Living in California, we sometimes forget just how warm the weather is and how many people live here, but the number of motorcycle riders in the Golden State should serve as a wake-up call. California has far more registered motorcycles than any other state. In fact, the Golden State has about as many riders as the next two states (Florida and Texas) combined. Many bikers ride for economic reasons (saving gas) and others ride purely for enjoyment, but most riders take off for a combination of these reasons.
The old saying that “there is safety in numbers” really doesn’t apply to motorcycle riders in California, because the Golden State has the second-highest motorcycle accident fatality rate in the country. California also has one of the highest fatality rates in the country, so the statistics are not just a product of a large population. In most other states, the motorcycle crash rate falls precipitously during colder months, but in most parts of California, there are no “colder” months, so bikers are crashing year round.
Since motorcycle-vehicle crashes often cause significant injuries, the victims are often entitled to significant compensation.
First Party Liability in Motorcycle Crashes
About two-thirds of motorcycle-vehicle collisions are left-turn crashes. For example, assume Terry Tortfeasor (negligent driver) is idling in the road waiting to make a left turn against traffic. Terry sees a break in the four-wheel vehicle traffic and quickly accelerates into the turn, never seeing Ricky Rider, who is approaching Terry’s turn radius. In effect, Terry pulls directly into Ricky at full speed, causing serious injury. In these situations, first responders occasionally issue a failure to yield the right-of-way ticket, but in most cases, they dismiss the incident as “accidental” and do not issue citations.
Since there was no clear assignment of fault at the scene, it is more difficult to establish liability for damages in court. The task is even more difficult if insurance company lawyers argue that the last clear chance rule applies, and they nearly always make such attempts. The last clear chance doctrine is a little-used principle that flips liability in a few limited situation. Returning to the previous example, assume Ricky was still two or three car lengths away from Terry when Terry hit the gas pedal. The insurance company could argue that Ricky had the last clear chance to avoid the collision, since he could have stopped, slowed down, changed lanes, or taken other evasive maneuvers. Therefore, according to the legal defense, Terry’s negligence is excused.
However, there is a significant difference between the last clear chance and the last possible chance. Indeed, Ricky may have had the last possible chance to avoid hitting Terry. But to do so, Ricky would have had to slam on his brakes, which probably would have thrown him off the bike, or swerve into another lane, where there may have been another car.
Alcohol is a factor in about a third of the fatal car crashes in California; specifically, impairment is often a factor in left-turn crashes. Alcohol creates an artificial sense of euphoria that often makes a nice addition to parties, but is very dangerous when impaired motorists drive home. Once they are behind the wheel, that euphoria usually impairs judgment, so these drivers take more risks than they should. In other words, if Terry was impaired, instead of waiting for a larger gap and making sure that there were no vehicles in his path, Terry might think “I can make this” when he thinks he sees a momentary break in traffic.
In criminal court, defendants are often able to “beat” DUI charges due to a lack of evidence, especially if they refused to provide breath or blood samples. But alcohol impairment cases are much more difficult for the defendant to “beat” in civil court, because the standard of proof is lower. To obtain compensation, victims must only prove that the tortfeasor was impaired by a preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not. In practical terms, if there was any evidence of consumption (e.g. Terry had just come from a restaurant that served alcohol or he had bloodshot eyes), most jurors will conclude that the tortfeasor was impaired and therefore liable for damages.
Third Party Liability in Motorcycle Crashes
California has one of the highest percentages of uninsured drivers in the United States, and California also has one of the lowest auto insurance minimum requirements in the United States. So, many drivers are either uninsured or underinsured. Fortunately, there are several third party liability theories that may bring another defendant into the action and thus increase the pool of money available to pay the victims’ damages.
- Employer Liability: If the tortfeasor was a commercial operator, the employer is usually responsible for damages, under either respondeat superior or negligent hiring.
- Owner Liability: In California, both commercial and non-commercial vehicle owners could be liable for damages, if they negligently entrusted their vehicles to drivers whom they either knew or should have known were incompetent.
- Alcohol Liability: It is illegal to provide alcohol to minors, so if an impaired minor causes a car crash in California, the provider is liable for damages as a matter of law, whether or not money changed hands.
According to Sherwin Arzani, a personal injury attorney in Los Angeles that handles motorcycle accident claims, the damages in motorcycle crash cases usually includes compensation for economic damages, such as property loss, as well as noneconomic damages, such as loss of enjoyment in life. Additional punitive damages may be available as well.