A group of bicyclists are riding two abreast on a typical Florida road one Saturday morning. A driver, irritated by the riders slowing him by a few seconds, accelerates to get around the group. The driver keeps close to the group as other drivers approach in the opposite direction. The driver hits the riders on the inside line, injuring some and killing others in the crash. A proposed Florida law would deny these bicyclists and their families any justice.
Backed by the insurance industry, House Bill 837 and its companion Senate Bill 236 is pushing through the Florida Legislature at a time when roads in this state are some of the most dangerous in the country. The latest figures from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) report 209 deaths and 6,639 injuries to bicyclists in crashes with drivers in 2022. That was up from 197 deaths and 5,958 injuries in 2021, 169 deaths and 5,574 injuries in 2020, and 156 deaths and 6,229 injuries in 2019. There have already been 15 deaths and 522 injuries this year. Florida consistently leads the nation in deaths to bicyclists.
How does this legislation deny bicyclists and pedestrians justice? One key provision would drastically change the negligence standard in injury and death cases. What does that mean? Instead of the current standard that allows juries to determine the percent of fault to each person in a crash and compensate the victim based on that breakdown, the proposed law would deny any compensation to a victim deemed 51% or more at fault in a crash.
Currently, in the sadly all too familiar example above, the injured bicyclists and the families of those killed would be able to sue the driver for their medical bills, pain and suffering, and for the lives of those lost. A jury would hear the case and determine the percentages of fault for the riders and driver, and the riders would be compensated based on that percentage. Even if a jury found the bicyclists 60% at fault, they would still be compensated for 40% of their damages. The proposed legislation would deny the riders any compensation if a jury found them more than 50% at fault. And in the example above that is a likelihood since the riders were “illegally” riding two abreast. Even though the driver caused the crash, the bicyclists would also be a percentage at fault due to a law passed in 2021 prohibiting those from riding two abreast if car traffic would be slowed and impeded. It’s not a stretch to see how the driver’s attorney (and insurance company) would push hard with the argument that this crash would not have happened but for the riders’ actions and convince the jurors to find them 51% at fault.
What other examples have we seen where riders have been “victim-blamed” by law enforcement, the media, and drivers and which could be used in the courts? When a rider is taking the lane in a substandard-width lane instead of riding as far right as practicable. When a bicyclist doesn’t give hand signals. When bicyclists aren’t wearing bright clothing. When bicyclists don’t have lights or reflectors, or not enough, because nothing prevents a driver’s attorney from arguing to the jury that even though the rider had lights, they weren’t enough or weren’t bright enough. Worst of all, how about the times we hear drivers say “they just darted out in front of me” as the excuse for killing a bicyclist? The rider isn’t alive to defend themselves. Many of these same examples have occurred for walkers and runners as well. Imagine how drivers and insurance companies will push these arguments and narratives if the legislation is passed.
I once represented the family of a bicyclist killed while he was riding alone on a long, dark road. He was lit up like a Christmas tree with at least five lights and more reflectors. He wasn’t in the bike lane (likely because of debris that I saw there a couple of days later) but in the outside lane of a four lane road that had two lanes in each direction and separated by a median. The driver had at least 2 miles to get to the point where she hit my client and instead of slowing or changing lanes, she drove right through him. He was visible and an experienced bicycle rider on his way to work the night shift. But law enforcement found him at fault for not riding in the bicycle lane. This proposed law would have denied his family the justice that I was able to get for them.
What about cases that don’t go to trial or aren’t filed in the courts? This legislation would also limit the ability to even negotiate with insurance companies before filing a lawsuit. Insurance companies know they will have the upper hand in the courts and will use that to their advantage in lowballing negotiations and even denying claims. This only benefits insurance companies while hurting riders and their families, so it is no surprise the insurance lobby is strongly backing it.
Whatever the intent of this proposed law, the consequences are clear. This legislation would deny access to justice for every bicyclist and pedestrian in Florida. Our roads would only become deadlier for us if this is passed. Insurance companies benefit while bicyclists, pedestrians, and their families suffer even more. Accountability for drivers that injury and kill bicyclists is already lacking in criminal courts, and this would only make it worse in the civil courts.
Bicyclists, their families, and friends need to call their Florida state representatives and senators and demand that they not vote for this bill. Join other organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Center for Victims of Crime in calling for this legislation to be voted down. As conditions get worse for us on the road, we need laws that will protect us and not deny us justice.