an unprotected left turn across traffic. This combination leads to serious injuries like:
- Biker’s Arm: People who fall naturally extend their arms to brace their falls. In motorcycle crashes, because the falling riders hit the pavement so hard, this instinctive reaction often causes permanent nerve damage in the brachial plexus region around the armpits.
- Exsanguination: Victims suffer rapid blood loss not only from external trauma wounds, but also from internal injuries. Furthermore, internal bleeding often goes unchecked for several hours, because it must often be stopped surgically.
- Broken Bones: When a fast-moving car and fast-moving motorcycle collide, the victim winds up with severely broken bones that, in many cases, are essentially crushed. These types of injuries usually require metal plates and/or pins during corrective surgery, and once the metal comes out, the victims must often undergo months of physical rehabilitation.
Damages in a motorcycle crash case normally include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, as well as noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages may be available as well, in some cases.
Comparative Negligence and Motorcycle Helmets
In most cases, the insurance company tries to shift at least some of the blame to the victim, to reduce the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) liability and therefore reduce the amount of damages the insurance company must pay. Contributory negligence is a common vehicle. For example, if the victim was speeding and the tortfeasor changed lanes illegally, the jury must apportion fault between the two.
California is a pure comparative fault state that divides damages based solely on the amount of liability. This rule has been criticized by some people (mostly insurance companies), because at least theoretically, the victim could be 99 percent at fault for the accident and still recover damages. So, most states have a 50 percent or 51 percent liability cutoff.
So, in the above story, assume that the motorcycle rider was speeding and the car made an illegal turn, the jury divides responsibility 50-50, and the damages were $100,000. Under those facts, the victim’s family would receive $50,000. But in many states, the victim’s family would receive nothing under similar circumstances, because the tortfeasor was not at least 51 percent responsible.
Helmet use is a common contributory negligence issue in California motorcycle-vehicle crashes, because the Golden State does have a mandatory helmet law. Although common sense seems to dictate that the insurance company could reduce head injury-related damages if the victim was not wearing a helmet, common sense does not always prevail in negligence cases.
To be admissible, helmet non-use must be relevant to a legal issue in the case. The insurance company often uses one of two basic arguments:
- Comparative Fault: Helmet use has nothing to do with the collision. In fact, because they reduce visibility and impede hearing, one could argue that the opposite is true and the helmet use made the collision more likely.
- Mitigate Damages: The victim has no duty to mitigate (take steps to reduce) damages before the incident occurs.
In many jurisdictions, the insurance company makes similar arguments about seat belt non-use, and these arguments often have similar results.
The “motorcycle prejudice” is not nearly as strong as it was several decades ago, but many jurors still view riders in very negative terms. Insurance companies know this to be true, and as a result, they often make lower settlement offers and subtly prey on juror bias during trial.
To combat the motorcycle prejudice in court, or any other type of prejudice for that matter, it is not always a good idea to disprove the underlying myths. Even if their beliefs have no reasonable basis, jurors do not like lawyers to tell them they are wrong. Instead, a better tactic is to separate the victim from the prejudice. Evidence that the rider was a responsible person on and off the road is normally admissible and normally persuasive.
Motorcycle-vehicle crashes involve serious injuries and complicated legal issues. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in San Diego, contact Injury Trial Lawyers, APC. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.