Motorcycle Accidents:
Who is to blame?

As a motorcycle attorney, I have found that more often than not, motorcycle accidents happen when the driver of a car or truck does not recognize the motorcyclist as an oncoming vehicle. The vast majority of collisions between a motorcycle and another vehicle occur because motor vehicle drivers either pull out from a side street or turn left into the motorcyclist's path of travel. 79 percent of all motorcycle contact accidents with other vehicles involve front-end impact.

Attorneys who represent injured motorcycle riders will confirm that car and truck drivers often look directly at the motorcylist and then pull out, or turn left, into the cyclist's path anyway. Although motorcycle rider courses teach "conspicuity" (making yourself visible), and Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructors tell riders that they should wear bright clothing, the sad truth is that such efforts are largely ineffective in preventing motorcycle collisions. Motorcycle injury lawyers have heard time after time from offending motor vehicle drivers who confess that they "looked right at the motorcycle" and then pulled into or across the motorcyclist's lane of travel anyway.

To effectively avoid such collisions, experienced motorcyclists know that we must assume that every oncoming car may at any time turn across our path. Riders learn to watch for the hood to drop as a car approaches-- a sure sign that the car is slowing, and possibly as a precurser to a left turn. Motorcyclists soon realize that any car on a side street may pull out into the biker's lane, and we learn to "cover the brake" watch for motion initiating at the vehicle's front wheel.

Unfortunately, lawyers who are hired by insurance companies to defend drivers who injure motorcyclists invariably try to hang fault upon motorcycle drivers who may have failed to successfully employ such defensive driving strategies. In trials involving motorcycle accidents, such lawyers try to convince the judge and jury that it is the fault of the motorcyclist for not reacting sooner to the illegal left turn or failure to yield by the lawyer's inattentive motor vehicle driver client.

Experienced motorcyclists know that making eye contact for assurance from other motorists is meaningless. Drivers of other vehicles invariably do not perceive us as a hazard. The problem arises in the fact that drivers become conditioned to looking only for oncoming cars and trucks, and not for motorcycles.

Conditioned by a lifetime of ordinary driving experience that is effectively controlled at the subconscious level, a typical driver's mind usually takes notice only when car or truck sized obstacles approach. For that reason, although such drivers unmistakably see an oncoming motorcycle, their mind often does not register the bike into a category of concern. Consequently, many car or truck drivers will turn, or pull out, in front of the cyclist even when the motorcycle was unmistakably in plain view.

Sadly, insurance companies and their attorneys take advantage of unspoken prejudices against motorcycle riders. The driver who causes a collision with a motorcycle is always armed with an insurance company lawyer who will employ "motorcycle experts" whose primary function is to convince the judge and jury to hold the motorcyclist to a higher standard of care than that which is expected of drivers operating ordinary motor vehicles.

In the courtroom, the insurance company lawyers seem to always roll out the same set of "motorcycle experts". The defense team consistently finds fault with the motorcycle operator, while discounting the responsibility of the driver of the offending car or truck. "Experts" employed by the insurance attorneys will contend that it is the motorcyclist's fault for not taking the preventive steps to anticipate the wrongful conduct of the driver whom the insurance lawyer is defending.

Blame will be placed on the motorcylist for not slowing soon enough, for being in the wrong part of the lane, for not having bright enough clothing, or simply for not being able to swerve out of the offending car's path. Insurance investigators will check the crashed motorcycle's tire pressures and even the torque on various motorcycle component fasteners, looking for excuses to throw fault on the motorcycle operator.

Insurers attempt to assess fault on the motorcyclist based on the ergonomics of the bike, especially such issues as raked front suspension or after-market comfort modifications. If the bike has relatively loud pipes, the insurance lawyers will contend that the rider's control was adversely impacted by an inability to hear warning horns or sirens.

Such analysis knows no bounds. For example if the "crash rash" on the bike is on the high side, the at-fault car or truck driver's lawyer will assert that the motorcyclist is to blame due to handling problems or issues. If the scrapes on the bike are on the low side, the insurance lawyer will blame traction loss. If all else fails the offending motorist's lawyer will simply contend that the motorcylist was in the wrong place at the wrong time and moralistically lament that it is not his client's fault that "stuff happens".

The end result of such finger-pointing can be to divert the jury's attention from the real issue of who caused the crash and who should be responsible to pay for the devastating injuries that the motorcyclist and passenger invariably suffer in such circumstances.

Insurance lawyers know that people who do not ride motorcycles, and those persons who do not have close friends or loved ones who ride, often carry a degree of unstated dismissal, disgust, or disdain toward motorcyclists and motorcycles in general. Insurance lawyers know that such people often subconsciously attribute blame on the motorcyclist, or adopt the attitude that motorcyclists assumed the risk of their own injuries by riding the bike to begin with.

Insurance company lawyers have learned to capitalize upon such negative perceptions to effectively defeat valid motorcycle injury claims and protect insurance company profits. Unchecked, insurance company attorneys can cause jurors in motorcycle crash cases to blame the motorcyclist for things that the jurors would never even consider relevant when evaluating the conduct of an ordinary driver.

In West Virginia and other states that follow the law of modified comparative negligence, if the insurance company attorneys and their hired witnesses can shift 50% or more of the blame to the injured motorcycle rider, the insurance company wins. If the jury finds that the motorcyle rider is at least half to blame for his injuries, the car or truck driver who really caused the crash does not share in paying even one penny of the loss.

Personal injury lawyers who regularly represent motorcycle injury victims as a part of their practice understand and address the challenges that are unique to motorcycle cases. An experienced motorcycle injury lawyer has access to the resources necessary to prevent insurance companies from using inappropriate diversionary tactics to shift the blame and avoid payment of just claims that are rightfully due to motorcycle accident injury victims.

Harry Deitzler