by Susan Slusser
Litigation grows more common among riders. Gary Brustin is a lucky man. He managed to combine his hobby, cycling, with his job as an attorney.
“I’ve been a cyclist for 25 years and I’ve been hit twice myself,” Brustin , 41, said. “This is something I enjoy doing. I have a lot of job satisfaction. It’s an absolute pleasure.”
In an increasingly litigious society – and one in which more people than ever are cycling – it is not surprising that now there are lawyers who specialize in cycling-related cases.
“When I took up cycling, I heard a lot of people say that their lawyer doesn’t really understand cycling,” said Richard Forcier, an attorney in Tucson, Ariz., who handles about 30 cycling cases per year. “There are some special liability concerns with cycling, and it helps to have some understanding of riding techniques.”
So, like Brustin, Forcier blended his interest with his career.
“It’s great,”he said. “If my clients come in and I’m wearing lycra shorts, they think it’s neat. We start off talking about the case, and always wind up spending half our time just talking about cycling.”
Brustin probably is the busiest cyclist legal representative on the West Coast, with main offices in Beverly Hills and San Francisco and smaller offices in other cities including Sacramento. He began taking clients about five years ago and now handles 100 or so cases a year.
The most common proceedings involve a vehicle turning left in front of a rider.
“That’s 50 percent of all cases,” he said. “And drivers always say, ‘I didn’t see the cyclist,’ or ‘I didn’t realize the cyclist was going so fast,’ or ‘I thought bikes are supposed to be on the sidewalk.’ So you’re talking about an invisible, fast moving object that people think shouldn’t be on the road.”
Brustin has had success, however, seldom losing cases in the past few years. “You have to pick and choose your cases pretty carefully,” he said. “And 85 percent of cases settle before they go to court.”
Forcier says he’s had about 25 percent of his cases go to trial.
“Cyclists considering litigation should remember that most cases are tried than settled when compared to automobile accident cases,” he said. “And given the severity of the injury – say, a broken collarbone – the amount awarded is going to be less than an automobile accident.”
“The reason for that is that insurance companies capitalize on the prejudice against cyclists. Juries think’ ‘I don’t think they should be on the same road with cars. It’s dangerous.’ Many people see bikes as things kids ride to grade school.”
That said, both lawyers encourage cyclists to consult an attorney if they feel they have a case. Personal injury lawyers, including cycling specialists, work on a contingency fee and offer free consultations.
“I think it’s most appropriate to consult an attorney when a cyclist feels that they are in the right and didn’t do anything wrong,” Brustin said, “or when the driver thinks the cyclist was at fault. I’ve handled hundreds of cases where the police report even says the cyclist is at fault. But in 10 minutes of consultation, you can get some good advice.”
Said Forcier, “In all cases, contact an attorney. Just find out what they have to say about it. A lot of times you can get something resolved with just a letter to an insurance company. And sometimes, all you have to do is draw up a lawsuit and then talk settlement. And an accident attorney with a good reputation will usually get a good settlement.”
That’s where going to cycling specialists comes in. They have seen such cases before and know how best to serve their clients. the most important things to consider if you’re in an accident, according to Forcier, are to line up witnesses and document any injuries.
“Make out a police report, and if you’re hurt, tell the police officer,” he said. “Cyclists are used to pain; I’ve seen riders with torn ligaments ride home and just not report that they’re injured because they just didn’t realize the extent of the damage.”
Cycling litigation doesn’t involve just bicycle/ automobile accidents. Brustin and Forcier have been involved with suits against manufacturers for faulty equipment and even cases where cyclists rode into stationary objects.
“I had one case where a van with a special permit to park in a bike lane in a shady spot under a tree and didn’t have a marking cone behind it,” Brustin said. ” A cyclist rode right into the back of the van, and I mean right into the van, and suffered serious injuries.”
The strangest case Brustin’s had he said, involved a motorist driving along the coast in Palos Verdes who became so annoyed at a cyclist on the road that he came back around and had his passenger open his door to try to sweep the rider off the road.
Brustin and Forcier are involved in the cycling community, sponsoring teams and giving talks. Brustin sponsored a rider in the Race Across America and often donates helmets to groups and holds bicycle safety seminars.
Said Brustin, “We both feel that if you are a cyclist and you work in this field, that you should put something back into the community.”
Susan Slusser is a staff writer for the Bee and a bicycling enthusiast.
Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Great Outdoors.