Allston cyclist’s family sues trucking company
Ten months after Christopher Weigl, a 23-year-old graduate student, was killed on his bicycle in Allston, the man's family has sued the truck driver and trucking company involved in the crash, arguing that the company has a responsibility to train drivers to watch for cyclists in dense urban areas.
The lawsuit reflects frustration within Weigl's family and the Boston cycling community at the lack of criminal charges in the case and channels the growing sentiment among bike advocates that the trucking industry should be proactive in preventing bicycle crashes.
In a complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court, Weigl's family contends that the crash in December was the result of negligence on the part of the driver, John A. Brothers of Uxbridge, and the company that employs him, New Hampshire-based Ross Express.
In a statement, the family said that Weigl's death was preventable and that Ross Express failed to properly train its drivers to understand and anticipate the particular type of crash that resulted in Weigl's death: the right-hook, among the most common types of collisions between trucks and bikes, when a vehicle making a right turn collides with a bicycle traveling straight through an intersection.
"We hope that by bringing this suit, we can bring this dangerous practice by truck drivers under scrutiny," Weigl's family said in a statement, "so that trucking companies will train their drivers not to make unsafe turns in congested areas known to have heavy bicycle traffic."
Josh Zisson, a local lawyer who specializes in bike-related cases, said the central argument of the lawsuit is a savvy legal tack because juries are often more sympathetic to motorists than to bike riders.
"An argument like this helps bring juries around to your side, saying that this is really a failure on the part of the trucking industry, rather than on the part of drivers themselves," Zisson said.
The lawsuit also provides further details on the nature of the crash that killed the Boston University graduate student, who would have celebrated his 24th birthday Wednesday.
According to the complaint and the family's statement, the truck driver was attempting to make a right turn from the left lane of Commonwealth Avenue onto St. Paul Street in Allston when the truck collided with Weigl, who was riding in a bike lane.
Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, said investigators are awaiting a final collision reconstruction report before deciding whether to charge the driver.
Wark said that report could come in the next few weeks, adding that it is not unusual for such an investigation to take 10 months or more.
The complaint says Christopher Weigl had been riding his bike "in a reasonable and prudent manner and exercising due care for his safety under the circumstances."
Weigl's family said that he would not have been able to anticipate that the truck would turn right at the intersection.
"The defendant knew, or should have known, that the unsafe operation of a tractor-trailer truck in such a busy area presented an unreasonable hazard," the complaint states.
Ross Express did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment.
A woman who answered the phone at Brothers' residence in Uxbridge said he did not want to comment.
Andy Weigl, the cyclist's father, maintains that Ross Express, and other trucking companies, should take more aggressive steps to keep cyclists safe.
"In the short term, the problem is that truck drivers must be willing to abide by bike lane rules and warnings," Weigl said.
"The most immediate way to address this is to hold trucking companies accountable to train their drivers correctly and reroute travel to minimize unsafe turns in areas with bicycle traffic."
The family's lawyer, Valerie A. Yarashus, said truck drivers and companies need to be held accountable.
"Too many truck drivers disregard safety rules designed to protect all of us who use our roads," Yarashus said.
Andy Weigl said that though he is pleased that the city of Boston has made modest changes to the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue where his son was killed — installing pavement markings and signs to help drivers watch for bikes — there remains a need for large-scale infrastructure changes such as bike lanes with physical barriers separating cyclists from vehicular traffic.
Pete Stidman, director of the Boston Cyclists Union, said he salutes Weigl's family for pursuing civil charges and bringing attention to the ways in which the trucking industry and business leaders can make roads safer.
Those include installing side guards on trucks to prevent people from sliding underneath in the case of an accident or more mirrors to provide increased visibility.
"I'd like to see the US truck industry taking a lead on these efforts," Stidman said.
V. Paul Herbert, a trucking safety specialist based in California, said the arguments outlined in the Weigl family's statement reflect a shift that is already occurring: Companies are increasingly becoming aware of the need to better train their drivers to watch for cyclists and to anticipate the kinds of crashes that most often occur between trucks and bike riders.
Truck-driving computer simulators, he said, now include cyclists approaching along the right side of the truck, mimicking a "right-hook" or "right-turn squeeze," the kind of crash that killed Weigl.
But, he added, there also should be improved training for cyclists and drivers of cars to better understand who has the right-of-way and how to avoid conflicts with trucks.
"It's very important for cyclists and motorists to understand the specific nature of big rigs," Herbert said.