Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Just as Good
Thomson Reuters, Feb. 2011
In 2005, Scott Bleifer, a Union Bank vice president and longtime bike advocate, was training for a charity ride by pedaling up the Pacific Coast Highway, when, near Pepperdine University, he came upon a barricaded construction project that had taken over the shoulder of the road. It forced riders to merge into 50- to 60-mile-an-hour traffic, and a catering truck struck Bleifer and another rider, killing both.
“I can’t give you the terms, but let’s just say it was a seven-figure settlement,” says Howard Krepack, of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein in Los Angeles, who represented Bleifer’s family in a lawsuit against the catering company, the private contractor, and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
Krepack hopes that such settlements “not only properly compensate the people who have been injured or lost a loved one, but also [serve notice] that Caltrans, and other public and private entities [must] become more aware of the fact that bicyclists are riding on these roads. They have to consider how those projects are going to affect bicyclists, not just motorists.”
Krepack, by the way, isn’t just a personal injury attorney with an estimated 25 percent of his cases involving bike accidents; he is, himself, a passionate cyclist.
“In Los Angeles, I think most operators of automobiles think the road is just for them—that bicyclists are kind of a nuisance,” he says. “The fact is, in California, as in most places, the Vehicle Code applies to both, and bicyclists have as much right to the road as motor vehicles.”
Krepack knows the code well: “Bicyclists are supposed to stay over to the right of the road, except when it’s not safe,” he says. “Motorists have to be aware that bicyclists are really required to go into the left-hand turn lane when they are making a left turn. Often you’ll get motorists yelling at you or honking their horns or worse.” Fortunately, he hasn’t experienced “worse.”
Krepack’s own advocacy involves work with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, one of the most proactive bike-advocacy organizations in the region, in its efforts to educate motorists—and bicyclists—about laws and safety measures. The organization also works with city officials and legislators to pass laws to improve conditions for cyclists.
“Part of it is infrastructure,” says Krepack. “More bike lanes, more signage, bike paths.” He’s spoken on behalf of the organization at various events, attended Caltrans board meetings involving bike safety, and his firm’s website devotes a page to bicycle safety and laws.
Krepack took up cycling seriously in law school at UCLA School of Law and when he spent a semester at UC Berkeley. “Berkeley is a great place to ride bicycles,” he says. “I’d ride my bike to work to the California Indian Legal Services.”
At the time he had a Schwinn 10-speed and ambitions to be a trial lawyer.
His father was a labor union member and activist. “We talked about politics and about what was going on in the world,” says Krepack. “But more than anything [he inspired me] by example—what he represented and how he respected people.”
After graduation—and a three-year hiatus skiing and mountain biking in Aspen—he spent several years at a labor law firm but found himself gravitating toward personal injury cases. “At one time I thought I was going to go to medical school,” he says. “And in personal injury law you’re dealing with the body constantly.”
Over the last 10 years, he’s accepted a growing number of bicycle cases—everything from riders getting “doored” by motorists to serious injuries with multiple parties, often involving Caltrans—but he knows, in a jury trial, the odds are stacked against him.
“There’s perhaps a built-in bias against cyclists,” Krepack says, noting that most jurors drive cars. “It’s important that you show that bicyclists come from all walks of life. There’s doctors, engineers, salesmen, nurses; there’s school teachers that ride bicycles.”
And there are lawyers. “As a lawyer,” he says, “you’re thinking all the time, and you’re reading, and working your mind constantly. I think it’s important to have activities that will give you a way to release, a way to keep in shape and stay healthy. For me, [cycling helps] deal with the stresses and issues that I face every day as a lawyer.”
Plus, he adds, “Your world is opened up when you’re riding a bicycle. … It allows you to explore more [than in a car].”