Jill Tarlov’s death from a collision with a cyclist in Central Park last week was a New York City rarity, as are lawsuits after bikers ram pedestrians.
From 1996 to 2005, 11 pedestrians across New York City died after being struck by bicyclists, according to a report by four city agencies. Most of the victims were older than 60, and three had disregarded traffic signals. From 2006 to 2013, there were just four pedestrian deaths, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.
Very few bike accidents involving pedestrians wind up in court, according to lawyers specializing in such cases. Victim injuries are rarely serious enough to attract the attention of plaintiffs’ lawyers, and pedestrians who stray into bikers’ lanes sometimes share the blame.
“The numbers are historically really, really low,” Daniel Flanzig, a Manhattan attorney who specializes in defending cyclists, said of both serious pedestrian injuries and lawsuits over them. “There’s not an epidemic.”
It may seem as if there’s one.
Last month, a 75-year-old Upper East Side man, Irving Schachter, died after he was struck by a 17-year-old bicyclist while jogging in Central Park near East 72nd Street, police said. On Sept. 18, Tarlov, 58, of Fairfield, Connecticut, was struck by a cyclist riding on West Drive and 63rd Street. Tarlov, the wife of CBS Corp. executive Michael Wittman and a mother of two children, died after days in a hospital.
“This is an accident, a terrible accident with a terrible result,” said Michael Gottlieb, a Manhattan lawyer who represents the cyclist, Jason Marshall. “A very sad story and a very sad accident.”
Gottlieb declined to comment further.
The accident occurred only weeks after police initiated a cycle-safety crackdown under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths. Police issued more than 4,000 citations to cyclists for infractions including failing to stop at red lights, disobeying traffic signals and signs, riding in the wrong direction or on the sidewalk and failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.
They renewed the effort this weekend, issuing 103 tickets, mostly in the southern end of the park and primarily to cyclists wearing headphones or who failed to let pedestrians pass or pedaled through lights.
Elsewhere in the U.S., pedestrian injuries are also rare. In 12 years on the job, Tim Dodge, assistant vice president of research at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of New York Inc., said he’s never received a call from his association’s members about a case involving a pedestrian fatality from a bicycle crash.
It’s similar for Madelyn Flannagan, vice president of education, research and agent development at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America Inc.
“We hear a lot more about autos and bicycles than we do pedestrians and bicycles,” Flannagan said in a phone interview. “It’s long been, ‘Who’s responsible if the bicycle hits the car?’ and that type of thing. But pedestrians and bicycles — we’ve heard very little about.”
Cyclists themselves are the ones most at risk. From 1996 to 2005, 225 of them in New York City died in crashes, and 92 percent of those were collisions with motor vehicles, according to the city report.
Even though New Yorkers are almost four times more likely to walk or bike to work than commuters elsewhere in the U.S., there were 2.8 cyclist fatalities per 1 million residents in New York’s five boroughs, compared with 2.7 per million nationally, according to the report.
“We might go three or four years without a biker-on-ped fatality,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York not-for-profit that promotes cycling, walking and public transit.
Calling the recent deaths “preventable and tragic,” he said, “You’re more likely to be struck by lightning” than killed by a cyclist.
There were no pedestrian deaths from cyclists in 2010, 2011 or 2012, according to city data.
Rarer still is a criminal prosecution.
In the first felony vehicular manslaughter conviction in the U.S. involving a bicyclist, 37-year-old Chris Bucchere was sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service last year for striking and killing a 71-year- old man crossing the street with his wife in San Francisco in March 2012, according to District Attorney George Gascon.
Bucchere’s guilty plea came just four months after a 23- year-old man pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for running a red light on his bicycle in July 2011 and killing a woman, Gascon said. The cyclist was sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service.
Representatives of the New York Police Department and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance declined to comment on the incidents in Central Park.
Steve Vaccaro, whose Manhattan firm Vaccaro & White has handled scores of lawsuits involving bicyclists and motor vehicles, said he fields maybe two claims a year involving pedestrians and bikes.
“Sometimes the accidents occur but people are not badly hurt,” another Manhattan lawyer who defends bike cases, Mark Taylor of Rankin & Taylor, said in a phone injury. “It’s very rare for cyclists to do a lot of injury to a person.”
The Tarlov case is an exception.
Family members can sue for negligence, said Michael Levine, president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. They’ll need to show that Marshall either violated a park ordinance, such as speeding or riding in the wrong direction, or failed to act “in a reasonable and prudent manner” while riding, he said.
“It depends on so many factors — how fast he’s going, if he looked away for a second or two, if he was looking down at his cell phone so his eye glanced away,” said Levine, a lawyer at Rappaport, Glass, Levine & Zullo LLP in New York.
The family can’t sue the city, which doesn’t have a legal “duty” to protect pedestrians from cyclists, he said. A suit would probably claim wrongful death and pain and suffering and seek to recover from the cyclist’s personal assets or his homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, said Levine, who isn’t representing the family or the cyclist.
With assistance from Brian Chappatta in New York.
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