The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently affirmed a judgment favoring a bicyclist struck and run over by a bus driver, dismissing defendant’s argument that the cyclist’s own actions prevented her from obtaining compensation.
At issue in Semian v. Ledgemere Transportation, Inc. was 29 – A M.R.S. § 2070 (6). This statute allows that a bicyclist may pass a vehicle on the right in certain situations, but does so “at their own risk.”
Because of this provision, defendant bus company argued it could not be held liable for injuries sustained to a bicyclist who was attempting to pass on the right.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.
Our Portland bicycle accident lawyers know state courts in Maine recognize the modified comparative fault system, with a 50 percent bar. Pursuant to 14 M.R.S.A. 156, damages attributed to defendants will be reduced by a plaintiff’s own negligence – up to 50 percent. If a plaintiff’s negligence is found to be anything above 50 percent, the claim is barred.
But what this means is just because a plaintiff may have shared some blame for what happened does not mean he or she has no right to collect anything.
And that’s essentially what defendants in this case had hoped to establish through this statute. It didn’t work.
According to court records, the incident giving rise to this claim occurred in June 2010, when a 20-year-old cyclist was traveling on Route 1 in Ogunquit, where she encountered a school bus owned and operated by a private company (defendant) and its employee. The bus driver stopped at an intersection, but was straddling the right and center lanes. After a complete stop, the bus began to pull forward. It then stopped again.
The cyclist believed the bus would continue straight, and thus began to pass on the right. However, instead of continuing straight, the driver of the bus turned right.
The cyclist was unable to stop. She was struck by the bus and fell underneath, suffering severe injuries when the vehicle ran over her torso.
Following a five-day trial in which she asserted negligence against both the driver and the bus company, plaintiff prevailed with a judgment in her favor. The jury did find, however, plaintiff to be 25 percent negligent. The defendant held the remaining 75 percent of negligence.
Total damages incurred by plaintiff were $1 million. However, because of her comparative fault, that award was reduced to $750,000.
The bus company appealed, citing the statute that indicated the cyclist was operating at her own risk when she chose to pass the bus on the right. Therefore, the company should be absolved of all liability.
But the state high court ruled this was not the intent of the legislature, and further, the statute doesn’t insulate a driver from liability, particularly in these circumstances.
The court did concede the statute might be ambiguous as to the issue of liability. Generally, though, the legislature’s adoption of the comparative fault model supplanted defense of assumption of risk.
There are very specific instances in which a defendant can claim assumption of risk as a bar to liability, but those include things like skiing, equine activities and agritourism. In these cases, lawmakers assigned legal responsibility to participants when it’s clear they knowingly assume the risk of an inherently dangerous activity. The assumption of risk defense can be invoked in other circumstances, but only when it’s clear the participant has been notified of the inherent risks and the limitations of the other party’s liability.
The law the bus company attempted to rely on here is structurally very different from the one involving assumption of risk. Most importantly, it does not expressly protect drivers against liability to passing cyclists. It references only the conduct of the cyclists. No statement is made regarding the effect of that conduct on a motorist’s liability.
Therefore, the jury’s judgment award was affirmed.
If you are the victim of a Portland car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Semian v. Ledgemere Transportation, Inc. Dec. 16, 2014, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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