The City of Annapolis owes a cyclist $347,000, an appeals panel of three judges has ruled, after several years of court battles related to a 2017 crash on Chinquapin Round Road.
The Nov. 2 opinion from the Appellate Court of Maryland upheld a 2022 jury decision awarding the cyclist $300,000, and added $47,000 in interest, since the city’s two appeals further delayed payment to Matthew W. Hager, who lived in Annapolis at the time of the crash and has since moved to California.
Hager had originally sought $75,000 in damages from the city after the crash, which occurred after his bicycle tire became wedged in the grate of a bike lane storm drain. The crash caused Hager serious facial injuries.
Rather than settling with Hager, city attorneys offered no money and instead and sought summary judgment against Hager, which would have resolved the suit before going to trial. When that bid failed, city attorneys took the case to trial in April 2022, lost and filed post-trial motions in hopes of changing the outcome.
An expert witness at the trial, who the city did not contradict, showed the gap where Hager’s bike tire got wedged, causing the cyclist to crash, was more than an inch wide. Maryland State Highway Administration standards permit only a ½-inch gap between the grates and frames. Furthermore, internal emails introduced at the 2022 trial showed the city had known about the faulty grates for five years and had not fixed them.
Assistant City Attorney Joel Braithwaite requested a new trial, reduced damages or for the court to reverse the verdict in favor of the city “to correct the manifest injustice and clearly erroneous rulings” by a “runaway jury,” he wrote in court documents.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Richard R. Trunnell denied those motions and issued a 60-page written opinion in August 2022. The city then took the case to the Maryland Appellate Court. There were no additional hearings. The task of reviewing the case fell to appellate judges Michael W. Reed, Laura S. Ripken and Senior Judge James P. Salmon.
Ultimately, the bullish defense has cost the city $272,000 more — plus court costs, expert witness fees and other resources — than if the Annapolis attorneys had opted to settle with Hager for $75,000.
The city will not seek to have the state supreme court review the case, spokesperson Mitchelle Stevenson said, and will pay out the $347,000 from a self-insurance fund.
At the 2022 trial, the city argued that Hager, an Annapolis native, was negligent for not wearing a helmet and cycling against the directional arrow of a bicycle lane.
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The judges pointed out, however, that helmets are not legally required for adult cyclists in Maryland and ruled that while evidence was presented that Hager committed three traffic violations, there was also evidence that the violations “were not the proximate cause of Mr. Hager’s injuries.” Instead, the judges found that the city was negligent because the public works department was aware that gap between the storm drain grate and frames were too wide and in violation of SHA standards..
That evidence met the judges’ standard for “actual and constructive notice” of a “dangerous condition.”
In 2012, another resident whose tire got stuck measured the gaps and notified the city. His injuries were not as severe as Hager’s and he did not sue at the time. He later agreed to testify at Hager’s trial.
“What can we do to make this safer?” the assistant director of public works asked her colleagues in an email after the 2012 bike crash. The department “purchased adjustment bolts to tighten the drains and placed them in maintenance trucks to rectify the problem,” the judges wrote, citing the emails, but those bolts were never installed in the Chinquapin Round Road bike lane.
“It is the duty of municipal authorities to exercise an active vigilance over the streets, to see they are kept in a reasonably safe condition for public travel. They cannot fold their arms and shut their eyes and say they have no notice,” the judges wrote, quoting from Keen v. Havre de Grace, a landmark 1901 decision in Harford County.
All city storm drains are now in compliance with SHA guidelines, Stephenson said in a statement.
“All of the storm drains have been inspected and all have been repaired for this issue,” Stephenson wrote. “DPW will continue to regularly inspect in the future.”