LAW

Bike Accidents in New York: Deciding Who Is Legally at Fault

Often Determining Who Is Legally Responsible for Causing an Accident Is Key in Effectively Litigating a Law Suit. The Case Below Demonstrates the Legal Considerations Behind Such Decisions:

Q: I was operating a bicycle in New York City when I observed a car standing double parked alongside a legally parked vehicle. There was sufficient space between the two cars for me to safely ride my bicycle between the two cars. As I passed between the two cars, without any warning, the passenger door of the legally parked vehicle swung open. At that point there was no time nor place for me to turn given the placement of the vehicles. Though I braked, I collided with the door and suffered serious injuries including fractures. Do I have a valid claim against the passenger and driver of the parked car with which I collided for having been “doored”? Do I have a claim against the double parked car for blocking my ability to avoid the door?  

Answer: A similar fact pattern was addressed by the Appellate Division, Second Department in the case entitled Price v. Tasber et al., 43 NYS 3d 120 (2016). In that case (which was not handled by this firm) all defendants (the driver and passenger of the properly parked car as well as a double parked car) moved for summary judgment arguing that the court should dismiss the bicyclist’s claims. The motion appears to be based upon an argument that the act of pedaling between the two parked cars was the sole proximate cause of the accident and injuries flowing therefrom.

The Appellate Division dismissed the causes of action against the double-parked vehicle ruling that nothing it did was a proximate cause of the accident and that the double parked car furnished the condition which gave rise to the occurrence of the event but the act of double parking was not one of its proximate causes. The decision stated that this defendant satisfied the court that his conduct in stopping his car while waiting for a parking space, “furnished the condition or occasion for the accident” but “was not a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. (see Wechter v. Kleiner, 40 A.D.3d 747,748,835 N.Y.S.2d 653).”  In effect the court saw the double parked car as an instrumentality that was involved in the happening of the occurrence but apparently the passive and as the court saw it, uninvolved nature of being double parked was not considered a proximate cause of the accident.

The car which was parked in the parking lane also moved for summary judgment. This motion was denied with the court stating that such co-defendant “failed to eliminate all triable issues of fact as to whether Dunbar (the passenger who had swung the door open allegedly to inform the double parked car that they were about to pull out momentarily) was negligent in opening the door when it was not reasonably safe to do so, and in allegedly failing to see what, by the reasonable use of his senses, he should have seen.”

Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1214 provides that “no person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so, and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic.” This statute imposes an unequivocal duty not to open the car door “unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so…” It is a statute that is designed to protect oncoming vehicles from the vagary of unexpected acts of drivers and passengers in carelessly opening their door and casts the onus of legal responsibility upon those who create the instrumentality of obstruction (the door) not the passing motorist, cyclist or pedestrian.

Under the facts of the Price case it appears that the passenger of the parked car had several very obvious ways to exercise the caution mandated by the statute but failed in such regard. The first and most obvious act was to look at the passenger door mirror before throwing the door open. One may ask, why didn’t the passenger merely open her window if the intent was to inform the double-parked car of their intention of pulling out? Why did she not comply with the express terms of the statutory duty and take a reasonable look at traffic before opening the door?

While the court noted that there was an issue of fact for the jury as to whether the act of opening the door was a proximate cause of the accident, there is no explanation as to what issues existed on that record which would allow a jury to find against the operator of the bike in the face of the statutory mandate. Nor is it indicated whether the attorney for the cyclist had moved in the lower court for summary judgment (and not having taken an appeal) though the court was empowered in any event to search the record and if appropriate on the appellate record, grant plaintiff summary judgment.

Depending on the testimony of the witnesses, there are a myriad of potential possibilities which can underlie a denial of summary judgement in an appropriate case. Could the cyclist have avoided the accident with the exercise of proper caution by simply slowing down?  What was her testimony on this issue? Perhaps she saw the brake light go on when the driver of the parked car was about to pull out providing sufficient reasonable awareness that something was about to happen and providing at least some arguable fault on the part of the cyclist? What was the speed of the bicycle at the time of the accident? Could the configuration of the two parked cars in and of itself be cause for a reasonable rider of a bike to slow down and cautiously pass between the two cars? Each of these possibilities may imply some degree of fault on the part of a cyclist. Therefore, the grant of summary judgment is far from certain despite the explicit terms of the statute.

But the more complex issue is whether, in a proper case, a bicyclist could have a viable claim against a double-parked car in a similar but different fact pattern.  Did the operator of the bike argue that she was prevented from avoiding the open door by reason of  the double parked car? Would not the length of time that a car is double parked impact upon the result? Did the double-parked car have its flashing lights on at the time of the accident? Would the result be different if the bike was traveling on a marked bike lane rather than by passing two parallel vehicles in an unmarked area of the street? It is essential for any bike accident lawyer to consider all factors in analyzing potential defendant liability.

An analysis of this issue must consider the fact that no direct act of the double-parked car actually brought about the accident and injuries suffered by the cyclist. The mere presence of the double-parked car can arguably be seen as preventing the cyclist from avoiding the accident but this too may be seen as essentially speculative.

The remoteness of any involvement by the double -parked car in the actual event will in many cases make responsibility too legally attenuated to the instrumentalities involved in the accident to impose legal liability.

It will be argued that a driver double parking his or her car cannot reasonably foresee that the mere act of pulling up and seeking a parking space can spawn such an accident.

The act of opening a car door in circumstances such as this, appears to violate statutory responsibility by the person who opens the door but on the other hand cannot be considered foreseeable by either the cyclist or the driver of a double-parking vehicle absent other factors.

Each circumstance can be factually different and nuanced differences in the underlying facts of an occurrence can impact the legal analysis. In a legal sense this accident was caused by the improvident act of opening the car door and not the happenstance of double parking.

But do not assume similarity of an occurrence will mandate the same result. In any accident, a knowledgeable bike accident attorney, should carefully consider all of the facts before reaching a conclusion as to potential legal liability.

We welcome your legal questions for topically relevant articles in the future. Feel free to compose a question – it may be addressed in future articles. Email Question

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