Comatose bicyclist's family sues 83-year-old driver for $10 million

Complaint alleges driver who hit Hopkins student violated multiple laws

March 22, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The family of a comatose college student who was struck by a car while riding his bicycle near the Johns Hopkins University is suing the 83-year-old driver for $10 million, claiming she made an abrupt right turn into his path.

In a suit filed Monday, lawyers for Nathan Krasnopoler charged that Jeanette Marie Walke violated multiple traffic laws on Feb. 26 when she collided with the 20-year-old bicyclist as she turned into her apartment building on University Parkway.

According to his lawyers, Krasnopoler has remained unconscious at Johns Hopkins Hospital since the crash, which has stoked outrage among bicycling advocates over the Baltimore Police Department's handling of the case.

Walke has not been charged in the case, though an investigation is continuing. A police spokesman initially said the driver would not be charged, but the department has since backed off that position, saying that decision would be made in consultation with the city state's attorney's office.

Anthony J. Guglielmi, director of the police public affairs office, said members of the department's crash team have been meeting periodically with the state's attorney's office to discuss the case.

According to the lawsuit, filed by Baltimore lawyer Andrew G. Slutkin, Krasnopoler was riding in a marked bike lane at the intersection of University and W. 39th Street when Walke made a right turn across the bike lane and into the Johns Hopkins University student's path.

The suit says that Krasnopoler was unable to stop the bicycle and struck the passenger side of Walke's car, which then ran over him and pinned him on his back. According to the suit, Krasnopoler suffered severe burns because the driver left the engine running while the vehicle was on top of the victim.

Krasnopoler suffered two collapsed lungs, broken ribs and collarbone, facial fractures, eye damage and a traumatic brain injury, according to the complaint in Baltimore Circuit Court. The suit said Krasnopoler went into cardiac arrest when he was being transported to the hospital in an ambulance, and has remained in a coma since the crash.

Slutkin said that since the crash Krasnopoler has undergone extensive facial surgery. He said physicians will not know the true extent of Krasnopoler's injuries until he comes out of the coma.

The lawsuit alleges that Walke violated a state law adopted last year requiring drivers to keep a 3-foot distance between their vehicles and bicycles when passing them. It also accuses her of negligent and reckless driving and other traffic violations.

Slutkin, of the firm Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White, was the lead attorney in a similar suit filed by the family of cyclist John "Jack" Yates, who was struck and killed by a truck driver in 2009. The plaintiffs and defendant reached a settlement in that case last year despite an initial police finding that the bicyclist was at fault.

In that case, Slutkin said, the plaintiffs were able to overturn the police investigation through video analysis, crash reconstruction and deposition of witnesses.

In the Krasnopoler case, Slutkin said, the family decided after the initial police statement that they wanted an independent investigation. The lawyer said his firm interviewed witnesses and has learned that police have since spoken with some of the same people.

Slutkin said his firm is hoping additional witnesses will come forward.

The attorney noted that the crash, like the Yates case before it, has received a great deal of attention from bicycling advocates. "The bicycling community feels the police are not sensitive to the laws that exist in Maryland to protect bicyclists," he said.

Carol Silldorff, executive director of Bike Maryland, said Baltimore police either rule a bicyclist at fault or decline to make a report in a disproportionate number of bicycle-vehicle collisions. "I think there's a perception that too many times accidents go unreported and it's a struggle to get a report written up that the motorist is at fault," she said.

After hearing protests from Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and others early this month, the Police Department apologized for the statement issued by its public affairs office.

"At this point in time, no charged have been filed and it is premature to speculate on potential next steps as this case is still very much open," the department said.

Guglielmi said a spokesman in his office has been "misinformed" when making the original statement that the driver would not be charged.

Walke could not be reached to comment.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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