It is the great motorcyclist's conundrum: Every time you raise the kickstand, you are aware on some level that you are now at the mercy of forces greater than yourself and your motorcycle—the car and truck drivers who are texting, rocking out, coping with screaming kids, fishing in the bag for that last onion ring, maybe sobbing from a bad break-up, maybe under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or maybe just bored and selfish and from behind their airbags and steel-reinforced cockpit. They couldn't care less about whether you make it home in one piece. In Tennessee, with no mandatory vehicle inspection, you can't be certain that parts won't be falling or flying off the one-eyed smoking beater in front of you.
If you think about it too much, you might not start the damn thing. But if you don't think about it at all, you're being foolhardy.
Statistically, there will be more than eight accidents involving motorcycles in Tennessee the day you read this. On the day you read this or the next day, someone involved in a motorcycle accident will suffer fatal injuries.
Most of us take or even teach the motorcycle safety course, if only for the insurance discount. Most of us carry the tools and parts relevant to keeping our particular machines safe and running. Most of us drive defensively and make certain that our bikes are safe and sound before firing up. But it's painfully clear that most of us are also under-prepared for accidents, major or minor.
This information is offered with the intention of providing insight and resources should you—God forbid—find yourself involved in an accident. From lack of armor to prejudices against cyclists, even from trained law enforcement and emergency medical personnel, you will almost certainly always be at a disadvantage. There are laws pertaining exclusively to motorcycles. If you have a license and if you've completed a motorcycle safety course you should be familiar with them. The consensus is that accidents don't happen because people don't know the laws. Accidents happen primarily due to carelessness.
"I've ridden since I was 15," says David Boyd, of Garrett Boyd Attorneys at Law. "Back then you could get a permit. I've ridden mostly crotch rockets, and a couple years ago I finally got a Harley.
"I find that the problems I experience on a motorcycle are pretty uniform among everyone who rides motorcycles. Drivers don't see you. They're not paying attention to you. They're trying to do things that they wouldn't do if you were a car. And there is a prejudice, I think, towards motorcycle riders. So if you have an accident involving a motorcycle, it's always assumed that the motorcyclist was doing something inappropriate—maybe going too fast or weaving in or out of traffic. And that's hardly ever the case."
According to Boyd and others who have tailored their practices to assist motorcyclists, one reason to at least choose an attorney and know who you'll call if the shit hits the fan, is that you'll be asked questions at the scene that will become part of a legal record. You'll be traumatized and possibly in shock. If you answer poorly, it may affect the way you're treated down the road.
"And when there is an incident," says Boyd, "there is no minor fender-bender when you're on a motorcycle. You don't have a seatbelt. You don't have an airbag. You don't have the structure of a car to protect you. The injuries are almost always more serious than you would find in a two-car accident.
"Anytime someone's involved in a wreck, major or minor, there is a sense of panic that sets in. You're worried about your vehicle, you're worried about yourself. The adrenalin's going. So often people have injuries, but if it's not severe enough to lay you out you don't realize the extent of those injuries. Some important questions are asked of you initially by responding personnel—police, ambulance, as well as the other side. While nobody plans to have an accident, if you start thinking in advance the kinds of things you're going to focus on, that kind of helps you prioritize during an emergency. If you think about who's going to fix your bike and take care of you and replace any lost wages beforehand, you know how it's going to unfold."
In 2006, motorcyclists Jeremy Citron and George Stein founded the Steelhorse Law office in Atlanta. Last year they added a satellite office in Knoxville.
"Our loyalties are with the motorcycle community," says Stein. "To put it simply, I don't like it when people try to take advantage of people in that community."
If you ride, you know that people who don't have no idea what's involved. You can tell by the way they cut you off or flick cigarette butts out the window that are going to hit you in the chest. Imagine if everyone in the emergency room and later in the courtroom had spent their lives in mobile cages. You don't need to retain an attorney. You don't even need to meet with one when things are going your way. But ask around or google or whatever, and find an attorney with motorcycle case experience and keep his or her contact info handy.
"One thing we offer is the understanding of what it's like to be riding a motorcycle, which is very different from a car," says Citron. "I think most motorcyclists share the sentiment that you have to ride with the view that everyone around you is trying to kill you. We understand that, and that's a huge element."
Boyd and Citron and Stein all have scary-as-hell true stories about cyclists hung out to dry by an indifferent system and well-meaning but inexperienced general practice attorneys, often after grueling hospital experiences and the loss of limbs, who finally found their way to them and were able to demand and receive fair compensation because of their experience.
"There are two things that I constantly advocate," says Citron. "The first is a motorcycle safety course. They have collateral benefits, like lower insurance rates. People will say I don't need to do that because I've been riding for so long. I took one in 2006 and I learned things, even though I've been riding for years.
"The biggest thing is to make sure that your insurance and motorcycle insurance is structured appropriately in order to insure their economic health. The average car accident is about $6-7,000 in damages. The average motorcycle accident is about five or six times that amount, in terms of medical bills, damage to the bike, that sort of thing. When you don't have enough uninsured motorist coverage in place, you're doing a significant disservice to your family or yourself. You'll still be just as broken up. You'll still have to do just as much physical therapy, just as much rehabilitation and treatment and you'll lose just as much work. But the only thing to help you recover from an economic standpoint is the insurance money."
Marcos Garza is a former Marine, and rode up until he became a father. He has a Knoxville practice of his own, and also represents Steelhorse in Knoxville.
"People who are in accidents may not have an attorney who they see on a regular basis," says Garza. "So they don't really know where to tap into the system.
"I don't know that all attorneys recognize the need to get on the scene as soon as possible. I have a regular dedicated investigator who I can call on at a moment's notice. When I get a call, I'm on my way to the hospital or the person's home or wherever they are. The first call I make is to my investigator: We need to get somebody on this scene, we need to get pictures, markings. Sometimes we hire an accident reconstructionist right then. Because once it rains or the dew falls, the scene starts to get compromised right away. I perceive the need for someone who focuses on motorcycle cases because a lot of folks don't realize how important it is—they're dealing with an injury, they're dealing with a ton of things. They may not decide to hire a lawyer until months down the road. By that time, I've lost a lot of the information that I need to get the best outcome possible for that person."
Garza says he's aware of cases where simply calling in fellow riders and friends of a victim, people who can attest to his or her experience and expertise, might have changed that case's outcome. For an attorney who doesn't have riding experience, such basic resources often go untapped.
"The difference between a motorcycle accident and a car accident isn't quantum physics," reflects Garza. "But I think there's special attention that needs to be given to motorcycle cases to protect the plaintiff that may not be the case in an auto accident. A lot of times, people just don't see motorcycles. People are conditioned to see cars, and see cars. When you ride a motorcycle, from my experience, you have to treat every single car as if it's going to pull out in front of you and not see you.
"Officers deal with hundreds and hundreds of automobile cases. Whereas motorcycles are a little bit different. Sometimes I think the motorcyclist gets the short end of the stick on an accident report, because there's some kind of prejudice against motorcycle riders. Not that it's intentional. So sometimes the accident report isn't accurate; officers are human beings. We need to be on the scene as soon as possible to prove that certain things may not have been considered."
(Late arriving: Mark Schrader of Schrader's Motorcycle Collision recommends keeping these items on your bike, just in case: a disposable camera for photos of the scene and license plates, a pad and pen, a flashlight, a can of fix-a-flat, and a first aid kit or disinfectant wipes.)