Justice for a bicycling farm laborer

Back in July 23, 2013, 65-year-old farm laborer Jose Martinez-Sanchez was biking to work on rural Highway 129 / Riverside Drive outside of Watsonville, California when he was hit from behind at 50 MPH by the driver of a Ford Mustang. Martinez-Sanchez was thrown into the opposite lane, where he was struck and killed by the driver of a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

riverside at Coward, Watsonville CA

Martinez-Sanchez survived the initial impact; the driver of the Mustang and other motorists stopped at the scene to help the victim and direct other traffic around the scene of the crash.

In spite of the presence of other stopped cars, dairy farmer James Ahlem continued driving his F-150 pickup truck at 50 to 55 MPH. During trial testimony, Ahlem claims he didn’t see the numerous stopped cars, the numerous people in the road flagging him down, nor the stricken cyclist and his bike laying on the roadway. At the scene of the crash, however, Ahlens told the responding CHP officer that he saw a “black object” in the middle of the road and attempted to straddle this “object,” but instead ran his Ford truck directly over Mr Martinez-Sanchez’s chest and skull.

After deliberating a day and a half at the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, the jury decided for the plaintiff and awarded $3.6M to the family of the deceased.

I initially reported this as a possible “suicide swerve” — — the driver of the Mustang claims Martinez-Sanchez swerved directly in front of him “for an unknown reason,” and of course the cyclist was unable to give his statement to the California Highway Patrol. The jury in the civil suit, nonetheless, agreed with this initial assessment and assigned 70% fault to Martinez-Sanchez, which will decrease the award amount. Other factors contributing to the cyclist’s fault include his lack of lights while riding in the fog 15 minutes before sunrise, and apparently his lack of a helmet, which I’m sure could have totally prevented the crush injuries he received from a direct encounter with a 5,000 pound truck traveling 55 MPH.

This jury decision and reward sound pretty incredible and unexpected to me given the numerous strikes against the cyclist: He’s riding on a dark, foggy road with no lights or other safety gear, apparently swerved in front of other traffic, and he’s a low-status farm laborer. The defendant, Ahlens, however, apparently changed his story about what he saw and didn’t see multiple times in cross-examination.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel‘s statement from CHP PIO Bradley Sadek in the brief news report of this fatal crash is pretty disappointing: Sadek says “Even if the cyclist is obeying the law, they still need to be defensive.” No duh, right? but there’s no absolutely no advise for the operator of the more dangerous vehicle to be alert when driving down a country lane in pre-dawn darkness. The two other items in that same police blotter are of a woman who drove her minivan off the side of a hill, and a man who crashed his SUV into a tree, yet we see no nagging statements from the police telling drivers to be more careful lest they do something stupid.

Details were gleaned from the various legal blogs that mention this case:

One Comment

  1. It’s so frustrating when cyclists get blamed in collisions. I understand that sometimes the blame falls to those on two wheels, but there was a recent local incident during which a cyclist was struck by another vehicle and the wording of reports before the police had completed a thorough investigation as to what had happened and who was at fault definitely created a picture of the cyclist being the one at fault. So, a man – a husband, father, respected citizen – is now not only dead, but, thanks to media reporting, the finger pointing from motorists blaming a vulnerable road user seems to take over a very sad accident.

    I feel bad for the man’s family in this story (and I recall the original reporting, so it’s nice to hear the outcome as well). I am glad there was a small amount of justice, even if it still seems insignificant in regard to the loss of life.

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