Report from Trial Attorney Helen Baddour
Earlier this year, I began working with Ann Groninger, representing bicyclists in North Carolina. I have worked as a personal injury attorney for more than five years. For many years, I’ve been an avid runner, completing my second Boston Marathon two weeks ago. Working with Bike Law North Carolina has inspired me to ride my bike even more and I’ve learned that getting to work by bike is a great way to start my day!
Anyway, last week, my fellow associate lawyer Drew Culler and I won our first bicycle case trial in Durham County. Thanks to North Carolina’s onerous contributory negligence law, the case was a difficult one and everyone outside of our firm thought we would lose it. Here’s the story of our trial and how we were able to get justice for one NC bicyclist.
Our client, Ryan McKenzie, was riding in Cycle North Carolina, an annual ride across the state that draws over 1000 participants from around the country. He and a few other bicyclists were lined up at a traffic light in Mocksville, Davie County and started to go when the light turned green. The defendant was driving a Ford F150 pick-up truck and came up behind Ryan just as Ryan rode through the intersection. With oncoming traffic in the turning lane and the accelerating truck behind him, Ryan felt that he was being edged over to the side of the road. But he kept moving over to the right because he feared being hit by the truck. Ryan’s bicycle tire got stuck in a crack and he fell into the road. The truck driver ran over Ryan’s left-dominant arm and hand.
Amazingly, Ryan did not break a bone, but he basically had two holes in his arm where the tire made impact. All because the defendant didn’t wait a few more seconds to safely pass down the road. Despite his injuries, Ryan felt lucky to be alive.
We sued both the defendant driver and his company. The defendant’s insurance company, State Farm, never took the case seriously and did not even let us know ahead of time that they were coming to mediation with $0. Ann drove all the way from Charlotte to Durham and back for a 10 minute mediation. It wasn’t until 2 weeks before trial that State Farm finally put something on the table. And by something, I mean a whopping $10,000. Eventually, State Farm offered $50,000 to settle the case the Friday before trial. We refused.
Trial started strong. We won a few hard-fought pre-trial motions. Defense counsel filed a motion to separate the trial so that the jury decides the liability portion before dealing with compensation. That would require two jury deliberations, two openings, two closings and two charge conferences. The defense argued that the issues were complicated and that the pictures of Ryan’s arm were inflammatory and therefore prejudicial, so it was only fair to separate liability from damages. We argued that the issues were not complicated and the photos of Ryan’s arm would not be used to inflame the jury but to demonstrate his injury. They are what they are, but they are not prejudicial. The Judge made an easy decision and denied the defendant’s motion.
One important motion we filed was a motion to compel a recorded statement of the defendant taken by State Farm shortly after the collision and never produced to us. We needed the statement because the defendant’s story of what happened differed from all three eye witnesses, including our client. Also, because the defendant left the scene and parked somewhere else and waited 13 minutes before calling 911. The defense fought this motion tooth and nail so we knew the statement was likely to contain something interesting. The Judge reviewed the defendant’s statement and compared it to the defendant’s deposition, which was taken almost two years after the collision. He then granted our motion to compel and the defendant was required to turn over the statement. Sure enough, the defendant’s version of what happened had changed somewhat over time.
After a day and a half of jury selection, Drew presented our opening statement. Over the course of two days, we presented seven witnesses including our client, two fellow bicyclists who saw the collision and two experts. One expert was our client’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Rhett High, who did the skin graft surgery and explained that, even though Ryan’s arm was, amazingly, functional, the scar would always be there. The other expert was Steve Farlow, an accident reconstructionist who also happens to be a bicyclist. Steve explained North Carolina’s safe passing law that requires 4 feet of distance when passing in a no passing zone, and how the defendant violated that law.
The defendant did not put on any evidence; he never took the stand. I can see why his attorney made this decision. She knew her client had credibility issues and she wanted last closing argument. But it allowed me to argue: “If the defendant was passing safely that day, he would have taken the stand and told you so.” We asked the jury for $150,000.
I delivered our closing argument on Friday morning. The jury deliberated for an hour and five minutes. And then, a knock on the door. The deputy sheriff told us there was a verdict.
The 12 jurors walked back into the courtroom. This moment felt like the drop from the top of a roller coaster ride. The foreman stood, handed the verdict sheet to the judge. I squeezed three of Drew’s fingers.
The defendant is negligent. The plaintiff is not negligent. The plaintiff is awarded $150,000 for his injuries.
We won! My gosh, we did it.
Literally everyone told us to settle this case. You’ll never defeat contributory negligence in North Carolina, they said. We knew it would be difficult. The only person who told us to keep going was Ann. Keep going. Keep pushing.
I’m so glad we did. And grateful that she trusted us with her case and her client. I cannot say enough about Drew, our paralegals, Juliette, Megan and Jana, and our entire trial team.
Just before closing arguments, I told myself no matter what happens, this was an incredible experience and a fight for justice. Turns out, the jury got it right and justice was served.
A win for our client. A win for the bicycling community.