Maine is a beautiful place to ride motorcycles. With summer upon us and the increasing number of motorcyclists on our roads, there inevitably will be accidents resulting in serious injuries. Lawyers who represent motorcyclists must remember that motorcycle crash cases involve issues of bias that are not present in automobile collision cases. To get the best result for an injured motorcyclist, an attorney must be mindful of these bias issues from the very beginning of the case and address them in a thoughtful but aggressive way.
There are three common biases that work against motorcyclists. They are that motorcycles are (1) hard to see, (2) driven too fast, and (3) driven by thoughtless young people or unruly gang members. These biases arise from a small number of encounters with motorcyclists who drive irresponsibly. Most motorcyclists are like other drivers. They operate with due care for the safety of themselves and others. Unfortunately, we forget all of the careful motorcyclists when we see that one person who speeds crazily, weaving in and out of traffic, and passes recklessly on the right or in a no passing zone. This reckless driver is the one who shapes our opinion of ALL motorcyclists. These people and events are memorable because watching them is upsetting. They make us feel unsafe and defensive around motorcycles. In the end, we see motorcycles as annoying and they trigger strong negative emotions.
Overcoming jury and witness bias requires identifying the negative factors in each particular case, separating them, and rebutting each one with solid proof and arguments. The “hard to see” bias arises from the fact that motorcycles are generally small and the ones we remember may seem to “come out of nowhere.” Overcoming this bias is likely to require photographs and diagrams of the scene and careful measurement of the relevant distances and sightlines. Video evidence may demonstrate how easily the defendant could have seen the motorcycle if he had been attentive. Statements of witnesses that the motorcycle was in the right place and visible may be available and should be aggressively sought.
The “driven too fast” bias arises from the fact that motorcycles are often loud. Witnesses who are called upon to testify about speed may mistakenly assume that there is a direct link between noise and velocity. Evidence such as skid marks, crush damage to the vehicles involved, and testimony about the timing of related events may be helpful in overcoming mistaken assumptions about speed. Combining witness testimony with time, speed and distance formulas can rebut suggestions of speeding or unsafe driving.
The “wild, bad people” bias may be the easiest one to overcome. Testimony from treating doctors, people at the scene, co-workers, friends, family and from the injured victim himself are the best sources of evidence to humanize a client and separate him from unfair and harmful stereotypes.
The arguments described above for overcoming jury bias against motorcyclists are fact-based arguments. In addition to these arguments, a well-prepared lawyer will use pre-trial motions and basic jury instructions to protect his or her client. Every juror can relate to the “Rules of the Road.” Maine law states that every motorist must use ordinary care at all times for his safety and for the safety of others; that a driver has a duty to see that which is open and apparent; that a driver must operate his vehicle at a speed as to be able to avoid any visible obstruction; that a driver must respect others’ rights-of-way; and that a driver may not turn a vehicle or move left on a road unless the movement can be made with reasonable safety. These rules can and must be stressed from jury selection through closing argument in any trial of a motorcycle accident case.
Pre-trial motions are also an important part of the fight against jury bias. Before a lawyer gets to the factual dispute about such issues as noise, helmet use, tattoos, organization membership, etc., it may be possible to have the court prohibit reference to them on the basis that they are not probative, or that the probative value of the evidence is outweighed by its prejudicial impact. The jury selection process also can be used to identify and remove biased potential jurors.
Thorough investigation and thoughtful case preparation by an experienced lawyer who knows what to look for at a motorcycle crash scene and aggressive case preparation of the factual and legal arguments give the injured motorcyclist the best chance to overcome bias among witnesses and jurors, and the best possible chance for a successful outcome in a motorcycle crash case.