Motorcycle CrashMotorcycle Collisions:
Harry Deitzler

As an attorney representing motorcycle riders, I have worked on cases involving a variety of situations and issues. Each case has its own individual facts, problems, or unique circumstance, but some common threads tend to weave their way into most all court cases that involve motorcycle collisions. Hopefully through the challenges faced by others, each of us can learn how to protect ourselves better in the future, and also those of us who are lawyers representing motorcycle riders can learn to better serve our clients. Listed below are a few of the many motorcycle case situations in which I have been privileged be the motorcycle attorney who represented or helped men and women who have been injured in motorcycle collisions or the families of motorcyclists who have been killed.

Sport bike meets left turning Lincoln Town Car.

This case involved a young man who was catastrophically brain injured after striking the front of a Lincoln Town Car that turned into his path. The young motorcylist was travelling at 50 to 55 mph on a four lane highway in Charleston, West Virginia. As he approached an intersection, he had a green light and saw the Lincoln facing him in traffic, stopped or rolling slightly forward in the center left turn lane. Faced with a green light, and not realizing that the elderly driver did not mentally register his approach, the motorcyclist maintained speed into the intersection. The driver of the Lincoln, turned directly into the motorcyclist's path. The motorcycle crushed into the front of the "land yacht", sending the cyclist helmet first into the windshield and then catapulting the young rider forty or fifty feet past the intersection into the curb and roadside debris.

A witness verified that the traffic light facing the side street turned green a few seconds after the collision, validating the fact that the motorcyclist faced a green light as he approached, and making it extremely unlikely that the driver of the Lincoln had a green "turning arrow". Due to the severity of his brain injury that resulted from the crash, the motorcyclist was unable to recall the impact. Experts testified at trial regarding the related traffic engineering, biomechanics, crash reconstruction, medical issues, and the motorcyclist's permanent impairment.

In preparing for and presenting the trial, it was important to appreciate and contend with the fact that jury sympathy is seldom on the side of the motorcyclist, particularly if the rider is a young man on a sport bike. Particularly when contrasted with a kindly grandmother who was absolutely certain that the motorcyclist "came out of nowhere", the motorcyclist's lawyers will always be challenged to achieve a fair result.

From a motorcylist perspective, however, the lesson is even more stark. Clearly this rider approached in plain view of the seasoned driver. There were no obstructions, speed was not a factor, and the driver of the Lincoln virtually had to look the cyclist in the eye before turning into his path. As a lawyer representing motorcycle riders, I see this situation again and again. It is not an issue of conspicuity (the ability to be seen), but rather a situation in which the oncoming driver's subconscious has already formed an image of what does or does not constitute a vehicle-- and a motorcycle does not fit into that paradigm. Simply stated, drivers, and particularly mature and experienced drivers, are conditioned to look for cars, trucks, and other full size vehicles. They see the motorcycle, but it does not register in their dataset as a vehicle. Time after time, drivers will say "I looked right at him." Motorcyclists beware!

Log truck pulls into the path of Harley Davidson

In this case, an experienced rider in no particular hurry nearly lost his leg while cruising on a two lane highway in Braxton County. As he enjoyed the solitude of a peaceful weekend afternoon ride, his motorcycle survival skills were pressed to the limit when a fully loaded log truck suddenly pulled across his path. The intrusion came from the cyclist's right, the truck turning left in the direction of the motorcyclist as the motorcyclist was already leaning gradually into a long sweeping right hand curve. The truck was not within the motorcyclist's line of sight until it pulled out. By the time the motorcycle rider saw the truck, it was already moving into an unavoidable collision path. The motorcyclist's only option was to brake for all he was worth in an effort to either allow the truck to clear his lane or minimize the speed with which the impact would occur.

Experts explain that the "perception/reaction time" (the time that passes before you actually hit the brakes as you perceive and react when an emergency occurs) is usually about a second and a half. Tack on the fact that a motorcycle cannot be effectively braked and steered at the same time (there is limited traction available when you only have two small "contact patches" on the pavement), and the end result of this scenario had to be less than favorable for the rider. Because of the fact that the incident occurred in a sweeping turn, the most effective straight line braking would still carry the cyclist from right to left in his lane, moving him toward the center. The rear end of the log truck did not quite clear the centerline and the motorcyclist collided with the truck near its rear axle. He was fortunate that his braking was effective to reduce the severity of his injury at impact, and although critically injured he recovered without permanent deficit.

In representing this motorcycle rider, it was necessary to employ experts who could reconstruct the accident, explain sight distance and reaction times, and establish the fact if it was not for the skills of the rider, the injury result would have been much worse, most likely death instead of surgery. Predictably, the truck company insurance lawyers took the position that there was room for the motorcycle to have passed in his own lane by the time that the collision occured. Therefore it was necessary that we could prove and explain that if the cyclist would have tried to avoid the collision by turning, he would have arrived at the point of impact much sooner and if that would have occurred, the log truck would have been fully across the motorcyclist's lane of travel.

As a motorcyclist it is important to remember that obstacles may appear at any time, and therefore be forever vigilant for those who violate the rules of the road. Although the other driver may be in the wrong, it won't be him who is in the hospital after the collision. Remember that you have to decide whether to brake or dodge, and if both options appear equal, always choose braking. An unsuccessful collision avoidance by braking to lower speed is always more surviveable than a higher speed crash due to an unsuccessful collision avoidance by dodging. And by all means, practice your emergency braking. If your first effort at a panic stop is at a time when you really need it, the result is not likely to be favorable.

Motorcyclist killed by truck rolling backwards

This was one of the most heartbreaking situations that any man's family can imagine. The father in the family was out for a casual cruise on a beautiful summer day. He had chosen the perfect motorcycle road-- up and down, two lanes with turn after turn though the beautiful hills of West Virginia. It was an idyllic scene. Cruising along without a care in the world, who would ever have suspected that when the man left home that day it was the last time that his wife and adult son would ever see him in a recognizeable form?

Cresting one hill, he noticed a dump truck full of stone going downhill in the lane ahead of him. At the bottom of the hill, the road turned to the right, followed by a steep uphill grade with a double yellow line and no visibility to allow the rider to pass.

The motorcyclist slowed immediately. He knew the road well, and he patiently waited for the opportunity to pass the truck on the dotted line which he knew would follow the relatively short upgrade where he had almost caught up with the truck. He maintained what he perceived to be a safe following distance as the truck proceeded up the short, but steep, hill in front of him.

The steep part of the grade was only about a hundred feet long, if that. Nevertheless, the truck was significantly overloaded with stone, and it slowed much quicker than either its driver or the motorcyclist had anticipated. The truck driver was nearly to the top when he realized that he would be unable to maintain his forward motion in the gear that he had selected. He attempted to downshift too late and jammed on his brakes to try and hold his position on the hill while he searched for the lower gear. The brakes were insufficient to hold back the overloaded truck, and it began to drift backwards, first gradually, and then very, very fast, like a runaway train, as gravity quickly took over.

The motorcyclist was caught totally off guard. He had already slowed in his lane behind the truck. By the time that he and the truck driver realized that the truck was not going to proceed further, the options for anyone behind the truck were severely limited. At that point the motorcycle was either stopped or travelling too slow to accomplish a turnaround on the very steep upgrade. There was a car a short distance behind him.

Seconds earlier, the rider had been in a position to see around the truck. An oncoming car had just passed. By the time that car passed and the truck began to hesitate, the motorcyclist suddenly realized that his only option was to drop the motorcycle and run. He was already on the left side of the lane, so he dove to his left. Fleeing for his life, he scrambled on all fours in an effort to avoid the double wheels and tandem axle of the oncoming truck as it accelerated backwards, at that point only a car's length away.

The rear wheels of the loaded truck ran across the dropped motorcycle like it was no more than a matchstick, and immediately overtook the fleeing motorcyclist. He was crushed and his entire body was wrapped around the left rear wheels of the truck. The truck continued to accelerate the remaining short distance to the bottom of the hill. On the way, it crashed into the car that had been stopped behind the motorcycle. The truck's momentum carried both vehicles off the road at the bottom of the hill. They were eventually stopped by the massive trunk of a large tree.

Working for the surviving wife and son of the motorcyclist, my investigator found that the dump truck driver had recently purchased the used truck on credit. When he was not driving the truck, the driver performed as an "Elvis impersonator" for extra income. His manufactured home was still owned by the bank, and he had no collectible assets. The driver had only a minimum limit insurance policy of $20,000.

Next we checked out a possible claim against the person who sold him the truck with bad brakes. Both that individual and the truck driver agreed that the brake problem had been disclosed before the sale. The driver had subsequently repaired the brakes himself. Because of those facts we could not gain any additional recovery for the deceased motorcyclist's family through pursuing a negligent repair shop.

We noticed a recent inspection sticker on the truck, issued subsequent to the purchase by the offending driver. If a shop had inspected the truck and failed to flag the bad brakes, perhaps that would provide an avenue of recovery for the surviving family members. As it turned out, the driver had acquired the inspection sticker locally, but there was evidence that he had purchased it from someone who had probably stolen it. The potential claim against the inspection facility was not likely to succeed.

After collecting the truck driver's minimum limit insurance coverage and the motorcyclist's small policy of underinsured motorist coverage, the only remaining potential source of compensation for the deceased rider's family was the stone company that had overloaded the truck. We acquired the loading records and showed that the people at the stone yard had knowingly placed more stone on the truck than was lawful, or even reasonably safe. Their only claim of defense was that they did it at the request of the truck driver/owner. Consequently, the stone yard operators were held financially accountable for their share of negligence that had resulted in the motorcyclist's death.

In spite of the fact that a successful legal resolution resulted in a financial settlement, the wife and adult son of the motorcylist will never replace the husband and father whom they lost. The son has nostalgic memories of his cross country rides with his dad. His mother will forever miss her loving husband's smile. Neither had the chance to say goodbye. Both will forever endure the pain, sadness, and empty feelings of never having their family together again.

As motorcyclists, this is part of the risk that we take every time we turn the key. We know that we must be ever vigilant for the unexpected. But who among us can honestly say that if we had been in this man's position, we would have anticipated that the truck in front of us would suddenly lose power and accelerate backwards toward us if we followed it uphill at what initially appeared to be a safe distance? What would we have done when the truck slowed and there was no way to pull off to either side or turn around? How quickly would any of us have made the decision to drop our bike and run?

Road repair drops touring bike

In this case, a group of experienced touring riders were on a trip together. They were travelling on a weekend. As they rode through the mountains, they came upon an area of ther road which was being paved. The pavers were either off for the weekend, or had discontinued work due to rain earlier that day.

Fom initial appearances, the entire road had been completely paved. However, at a point further down the road, one lane of the road had its final wear course of asphalt, while the other lane had the binder course or roadbase. As such, there was about a two inch difference in level between the two lanes.

There were no signs to alert the riders as to the fact that there was a "lip" between the lanes. A short distance before the change in the pavement, several of the riders had pulled left to pass a slower vehicle. The last rider had the misfortune to pull out just past the point where the difference in the two pavement levels was initiated.

As the rider changed lanes, the bike's front wheel caught the edge between the two pavement levels and the motorcycle dropped immediately. They were travelling at highway speed, roughly 55 mph, and the rider was thrown off the road into a guard rail. His life was saved by a good helmet, but he suffered significant deficits that result from a traumatic brain injury.

Road construction crews are required by law (and common sense) to place adequate signage to alert drivers when lanes are at different levels. But that fact alone does not obviate the rider/driver's duty to be observant and avoid obvious obstacles. The jury question in this case was whether or not the construction company's negligence exceeded that of the motorcycle rider.

The rider in our case suffered severe and permanent injury because he did not see or appreciate the significance of a two inch difference in lane height going parallel to his line of travel. Possibly the other riders had crossed the lane prior to the start of the construction difference, or possibly they had changed lanes across the "lip", but a more aggressive angle.

I do not know if fault was primarily with the rider or primarily with the road contractor. Either way the rider's life will never be the same, so from his perspective it probably does not matter anymore. However, from the time when I handled this case forward, I must say that my vigilance for any vertical creases in the road surface has gone up about tenfold. Previously I would have to speculate that it could have just as easily been me who was slammed against the outside guardrail.

Does an ambulance have a right-of-way over a motorcycle?

In this case eight riders on five motorcycles were out for a leisurly Sunday ride. They were on a four lane 55 mph highway with a river on their left and a raised railroad and hills on their right. As they came upon an intersection the traffic light had turned green. They were proceeding in the left hand "fast lane". There was no traffic ahead of them in the lane. There was a car or two in the right lane which appeared to be slowing due to a car ahead which the bikers believed to have been previously stopped for the red light.

Unseen by the motorcyclists, an ambulance had approached the intersection from their right, with lights and siren operating. The lower level of the adjacent underpass through which the ambulance had approached, combined with the cars in the right hand lane, apparently prevented the riders from seeing the ambulance as it came near to the intersection.

The ambulance driver was faced with a red light. He looked to his left before entering the intersection. He saw the stopped car in the right hand "slow" lane and made the assumption that traffic in that direction (coming from his left) was no longer a factor. He did not see the motorcycles coming.

The ambulance driver looked to his right as he began to cross the near lanes of traffic. He was focused on cars that were approaching from his right in the left turn lane (the inside lane facing the motorcyclists).

The ambulance hit the first motorcycle in a virtual t-bone fashion. The driver of the motorcycle, although severely injured, missed the worst of the impact. His wife/passenger was killed instantly.

The second motorcylist caught sight of the ambulance between the cars to his right. He never heard it, but caught just a glimpse of its motion. As one of the most experienced riders in the group, he reacted immediately. He quickly loaded up his front brake and simultaneously worked his rear brake. When the dust cleared, his body was almost entirely over his handlebars and his head was inches away from the stopped ambulance that, by that time, stood stationary in his lane of travel. His girlfriend passenger was pinned against his back and fell off the side without serious injury when the bike stopped.

The third and fourth rider/drivers did not see the ambulance, but noticed the sudden braking effort of the motorcycle in front of them. They began heavy braking and as they did, they saw the first rider and his wife being struck by the ambulance. By that point they were already braking hard and it was too late to swerve. Both were on large Harley Davidsons and this was before Harley added anti-lock brakes. Both struck the side of the ambulance and found themselves hospitalized for rather serious injuries.

The last (fifth) rider and his passenger saw the whole scenario unfold ahead of them. The driver was able to successfully brake and stop prior to reaching the ambulance and the other riders.

The question for the jury in this case was whether the third and fourth riders were negligent for failing to see and yield to the ambulance entering the intersection with lights and siren. The law only allows the ambulance driver to enter an intersection in the face of a red light when it is safe to do so, and for that reason the jury had to balance whether the ambulance driver's failure to ascertain the safety of entering the intersection or the motorcylists' failure to see and react to the ambulance lights and siren was more the cause of the crash.

It was interesting (and sad) to see that at trial the ambulance driver was more concerned with the possible blemish to his record for failing to see (or even look in the direction of) the approaching motorcyclists than he was with allowing innocent victims of his oversight to be compensated.

The case was heavily disputed at trial. The insurance lawyer for the ambulance accused the riders of fault because they had loud pipes. He employed a sound expert who said that the loud pipes would have prevented the riders from hearing the ambulance (disregarding the testimony one witness who said the ambulance did not use its siren at all until just seconds before the crash).

The insurance lawyer also brought in a so-called "motorcycle expert" who found fault with our riders because they were not wearing blaze orange outfits (for whatever conspicuity would have mattered when the ambulance driver never looked in their direction). He also testified that the third and fourth riders were both non-observant and ineffective in their braking technique.

The bottom line is that whenever an accident occurs, there will always be "experts" who second guess your every action and move. Conspicuity and loud pipes may not make a whit of difference in reality, but both may be thrown in your face as an injured rider. If you stop in anything more than a textbook stopping distance, blame will be pushed in your direction. If you fail to anticipate that someone else will break the law by pulling out from the side or turning left in front of you, some former motorcylist will take the stand and say that you should have avoided the crash.

As motorcyclists, we will be held to a higher standard. Nobody would think of finding fault with an automobile driver because of the color of his car or the fact that he did not guess that somebody else was about to run a red light. Until we create a more positive image for ourselves as a group, insurance company lawyers will prey upon latent prejudices to cause even the most sincere and honest of jurors to subconsciously stack the deck against the injured motorcyclist.

If you crash into the side of an ambulance, will it really matter who had the right-of-way? The answer is yes, if you want any legal chance that the ambulance operator might pay fair compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, permanent injury or death. But from a practical standpoint, anytime you run into something as big as an ambulance, the fact that you actually had the right of way may mean absolutely nothing.

What is the answer as it relates to the tragically killed wife on the first motorcycle in the case above? In her case, right-of-way means absolutely nothing at all. She was not even a drive. She was a passenger. So be vigilant, practice braking often, and always assume that the other driver is going to pull into your path.