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Cyclists' survivors can use civil courts for recourse

North County Times Forum: Cyclists’ survivors can use civil courts for recourse

By MIKE BOMBERGER -- San Diego | Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010 12:00 am

The North County Times article, "Criminal penalties limited when cars hit cyclists," written by Sarah Gordon and published Jan. 16, touched on a common emotion felt by family members when a cyclist is killed in a traffic accident.

Light penalties, many times just probation and community service, and a fine of no more than $1,000, are the consequences for a negligent motorist taking the life of a cyclist. For grieving families, a sentence that seems little more than a slap on the wrist is little consolation for a life forever lost.

Ms. Gordon’s article does not mention the one legal recourse that the family members of cycling accident victims may still have. California has a wrongful death statute in place that allows aggrieved family members to seek compensation for damages incurred as a result of their loved one’s death. Much like a criminal trial, a wrongful death suit is decided by a jury of 12 peers.

But instead of paying back a debt to society, a defendant in a wrongful death suit pays back to the family he or she has taken everything away from.

Our civil justice system is the reason why cancer-causing asbestos no longer poisons homes, schools and businesses. It’s why children’s pajamas are no longer flammable and popular toys are now made lead-free.

In the same way that our legal system encourages auto manufacturers to make safe cars, and pharmaceutical companies to make safe drugs, our civil justice system encourages motorists to safely share the road with everyone entitled to use it, including cyclists.

If the criminal penalties are not enough to encourage motorists to follow speed laws, put down their cell phones and drive carefully, the financial consequences of paying for causing someone else’s death should be one more reminder that driving is a privilege and driving safely is a responsibility for everyone.

MIKE BOMBERGER lives in San Diego.