Jeffco DA’s Office Declines To Charge Driver with New Vulnerable Road User Law

By Maureen Massidda, Content & Connections Director

Judge’s Hands Tied at Sentencing Due to Plea Deal

“It’s really shameful that laws were not appropriately applied and sentencing guidelines watered down in this instance.” R. Hill

“People get punished more for hitting other cars than they do for hitting people. Disgusting.” Mc Crowell

“She caused a permanent head injury to a cyclist, and she gets community service? Not enough.” M. Willimas

“As a cyclist who's also been hit, this is frustrating and pisses me off that the purpose of the new law was ignored. Can’t she at least be made to repaint bike lanes or forced to log those hours riding a bike in traffic to hopefully increase her awareness and that hitting a cyclist is a big deal?” D. Miller

“There’s no lesson in that sentence. What I don’t understand is if there is a new law on the books why was the old law used?” P. McCarthy

Outrage, disappointment, and disbelief. Those are just some of the sentiments cyclists are expressing via social media channels after the Jeffco DA’s Office decided not to charge a driver with Colorado’s new VRU law, aka, careless driving resulting in serious bodily injury (SBI) to a cyclist, which by definition is a vulnerable road user (VRU). Instead, the DA’s Office offered the 19-year old driver a plea deal charging her with careless driving resulting in injury, a mere 4-point violation.

The driver walked out of court without losing her driver’s license. She is headed off to vet tech school in Las Vegas, NV where she will be able to keep driving her car around cyclists and other vulnerable road users. She will not have to take public transportation, ride a bike, or walk to get around. Her life will not be impacted like that of the cyclist she hit.

However, every aspect of the cyclist’s life has been disrupted following the crash:  work, sleep, health, training, and social activities.  The cyclist, our very own Megan Hottman, sustained serious bodily injuries to her left knee and a concussion. Her injuries required two MRIs, numerous appointments with specialists, and months of physical and vestibular therapy. She missed time from work and training due to her injuries and could not race the Transrockies Run for which she had been training since January. Doctors diagnosed her with post-concussive symptoms after headaches and nausea forced her to leave work repeatedly. Megan, who had perfect vision before the crash, now wears glasses due to visual disturbances from this collision. Her relationships suffered due to her erratic moods (typical in a brain injury) and inability to process information and emotions. The impact of these injuries is lifelong and will be part of Megan’s life going forward. 

If you have met Megan, you know that the bike is more than an avenue of recreation for her; it is her primary form of transportation. She rides her bike to work, the bank, doctors’ appointments, yoga, and the store. Her car sits in the garage for weeks at a time. She has ridden thousands of miles across the country, including the Midwest, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, rural North Carolina, downtown Manhattan in the heart of New York, and all over Colorado, including downtown Denver. Alone last year in 2018, she rode 10,000 miles on her bike.

On the day of the crash, May 29, 2019, Megan was commuting from work to her home on her e-bike, with a stop at the bank around 3:00 pm. Less than a mile from her house, on a road she uses daily, she was doing everything right: riding in the bike lane, wearing a white helmet, in broad daylight, not wearing headphones, looking over her shoulder for traffic, obeying traffic rules, etc. 

Photo taken by Arvada PD Drone

Photo taken by Arvada PD Drone

From behind, Megan became aware of a red Subaru approaching and glanced to her left to see the car’s turn signal on as the vehicle drew even right next to her.  Megan saw the driver looking ahead, not to her right, so Megan hit her brakes aware that the driver was about to make a right-hand turn directly in her path. The driver was 100 percent unaware that Megan was in the bike lane to her right.  

Megan was upset but relieved that she had been able to avoid a crash. She was then surprised by a second car immediately on the bumper of the first car. While Megan managed to avoid the first car, she was unable to take any evasive action when the driver of the second car turned right into Megan’s bike. This driver did not have her turn signal on. Megan had no chance to avoid her, and her left arm hit the right side mirror, breaking it off of the car. The bike went right, and Megan fell to her left “highside,” landing on the ground on her left hip and thigh.

Immediately, Megan felt the impact on her left femur bone. Her left forearm hurt from the mirror impact, and both knees also hurt, likely as a result of both hitting the top tube of the bike.  Megan remained on the ground perfectly still. The driver got out of her car, and Megan yelled at her to call the police. She could hear her fumbling for her phone and was saying “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”  Megan yelled back that she had to check bike lanes for cyclists before turning right. 

She could hear people stopping and getting out of their cars coming over to check on her.  One of the first people on the scene was an off-duty EMT. He came over and asked Megan what hurt, did a check of her left hip, and then pushed on the area that hurt.  

In the moments after the crash, something occurred to her that she never thought about in all these years of representing injured cyclists:  “I felt ashamed, embarrassed, alone, and vulnerable there on the ground. I cried. I was aware of five or ten people standing over me.  I could see cars pulling over and stopping and heard sirens approaching. I was aware of the “Scene” taking shape around me. I wanted to disappear. It felt so awful,” says Megan. 

One thing that surprised Megan was how many spectators wanted to move her bike and belongings from the point of impact (POI).  Knowing they were trying to help, she politely declined. Again, and again, and again. She wanted the scene preserved and rightfully so- Arvada PD later brought out their drone to conduct overhead and scene investigation and measurements.  Had either the bike, or the car, been moved prior to that, there would have been no way for them to do their diligence in this regard. (So- note to bystanders, don’t move things at the scene, please, unless instructed to do so by the authorities on scene).

A fire truck arrived and blocked off the road.  Several Arvada PD cars came, followed by an ambulance. Paramedics put her on a stretcher and loaded her into the back of the ambulance.  They took her vitals and checked her leg to see if there was any bruising or a bone sticking out.

As soon as Megan could get her phone, she texted her ortho doctor and set up an appointment for the following morning. Knowing that she had made an appointment, paramedics released Megan from the ambulance. 

Ironically, on that that very day, just a few hours earlier, Governor Polis had signed Senate Bill 19-175 into law which increases the penalties for careless driving resulting in SBI to a VRU. According to C.R.S. 42-2-1601 (4)(b), SBI is defined as “injury that involves, either at the time of the actual injury or at a later time, a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, or a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures, or burns of the second or third degree.”

 When local bike advocates and lawmakers proposed this law and got it signed into law, the intent was to revoke the privilege of driving from someone who hits and harms a cyclist, so that they may be forced to ride a bike, or walk, or use public transit to get around for a period of time. “Until drivers lose their privilege of driving, and have to ride bikes or walk to get around, the driving behavior towards cyclists doesn’t change,” says Megan.  Of course the law is also intended to punish the driver, and to cause some mild inconvenience in their life, a mild fraction of the inconvenience and pain the collision caused to the injured cyclist.

The DA has a low burden of proof (BOP) to utilize the VRU law: They need only prove (1) careless driving (same as they would normally do for a four-point careless charge) (2) plus SBI (doctor signs a form saying injuries were serious bodily injuries, a term of art as defined by statute) (3) plus VRU (cyclists are defined as VRUs so this is met automatically). 

The facts in this case are clear in our opinion:

  1.  Arvada police cited the driver with careless driving causing injury.

  2. Megan’s doctor provided a signed SBI statement confirming that her injuries rose to the level of serious bodily injury. He checked TWO boxes, noting fracture and impairment of the use of the knee.  

  3. Cyclists are defined as VRUs, so Megan was a VRU.

Yet, the DA’s Office decided not to charge the driver with the new law or take this case to trial. We take serious issue with that. Megan asked the DA’s Office to elevate the charge against the driver using C.R.S. 42-4-1402.5, the VRU law, which if convicted, would mean the driver loses 12 points on their license, and the Department of Motor Vehicles would revoke their license for a period of time. Instead, the DA’s Office offered the driver the four-point careless charge causing injury as a plea bargain.

Wondering why? This decision was made because DA Office staff members disputed Megan’s SBI despite the SBI form signed by her orthopedic doctor.  He would never put his professional credibility on the line if he did not read the statutory definition of SBI and agree with it. The staff was adamant that if the case went to trial on the VRU charge, they would “not prevail” on the element of SBI with the jury due to some remarks in Megan’s medical records that reference “normal knee.”  This overlooked the other pages and comments about the diagnosed tear in Megan’s knee, as well as the MRI findings which also diagnosed the tear in her knee.  

Due to the lesser charge of careless driving with injury, County Court Judge Harold Sargent was limited in his sentencing options. He did not have the authority or ability to take the driver’s license away.  He could only choose between fines, restitution, community service, or jail (which was not requested here). He ordered the driver to 50 hours of community service (Megan had asked for 200), nine months of unsupervised probation, and required her to take a road safety class. The judge assessed four points to her license.

Bike Jeffco strongly supported passage of the Vulnerable Road Users Bill. We thought it could help make our streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Its desired impact can’t be realized if it’s not applied in cases it’s designed for.
— Charlie Myers and the Bike Jeffco Board of Directors

It is disappointing and frustrating that the Jeffco DA’s Office is not on board with using the new law to protect cyclists and punish drivers who hit, harm, or kill them. Just one week before Megan’s case, in another case in Jeffco County, the DA’s Office offered the driver a plea deal. Our client suffered SBI including spinal fractures, a broken shoulder, and damage to his internal organs.  The DA’s Office decided to charge the VRU 12-point, but then offered the 8-point reckless charge to the driver. No license revocation.  No real setback. A mere $100 fine and 100 hours of community service.   

Megan has volunteered her time and energy to train Jeffco Sheriffs, Golden PD, Arvada PD, as well as providing a webinar on cycling law and safety to the DA Statewide Council. She sat on the 1st Judicial District Board and worked for a District Court Judge in Jefferson County.  She lives in Jefferson County, owns and operates a business there, and owns residential and commercial property in Jeffco. 

“I really felt like living and working here and being so involved in this community would count for something,” says Megan.

During sentencing, Judge Sargent addressed the driver.  He reminded her that she was very lucky she had not KILLED Megan, and that if she had, they’d be having a very different discussion.  He told the driver that she was not paying the degree of attention that Megan and other cyclists deserve. He asked how many cyclists have to be hit before drivers understand that cyclists use bikes as transportation and stated that we have to protect a vulnerable group. When addressing the community service he had ordered, Judge Sargent said he wanted the driver to find something meaningful and something that will benefit others in the cycling community. He told the driver that she cannot change what she did, but that she can change the future and have an impact. She can be the person who can tell others how easily cyclists can be hurt or killed.

Unfortunately, we do not believe that the driver’s behavior is going to change with just four points and 50 hours of community service. She will move on and forget all about this event, but Megan surely will not. “I don’t believe in this country we are going to have a change in driving behavior until drivers lose their privilege of driving for a period of time, whether it’s 30 days or six months. Someone who has to get around by bike, or get on the bus, or ride the light rail is going to be really careful how they drive around cyclists. It’s for that reason we have the new law,” said Megan when addressing the Court.

Imagine ten years from now. This driver will likely not recall any of this. However, if she loses her license at age 19 for several months, this lesson will stick with her for a lifetime. Maybe she will even tell her friends and family. And as a result of her losing her license, a lot more people would drive more carefully around cyclists. Driving is a privilege, and she should have lost it.

That is what we want, need, and demand from this county to make cycling safer.

We need DAs to stop giving plea deals to drivers. Charge the full 12-point violation or take it to trial. Period. This is the only way drivers lose 12 points, resulting in their driving privileges being revoked. We have a new, amazing law, and it is not being used.

A lot of people representing a variety of perspectives worked incredibly hard to craft and pass the Vulnerable User Law. This is a good law and it is very much needed in Colorado. Failure to implement the law undermines the efforts of those who worked so hard to pass it and more importantly, undermines the rights of the people the law is intended to protect.
— Pete Piccolo, Bicycle Colorado

This was an avoidable crash. It was not an “accident.” 

Drivers need to be held accountable!  And for the first time ever, we have a new law to accomplish that here, for any crash that occurs on or after 5/29/19.  

 Click here to view 9News’ coverage of the sentencing hearing.

TRANSCRIPT:

(UPDATED: TRANSCRIPT IS POSTED-CLICK BUTTON AT RIGHT). Our request for cameras in the courtroom was denied (because we were not notified of the hearing plan by the DA until 6:00pm the night before, and these requests require 24 hours processing time).

ELECTION 2020:

There are several DAs throwing their names in the ring to run for the 2020 Election of Jeffco’s new DA, now that Pete Weir’s 2 term limits prevent him from seeking re-election.  Stay tuned as we tell you which DA we believe will enforce this law and protect cyclists in 2020 and beyond.  

SUBMIT YOUR COMMENTS:

In the meantime, if you have a comment you’d like to submit to the Jeffco DA’s office, you can send it here: 

https://www.jeffco.us/FormCenter/District-Attorney-40/Contact-the-District-Attorneys-Office-138

 

Finally — a note from Megan: to those who believe that only pushing for more bike infrastructure is the way, and that focusing on punishment is not effective. First, stop twitter-trolling and go do something productive.  Second, actually get involved doing something, join a committee, donate money to groups like Bicycle Colorado and People for Bikes, attend meetings, vote in city council planning sessions and so on; get off your computer or smartphone and take some demonstrable action (otherwise, we don’t want your opinions). Bike infrastructure doesn’t magically appear. Third- it’s not mutually-exclusive. We can attack bike safety on both fronts, at the same time: put in more bike lanes and protected bike paths, AND also punish drivers who harm cyclists. BOTH.

When is Enough, Enough?

Driving is a Privilege, Not a Right!

Eighteen driving convictions from 1991 to 2016 including speeding, careless driving, following too closely, driving too fast for conditions, failing to yield right-of-way, driving vehicle while ability impaired by alcohol/drugs, operating an uninsured motor vehicle on a public roadway as well as numerous convictions for driving an unsafe/defective vehicle or operating a vehicle with defective/missing headlamps (probably cited for a more serious violation and then a plea deal was reached).

Yet, this driver was still behind the wheel of a vehicle when he crashed into our client Drew Chambers on October 3, 2017. The officer issued him a citation for careless driving resulting in injury to which he pleaded guilty on January 30, 2018. 

It was early afternoon when Drew was returning home from a ride. He was riding eastbound in the bike lane at 26th Avenue in Lakewood, CO, when the driver of a Subaru Outback heading westbound collided with Drew while turning left. 

The front of the Subaru hit the rear wheel of Drew’s bike causing him to be thrown 10-15 feet into the street and bike lane. His head hit the pavement first. Drew rolled onto his back and remained stationary, as he was worried about a neck or back injury.

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The driver claimed that he did not see any oncoming traffic, but Drew was clearly visible as he was wearing a bright blue kit with green trim. He had the right of way and was not speeding. As Drew was approaching the driver head on, he could see the driver clearly not looking at him when he decided to turn.  Drew yelled, swerved, and tried to slow down but knew a crash was going to happen, and he was terrified. The entire collision was caught on a dashboard camera by a car that was stopped on Teller Street.

Drew had a number of cuts on his face and legs as well as a sore wrist. Following the crash, his wife drove him to the ER where doctors treated his cuts and took x-rays of his left hand.  The following week, Drew saw a specialist, and it was determined that there was a shattered bone in his hand which required a cast. Drew also had to have x-rays of his neck, shoulder, and spine done as well as an MRI of his left shoulder and spine following the ER visit. His neck had a compressed vertebrae, and he also had a partially torn quad as a result of the crash. 

Drew missed work due to medical appointments and a lot of physical therapy. Following the crash, he was not able to ride his bike, which he usually did at least five times a week, and he missed out on leading rides as an ambassador for a local cycling clothing and accessories company. Getting back on the bike was a mental challenge for Drew. He got back on a trainer quickly to prevent his quad injury from resulting in a loss of motion, but the first ride outside roughly five months later was a scary experience.

He wants people to remember that driving is a privilege, not a right. “Waiting an additional minute to pass a rider or make a turn will not end your life, be more respectful. No meeting or event is worth taking the risk of killing someone.” He encourages people to try to put themselves in the cyclist’s shoes, and if you have never cycled on the road, maybe give it a try to understand what it feels like to have cars brushing by and jumping turns. “If we try to understand each other a little better and what it feels like, there could be better respect on the road,” he says.

It does not matter if you are doing everything right, you can still get hit. Drew recommends always wearing a helmet and taking notes if something does happen to you, so you don’t miss anything. Finally, he firmly believes that it is very important to lean on your support network.

One thing that Drew wishes he had known before this happened is to carry more coverage for under and uninsured motorists. He learned that bike vs. vehicle collisions happen more often than you would expect and insurance companies will do everything that they possibly can to not pay out a claim.

What is Drew doing since the collision to make cycling safer for himself and other cyclists?  He works with a cycling group to bring more people into the sport and tries to share his experiences there and discuss best practices with riders.  He has a bell and lights on all his bikes (including his super-light climbing bikes) and talks to people about wearing helmets at all times. “Riding with a camera is a great opportunity, or just lights and bells. I also recommend that they not try to be as far to the right as possible but rather as visible as possible,” he says.

Drew also believes that stiffer punishments including loss of license for drivers that have infractions as well as a no tolerance repeat offender policy could help. 

In Colorado, the number of point accumulations according to the Department of Motor Vehicles Handbook for suspension for an adult are:

  • 12 points in any 12 consecutive months

  • 18 points in any 24 consecutive months

Some of the reasons your driving privilege may be suspended, revoked, or cancelled include: 

  • Meeting or exceeding the minimum point accumulation for suspension.

  • Being convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

  • Being convicted of failing to report a crash or leaving the scene without stopping, exchanging information, and rendering aid.

  • Failing to pay a traffic fine from Colorado or any other state.

  • Failing to provide valid evidence of insurance when requested by a law enforcement officer.

  • Being convicted of manslaughter as a result of a motor vehicle crash.

A new Colorado law (SB19-175 - Serious Bodily Injury (SBI) Vulnerable Road User Penalties) passed on May 29, 2019, allows the court to require a convicted driver:

  • To attend a driver improvement course.

  • To perform useful public service.

  • To pay restitution.


The law also empowers judges to assess the driver 12 points which will cause them to lose their license with the DMV. In order for this law to now protect cyclists and hold motorists accountable, we need more DAs and city attorneys to hold fast to the original charges and to stop negotiating careless driving causing SBI cases down to meaningless “defective headlamp” guilty pleas.  We are also asking law enforcement officers to cite careless driving causing SBI.

In the case of this driver, Jefferson County Judge Mark Randall sentenced him to 40 hours of community service, assessed four points to his license, and ordered him to pay a $100 traffic fine. Costs and fines totalled $315.00. Judge Randall suspended a 365-day jail sentence on the condition that the driver complete his community service within 180 days and not be cited for a charge of careless driving or above for one year.

Drew feels that the sentence was fair since the driver did not intend to hit him, and Drew believes he was truly sorry. That said, Drew says it was sad to hear how often incidents like this happen and he is surprised by the lasting impacts of the event.  For example, he will almost never ride past the street where the collision happened. He watches the film of the collision and thinks about it often when he needs to remember how fragile things can be. He still has neck issues every now and then. “It’s amazing to me how little drivers seem to take all of this into account when out on the road. The number of close calls that happen to riders like myself, who cycle daily and are putting in a lot of mileage, are almost daily. We need to cultivate a culture of better respect for riders here,” says Drew.

We come back to our original question. When is enough, enough? How many driving convictions is too many? Eighteen, now 19, including this latest case, driving convictions for this driver. Perhaps, the courts should take this into consideration the next time he is convicted?

Jefferson County Taking A Tough Stand Against Drivers Who Injure Cyclists

A collaborative blog by Hottman Law Office, Steven Lykens and the Jefferson County DA’s office

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Steven Lykens—husband, engineer, competitive cyclist—made a point of attending and speaking at the sentencing hearing of a driver who caused him serious bodily injury.  He wanted to emphasize to the court, the district attorney’s office, and to the driver that the outcome of the case mattered to him and to the cycling community as a whole. 

On May 16, 2019, Steven addressed Jefferson County Court Judge Mark Randall and asked him to order 200 hours of community service as part of the driver’s sentencing. Considering the time that he spent in the hospital, at appointments with doctors, as well as time spent working to heal his injuries, Steven felt 200 hours was fair.

The driver, Miranda Lewin, was sentenced to 120 hours of community service to be completed in 120 days on the charge of careless driving. Her public defender argued for fewer hours, but Judge Randall did not back down. In fact, he told Lewin she is a terrible driver based on her previous (and subsequent) traffic convictions and warned her that she would be back in court if she did not serve her community service. Judge Randall reminded Lewin that drivers have a responsibility to their community, including cyclists. 

Lewin, who was 20 years old at the time of the collision with Steven, was previously convicted of driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol/drugs in 2016, careless driving, and operating a motor vehicle as a minor driver with an unauthorized passenger in 2014. Her driver's license was revoked in 2016 due to the alcohol offense, but it had been reinstated prior to this collision.

On the morning of September 2, 2018, Steven was riding in a bike lane in Lakewood when Lewin turned right, directly in front of him, into a 7-11 parking lot. Steven collided with Lewin’s vehicle and was thrown from his bicycle, landing in the 7-11 parking lot. He was unable to move and yelled for someone to call 911. Lewin remained at the scene and was later cited by Lakewood Police for careless driving causing bodily injury. Steven considers himself “lucky” that he went over the hood of the vehicle instead of under it or into oncoming traffic.

He was transported by ambulance to St. Anthony’s Hospital with lacerations to his right ankle and right elbow, road rash, and an abrasion to his right cheek. Officer Barefoot of the Lakewood Police Department, who responded to the scene, was advised by the emergency room doctor that Steven had sustained a lumbar spine fracture.

As a result, Steven was in a back brace for eight weeks. He now suffers from permanent scoliosis from two fractured vertebrae and is one inch shorter than before the crash. His life and physical body are forever altered, and he is in constant pain. The collision has altered his mental state as well. Driving and cycling are still difficult for him, and he is worried it could happen again. 

During the sentencing hearing, Steven also thanked the Lakewood Police Department, the Jefferson County DA, and the court for holding drivers accountable when cyclists are injured. Often cases involving bodily injury are pled down to minor infractions, leaving victims to feel doubly wronged. 

The Jefferson County DA’s office did a fantastic job handling this case. Jefferson County DA Pete Weir wants the driving public to recognize their obligation to share the road with cyclists.

We take these cases of careless driving with injury involving cyclists very seriously and treat the victims with the same respect and dignity we treat victims who are covered under Colorado’s Victims’ Rights Amendment (VRA) which protects the rights of victims in violent crimes. Often these injuries are life-changing for victims and their families, and we do everything we can to help them through the criminal justice process.
— - Pete Weir, Jefferson County DA

In Jefferson County, careless driving/cycling cases causing serious bodily injury are generally treated as VRA cases by the DA’s office, thereby involving the victims throughout the process. Deputy DA Kate Rhodes, who handled this case, believes that the appropriate outcome was reached, and justice was served. 

Steven shown with Deputy DA Kate Rhodes (L), Megan Hottman, and Tracy Drake (R)

Steven shown with Deputy DA Kate Rhodes (L), Megan Hottman, and Tracy Drake (R)

My goal for this case was to get the defendant to realize the impact she has had on Mr. Lykens’ life and the gravity of his injuries. Mr. Lykens showed incredible patience and professionalism throughout the process.
— Deputy DA Kate Rhodes

A newly passed law, sponsored by Senator Mike Foote of Boulder and Representative Dylan Roberts of Eagle and Routt Counties, is aimed at making Colorado’s roadways safer for vulnerable road users (VRU), including cyclists, pedestrians, construction workers, scooter riders, and peace officers. Governor Jared Polis signed SB 19-175 into law on May 29, 2019. 

Careless driving that leads to seriously injuring a VRU is now a class 1 traffic misdemeanor. Convicted drivers could face restitution and a one-year suspension of their license. Courts could require drivers to attend a driver improvement course and perform community service.

Many of Steven’s friends have been injured while riding their bikes due to the neglect of a driver of a motor vehicle. He hopes that someday cyclists can ride safely on public roads without having to worry about being injured by a driver. 

Given the nature and extent of our clients’ injuries, I have always advocated to District Attorneys and City Attorneys that the FULL “careless driving causing SBI” charge needs to stick. NO plea deals, not when the injuries are so serious. Careless causing SBI is only a 4-point violation, with minimal fines. We need the FULL Charge in order to ask the Judge for serious community service hours, restitution, (and now with SB 19-175, for the driver’s license, as well). My request to all DAs and CAs we encounter: Be like Jeffco and Boulder DAs. Treat these cases as VRA cases and please, stop offering plea bargains.
— Megan Hottman, The Cyclist Lawyer

Please remember to be cautious around cyclists, or any vulnerable road user, and look for cyclists before turning—whether they are riding in a bike lane or not! 

To read more about the Jeffco DA’s office, click here.

To read more about Judge Randall, click here.

Drunk Driver Hits Cyclist From Behind, Flees Scene - Insurer Asserts Comparative Negligence Defense

On June 9, 2015, Brandon was out for a bike ride.  Having recently moved to Colorado, this was one of his first few rides in the Littleton area.  It was just before 6pm, and he was on his way back home. 

Without warning, Brandon was hit from behind by a motorist, and thrown off his bike into the street. His head, face, hands and knees were bleeding badly.  Despite his obvious injuries, the motorist fled the scene.  Brandon recalls none of this- as his next/first memory was waking up in the emergency room, where he’d been transported by ambulance.

Luckily, a passerby witnessed the event and caught the license plate number of the fleeing motorist.  Police were called and located the driver in her home about an hour after the collision.  She was drinking Schnapps...  The officers conducted a Blood Alcohol Test (BAC). 

We later learned that the motorist worked for police and fire dispatch.  It is believed she thought that if she began drinking at home, perhaps the BAC could not conclusively prove she had been drinking at the time of the crash.  However, when results came back showing her BAC was .317, her theory fell apart.  This level of intoxication meant that she either drank to near-deathly levels in that one hour, or more realistically, she had been drinking before the crash, was intoxicated at the time she hit Brandon, and then continued drinking once home. 

Hit a human.  Leave.  Run home and start slamming shots?  Say what?

The driver was cited with numerous violations.  During the pendency of her criminal case, we learned that her versions of what happened varied drastically;  from, “I thought I hit a pothole,” to “A cyclist darted in front of my car,” to “The Arby’s fell off my passenger seat onto the floor and I reached down to pick it up.” Suffice it to say, these explanations all fell short of accepting responsibility.

Meanwhile, Brandon had hired our office to represent him, and we had begun the process of pursuing the motorist’s insurance – State Farm (SF)–for his injuries and claims.  As in our last blog post, SF’s initial settlement offer was grossly inadequate in light of his injuries, as well as in light of their insured’s/the motorist’s conduct.  At our urging they increased their offers, minimally, $5000 at a time, though ultimately still way outside the realm of possible settlement value.  This, despite their insured’s guilty plea in the traffic/criminal case...  SF seemed to think that they did not owe my client adequate compensation. So, we filed suit.   

In Colorado, when someone commits negligence, but also does so with exacerbating factors, (or what we like to call, willful and wanton conduct), a Plaintiff is permitted to seek leave from the Court to add an additional claim for punitive damages (C.R.S. 13-1-102).  Punitive damages are not based on any damages or claims that the Plaintiff incurred – they are solely intended to punish someone for their misconduct.  A jury may award any amount it chooses for punitive damages – it is solely intended to punish someone with a large monetary verdict.  In Colorado, insurers don’t eventually pay a punitive jury award – the actual wrongdoer does.  Here, our plan was to amend our Complaint to add a claim for punitives, to allow the jury to punish the driver for her conduct with – we hoped – a large monetary sanction. 

However, before we got to this juncture, we noted the content of the Answer filed by State Farm’s defense counsel.  In it, State Farm, on behalf of its insured/at-fault driver, asserted some curious affirmative defenses, including one that claimed Brandon contributed to the collision:

"The proximate cause of Plaintiff's claimed damages and/or injuries, if any, may have been Plaintiff's comparative negligence, which conduct either bars or reduces Plaintiff's recovery, if any, in accordance with Colorado's Comparative Negligence Statute.  C.R.S. 13-21-111 (2015)." 

SF also claimed that it must’ve been someone else that caused Brandon's injuries and damages:

The proximate cause of Plaintiff’s claimed damages and/or injuries, if any, may have been the act or omissions of a third party or parties whom Defendant has no control, to whom Defendant has no relationship, and for whom Defendant is not legally responsible.”

Interesting.  

Now in the practice of defending law suits, it is fairly common for the Defendant’s Answer to contain some boilerplate language, as well as boilerplate affirmative defenses.  However, under the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure, "The signature of an attorney constitutes a certificate by him that he has read the pleading; that to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry, it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and that it is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation."  (C.R.C.P. Rule 11(a)).

Keep in mind that by the time the Answer was filed, the motorist had pled guilty in the criminal case to charges resulting from her careless driving causing injury, her fleeing the scene, and her driving while intoxicated.  While the burdens of proof are different in the criminal and the civil cases, and her plea of guilty in the criminal case would not per se be admissible in Brandon's civil case, her attorneys knew that she had confessed to her actions.  They knew, because we’d provided them the transcript of her sentencing hearing... Where I was present, as was Brandon and his wife and their young son. 

Imagine our surprise then, to see SF take this approach in litigation.  We could not wait to see what they claimed Brandon did, to contribute to him being hit from behind by their drunk driver!  We found this conduct very curious – that the defendant and her counsel would deny her responsibility and negligence, in this pleading filed with the Court.  We wanted very much for the jury in this case to hear about her denials and to compare that to the testimony of the bystander who witnessed the collision, and the testimony of the law enforcement officers who visited her home shortly after.  We wanted the jury to compare her denials of fault with her legally-documented intoxication.  What a trial this would be! 

SF counsel by filing such an Answer, had placed its insured in a very precarious position: punitive damages would not be paid by SF, nor could their insured discharge them in bankruptcy.  If we went to trial and got a large punitive award, this Judgment would follow (and likely financially cripple) the driver for life.  And Jeffco juries are known to punish people who do things like this with large punitive verdicts.  Imagine the jurors' response to hearing that the Answer and legal position adopted by the driver and her counsel, was that Brandon had done something to contribute to this collision!  SF had exposed its insured to this very real possibility, with the Answer it filed.  It made statements in the Answer that arguably violated Colorado Rules regarding pleadings and implicated sanctions. 

We pointed out this interesting scenario to the lawyers at SF.  The case settled shortly thereafter, for the amount we demanded pre-suit.

Boilerplate language in a Defendant’s Answer given these facts, was a game changer.  Moral of the story: while multi-billion dollar insurance companies may have large, well-staffed law firms and attorneys at their disposal, failure to pay attention to the actual issues can be devastating.  This is why our firm controls (carefully!) our caseload, and this is why we read Answers and affirmative defenses carefully, and show up at sentencing hearings.  Bottom line: we won’t allow our injured clients to be bullied.  To have a driver drink, hit a cyclist from behind and flee the scene, and then to have the audacity to respond in an Answer that he was in ANY WAY at fault or a contributing factor, is offensive. Sometimes a case resembles a really hard bike ride: It's a slog to the top of the climb, but hanging in there, and continuing to work hard, does pay off.  Once again we had a tenacious client, who was not desperate to settle, and who was game to take this case all the way to trial. It takes courage and fortitude- as I've discussed in previous blog posts.  

Now, what about that driver?  What happened to her?  The day of her sentencing hearing in Judge Enquist’s courtroom (Jeffco) was the Monday following a Friday hearing, in which a young man who’d been drinking, drove up Lookout Mountain on the wrong side of the road and caused cyclist Tom Flanigan’s death.  There, Judge Enquist had sentenced the driver to the max allowed under the terms of his plea: 10 years in the Department of Corrections (DOC).  Now, 3 days later, Judge Enquist was again hearing facts of a drunk driver hitting a cyclist.  She was beyond furious.  Under the terms of the plea reached with the District Attorney’s office, the Judge sentenced this driver to six years - the max she could order under the plea.  Counsel for the Defendant asked for a stay of execution (a few days’ time) so that the driver could get her affairs in order.  The Judge said no – she was remanded immediately and began serving her sentence that day.  Of the 6 year sentence, she will likely only serve 12-15 months total. 

Did we want to see this mother and wife sit in a jail cell?  Did it make Brandon and his wife happy, or feel any better?  Did it feel like justice?  Of course not.  We all wish this had never happened and that this woman had not chosen to drink, drive, hit a cyclist and then intentionally flee the scene.  It impacted everyone's life in a negative way.  Situations like this are exactly the reason why Colorado bike advocates worked with the legislature to make the hit-and-run statute penalties stiffer: because if someone "accidentally hits a cyclist," that’s bad enough, but if they intentionally leave the scene and EMS is not immediately summoned to care for the cyclist, they may (and often do) die from their injuries.   Leaving the scene of a bike crash is an act that deserves to be punished harshly. 

If you’d like to read the sentencing hearing transcript: