“Mrs. Morgan, you should not have been riding your bike on the road,” said the judge.
It had been a hard, difficult road for Jan Morgan, but she was finally having her day in court. She was finally going to see justice done. But standing there before the judge, the tables were suddenly turned, and she was now the one being lectured from the bench.
It all began on a clear Sunday morning in May last year. Morgan, co-owner (along with her husband, David) of Boardtown Bikes in Starkville, Mississippi, was on a training ride with her friend Kim Richardson. They took a popular cycling route, Highway 50, a rural, two-lane road with no shoulder.
The pair never finished their ride. As Richardson recalls, on a stretch of road near the town of Pheba, she saw a car next to her, very close, and then heard the sound of an impact. Jan Morgan had been rear-ended by a driver traveling at 55 miles per hour. She was thrown into the air, landed on the hood of the car, and hit the windshield. When the driver, Robbie Norton of Cedar Bluff, stopped her vehicle, Morgan was thrown to the road. One witness, driving directly behind Norton, observed that Norton never slowed or took evasive action before the impact. It gets worse: After exiting her car and taking a look at Morgan lying in the road, Norton got back into the car and drove over Morgan again. According to the witness, the car came to a stop with the tire resting on Morgan’s head.
Morgan was rushed to a Tupelo hospital with critical injuries, including broken bones, whole body trauma, and severe closed head trauma. For weeks, she lay in a medically induced coma, but slowly, as the summer progressed, began to recover.
As she continued to heal, the Morgans began to consider more than Jan’s physical recovery. They wanted the driver to face some consequences for what she had done. But as they soon discovered, getting justice wasn’t going to be easy.
The driver was uninsured, but that didn’t seem to bother the Mississippi Highway Patrol. It didn’t ticket her for that, or for any other violation. When district attorney Forrest Allgood announced that no felony charges would be filed against Norton, the outcry from cyclists across the nation was so great that Allgood decided to take another look at the case. He found a misdemeanor charge, assault with a deadly weapon, which was supported by the evidence.
At trial, Norton was found guilty of a lesser charge, negligent driving, and for the Morgans, it seemed as if justice, even if it was a small justice, was at hand. But they were in for a rude awakening. According to David Morgan, Judge Joe Taggart was sympathetic—towards the driver. Addressing Norton, Judge Taggart apologetically explained, “Robbie, I know you did not mean to do this and I don’t want to fine you, but you were negligent.”
After fining Norton a token $50, the judge turned his attention toward what he felt was the real problem in his courtroom. “Mrs. Morgan,” he lectured, “you should not have been riding your bike on the road.” According to Judge Taggart, people who ride bikes are assuming the risk of being injured; as he explained, “the highways weren’t designed for bikes.”
The Morgans would soon face yet another setback: Although her fine was only $50, Norton chose not to pay it; instead, she paid a $108 circuit-court fee to appeal her conviction. Her argument? It was just an accident. But as I’ve said before, when you injure a cyclist with your car, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t intend to hit somebody. You did hit somebody, and if you were negligent, it’s still your fault.
Judge Taggart’s legal reasoning is completely wrong. There is no such thing as somebody assuming the risk of being injured by a negligent driver just because she decided to travel on a public road. This is pretty basic legal stuff, and something that Judge Taggart appears to be completely unfamiliar with.
And it’s not even the only thing he got wrong. He also took care to explain some circumstances under which Norton would not have been found guilty—if a car had been coming from the other direction, or if her brakes hadn’t been working. So according to this reasoning, if there is oncoming traffic, it is okay for a driver to run down a cyclist instead of, say, slowing and waiting until it’s safe to pass. As for properly maintaining your brakes? Not necessary in Judge Taggart’s courtroom.
I’d like to say that the way Jan Morgan was treated was unusual. But unfortunately, I’ve seen it many times in my own law practice, in cases all across the country. As I explained in Bicycling & the Law, from the moment a cyclist is hit, there’s a social bias working against the cyclist. At every step, from witness perceptions, to police reports, to insurance-company claims adjusters, to the legal system, the cyclist is blamed for what happened. Sometimes called the “windshield perspective,” this bias even extends to media accounts of what happened.
There’s only one way to defeat this bias, and that is to refuse to accept it, to refuse to let careless drivers off the hook when they injure somebody. When we challenge the status quo, we have the power to change it. As the Morgans have discovered, it isn’t always going to be easy to find justice, but unless we do demand justice when it is withheld, it will never be ours. For their efforts and determination, we all owe Jan and David Morgan a debt of gratitude, and our support when they re-enter the courtroom on April 2.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.