Is it a negligent act to open a car door into a bike lane when a cyclist is in the lane in New Jersey?

At the same time, if the defendant photographed the scene, measured the distance his car was from the curb or how wide his door was, the plaintiff might not have succeeded in her claims.

Gwinner, v. Michael Matt, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108827

State: New Jersey, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

Plaintiff: Sheila Gwinner and Horst Gwinner

Defendant: Michael Matt, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: failing to observe [her] bicycle on the bicycle path” and “failing to keep a reasonable lookout for other vehicles lawfully on the road

Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff cannot prover her claims that the defendant opened his car door into the bikeway

Holding: For the Plaintiff, sent back for trial

Year: 2012

This is sort of an odd case for me, but after spending a week with the bicycle community at Interbike it seemed appropriate. This case looks at the legal issues when a driver of a car after parking opens his door into a bicycle lane injuring a cyclist.

In this case, the defendant was from Pennsylvania visiting his parents at a tourist town in New Jersey. The Plaintiff was also from Pennsylvania riding her bike in the bike lane in the same town in New Jersey.

Allegedly, the defendant parked his car and opened his car door into the bike lane where the plaintiff was riding and caused her injury.

The real issue was the plaintiff could not recall the accident and could not say with certainty that the defendant’s door was in the bike lane. However, she was in the bike lane, and she hit the defendant’s car door.

The case was filed in Federal Court because the accident occurred in New Jersey, where the lawsuit was occurred but the plaintiff was a resident of Pennsylvania.

The basis for this decision was a motion filed by the defendant to dismiss the case because the plaintiff’s lack of proof of whether the door opened in the bike lane. There was also substantial discussion about the application of New Jersey automobile law to the accident (a bicycle is a vehicle) and what damages would be applicable to this case. That part of the decision is not covered in this article.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court started its analysis looking to the requirements to prove a negligence case under New Jersey law.

Under New Jersey law, for a plaintiff to establish a negligence claim she must show that the defendant “breached a duty of reasonable care, which constituted a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.” Furthermore, “negligence must be proved and will never be presumed, indeed there is a presumption against it, and the burden of proving negligence is on the plaintiff.”

As in all states, the plaintiff must prove, and has the burden of proving that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, which he breached causing her injuries. In this case, the allegation of the Plaintiff was the duty was not to open a car door into the bike lane.

To establish a duty of care in New Jersey requires the passing of a two-part test. “The question of whether a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid the risk of harm to another exists is one of fairness and policy that implicates many factors.”

The first part is whether the accident was foreseeable.  The second test in New Jersey is whether the application of the duty would be fair and be supported by public policy.

The defendant knew about the bike lanes and was a resident of the city; he also knew about the bike lanes on that particular road. And whenever a bike is in close proximity to a car, there is an obvious risk of harm to the cyclist.

As a result, where bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, the risk of harm presented by obstructing or entering into the bike lane, or, more generally a bicyclist’s lane of travel, was clearly foreseeable to Mr. Matt at the time of the accident.

The fairness and policy considerations were easy and obvious.

…both were using vehicles on the limited roadway space of a public thoroughfare. Imposing a duty of care on Mr. Matt in terms of obstructing or otherwise interfering with a bicyclist’s lane of travel is fair as a matter of public policy. The City of Avalon has created bike lanes presumably to promote bicycling generally and as an attempt to attract visitors. The explicit purpose of a bike lane is to minimize the risks inherent in roadways that accommodate automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians by providing bicyclists an exclusive lane of travel. Finally, imposing a duty of care in terms of keeping a proper lookout before crossing, entering into, or otherwise obstructing a bicyclists’ lane of travel does not unduly burden motorists. At most, this duty requires a driver to ensure his automobile is parked fully in the parking lane and to check his review mirrors, or otherwise look out for bicyclists, prior to opening his car door and exiting his vehicle.

The bike lanes were built to make cycling safer, and the bike lanes were put in by the city. It is fair to assume that there was an expectation of safety while riding the bike lanes and since the bike lanes were created by the city, there was obviously no violation of public policy.

In conclusion, the possibility of a collision between a cyclist and a car or car door on roadways shared by cyclists and motorists, is foreseeable. Moreover, the public interest in promoting bicycle safety and the minimal burden placed on motorists to exercise reasonable care can lead only to the conclusion that Mr. Matt owed Ms. Gwinner a duty of care when parking and exiting his vehicle along Dune Drive.

The next issue the court looked at was whether the plaintiff could prove the defendant breached a duty to her. Because she could not remember whether or not the car door was in the bike lane, the defendant argued the door was not in the lane, and it did not breach a duty to the plaintiff.

The evidence in the record pertaining to Plaintiff’s negligence claim is scant. There were no witnesses to the accident, aside from Mr. Matt and Ms. Gwinner. Neither Mr. Matt nor Ms. Gwinner took photographs or made measurements of the accident scene; more specifically, there are no photographs 4 or measurements relating to the distance of Mr. Matt’s passenger-side tires from the curb or how far Mr. Matt’s car door extended when opened on the day of the incident. Finally, though both parties independently visited the Avalon Police Station after the accident, no police report was produced.

However, the pleadings and deposition testimony of the plaintiff were enough to make a case that should be heard by a jury.

However, Ms. Gwinner’s deposition testimony describing the accident is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a question of material fact, which should be decided by a jury. She states, “Is all I know I was [sic] riding my bike. And the poor man was as startled as I was. The door started opening and I just went into it.” When Ms. Gwinner’s description of the accident is considered along with her testimony that she was riding her bike within the bike lane when she collided with Mr. Matt’s car door a fact finder could reasonably infer Mr. Matt’s car door must have entered the bike lane and caused the collision, and choose to believe Ms. Gwinner’s account of the accident rather than Mr. Matt’s.

Although there was not specific proof the car door was in the bike lane, the jury could reach a conclusion by a preponderance of the evidence that car door was in the bike lane.

As such, the case was sent back for trial.

The decision continues on the application of New Jersey automobile and insurance law to the case and whether there were any limits on the damages available for the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Here the plaintiff or the defendant could have photographed the scene, measured the door, the car to the curb, and the width of the bike lane and ended this case. If you have the opportunity, after the victim(s) have been taken care of document the accident.

At the same time, when both victims filed complaints at the police department, the police did nothing. Don’t wait and go to the police department, call 911 and have them show up.

These facts will also lead to a big argument on the actual damages the plaintiff suffered. If she was able to go to the police department rather than going to the hospital, she must not have been injured as much as she might claim. 

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