Podcast: Bicycling Advocate
Car collisions are the bread and butter of many personal injury attorneys, but today we talk to an attorney who has changed her focus from four wheels to two.
Ann Groninger from North Carolina is a co-founder of Bike Law, a national network of personal injury attorneys representing injured cyclists. There are now 66 million cyclists in the U.S. Cities and individuals are promoting bicycles as a feature of healthy, fun, and sustainable lives, but cyclists still face a higher risk of death and injury than drivers do. That’s where Ann and Bike Law come into the picture.
Ann has found that her cycling clients are special. Their needs and interests set them apart from car drivers, and she’s generously agreed to share her stories and thoughts today on the Filevine Fireside.
Learn more about Bike Law at their official website.
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Katie: Car collisions are the bread and butter of many personal injury attorneys but today we talk to an attorney who has moved her focus from four wheels to two. This is The Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie Wolf.
Ann Groninger from North Carolina is a cofounder of Bike Law, a national network of personal injury attorneys representing injured cyclists. There are now 66 million cyclists in the U.S. Cities and individuals are promoting bicycles as a feature of healthy, fun and sustainable lives but cyclists still face a higher risk of death and injury than drivers do. That’s where Ann and Bike Law come in to the picture. Ann has found that her cycling clients are special. Their needs and interests set them apart from car drivers and she’s generously agreed to share her stories and thoughts with us today on The Filevine Fireside. Ann, I’m so happy you’re here and are able to talk to us.
Ann: Thanks for having me.
Katie: So, you became a bicycle attorney because you’re an attorney who loved cycling. Can you tell us a little bit more about that journey for you?
Ann: Well, it’s been a journey since I started but it kind of went from one thing right to the next. So, I was a criminal defense attorney and I was in court all the time and trying cases and I started doing personal injury work and then met up with the person who started Bike Law in South Carolina. We formed North Carolina Bike Law and now it’s become a national network with lawyers in 22 states.
Katie: Before we dive into what it means to be representing cycling clients, I want to quickly ask about your public defender work. Has that influenced the way you do your work now?
Ann: Well, I think it was really helpful because North Carolina is a state, at least where I am, that’s not particularly friendly to individuals in the court setting and so having that experience really helped me know that I can go to that site if I need to.
Katie: What are aspects of the court system in North Carolina that make it difficult to represent individuals?
Ann: Well, there are quite a few things and a lot of them require a law class but one of the big ones is that we have a law that’s known as contributory negligence and we refer to it as pure contributory negligence and it means that if the injured person is any percent at fault, even if it’s one percent, then they recover nothing for their injuries, even if the other person…
Ann: …so if the driver runs a red light but a jury decides that well, the other driver or the person on the bicycle or whoever had been looking more carefully then they could have avoided the incident, then that injured person collects nothing. Whereas in Utah, where you are, you have a different system where that person’s recovery would just be reduced by whatever percentage that they’re at fault so if it’s 10 percent, they’d still get 90 percent of their recovery. I can give you examples too, if you want any.
Katie: Yeah, so to recover anything at all you have to prove that your client was essentially perfect and did everything exactly right.
Ann: Yeah, it is a challenge that we have here that whereas individuals in other states don’t have. We almost got rid of it a couple of times. I mean, it’s really unfair and it doesn’t make any sense. If you’re one percent at fault, then, okay, take one percent of my recovery away. So, it’s not fair and it doesn’t make sense and it’s a really old law but because of various lobbying interests and the insurance industry and what not, we have not been successful in getting rid of it so that’s where we are.
Katie: I’m interested in how that plays out specifically with cyclists because I know one of my very best friends was the victim of a hit and run accident when she was cycling and had to relearn how to walk essentially and she was wearing her helmet at the time and doing everything right and clearly the victim of this monstrous crime but even still I found culturally people would use her story to point out that cycling wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t do it and we needed to buy cars if we were going to be decent members of society so I feel that kind of victim blaming mentality.
Ann: Yeah, I think that’s sort of a problem in society in general that we have but when you have a group of people that the rest of society doesn’t really understand why they do what they do. I guess if you don’t ride a bike then you’ve forgotten from your childhood how much fun it is and how much more pleasant it is to get from A to B on your bike than it is in a car and how great it is to commute on your bike to work rather than sitting in traffic so people don’t understand why an adult person would be riding a bike. When there’s that lack of understanding then it’s easier and easier to blame the person.
Katie: So, I know that North Carolina is kind of the north of the South but I mean my experience when I lived in the South, I remember when I was once cycling in a small city in Georgia and cars that were going the opposite direction would pull over and honk and shout at me that I needed to get on the sidewalk. What’s it like being a cycling advocate in the South?
Ann: Well, you know, I have ridden in other states and I don’t know that I’ve had any worse experiences that I can attribute to the state or the region itself but I think that there’s those people everywhere. I think it depends a lot on the community. Charlotte has a pretty big cycling community and it’s growing and so at the same time the city itself is growing so there’s tension with cars and bicycles all having room together. So, I think it just kind of depends where you are. Now, I will say that I’ve also ridden a bike in other countries, in Germany, in particular last summer, and that was a whole different story. You just felt so safe. I mean, most of the places you can ride on bicycle dedicated paths where you don’t even deal with cars at all. But even when you do deal with cars, people just expect it. Montreal was that way too. I just didn’t see any tension.
Katie: I’m feeling a little bit jealous of Germany right now.
Ann: Yeah, if you go there, you’ll really feel jealous of them. It’s amazing. It’s really wonderful.
Katie: So, when you’re in the settlement process or in the courtroom working with a victim of a bicycle crash, how do you deal with those questions of fault and with that big looming threat of this contributory negligence idea?
Ann: Well, it depends on the situation but a lot of times we involve engineers and what we call a crash reconstructionist so somebody with the expertise to look at the physics and the science of what happened and determine who made what move when, because that sometimes has a lot to do with it and sometimes you get witnesses who think that they saw something happen a certain way but once you look at the physical evidence, it really turns out that it happened completely differently. So, a lot of cases were really relying on that scientific evidence, which is irrefutable, and we’ve learned that most people know that now that eyewitness testimony sometimes can be kind of unreliable. So, we do a lot of that and then we also do a lot of educating about cycling and how bikes move and how people handle bikes and things like that.
Katie: Now, so you’re not just a legal advocate, you’re a cycling advocate. So, in addition to representing people who have been hurt, you also educate cyclists about how to protect themselves. What is it that you advocate and how do you reach out to cyclists?
Ann: Well, I have done a lot of talks around the state to different groups. A lot of them are through bike shops or recreational groups that have meetings or sometimes at charity events I’ll do a little talk and meet with people. I’m not a cycling teacher so there are some really great groups around Charlotte that will have a day or a two day class where they will teach people actual biking skills and how to ride on the road and that sort of thing. I don’t necessarily do that except for in the context where I would kind of talk about the things that I see as a lawyer and the different types of incidents that we deal with and how to better be aware. I don’t want to say how to avoid those because I never want to put the obligation on the bicyclist because the bicyclist could just be riding down the road and doing everything right. I mean, it’s really not their obligation to have eyes in the back of their head or to anticipate that somebody is going to turn into them because they didn’t see them or whatever so I don’t ever want to make it sound like I’m putting that obligation on the cyclist but at the same time I think that if you’re aware that people are going to do those things and here are the trouble spots and here are the things that I can look out for that would help keep me safer then that’s helpful information for them to have.
Katie: Is there kind of like a, for lack of a better word, common crash scenario that you see a lot?
Ann: Yeah, I mean, intersection collisions historically are the biggest issue and I think that’s because drivers aren’t looking for bicycles when they’re making turns and then sometimes it’s a lack of communication problem but I think that most of the time when a car driver is making a turn, they’re looking for other cars so their eyes aren’t seeking out pedestrians or bicyclists or other people that aren’t the size of a car.
Katie: When you talk to these cycling groups, are there things that you bring up in terms of how an entire community that values this form of transportation, are there things that we could do all together to make things better?
Ann: Yeah, absolutely. We do talk about that and one of the things that we talk about is working with police. Police agencies vary a lot in how supportive they are of bicyclists and bicycling and sometimes you see them really being protective and offering help and then other times they don’t even understand what the rules are related to cycling. So, we encourage groups to work with their local police and help create that bond so when there is a situation, maybe there’s a driver that’s known to be somebody who is aggressive, dangerous or maybe it’s a crash situation and they need the help of the police department to make a proper report and that sort of thing so we encourage that and then I do always talk about how seen in various places, cycling has grown and the keeping and getting more people on bikes and the different ways that that can be done. For example, we’re seeing this kind of movement in Charlotte, which was really started by this amazing woman who is a teacher at an elementary school and her goal is to get as many kids as possible on bikes. So, she started a ride to school at her school and it’s grown to a couple other schools, including my son’s school. We started one at his school and growing it to more schools around the area so we’re trying to get kids back to the traditional getting to school by bike instead of sitting in the carpool line.
Katie: Well, this is awesome and giving me a little inspirational boost. I’ll feel like when I’m riding my bike, I’m helping out everyone.
Ann: You absolute are! Just riding your bike is advocacy, so bring a friend to ride with you.
Katie: I mean they are kind of a utopian machine. I don’t want to get too rhapsodic about bikes but they get us around pretty quickly and use zero fossil fuels and keep us active and healthy and connect us to nature and are themselves kind of beautiful. Do you see larger cultural and political questions about like what are the responsibilities of city planners and transportation managers to provide for cyclists or should bicycling education be included in driver education?
Ann: Yeah, all of the above. I think they feed on each other and I think the more welcoming we make the culture and the environment, the more people are going to bike. We’ve seen a pretty big growth in just casual riding because in the last several years we’ve gotten a bike share and now we’ve got these dockless bike share bikes all over the place and Charlotte is becoming a much more crowded city and it really is so much easier to get from place to place within the city by bike. I mean, I would much rather ride my bike to work than drive a car or ride uptown and not have to deal with parking and one way streets and it’s really great. So, I think that it adds to the climate and the culture of the city because companies are looking to relocate to different places or build their company in different cities. They’re looking for those things. It’s a quality of life issue.
Katie: Have you found based on your experience as a personal injury attorney, have you found that there is a trend of a difference between bicycle clients and other kinds of clients.?
Ann: Ha ha. Um, yes, definitely. I would say not 100 percent across the board but we have really good clients. They tend to be very conscientious and really hard workers and most of them are really healthy so you’re not dealing with, “Oh, was your back problem caused by your bike crush or by just sitting around on your couch for 10 years?” They’ve got important things going on in their lives and so they usually just hand over everything and say, “Okay, you guys deal with it.” But at the same time there’s a flip side to that conscientiousness and they really want to get things moving and all of that’s good and we love our clients. We’ve had so many people come back in and thank us for getting them through a hard time and refer us their friends and family and things like that. We feel really fortunate to be representing cyclists.
Katie: So they’re clients who are going to be quite proactive and want to make sure you are on top of it and double check everything and that sort of aspect.
Ann: Yes. yes. They do a lot of self education and things of that nature and that’s great because we want to do a good job for them and we’re happy to answer their questions and things like that.
Katie: Do you have tips for other attorneys who might find themselves in the same place and feel stressed or worried about work life balance for how to satisfy clients who really want to stay on top of their case?
Ann: Go ride a bike. Enjoy the outdoors. (laughter) Seriously, it’s just such a great stress release. I feel very fortunate to be in this line of work and be able to represent the people I represent and honestly I don’t know that I’d want to do it any other way and I know there are other lawyers who are happy with what they do and that’s great.
Katie: So, Ann, you helped start the National Network of Bike Law and now it’s all over the place. How does it function? How is it that you cohere together as a group?
Ann: Well, okay, that’s interesting. First of all, I don’t think I did this when I mentioned it the first time but I have to give a lot of credit to Peter Willborn, who is the founder and really the brainchild of this whole idea and he’s just an amazing proactive and creative person who really kind of had a vision for this all along but the key to the success of our network, I mean, every lawyer in the network has a different type of practice so some people are in small firms, some people are in large firms, some people work solo but we all have a passion for cycling. We all ride. And so, for all of us it’s just really important to represent our clients and we also have the goal of making cycling better and safer. So, that really links us all together and gives us the common ground and because we mostly represent cyclists, we all deal with the same challenges and so when we get together once a year, in person and periodically by video conference, where we talk about our cases and what some of the challenges are and we learn from each other. So, that’s really helpful because when I find out so and so in Alabama, which, by the way, has that same bad contributory negligence law that we do, has dealt with this problem and this is how we did it, then that’s something that I can incorporate into my practice to help my clients. So, the network has really been wonderful in that way.
Katie: I have a question that is a little bit of a change of subject but I’m just personally curious. I’ve been watching videos of your law firm Copeley Johnson and Groninger, and, at least on the videos, you all seem so kind and supportive of each other and I want to ask you, is that an accurate read of the culture at your law firm?
Ann: Absolutely! So, I’m in Charlotte and my two partners are in Durham and so we’re a couple hours apart but we all started out together and we were all a part of a bigger firm that we left from. We formed our firm together in 2011 and we’ve always been good friends and been really supportive of each other on a professional and personal level. So, we’re really lucky in that respect too and then we have a couple of associates who are working with us who are wonderful as well so it’s really a very nice firm culture.
Katie: What advice would you have to other personal injury attorneys who have maybe been specializing in car crashes but want to become more of a bicycle legal advocate? Would you have any special suggestions to them?
Ann: I would say that unless you are a really avid cyclist and very involved in the community, I think it’s hard to do that because it’s really different, I mean, it is personal injury work and there is a lot of overlap but there are a lot of things that are specific to cycling that I feel like you have to really have a lot of knowledge of cycling. One thing would be to contact somebody who is a bicycle lawyer to help them with it or give them advice. So, that would be a big thing.
Katie: So, I have a confession, which is that when I’m riding my bike and I come to a red light and nobody else is coming, all the time I just drive right through it and I know that that’s the thing that drivers are like, “Ah ha, those cyclists just going through red lights.” My question to you is, especially because you’re in this contributory negligence state, do you recommend that cyclists be super strict about road rules that were designed for cars or is that something where there actually is a little bit of wiggle room on?
Ann: Well, if you ever end up in a court of law, there is no wiggle room. As far as out on the street and the court of public opinion, I think that you really have to be careful because you know the last thing that you want to do is increase that tension between cars and bicycles. Now, you said when there’s nobody else around…so sometimes when there’s nobody around the light doesn’t even change for you so you have to go through it.
Katie: That’s my problem! I’m not heavy enough to change the light.
Ann: Yeah, some states have gotten smart and active with what we call the Idaho stop, where you get to a stop sign and when you’re on a bike you’re approaching the stop sign more slowly than a car is and most of the time, unless there’s some bushes or trees obstructing your view, you can kind of see left and right. It’s a four way stop, you can see left and right but there’s nobody coming, there’s nobody there so for you to stop all the way, every block, I mean, really from a standpoint of physics, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s not really conducive to people riding either so a lot of states have enacted that law where cyclists can carefully roll through stop signs instead of coming to a complete stop. But we don’t have that here unfortunately. I don’t know if you do in Utah or not.
Katie: I’m just going to pretend that we do until I get in trouble. My final question is that when you see these beautiful machines and the beautiful humans who ride them, when you see them being hurt and destroyed by these loud, polluting, filthy, noisy cars, do you ever jusr start hating cars?
Ann: Yes, all the time. Both in my work and then also in my riding. So, you know, just riding home from work I ride through neighborhoods, and you have somebody breathing down your neck-I don’t know how to describe it-a big giant smoke breathing SUV and you’re riding along a neighborhood street where there’s kids playing and you just want to say, “Go out to the big road. This neighborhood is not meant for you.” It bothers me when I see people that are entitled. Like, “I own this road, get out of my way.” And they’re trying to pass me, even though I’m going to be stuck behind them in their fumes because I’m going their speed so any way, yeah, I do feel that and then I see some really sad stories. Most of the people I represent recover and do fine but we do see some really sad stories and that’s really tough. A lot of times too they are people that we know because we’re all involved in the cycling community, so yeah, you do have to work on not being angry about those things.
Katie: Ann, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Ann: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. It was nice to talk with you.
Katie: I’m Katie Wolf and this has been The Filevine Fireside.