They were injured in a cycling accident on Auberry Road. Jury rules county at fault

The cycling community got a win this week in court after two cyclists who were injured nearly two years ago on a bike ride won a lawsuit against Fresno County.

David Bray and Melissa Ann Rose were riding on Auberry Road, a mile and half north of Millerton Road, with a group of five others from the Fresno Cycling Club around 9 a.m. March 19, 2017 when they came across sand and gravel covering the bike lane during a descent along their route.

A civil complaint filed in Fresno Superior Court said that Rose, who was riding in front of Bray, was not able to stop in time when she reached the roadway debris and suddenly fell onto the northbound traffic lane. She was then struck by a passing vehicle, which left the scene.

Bray also fell and suffered a broken right middle finger from the fall and had surgery to repair it, along with a broken wrist bone. Rose suffered a broken humerus bone and dislocated AC joint. She underwent two surgeries.

The cyclists took the county to court to argue that the hazardous road condition caused their falls.

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On Wednesday, a 12-person jury of five women and seven men ruled that the county was liable for Bray’s and Rose’s injuries, giving the cycling community a win on an issue that is familiar to riders along Fresno County roads. The attorneys for the two cyclists argued in court that the crash was caused by the county’s lack of maintenance and that the county failed to clear the bike lane covered in sand and debris.

“The county knows that these roads are used by cyclists. They’re designed to be used by cyclists – they have bicycle lanes just for that purpose,” said Doug Gordon, Rose’s attorney. “The county has a duty to keep (the roads) clean and safe.”

David Bray, middle, walks behind his attorney John Fowler on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, after being awarded $209,882 in damages stemming from a lawsuit against Fresno County over a bike accident on Auberry Road in 2017. CRESENCIO RODRIGUEZ-DELGADO cdelgado@fresnobee.com

Conditions on Auberry Road

According to Gordon, California Highway Patrol investigators measured the sand pile covering the northbound shoulder of Auberry Road and found it to be 4 inches to 7 inches deep in some parts and about 100 feet long; about 10 feet of sand covered the bike lane entirely.

Gordon said that the particular area of Auberry Road had not been swept in nine months before the accident. The last time it was swept, he said in opening statements of the trial, was June 2016 for a cycling race. Gordon told the jury that the county was asked when was the last time the roadway had been inspected, but there were no records about any recent inspections.

After deliberating for two and a half days, the jury awarded $209,882 to Bray and $189,007.81 to Rose. The awards were to compensate the plaintiffs for medical costs and lost wages as well as pain and suffering caused from the accident. Gordon said Rose was emotionally distressed because she frequently relived the accident for six months after it happened.

Gordon said the verdict and money award from the jury was fair, considering what the plaintiffs were up against.

“Winning a case like this against the County of Fresno for a dangerous road condition is a difficult case,” he said. “The county has a lot of advantages.”

County attorney David Overstreet declined to comment on the verdict. In his opening statement, Overstreet posed the question to the jury about whether the cyclists considered the risks before going on rides.

How the jury ruled

During the 12-day trial, Bray described the moment when he crashed into the sand pile as happening quickly and that before he knew it he was in a lot of pain. He explained that the group of riders was descending at the time of the crash. He said his hands were placed over his brake levers as he always does in a descent for safety because he was riding behind Rose.

Suddenly, he noticed the sand. Bray said he then saw Rose’s back wheel move side to side and that he heard her say “Whoa.” He said he and Rose each moved to the left to try to avoid the sand, but “in a flash” Rose went down, and then he went down. Though unclear, the jury ruled Rose was partly negligent in the accident.

Bray also testified that he saw the hit-and-run car’s wheels passing by next to Rose. The jury did not find the driver of that car at fault in the accident. The driver of the car has never been identified after fleeing the scene.

The jury was unanimous in ruling the county road was in a dangerous condition the day of the accident and a 10-2 ruling said the dangerous condition caused the accident. In an 11-1 judgment, the jury said that the county had enough time to address the road hazard but failed to do so.

Club applauds ruling

Dennis Ball, president of the Fresno Cycling Club, said he hopes the ruling doesn’t affect the relationship between the county and riders. He said that the cycling club reminds the county about road cleanups two to three weeks in advance of big riding events.

The ride where Bray and Rose were injured was a club ride, but Ball said the riders had not inspected the lanes beforehand. Though, while injuries are rare, cyclists do often come across hazardous conditions, Ball said, adding that it’s only part of the battle for cyclists having to share the road with drivers.

“Bicycles aren’t like a car,” he said. “We have to avoid things like sticks and rocks. We have to swerve a little bit to avoid it. ... Sometimes you don’t have time to react as quickly as possible.”

Ball called the jury’s ruling a “fantastic benefit for bicyclists” and expects that cyclists won’t have to worry about unkempt roadways on future rides.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a general assignment reporter at The Fresno Bee. He grew up in Porterville and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State. He is a former student editor at the Fresno State and Fresno City College newspapers. His hobbies include reading, sleeping, running and taking care of his dog.