Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Op-Ed: Polzo vs. Essex County decision - Part 1: The good

Before I say anything I want all to know that we at WalkBikeJersey wish to offer our condolences to Donald Polzo on the loss of his wife to this tragic bike accident ten years ago.   

The other day we reported about about a New Jersey Supreme Court decision (Polzo vs. Essex County) that denied compensation to the widower of a woman who died in a bicycle crash likely caused by a depression in the shoulder of the roadway.

In the Summer of 2001 Mathi Kahn-Polzo crashed after riding over a depression in the shoulder of Parsonage Hill Road while riding within a group of other cyclists while going downhill (Note - group riding can be very  dangerous particularly if the cyclists are riding very close together in an effort to draft off the riders in front).  Tragically, she died from a brain injury 26 days after the crash despite having worn a helmet when the crash happened.

Her widower, Donald Polzo sued the county that was the authority that maintained the road claiming that the county knew about the road defect because the county performed an audit of road surface conditions several weeks prior to the fatal crash.  The appeals court sided with the plaintiff but the Supreme Court reversed the decision this past January based primary on the following reason:

A road condition survey was performed by the county could and that survey could not have reasonably detected the 1 1/4 inch depression in the shoulder surface.  Since the county had also made reasonable attempts to fix roadway defects along the entire 2.6 mile length of Parsonage Hill Road at the time of inspection and that the depression could not have been reasonably determined to be a significant hazard.  Due to the reasonable efforts by the county and reasonable doubt as to whether the depression constituted a "dangerous condition" the county had done its duty to be covered by the provision of the Torts Claim Act.  (I'm paraphrasing.  To see the actual Supreme Court Decision see this link).
While I do not want to trivialize this tragedy, I am relieved that the husband lost this case because if he won, I believe it would have been a major setback in getting our county governments to build on-road bicycle amenities.  Our counties governments in New Jersey are already irrationally skittish to the prospect of providing bicycle amenities on their roads for fear of being sued.  If the plaintiff had won this case I am convinced it would have shut down bicycle improvements in most New Jersey counties for at least a decade.

However the Supreme Court decision also has some bad elements that reaffirm an inferior legal status for bicyclists riding on New Jersey's roadways.  We'll take a look at this in Part 2 tomorrow.

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