AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday upheld a $750,000 award to the victim of a 2010 bicycle accident and in the process clarified motorists in Maine are liable for cyclists’ safety.
Monica Semian, a Romanian exchange student, was living and working in Ogunquit during the summer of 2010. On Sept. 9 of that year, Semian, who was then 20 years old, was riding her bicycle when she collided with a school bus owned by Ledgemere Transportation that was making a right-hand turn at an intersection on Route 1. Semian, who was riding alongside the bus through the intersection, was run over and severely injured, resulting in a number of surgeries and medical bills topping $200,000, according to a press release from her attorneys.
According to Maine law, motorists passing bicyclists or roller skiers “shall exercise due care by leaving a distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle or roller skier of not less than three feet” and “may pass a bicycle or roller skier traveling in the same direction in a no-passing zone only when it is safe to do so.”
The case was the subject of a five-day trial in September and October of 2013. A York County Superior Court jury awarded Semian $750,000 after having reduced the plaintiff’s request from $1 million because she admitted some wrongdoing in the accident, but the bus company appealed the decision. Ledgemere, citing another law that says bicyclists can proceed to the right of traffic except “when proceeding straight in a place where right turns are permitted,” argued Semian assumed liability and risk when she passed the bus on the right at an intersection. The trial court concluded the statute was inapplicable, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We conclude that [state law] by itself does not insulate a motorist from liability under these circumstances,” wrote Justice Jeffrey Hjelm, who also stated the portion of law in question is “ambiguous” because it addresses cyclists’ conduct and not liability issues.
David Kreisler, one of Semian’s attorneys, said that in addition to securing just compensation for his client, the Supreme Court decision was a win for bicyclists in Maine.
“Today’s decision is a victory for my client and for bicyclists throughout Maine,” said Kreisler in a written statement. “Sharing the road means paying attention to bicyclists.”
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine participated in the case by filing a statement in support of Semian. James Tasse, the coalition’s assistant director, praised the court’s decision.
“This decision clarifies bicyclists’ and motorists’ rights and duties and should improve road safety,” he said in a written statement.
Stephen B. Wade, one of the attorneys who defended Ledgemere Transportation, said he thought the law was clearly in the bus company’s favor but respected the court’s decision.
“I understand the court’s decision, and I think it was thoughtful and reasoned,” said Wade. “The Legislature passed a statute that said you can pass on the right [on a bicycle] but that you do so at your own risk. I think the court just felt that was too harsh a result. … Nobody wanted this girl to get hurt. You couldn’t spend 15 minutes talking to her and not be very sympathetic.”