After an Ontario motorist struck and killed a teenage boy, the family sued her. But the driver sued right back, claiming her hardship was as bad as theirs. We’re left wondering: who's to blame?
No one ever wins in conflicts between cars and bicycles, but a recent story from such an incident in Ontario ranks as one the most senseless and ugliest altercations of its kind.
On October 28, 2012, around 1:30 a.m., 17-year-old Brandon Majewski and his two 16-year-old friends, Richard McLean and Jake Roberts, were riding their bikes on a rural, two-lane road on the northern outskirts of Toronto. That's when a car, driven by Sharlene Simon, 42, struck them from behind. Majewski died from his injuries at a local hospital several hours after the accident, while McLean suffered multiple broken bones, including his pelvis, and spent extensive time recovering.
Six months after the accident, Brandon’s older brother, Devon, died at his family’s home from an overdose. The family says the 23-year-old didn’t intend to kill himself, but simply succumbed to a potent mix of drugs and alcohol that he was using to dull the pain of losing his brother. In the aftermath, the Majewski family sued Simon for $900,000 to cover the expenses of putting their child to rest. And the McLeans filed another suit against her for an additional $1.4 million to recoup Richard’s medical costs.
Now, Simon has countersued Majewski’s estate, as well as the other two boys, for $1.35 million in compensation for the difficulties the incident caused her. According to a story in the Innisfil Journal, Simon’s claim states that the children “did not apply their brakes properly,” and that “they were incompetent bicyclists.” In the suit, Simon says that the accident has caused her “psychological suffering, including depression, anxiety, irritability, and post-traumatic stress.”
Perhaps this will sound cruel, but it hardly seems unreasonable that Simon should endure a little “stress and suffering.” Majewski’s family might—might!—be able to offer Simon absolution and closure, but they certainly shouldn’t be required to pay her a portion of the $1.35 million. After all, she was driving 55 in a 50-mph zone, and she’s the one who struck the cyclists, so her proficiency is as much in question as the teens’.
I'm sure it's heartbreaking for Simon to contend with what she's done, and the countersuit is likely about self-preservation in the face of the financial realities. But the fact remains, Simon killed someone, and by hiding behind a lawsuit she's shrugging off accountability and refusing to face the human reality of her actions, which is behavior that's more despicable than the accident itself.
Other details of the story don’t reflect well on Simon, either, including the fact that she left the scene of the crime. Apparently, Simon’s husband, Jules, an off-duty police officer, was following his wife in a second car at the time of the accident, and after checking on the scene he escorted his wife home—before the police had arrived. And while officials say that alcohol isn’t suspected in the crash, because Simon wasn’t at the site, no breathalyzer was given, so there’s no evidence to exonerate her either.
That said, Simon isn't the only one to blame. What were three teenagers doing riding their bikes down a dark country lane at 1:30 a.m. in the first place? A Toronto Sun story says the boys had gone out for hot dogs, and it quotes Majewski’s father, Derek, acknowledging that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I know they should not have been out there that late,” his father said. “But they are good kids.”
Good or not, the teens shouldn’t have been riding on a wet road in the middle of the night. According to Simon, the trio was also riding three abreast, wearing dark clothing and no helmets, and none had bike lights to warn oncoming traffic of their presence. The bikes were equipped with reflectors, but of course that’s horribly insufficient for riding on a dark motorway with cars traveling up to 50 miles per hour. All of which is to say, the cyclists, as well as their parents who allowed them out, bear some responsibility for the accident.
These sorts of incidents tend to get painted in black and white, and opinion usually divides along predictable lines, with cyclists maintaining that they don’t get fair treatment on the roads and motorists insisting that bikes don’t belong on the roads at all. But most situations are messier and more complicated than that, especially this one.
Motorists must realize that cyclists have a right to be on the roads, and we all have to figure out ways to coexist. I see so many drivers get angry at cyclists, cutting them off, gunning their engines around them, slamming on their brakes as if to try and cause them to crash. Last weekend while out riding on the roads around Santa Cruz, the group I was with had two separate vehicles throw empty soda cans at us.
It always makes me wonder: Do drivers really want to kill cyclists? Because riders are vulnerable and exposed on the roads, and causing one of us to crash could very well result in a death. So if you’re a driver, before you get aggressive with cyclists, consider how you’d feel—how you would live for the rest of your life—if you caused someone to die.
Likewise, we cyclists must realize that with the right to be on the road comes responsibility. I see so many riders fail to stop at intersections, pass cars on the right, and act as traffic menaces. But by ignoring the rules of the road, we cyclists confuse drivers, incite their anger and scorn, and sometimes even precipitate accidents.
We must be proactive about our right to ride, and that includes making ourselves as visible as possible, adhering to all traffic regulations, and, basically, riding defensively. We are vulnerable and, like it or not, collisions or altercations are likely going to be worse for us as cyclists than for drivers.
Brandon Majewski’s death is a tragedy. I feel sorry for his devastated family and friends, and I hope they find peace. But I also pity Sharlene Simon, who, as the mother to three children herself, surely never intended to hit those boys, much less kill one. And I have to believe that Simon is countersuing out of anger and hurt and even financial self-preservation. That wouldn’t make it right or any less repugnant, but it would at least make it comprehensible.
I still believe that no one wins in conflicts between cars and bicycles, but perhaps a tiny bit of good can come from this awful story. The next time you’re out on the road, whether you’re a driver or a cyclist, think of Brandon and Sharlene. Obey the traffic laws. Move deliberately and with caution. And most importantly, have some empathy for your fellow human beings.