Massachusetts bicycle accident case hinges on civil negligence

Court Columns

The family of a Wellesley bicyclist who was hit and killed in a collision with a truck in August 2012 filed a civil negligence lawsuit against the truck's driver in February 2013. Their claim followed nearly three months of investigation, evidence collecting and witness testimony before a grand jury. While the grand jury ultimately chose not to indict, ensuring that no criminal charges will be filed against the truck driver, the civil charges may still go forward.

A controversial case

It can be difficult to prove that a bicycle accident was caused by another's negligence, but the bicyclist's family believes that they have a solid case. In a statement, the family said that the truck driver did not use "basic care" in operating the vehicle, according to The Boston Globe. The family's claim is based on the months of evidence collected by the Wellesley Police Department, which includes videos, an accident reconstruction report and witness testimony, in its attempt to prove criminal negligence on the part of the truck driver, who was captured on video making a quick left turn right into the bicyclist, who was hit and pulled under the truck's front wheel. He kept on driving and only stopped when pulled over by police officers.

According to The Boston Globe, the truck driver has a lengthy history of motor vehicle infractions such as reckless driving. Between 1982 and 2012, his license was suspended 19 times, and he had six major accidents and several more moving violations. After confronted by police after striking the bicyclist, he expressed disbelief and apparently was unaware that he had struck anything at all.

The jury's decision has prompted an outcry from the cyclist community; many argue that the decision stemmed from a deeply-embedded bias favoring motorists in addition to a poor grasp of the rights of bicyclists on Massachusetts roads. The Wellesley police chief himself noted that a jury member had asked an investigator a question indicative of lack of knowledge regarding right of way laws in the state. In fact, jury instructions published by the Massachusetts Court System specifically reference rules of the road that state, "In approaching or passing a person on a bicycle, the operator of a motor vehicle shall slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed." Both video footage and eyewitness accounts suggest that the truck driver did neither.

Civil and criminal negligence: what's the difference?

Criminal negligence is held to a stricter definition than civil negligence. Civil negligence requires proof of failure to fulfill one's duty or to act in a reasonable manner appropriate with professional licenses, such as a truck driver's license. On the other hand, criminal negligence stems from a fundamental disregard for human safety or human life. Massachusetts has a notoriously imprecise view of criminal negligence; in one verdict, it was recorded that "there is in Massachusetts at common law no such thing as criminal negligence." This may additionally account for the lack of criminal charges against the truck driver by allowing more room for jurors' own assumptions and preconceived notions about issues such as bicycle rights to weigh on an individual case.

According to Boston civil litigation attorney Karen Nadeau of Bellotti Law Group, "Motorists in Massachusetts and throughout the nation need to understand that bicyclists share the same duties and obligations as their four-wheel counterparts on the road...and enjoy the same regulations designed for operator and pedestrian safety. We've seen far too many avoidable bicycle accidents in Massachusetts, particularly with the rising popularity of Hubway, the inclusion of bike lanes on our roads, and with college students, professionals, and people from all walks of life choosing to bike to their destinations. We have to be more vigilent."

Fortunately, perhaps, for the family of the Wellesley accident victim, civil trials and criminal trials are handled in entirely different courts. Civil negligence is the province of torts, while criminal negligence applies strictly to criminal law. The outcome of a criminal trial does not necessarily affect the outcome of a civil trial.

In this case, if the civil liability sticks, it would imply that the truck driver had not demonstrated a discernible level of callous disregard but rather that he simply performed his job poorly. A civil case is far less punitive than a criminal charge as civil law does not impose jail time and generally has lower fines.

Tips on filing a civil accident lawsuit

In this case, the civil suit was filed against the truck driver, his employer, the truck's owner and the construction company that hired the truck driver. This is a standard procedure designed to place responsibility on everyone involved in the accident. The claim alleges that the employer should not have employed a driver with such a bad record, the hiring company shouldn't have used his services, and the truck owner shouldn't have leased a truck to him.

If a loved one has been killed in an accident, seek the help and advice of a good accident lawyer who can represent you in court. A knowledgeable lawyer can guide you through filing a claim and coach you on how to comport yourself before a judge and jury.

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