When I first met Richard a nurse was assisting him with the delicate task of using the hospital bathroom. He had just had surgery on his broken right leg, now wrapped in a heavy plaster cast. Defecation and its attendant tasks were proving a challenge. He needed help.
The rest of his body was a mess of scabs and deep bruises literally from head to toe. He had a concussion. His bicycle looked no better sitting in the corner of his room at Northwestern Memorial. Its carbon fiber folk had been sheared off and the aluminum frame looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it.
The day before, Richard (I’ve changed his name) had been t-boned by a speeding white van while riding his bicycle on Chicago’s lower Michigan Avenue. He wanted us to represent him. He did not have health insurance and had no idea how he was going to pay his hospital bills. The case was not going to be an easy one. His own conduct was a contributing cause of the crash.
Richard is an athletic 26 year old and a very experienced city bicyclist. He worked from time to time as a bike messenger. The collision occurred at around 2:40 p.m. while he was riding his road bike south along the right side of the road near 412 lower North Michigan Avenue, part of a subterranean maze of streets underneath Chicago’s Downtown business district. At the same time, the employee of a local dry cleaning business was driving a white GMC van east on North Water Street. When Richard reached the intersection of Michigan and Water the light controlling southbound traffic, his light, was red. He looked to his right and saw that the light controlling cross traffic on Water had turned yellow. He saw that a white van approaching from the west was quite some distance from the intersection. There was plenty of time for it to stop. Richard continued into the intersection. The van did not stop. The front of the vehicle crashed into his right side throwing him off his bike and shattering his right leg.
When I later went to the crash scene I noticed a security camera next to a loading dock on Water Street several yards west. We contacted the owner of the camera and found that it had captured the collision. The video showed that Richard had clearly run a red light:
It also showed that the light controlling eastbound traffic turned yellow while the van was a significant distance from the intersection. Looking at it frame by frame it appeared to us that at the time the van entered the intersection its light had turned red. It seemed that both the bicyclist and the van driver blew their respective red lights.
This still frame from the video shows the position of the van when the light turned yellow. The bicyclist had not yet entered the intersection.
The position of the van when the light turns red. The bicyclist can be seen in the intersection.
What to do? There would be little sympathy among prospective jurors for a bicyclist that ran a red light and got hurt. The City of Chicago has seen an enormous increase in the number of bicyclists in recent years. As biking has increased so has the supposed “us versus them” mentality. Many drivers view people who bike as reckless scofflaws who constantly disobey the rules of the road and just get in the way. Richard, by his conduct, would probably support that stereotype. On the other hand, the van driver seemed to us to have had plenty of time to bring his vehicle to a stop and appeared to have not even considered stopping for an imminent red light. Both road users acted negligently, but only one was driving a heavy passenger van capable of causing enormous harm.
We pressed forward, filing a lawsuit against the driver and his employer. We took a very no nonsense approach to the case. Richard admitted to running the red light during his deposition. For his part, the driver refused to admit that he entered the intersection on a red light. He insisted that the light was still yellow when he did. There were several witnesses who offered differing accounts of what happened but we had video. What the witnesses said wasn’t going to matter much. Jurors would look at the video and make up their own minds. The defense took depositions of City employees to confirm that the traffic lights were working properly. They were, and we never contested that fact. It seemed to drive the defense nuts that we were so honest about what happened.
Recently, we reached a very fair settlement resolving the case. The settlement, not huge, was enough to pay all of Richard’s outstanding medical bills and still net him several thousand dollars.
Perhaps some will criticize this result. The bicyclist broke the law, why should he receive compensation? To them I would note that the driver too broke the law and the danger posed by him doing so was great. Also, Richard was certainly no lottery winner here. His medical providers got paid and he received some additional money. That is all. It was a fair result, nothing more and nothing less.