California city loses lawsuit after death of bicyclist on road with substandard bike lanes and no lighting

By Robbie Webber

In June 2012, Dr. Gerald Brett Weiss, a nationally known neurosurgeon, was killed when he was hit from behind while riding his bicycle in the community of Indian Wells, CA. In mid-November of this year his family won a $5.8 million judgment against Indian Wells, claiming that the city was negligent in not providing sufficient width for bike lanes or lighting that would have prevented the crash.

While Fred Waring Drive, the road where the crash occurred, was expanded from two lanes to three in each direction in 2005, the city did not include a wide outside lane in the design. In addition, the road previously had bike lanes and was signed as a bike route before the redesign. It has extra wide outer lanes farther east, but narrows by five feet with no warning, forcing bicyclists into traffic where the speed limit is 50 mph.

Although the driver was allegedly drunk, the city was still found 35 percent liable and ended up responsible for the bulk of the judgment because the driver was underinsured. The city argued that the driver and the bicyclist himself were responsible for the crash, and that the road was too dangerous to bike. California is one of thirteen states that follows the Pure Comparative Fault Rule, meaning that even if the city is only partially at fault—even only one percent—the plaintiff can recover damages.

The City of Indian Wells issued a statement that read, in part:

“Despite the City being found only 35% at fault, the City’s share of the $6.8M verdict is approximately $5.8M due to state laws concerning joint and several liability, with the adverse driver being underinsured and the City having to make up the shortfall on the economic damages portion of the verdict of $5.67M.”

Coincidentally, the city is debating a route for a regional multiuse path that would have provided an alternative to the busy road where Dr. Weiss was killed. Several route options through Indian Wells have been rejected by the City Council because they would go through the city golf course.

Although liability varies by state, and suing a state or local government for design and maintenance is made difficult by sovereign immunity, there are circumstances where public entities can be sued for roadway conditions. Governments may want to consider the implications of roadway designs that do not provide safe conditions for all users.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.