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Violent crash in Marin highlights severity of road-rage penalties

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In California, road-rage is treated as an assault with a deadly weapon, and the punishment is imprisonment for up to four years in jail and fines of up to $10,000 per incident. (Courtesy photo)
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This week’s question comes from John in Marin, who asks:

Q: “I participated in the Jensie Gran Fondo last Saturday, when four bicyclists were apparently struck intentionally by a motorist as they were riding. What is the law regarding the punishment of a driver in a road-rage situation like this?”

A: For those who are unaware of what occurred, on Saturday, Oct. 7, a beautiful summer day in Marin, approximately 1,300 cyclists gathered to ride through the rolling hills of Marin to support the Marin Bike Coalition in its annual Jensie Gran Fondo. As the day went on, what started as a fun-filled day turned to tragedy when the driver of a blue Dodge Ram pickup truck allegedly swerved to the right and struck four bicyclists, knocking them to the ground, before speeding off. All four bicyclists were injured, one critically.

The hit-and-run collision is the worst injury in the event’s history.

The police have arrested Aaron Michael Paff, 21, of Novato, who is being held in the Marin County Jail with bail set at $50,000. He is a maintenance worker for the Marin Municipal Water District. MMWD spokesperson Lon Peterson said Paff was not on duty at the time and that the truck that hit the cyclists was not a water district truck. Police credit eye-witnesses and a helmet cam with providing evidence used in locating and charging the suspect.

The Dolan Law Firm has been a sponsor of the Jensie Gran Fondo and the Marin Bicycle Coalition for years. Our firm has a number of bicyclists who ride in the event. Guillermo Bustillo, my chief legal assistant who participated in the ride, stated that as he rode by the scene, the bike was in pieces. Although my firm represents hundreds of injured bicyclists, and we have seen a lot of damaged bikes, Bustillo said this was the worst damage he had ever seen.

Our firm represents the family of Amy Suyama, who was killed last year in the “Tour de Fuzz,” a ride through wine country sponsored by the police and sheriffs of Sonoma County to support the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy. Suyama was struck by a pickup truck head-on as the truck was passing a grape hauler. This highlights the danger that bicyclists face daily.

Under the law, there are severe criminal penalties, felonies, that call for years of jail time to punish road-rage drivers as well as civil actions to help those that have been injured. Under California Penal Code Section 245, road-rage is treated as an assault with a deadly weapon. The punishment is imprisonment for up to four years in jail and fines of up to $10,000 per incident. Under California Vehicle Code Section 20001, the hit-and-run driver can be imprisoned for up to four years for each bicyclist hit. California Vehicle Code Section 13210 provides that, in addition to the penalties above, a perpetrator of road rage can lose their license.

In addition to criminal penalties, a victim of road rage may seek justice through the civil courts, wherein claims may be brought for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and, in the worst of cases, wrongful death. While the criminal courts mete out punishment through incarceration, the civil justice system is designed to financially compensate people who suffer injuries by allowing them to collect for their economic losses, such as medical bills and lost wages, as well as their non-economic damages, such as emotional distress, physical pain and suffering, post traumatic stress and permanent disfigurement and/or disability.

I remind all drivers that you must share the road with bicyclists. In 2014, California passed the “Three Feet for Safety” law (Vehicle Code Section 2176), which requires that a motorist passing a bicycle must provide a safety buffer of three feet between their vehicle and a bicycle wherever feasible. In some situations, bicycles are entitled to take the whole lane (when there is a hazard or obstruction that precludes them from traveling on the right-hand side of the road). For a violation that does not result in an injury, the law sets a base fine of $35, which becomes a $233 fine for the driver once court and administrative fees are added. For a violation that involves a collision that injures a bicyclist, the base fine is $220, which becomes a $959 fine for the driver. This penalty is equal to the lowest fine imposed for reckless driving with bodily injury.

John, I hope this answers your question and reminds readers that bicyclists have rights to safely enjoy the road.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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