Watch Out! Trucks and Right Hooks
All too often cyclists are injured or killed by trucks. In many cases, the cyclist had the right of way. The cyclist may have been riding exactly where she should have been riding, to the right of traffic or in a bike lane. The truck driver seemingly should have seen the cyclist as the truck passed her on the way to the intersection. Surely, thought the cyclist, the trucker would then check the side view mirrors before making a right turn at the intersection. Except he didn’t check. He somehow had not taken notice of the cyclist as he passed her. He made the turn and gave the cyclist no place to go, no time to stop. The rest of the story is tragic and predictable.
Massachusetts General Laws ch. 90 section 14 (M.G.L ch. 90 sec. 14) prohibits operators of motor vehicles from passing a cyclist and then making a right turn into a driveway or intersecting street unless the turn can be made at a safe distance at a speed that is reasonable and proper. If those conditions cannot be met then the cyclist has the right of way and these “right hook” turns are illegal. So how is it that a cyclist could be blamed by the police for the happening of a tragic collision when the trucker passes the cyclist and then “right hooks” and in so doing severely injures or kills the cyclist? Because Massachusetts law also requires cyclists to use due care for their own safety, the cyclist is often deemed by the police to have substantial fault for the collision. It is then left to the civil attorney representing the injured cyclist or the family of the deceased cyclist to undo the conclusions of the police department because the insurers for the operators of the trucks rely heavily on the opinions of the police, and their accident reconstruction teams, to either deny liability altogether or to attempt to low ball the value of the case on damages.
Often the police and then the insurers take the position that the cyclist was in the best position to prevent the collision because they saw or should have seen the truck passing them and then should have kept a watchful eye on the truck to make sure that it did not intend to make a right turn. This is in contravention of M.G.L ch. 90 sec. 14 cited above. Legally, the truck was required to yield the right of way to the cyclist. In reality, to protect themselves, cyclists would be well advised to slow down as the truck passes them. Next, let the truck gain distance to be clear of any possible involvement with the truck. In other words, get away from the truck and stay away from the truck.
Real life example of the legal ramifications of right hook collisions:
Just a leisurely pedal to work on a beautiful summer morning. No rush. Wearing dress shoes and business attire. That’s how it started for a client I’ll call Andy. After saying goodbye to his wife and three children he began his ride from his urban condo to his downtown office. 20 minutes is all it should have taken. As Andy pedaled onto the main street staying close to the right curb, he was traveling approximately ten miles per hour. The garbage truck passed him and came to full stop at the red light. Andy did not see the right blinker flashing as he pulled even with the truck which was still stopped at the red light. When the light turned green, they both proceeded forward toward the intersection. Andy entered the intersection planning to go straight through it.
As he did so the truck turned right, knocking him off his bike and then running over his leg as the driver attempted to complete the right turn. Right hook maneuver by the truck. Violation of M.G.L. ch 90 sec. 14, right?
Not in the opinion of the police and subsequently not in the opinion of the trucker’s insurance company. No citation was given to the driver of the truck. That emboldened the insurance company. Litigation ensued. A full accident reconstruction was performed by an expert hired by my law firm. Our conclusion was that the truck right hooked Andy and violated M.G. L. ch. 90 sec. 14. I set out to prove it through depositions of witnesses and of the driver and co- employees who were on the back of the truck at the time of the incident. After two years of litigation a trial date was set. Several weeks before the scheduled trial date the parties participated in a day long mediation session. Ultimately the case settled one week before trial. At the mediation session the primary point of contention was whether a jury would conclude that while the truck driver should not have made the turn when he did, the cyclist shared responsibility for the collision for his failure to slow down and not travel parallel to the truck as they both reached the intersection. Would the jury conclude that the cyclist was in a better position to see the truck than the truck driver was to see the cyclist? When the truck driver’s insurer finally accepted the lion’s share of the liability on behalf of its driver, the case was able to be resolved for a sum that was fair and reasonable to compensate Andy for his injuries and damages. For Andy’s sake, I just wish the case did not exist in the first place.
As an attorney representing injured cyclists, I come into the picture after the damage has been done. My experience tells me that right hook “accidents” are almost always avoidable if both the driver and cyclist keep a watchful eye out on the other. Even though the cyclist may have the right of way, and be legally in the right, best safety practices dictate that the cyclist should always assume that truckers, who pass the cyclist while approaching an intersecting street, do not take notice of the cyclist. Prepare for the possibility that the truck is going to make that right hook turn, in violation of M.G.L. ch. 90 sec. 14. Reduce your speed and let the truck gain distance. Stay away from the truck. Get home that night and see your family, healthy and exercised from a nice day at work and on your bike.
The Gluck Legal Takeaway
While truckers are prohibited from making right hook turns by M.G.L. ch. 90 sec. 14, they sometimes make the potentially fatal mistake of doing it anyhow. As a cyclist on the roads in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, anticipate that right hook turn. Assume the trucker did not see you as he passed you. Keep a watchful eye on that truck, let it gain distance from you. Although after an accident it may very well turn out that you, the cyclist, had the legal right of way at that intersecting street, we all know that it is better to let the trucker make the turn, rather than run the risk of suffering serious injury or death, only to have the police and insurers say that you were in the better position to see and avoid the truck. While I appreciate the business, I would much rather meet you on a bike or at a barbeque than in the hospital where we would be discussing your new case.
Stay healthy and ride safely!
Ron Gluck is a founder and principal at Breakstone White and Gluck in Boston. Throughout his 35 year legal career Ron has represented seriously injured individuals in a variety of cases including cycling accidents involving catastrophic injury and wrongful death.
Attorney Ron Gluck is a member of the Charles River Wheelers. He wrote this article for the club's newsletter, WheelPeople, July 2020.