The Michigan Court of Appeals in Estate of Aaron Reid v ThomasWalker, No. 328587, reversed the circuit court’s summary disposition ruling as to one defendant and affirmed as to two others in an appeal involving the death of bicyclist. The dissenting judge, Judge Peter O’Connell wrote a dissenting opinion affirming the entire circuit court’s opinion.
Several hours before dawn on a November morning, Aaron Reid rode his bicycle along the right side of northbound Whitmore Lake Road, pedaling with the flow of traffic. A Ford Truck, driven by Thomas Walker and heading north saw Reid traveling from left to right across the road. He hit his brakes and swerved to the left and struck Reid’s bike with the right front of his truck.
Reid was thrown on the hood of the truck, slid off, landing in the middle of the road. Defendants Willis and Voight came upon the scene, moved to avoid the truck in the middle of the road and ran over Reid, who was declared dead at the scene.
Prior to the accident, 19-year-old Reid and his two friends met to ride their bikes and drink alcohol. According to friend Jordan Salmi’s deposition, from about 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., they shared a fifth of alcohol and rode their bikes on “state land,” after which they went to McDonald’s.
Livingston County Sherriff Deputy Brad Neff conducted a crash scene investigation concluding that Reid caused the accident because he was wearing dark clothing, there were no reflectors on his bike and his blood alcohol level at the time of the accident was .07.
Reid's estate filed a six-count complaint against the defendants, asserting claims of negligence and wrongful death. Defendants Walker, Willis and Voight moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116 (C)(10) asserting they couldn’t be found liable for the accident because Reid was more than 50% at fault. Reid alleged that a question of fact existed because Walker admitted he was speeding and had a nonfunctioning headlight, and that Willis and Voight were traveling too fast and did not act with proper caution when approaching the area.
The trial court granted summary disposition to the defendants, stating that it was impossible to conclude that Reid was not more responsible for the crash because:
· Reid’s dark clothing,
· His lack of reflectors and lights,
· His lack of sleep at the time of the accident, and
· Reid’s blood alcohol content was 0.07.
Finally, the trial court concluded that Reid had not established any evidence of negligence on the part of the defendants.
Summary Disposition Analysis
The COA provided an extensive analysis of both the facts and the law as applied to those facts.
Beginning with a discussion of summary disposition, the COA said:
“…when entertaining a summary disposition motion under subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.”
The MCOA concluded that the circuit court violated all of these precepts stating “One might rationally argue that Deputy Neff correctly attributed all fault for the crash to Reid, and a jury may eventually so find. On the other hand, neither this Court nor the circuit court may simply disregard the evidence presented by the estate. Nor may a court choose to credit the testimony of one witness over that of another, or make findings regarding which witnesses were more believable. By ignoring the expert testimony, judging the credibility of the witnesses, and selectively picking and choosing facts from the record, the circuit court usurped the function of the jury.”
Bicycles on Public Roads
The Supreme Court declared the rights of drivers and bicyclists to use public roads are “mutual and co-ordinate” in 1924.The law provides at MCL 257.662(1), that a motorist must use due care when passing a bicycle that can be seen and must drive “at a careful and prudent speed.” A bicyclist, on the other hand, must signal a turn, MCL 257.648, and use a visible “lamp” when traveling “between ½ hour after sunset and ½ hour before sunrise.” In this case, the court applied the background principles concerning the car-bicycle relationship in a broader legal context.
Causation in a negligence action requires proof of both cause in fact and proximate cause. Cause in fact “generally requires showing that ‘but for’ the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred.” Proximate cause involves an examination of the foreseeability of consequences, and a determination whether a defendant should be held legally responsible for those consequences. Although the plaintiff bears the burden of proof as to causation, the plaintiff need not produce evidence positively eliminating every other potential cause of an accident. Normally, the issue of cause and whether a driver was negligent is left to the jury.
After a review of the record regarding Defendant Walker, the COA concluded that there were sufficient contested fact questions for the jury to resolve such as whether 1) he was speeding, 2) he used his high beams, 3) he saw Reid in time to avoid him and 4) he hit the bike from the rear or the side. Also at issue is the degree of Reid’s impairment due to consumption of alcohol.
After a finding upholding the summary disposition re: defendants Willis and Voight, the COA reversed re: defendant Walker and remanded the matter to the Circuit court for further proceedings. In his dissenting opinion, Judge O’Connell would uphold the lower court’s decision that no reasonable juror could conclude that Reid was less than 50% responsible for the accident.