Megan the The Cyclist Lawyer
By Megan M. Hottman – edited by Michael P. Colchin
As a follow-up to the article I wrote last month (How Does the Criminal Justice System Work in a Motorist-Cyclist Collision Case? ), I asked three of my current cyclist-clients to answer questions about their thoughts and perceptions regarding how their case was handled in the criminal justice system. Before I ask them their impressions, here are brief summaries of each incident that caused their injuries.
Client 1: The collision which caused my injuries occurred as I rode through an intersection. I was hit broadside by a motorist driving a pickup truck who entered the intersection after failing to yield the right of way. The motorist (approximately 44 years of age) claimed he did not see me until just before colliding with me. The collision took place in broad daylight and there were no obstructions to visibility such as other traffic, landscaping, or short sight lines. I sustained multiple serious injuries including:
- fractured right femur (thigh bone) near the hip joint,
- severe contusion (bone bruise) to the right femur,
- impingement of the right shoulder, and
- extensive, severe road rash on my right side.
The location and nature of the femur fracture necessitated complete hip joint replacement surgery.
Client 2: The bicycle, motor-vehicle collision that caused my injuries occurred near an intersection on a main thoroughfare in Highlands Ranch. I was riding in the bike lane as I approached the intersection. A pickup truck driven by a 16-year old girl came alongside me in the right hand turn lane with the right turn signal blinking. Because there was not a traffic signal or stop sign, I assumed that the motorist would allow me to continue straight on through the intersection in the bike lane before she turned right. Instead, the motorist turned to the right when she was abreast of me and hit me.
As the result the collision, I sustained a fractured acromion (shoulder), rib contusions, and severe road rash. My helmet was cracked and my bicycle was severely damaged.
Client 3: The bicycle, motor-vehicle collision that caused my injuries occurred at the intersection of the C-470 bicycle path and Santa Fe road. I was in the crosswalk when I was struck by a motorist who failed to yield the right of way. The estimated speed of the truck at the point of impact was in excess of 20 m.p.h. The force of the impact threw me clear of my bicycle and instantly knocked me unconscious.
I sustained serious injuries to my head (including a concussion and short-term memory loss), my left ear, my left shoulder, my right hand, and both of my legs. My bicycle was totally destroyed.
[Interview with clients]
[Megan Hottman]: What impressions did you have of the criminal justice system prior to your collision?
[Client 1:] Until my recent bicycle, motor-vehicle collision, I had never had any traffic related interaction with the criminal justice system. Therefore, I didn’t really have any specific impressions or expectations of the criminal justice system or how it worked other than a somewhat vague notion that it provides a way to recompense the victim (cyclist) who was injured in a collision and punish the Defendant (motorist) who was at fault. Because I was unfamiliar with the system, I decided that it would be in my best interest to hire an experienced attorney who also had a cycling background.
[Client 2:]My pre-accident impression of the criminal justice system was that the system was overwhelmed and they (the DA's office) would do everything to expedite a settlement to keep it from going to trial. I also had the impression that whoever could afford the best lawyer had the best chance of avoiding punishment. In my particular case, it appeared that the Defendant’s (motorist’s) insurance company was not going to admit fault and I was concerned that the Defendant might fight the charges and end up going unpunished. I felt reassured that I had a very good attorney. I can't imagine trying to go through the process without legal representation.
[Client 3:] My impression was that the criminal justice system was slow, complex, and that it takes a long time for cases to be adjudicated. Also, it seems that the system is focused on the Defendant without much regard to the victim’s circumstances and input.
[Megan Hottman]: What expectations did you have of the DA’s office and the system in “meting out” justice in the criminal case against the driver? Were you surprised at the delay in court, any re-settings of the case, and the perceived delay associated with the process?
[Client 1:] As the victim of a criminal act, I expected that the DA’s office would have had a fair degree of personal concern and a close communication with me regarding the case. However, I found it to be more like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles; bureaucratic and fairly efficient but distant and mostly impersonal. I understand that they are chronically overloaded with cases and under pressure to move as many cases as possible through the system as fast as possible, but I found it less than satisfying to be treated as just another case. However, my expectations of the system in meting out justice in the criminal case against the Defendant (motorist) were, for the most part, met. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no long delays in court, no resetting of the case, and no unexpected delays in the process.
[Client 2:]I did not expect the DA's office to be interested in what I wanted. I assumed that they were mainly interested in clearing this case off their docket as quickly as possible. I was pleasantly surprised when the DA and the Victim's Advocate met with Megan and me prior to meeting with the Defendant and her attorney. The DA explained the law to us and what she would be able to offer to the Defendant. She also asked what our expectations were and what kind of punishment might be appropriate. Since the Defendant was an inexperienced 16-year old driver, we were not interested so much in punishment but more in an admission of guilt and educating the Defendant to be a safer driver.
We were pleased that the DA listened to us and that she was able to reach a mutually acceptable agreement with the Defendant and us. We were also pleasantly surprised that the DA was able to put the case in front of the Judge that day and we were able to resolve the case in one trip to the court house.
[Client 3:] My expectations were that the wheels of justice would turn faster. The long wait to obtain a police report and information concerning the insurance status of the Defendant was frustrating. I was surprised that it took two months for my case to be heard because it seemed to me that it was fairly unambiguous and straight forward. During this time, the Defendant sat in jail waiting for sentencing, and I as the victim was not able to proceed with claims until the criminal case was closed.
[Megan Hottman]: Were you surprised to learn that a police report citing a negligent driver at fault in a cycling case is not necessarily indicative of whether their insurance company will accept liability?
[Client 1:]This was the first time I have been party to a case where a police report cited a negligent motorist at fault in a bicycle-motor vehicle case. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that a police citation may not be enough to convince the Defendant’s insurance company to accept liability for the property damages and medical costs.
[Client 2:] Since everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty, I was not surprised at the insurance company's refusal to accept liability. However, I was surprised that we could not get the eye-witness report before we went to court. I later learned that this was because the case was still under investigation and could have altered my recollection of the accident had I been called on to testify. Eye witnesses are critical in these cases and if you ever witness an accident please take the time to stop and give a report to the authorities.
[Client 3:] Yes, because in my experience with motor-vehicle to motor-vehicle accidents a police report is all that insurance companies depend on to litigate their responsibility and coverage. I originally thought that my case was a civil case rather than a criminal case. I’m still not clear about that distinction but there doesn’t seem to be much difference from a victim’s perspective.
[Megan Hottman]: What were the impressions of the way the criminal process unfolded in your particular case? Were you satisfied? What emotions did you experience when you saw the Defendant in court? What feelings did you experience as you observed the Judge consider the case and render the sentence? What sentence was rendered? Were you satisfied with it?
[Client 1:] Overall, I was satisfied with the way the criminal justice process worked in my case. To a large degree I think this outcome was the result of my attorney and I being actively involved in the case early on.
Seeing the Defendant (motorist) in the courtroom was somewhat traumatic although less so than I had imagined it would be. However, it helped defuse the chaotic emotions that I had felt since I was injured in the collision nearly three months earlier. The Defendant appeared to be genuinely remorseful and pled guilty to the charges against him. He unequivocally accepted blame for the collision and then apologized to the court and to me for his careless and negligent behavior.
As I observed the Judge consider the case and render the sentence I felt relieved that I had been heard. The sentence consisted of a fine and jail time. However, the jail time would be suspended if the Defendant attended driver’s safety education classes. If he did not fulfill this requirement, a warrant would be issued for his arrest and he would serve the jail time. I felt that the sentence was fair and just because it held the Defendant accountable and also gave him the opportunity to lessen the severity of the sentence by attending the driver’s safety education classes which might help him become a more mindful and safer motorist.
I was particularly moved by the Judge’s comments before sentencing. He said that he “could not imagine the pain and suffering that both parties have experienced as the result of the Defendant’s negligent behavior”.
[Client 2:] I was very satisfied that in my case, the criminal process was effective and the outcome of the court process was acceptable. I was satisfied with both the verdict and the punishment that was handed out to the Defendant.
I was very nervous about being in court and seeing the Defendant and her parents. I was glad to have my attorney there to be my guide and spokesperson. In court, the Judge seemed to be very professional, however, very personable and understanding. My attorney was able to make a statement on my behalf prior to the handing down of the verdict. I was very surprised when the Defendant asked to make a statement. The Judge allowed her to speak and then she turned to me and said, "…I want to apologize for what I did to you. I'm sorry". I accepted her apology and forgave her. Justice was served! The system worked!
[Client 3:] Prior to engaging an attorney, I was confused and frustrated because I did not understand the process and I was overwhelmed by uncertainty. After the process was in the hands of an attorney, I was able to stop worrying. The court process was re-assuring because it allowed me and my attorney to provide input to the Judge and DA. I felt that it gave me some semblance of recovering control over my life and made it easier for me to move on. I was interested in seeing that justice was done. However, I did not feel that seeing the Defendant in court made any difference because the Defendant, while responsible, did not hit me intentionally or with malice. I was only seeking justice in the sense that the Defendant be held accountable in light of his previous driving record.
I am satisfied with the sentence the Defendant received. However, I am skeptical that this sentence will prevent the Defendant from driving again without a license, in an uninsured motor-vehicle and perhaps committing another offense.
It was particularly frustrating that the system does not allow for the verification of the Defendant’s residence status in this country. Therefore, I suspect that this may just produce a series of offenses and sentences. It seems to me this is a waste of time and resources, not to mention the potential human misery and damage caused along the way.
[Megan Hottman]: What are your post-court observations? What advice would you give other cyclists facing similar circumstances? Was it a waste of your time?
[Client 1:]In my opinion, the court process was valuable on several levels and was, therefore, time well spent. Participating in the court process:
- defused my pent-up chaotic emotions about the motorist and the incident,
- gave me an opportunity to voice my concerns to the court and the Defendant,
- gave me an opportunity to offer input to the Judge before sentencing, and
- allowed me to see the Defendant as a fellow human being who had tragically made the mistake of behaving in a negligent and careless manner, rather than a mean-spirited enemy of human kind.
I strongly encourage any cyclist who finds themselves in a similar circumstance to participate in the criminal justice system. For me, it was an important part of the complex physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual healing process.
[Client 2:] I am thankful that I am back on my bike training for the spring race season and that I was not injured more seriously. I do tend to look over my shoulder more and I am less trusting of motorists. I encourage all cyclists who are involved in an accident to file a police report, obtain names of witnesses, and get a lawyer that has experience with bicycle-related cases. Not only will an attorney guide you through the criminal justice system, but also through the bureaucracy of insurance companies. I would have been lost without my attorney and greatly appreciated her direction through this process.
[Client 3:] My advice is to get an attorney to represent you because it is almost a full-time job just dealing with the injuries. Trying to navigate the criminal justice system and deal with insurance companies on your own is overwhelming. I tried to do it until I realized that it was way over my head and was more stress than I could manage. In my opinion, the entire process is an inefficient use of time because it takes time from leading a normal life. However, it is not a waste of time in the sense of meting out and receiving justice.