Tribune Blames the Victim of Bike Crash Caused by City’s Negligence

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The crash site, Damen and Wabansia. 

Yesterday, the Tribune ran a rather heartless piece about a young man who was severely injured after he rode his bicycle into a collapsed sewer grate, which the city had failed to properly barricade. Reporter John Byrne wrote:

Chicago taxpayers are likely on the hook to pay a $1.5 million settlement to a bicyclist who suffered brain damage and other injuries that left him with quadriplegia when he crashed into a barricade guarding a sunken catch basin in a late-night accident in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Byrne’s article focuses on the cost of the settlement, and blames the victim. The reporter seems rather callous to the fact that Brian Baker, 23 at the time of the crash, was permanently disabled largely due to the city’s negligence, and will only be receiving a portion of the compensation needed to cover his huge medical bills.

Baker, who had recently graduated from college with a degree in sports marketing, was cycling home on June 9, 2009, at 1:45 a.m. at Damen and Wabansia. He rode into a catch basin which had begun to collapse, leaving a crater in the roadway. The city’s Finance Committee voted Tuesday to approve the settlement, which was expected to pass at today’s City Council meeting.

The reporter made a point of noting that Baker “had been drinking and was not wearing a helmet,” suggesting that the victim was largely to blame for his own injuries. While bike helmet use is certainly a good idea in a city where dangerous driving is commonplace, it’s not mandatory. The city also has the responsibility to keep the roadways in reasonably safe condition for cycling, or at least provide fair warning of hazards.

“Had been drinking” implies that Baker was drunk. While it’s technically legal to ride a bike while intoxicated in Chicago, it’s certainly unsafe and irresponsible to do so. However, many people out on the town on any given night have had a drink or two, but are still capable of safely biking home. Baker’s blood alcohol content at the time of the crash has not been disclosed.

A more balanced article by the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman shows that Byrne left out some key information. Spielman noted that first Deputy Corporation Counsel Leslie Darling acknowledged that the city had failed to properly barricade the dangerous hole in the street.

“The barricade’s light was not functional,” Darling said. “The barricade was actually in the hole, instead of in front it [where] a bicyclist would be able to see and react to it… The city had two months notice of the condition and had scheduled repairs.” The city had allowed this dangerous situation to exist for an extended period on a popular bike route, so it’s no surprise that a tragedy like this occurred, and it’s only fair that the victim should be compensated.

Byrne also failed to mention that Baker had originally asked for $12 million, so the settlement is just a fraction of what he requested, and it’s probably not enough money to cover all of his long-term health care costs. Meanwhile, Darling acknowledged that the settlement is a bargain for the city. “Due to the catastrophic nature of his injuries, if a jury found in his favor, it’s likely he would be awarded a large damage amount,” she said.

  • Mishellie

    If a car crashed because of a pothole causing heinous damage… this article would not be written about it and the settlement would be much, much larger. The fact of the matter is that the city is not maintaining the streets – even bike routes – to be bike safe. Just look at Chicago Ave – Halsted and Chicago and the surrounding area on Chicago look like moonscapes and like 1 of the holes has even been TEMPORARILY filled. There’s a little isthmus that goes through a pothole that’s 1″ wide that I’m now confident I can hit at speed to get across the hole. A cyclist who doesn’t go that way everyday could get killed riding straight down that hill.

  • Corn Dog Aficionado

    The driver would’ve been charged with a DUI, making a settlement much more difficult to obtain.

  • David Altenburg

    Only if they were above the legal limit. There’s no evidence that Baker was above the limit.

  • rohmen

    Man, I really don’t want to debate this case much. Especially where the cyclist was pretty seriously injured, the City clearly has a lot (if not all) of the fault for the accident and 1.5 million won’t even scratch the surface of what he needs to go forward with his injuries. But there was apparently blood alcohol evidence. We don’t know what the evidence would have shown since the case settled, but it was there.

    The sun-times article notes there were pre-trial motions pending regarding barring the blood alcohol test results, which the court never ruled on as the case settled. Neither you nor I knows what the blood alcohol test would have shown, but the fact that a 12 million dollar demand case settled for 1.5 million when the City had a pretty clear liability for the harm tends to suggest there were some issues somewhere with the cyclist’s case.

    I was actually surprised by the City attorney’s comments that such blood alcohol evidence isn’t relevant when a cyclist is involved, as potential intoxication is almost always relevant under Illinois law with regards to contributory negligence if it can be shown that it impaired the plaintiff’s ability to care for themselves, which is the exact reason the City was fighting to get that evidence in.

  • CL

    What a sad story. It’s possible he had “one or two beers,” but if he were under the legal limit for driving, he probably would have wanted that to be in evidence instead of fighting to keep his BAC concealed… so my guess (2 in the morning, after drinking, rode into a hole) is that he was impaired. However, the city should also be at fault for the unsafe conditions, so the settlement seems fair to me. Maybe this will motivate them to fix the streets. I’m amazed at how many huge potholes on busy streets still haven’t been filled.

  • David Altenburg

    Yeah, I should have said “no available evidence”.

    Interesting point about contributory negligence.

  • Dennis McClendon

    I was injured by a similar open cavity on South Wabash last summer, but assumed that the Boub case would prevent me from recovering any damages from the city.

  • Pete

    A car driver would have gotten nothing.

  • Pete

    Nowdays, anyone who gets in any kind of accident after drinking any amount of alcohol gets a DUI. The legal limit is meaningless due to years of MADD lobbying. And don’t think they won’t eventually come for bikers, as there are more and more bikes on the road each year.

  • Pete

    So the guy was likely drunk, and crashed into a hole that WAS barricaded. So it’s the city’s fault just because the barricade wasn’t big enough and flashy enough?

    The Tribune editorial was spot on. Is personal responsibility no longer required at all in today’s world? Or is it only required if you drive a car?

  • The legal limit is not meaningless. If you are involved in a car crash and your blood alcohol content is below .08 percent, you will not be charged with a DUI.

  • In addition to not being illuminated, the barricade was in the hole, where it was difficult to see, rather than in front of the hole, where it would have helped keep bikes out of the crater.

  • Pete
  • CL

    In Illinois, you can be charged with a DUI if your BAC is between 0.05 and 0.08 if the officer believes you are impaired at that level.

  • Alex_H

    I was surprised by those comments as well. Level of impairment could be relevant in an accident that happened in someone’s house.

  • rohmen

    Yeah, I think she meant it in a way to suggest legal intoxication would not have been a complete bar to recovery here even if the blood alcohol evidence came in–as it almost certainly would be if a car had been involved and the driver was charged and convicted with a DUI.

  • Jim Angrabright

    For starters it’s pretty obvious you neither read the article above, the Trib article nor the Times article else you wouldn’t be so ill informed. BTW – it wasn’t a “editorial” in the Trib. From this and your other cavalier comments re sharing the streets with bikes I take it you have an axe to grind. Why not reveal your true name instead of hiding behind “Pete”? Are you a coward?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I could care less about the helmet but what I’d like to know is if he had a legal white front light on the bike. If the barricade had some retro-reflective material on it even a 25 lumen LED headlight should have been able to pick that up.

    Also, Biking While Intoxicated (BWI) is ILLEGAL in most states and should be in Illinois as well. I find it pretty pitiful that his BAC was inadmissible in a civil court since BWI is legal (so it sure sounds like he was legally drunk if the defense had to make that legal maneuver to keep his BAC out of court). Walking while drunk is legal but if you are drunk and stumble into traffic that has the clear right-of-way due to your inebriation and get hit by a car, I would think 9 times out of 10 you’re drunkenness is going to prevent you from collecting damages.

    While a tragedy, I’m not all that sympathetic here and even less if he didn’t have a light on his bike. The City is liable but minimally. It’s probably why the plaintiff is settling for only 1.5 million considering his injuries are so severe.

  • Ryan Wallace

    First I believe you mean “count *not* care less”.

    Second, the presence of the forward facing light is probably irrelevant as most barricades that the city places in these holes (actually putting them IN the hole is still commonplace) do not have the proper level of retroreflectivity in order for it to matter.


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