Case details

Motorcyclists disputed cause of crash that injured passenger





Result type

Not present

back, chest, fracture, fusion, herniated disc, lower back, lumbar, rib, ribs, right arm, shoulder
On April 28, 2011, plaintiff Joy Beeler, 57, an administrative assistant, was a passenger on a motorcycle operated by her husband, Robert Beeler, traveling on eastbound California State Route 58. They were part of a motorcycle group that also included Jason Hartje, who was accompanied by his wife/passenger Tracey Hartje, and Brett McPhaul, who was accompanied by his wife/passenger Lauren McPhaul. The couples were traveling in a staggered formation, which is the recommended practice for a group riding motorcycles, per the Department of Motor Vehicles’ handbook. The Beelers were the lead motorcycle traveling in the left half of the lane, followed by the Hartjes in the right half of the lane, and then the McPhauls in the left half of the lane. At approximately 11:30 a.m., while riding through a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert, in Hinkey, Mr. Beeler claimed he saw a bar on the right side of the road and decided to stop so that the wives could have a drink. The Beelers claimed that they had previously discussed stopping so that the wives could get Bloody Marys, which the Hartjes denied. While Mr. Beeler was attempting to make a right turn into the bar’s parking lot, he was involved in a collision with the Hartje motorcycle, ejecting all four riders. The points of impact were to the rear, left saddle bag of the Beeler motorcycle and the front wheel of the Hartje motorcycle. (The McPhaul motorcycle was able to avoid the collision.) Only Mrs. Beeler sustained serious , to her lower back, ribs and right arm/shoulder. Mrs. Beeler sued Mr. Hartje, alleging that Mr. Hartje was negligent in the operation of his motorcycle. Mr. Beeler testified that he checked his mirror prior to making his right turn maneuver and that he saw that Mr. Hartje was the “usual distance” behind him, which Mr. Beeler estimated was between 50- and 60-feet. He further testified that he signaled for roughly 20 feet before starting his movement in front of Mr. Hartje. (Both motorcycles were traveling below the speed limit of 50 to 55 mph just before the accident.) Mrs. Beeler claimed that Mr. Hartje began following too closely and was inattentive just prior to Mr. Beeler beginning his turn into the parking lot. She also claimed that Mr. Hartje was inexperienced as a motorcycle rider. Thus, she claimed that Mr. Hartje was responsible for the collision. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that defense’s own accident reconstruction expert conceded that Mr. Hartje was inexperienced and following too closely. Counsel also argued that Mr. Hartje changed his story to avoid responsibility, noting that at his deposition, Mr. Hartje testified that Mr. Beeler’s tires were smoking, skidding and screeching, and that’s why he reacted and braked. However, plaintiff’s counsel contended that, according to Mr. McPhaul and the responding California Highway Patrol officer, the 55-foot-long skid mark was attributed to Mr. Hartje and that Mr. Hartje never told the CHP officer at the scene that Mr. Beeler’s tires smoked, skidded and screeched. Mr. Hartje disputed liability, arguing that Mr. Beeler caused the collision. He claimed that, in an attempt to execute a right hand turn into the parking lot, Mr. Beeler moved into his path of travel and made a hard brake application. Mr. Hartje claimed that as a result, he braked and swerved to avoid the Beeler motorcycle that had suddenly veered and slowed directly in front of him, but that he could not avoid the collision. He further claimed that when the parties brought the damaged motorcycle to a repair shop two days after the accident, Mr. Beeler took responsibility for the accident and that Mr. Beeler paid for everyone’s hotel room on the night of the accident because he felt responsible for the accident. In total, defense counsel presented six different witnesses who testified to having heard Mr. Beeler take blame for the accident. In response, Mr. Beeler denied saying the accident was his fault and claimed that while he admitted he was sorry for initiating the turn, it was not an admission of guilt. He testified that he had a reasonable expectation that when he signaled and moved over that Mr. Hartje would react and slow accordingly. Thus, he claimed that it was Mr. Hartje’s inattentiveness and failure to keep a safe distance that lead to the collision. Mr. Beeler further claimed that he paid for the hotel rooms since he was the first to arrive that evening and that Mr. McPhaul paid for all three rooms the following night. In addition, he claimed that paying for the hotel rooms was not an admission of guilt., Mrs. Beeler sustained multiple fractured ribs and herniations of her L4-5 and L5-S1intervertebral discs. She also claimed she lost feeling and use of her right, dominant arm following the accident, but that her arm condition later resolved. Mrs. Beeler was subsequently taken by ambulance from the accident scene and brought to an emergency room. She initially treated her herniated lumbar discs with physical therapy and injections of steroid-based painkillers, but she claimed the treatment did not resolve her pain symptoms. As a result, on Jan. 23, 2013, Mrs. Beeler underwent a spinal fusion at the L4-5 and L5-S1 levels. She then had a couple of checkup appointments following the surgery. Mrs. Beeler claimed that while she made a good recovery following the surgery, she still experiences some residual pain and discomfort, as well as decreased range of motion, in her lower back. She alleged that as a result, she missed roughly one year of work following the surgery and that her condition has affected hobbies, including ATV riding, dancing, and playing with her grandchildren. Thus, Mrs. Beeler sought recovery of $404,620 in past medical costs, $630,000 in future medical costs, and $30,000 in past lost earnings. She also sought recovery of $2,435,480 in damages for her past and future pain and suffering. Defense counsel argued that Mrs. Beeler’s need for lower back surgery was not causally related to the accident. The defense’s orthopedic expert testified that Mrs. Beeler suffered from pre-existing degenerative disc disease, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, and opined that these conditions caused Mrs. Beeler’s need for the surgery. In response, plaintiff’s counsel argued that there were no signs of spondylolisthesis until two years after the accident. The plaintiff’s expert spinal surgeon opined that the spondylolisthesis was a result of the acute disc protrusion at L5-S1 that was discovered nine days after the crash on MRI imaging.
Superior Court of Mendocino County, Mendocino, CA

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