The cycling community got a win this week in court after two cyclists who were injured nearly two years ago on a bike ride won a lawsuit against Fresno County.
David Bray and Melissa Ann Rose were riding on Auberry Road, a mile and half north of Millerton Road, with a group of five others from the Fresno Cycling Club around 9 a.m. March 19, 2017, when they came across sand and gravel covering the bike lane during a descent along their route.
A civil complaint filed in Fresno Superior Court said that Rose, who was riding in front of Bray, could not stop in time when she reached the roadway debris and suddenly fell onto the northbound traffic lane. She was then struck by a passing vehicle, which left the scene.
Bray also fell and suffered a broken right middle finger from the fall and had surgery to repair it, along with a broken wrist bone. Rose suffered a fractured humerus bone and dislocated AC joint. She underwent two surgeries.
On Wednesday, a 12-person jury of five women and seven men ruled that the county was liable for Bray’s and Rose’s injuries, giving the cycling community a win on an issue familiar to riders along Fresno County roads. The attorneys for the two cyclists argued in court that the county’s lack of maintenance caused the crash and that the county failed to clear the bike lane covered in sand and debris.
“The county knows that cyclists use these roads. They’re designed to be used by cyclists – they have bicycle lanes just for that purpose,” said Doug Gordon, Rose’s attorney. “The county must keep (the roads) clean and safe.”
Conditions on Auberry Road
Gordon, California Highway Patrol investigators, measured the sandpile covering the northbound shoulder of Auberry Road and found it to be 4 inches to 7 inches deep in some parts and about 100 feet long; about 10 feet of sand covered the bike lane entirely.
Gordon said that Auberry Road’s particular area had not been swept in nine months before the accident. The last time it was cleaned, he said in June 2016, for a cycling race in opening statements of the trial. Gordon told the jury that the county was asked when was the last time the roadway had been inspected, but there were no records about any recent inspections.
After deliberating for two and a half days, the jury awarded $209,882 to Bray and $189,007.81 to Rose. The awards were to compensate the plaintiffs for medical costs and lost wages, and pain and suffering caused by accident. Gordon said Rose was emotionally distressed because she frequently relived the crash for six months after it happened.
Gordon said the jury’s verdict and money award was fair, considering what the plaintiffs were up against.
“Winning a case like this against the County of Fresno for a dangerous road condition is a difficult case,” he said. “The county has a lot of advantages.”
County attorney David Overstreet declined to comment on the verdict. In his opening statement, Overstreet posed the question to the jury about whether the cyclists considered the risks before riding.
How the jury ruled
During the 12-day trial, Bray described the moment when he crashed into the sand pile as happening quickly and that before he knew it, he was in a lot of pain. He explained that the group of riders was descending at the time of the crash. He said his hands were placed over his brake levers as he always does in descent for safety because he was riding behind Rose.
Suddenly, he noticed the sand. Bray said he then saw Rose’s back wheel move side to side and that he heard her say, “Whoa.” He said he and Rose each moved to the left to try to avoid the sand, but “in a flash,” Rose went down, and then he went down. Though unclear, the jury ruled Rose was partly negligent in the accident.
Bray also testified that he saw the hit-and-run car’s wheels passing by next to Rose. The jury did not find the driver of that car at fault in the accident. The driver of the vehicle has never been identified after fleeing the scene.
The jury was unanimous in ruling the county road was in a dangerous condition the day of the accident, and a 10-2 ruling said the perilous situation caused the crash. In an 11-1 judgment, the jury said that the county had enough time to address the road hazard but failed to do so.
Club applauds ruling
Dennis Ball, president of the Fresno Cycling Club, said he hopes the decision doesn’t affect the county and riders’ relationship. He said that the cycling club reminds the county about road cleanups two to three weeks before big riding events.
The ride where Bray and Rose were injured was a club ride, but Ball said the riders had not inspected the lanes beforehand. Though while injuries are rare, cyclists often come across hazardous conditions, Ball said, adding that it’s only part of the battle for cyclists having to share the road with drivers.
“Bicycles aren’t like a car,” he said. “We have to avoid things like sticks and rocks. We have to swerve a little bit to avoid it. … Sometimes you don’t have time to react as quickly as possible.”
Ball called the jury’s ruling a “fantastic benefit for bicyclists” and expects that cyclists won’t have to worry about unkempt roadways on future rides.