The wheels of justice: Charlotte attorney works to protect those who cycle
After starting her career as a criminal defense lawyer and then later adding personal injury work to her practice, Groninger co-founded NC Bike Law, a network of attorneys with a mission to represent injured cyclists. Today, Bike Law has expanded to cover 20 states and Canada. She has also authored a book, “Ride Guide,” interpreting the motor vehicle statutes as they apply to bicycles.
Groninger recently sat down for a discussion with Lawyers Weekly. The following is a transcript of that interview, edited lightly for length and clarity.
Q: How did you come by your passion for cycling, and what are some of your favorite places to cycle?
A: Well, I have always had a passion for bicycles, even since I was a little kid. I think it’s genetic, too, because my parents did growing up as well. I’ve always had a bike, and I’ve always liked to use a bike for transportation. I started riding recreationally in the late 90s, and shortly after that, it turned into mountain biking, so I started riding on trails. Then I got into road riding in about 2001. My favorite places to ride … I really love the North Carolina mountains.
Q: Do you race at all, or just for pleasure?
A: I do race, kind of sporadically, just a few here and there, but this past winter, I did a lot of cyclo-cross racing and mountain bike racing.
Q: How did you get started specializing in bicycle injury cases?
A: It was kind of a gradual thing. As I saw what was going on in my practice, I became more involved in advocacy all around the state. One thing just led to another—the more I became involved in advocacy, the more I became involved in the cases, and now I go around and speak to groups around the state. I have a team that I’m part of that we are a sponsor of. I’ve just become very involved in the bike community, and it just fits with the practice. I think a lot of people like to work with me as their attorney because they know how passionate I am about cycling in general. I guess they like that aspect of it, and maybe they also feel like the passion will run over into my work for them, which it does.
Q: Getting to work with something that is a passion for you, it sounds like it would really make it fun to come into work in the morning.
A: I get to work with great people, so that’s nice. My two law partners are in Durham, so in Charlotte it’s just me with my two paralegals. One of them is a huge cyclist. She actually is just getting back from Croatia doing a stage race over there. And the other paralegal is an athlete as well, not a cyclist, but so supportive. So that’s really nice, and the people that I represent are people that are in my community that I see every day. I do a lot of different types of cycling, so it really covers a broad swath of the cycling community. And I don’t do that because it’s my business, I just do it because I love all those different types of cycling. So it is nice to be immersed in that culture and have that be part of my daily life.
Q: How much of your daily practice would you say you get to spend working on cycling injury cases?
A: It is most of the work. I do some other personal injury work, but it’s just become more and more cycling as I have become more involved in the community.
Q: Are there any issues that are common to cycling injuries that tend to distinguish them from other types of personal injury cases?
A: Yes. Cyclists, and I would say athletes in general, are amazingly resilient people. And so their first question when they go to the hospital is, “When can I get back on my bike?” So one challenge for us is to help others see that, and to be able to describe damages in a way that’s meaningful. So you’ll see a medical record that says that the patient was able to ride their bike again. Well, maybe they were out every weekend doing 100-mile rides, and then they get in a crash, and being back on their bike again means that they were able to set up their trainer in the living room and pedal for an hour. And that’s huge to somebody who’s an athlete who’s used to being outdoors and used to setting goals and achieving those goals. For a lot of people, it’s their social outlet, and a big aspect of their life. But on paper, it doesn’t always look like there’s a big difference, so that’s always something that we have to work hard to describe.
Q: Is there any particular case that you’ve worked on that was especially gratifying?
A: I would say all of them are. I’ve done everything from tiny cases to fatality cases and serious injury cases. People on both ends of the spectrum are very thankful because I think they see the passion in what we do. So it’s hard for me to come up with examples, because I like to be able to help somebody who’s gone through a very difficult part of their life where they’ve got multiple injuries and missed work and their families are affected, and I love to be able to help people in that situation, and we’ve done that so many times. But then I also like taking cases where I feel like insurance companies just aren’t being fair, and they’re arguing that my client was at fault, and I know that they’re not at fault because I would have done the same thing in their situation, and this is one that needs to be fought. So I’ve had a couple of those that are very gratifying as well.
Q: Most jurors have experience driving cars, not necessarily every juror is going to be a cyclist. Does the issue of proving fault sometimes present challenges in cycling cases?
A: Our contributory negligence law is obviously challenging in any kind of injury case. But I think I do have an extra challenge in helping insurance adjustors and juries and judges understand what a bicyclist was doing and why they were doing it. And this was why I wrote the book that I wrote, and why I spent a lot of time really studying that, and a lot of times I get reconstructionists involved, and I work with engineers and people who do understand bicycling. So that’s something that I feel like, because I do so much of this, that’s helpful in helping me to frame those arguments, and to help people understand a bicyclist’s actions. So yeah, sure, it is a challenge, and it’s one that we deal with every day. And the longer I’ve been doing this, the more successful we’ve been in dealing with it, but it’s still something that we always have to address.
Q: You’ve had some incidents that you’ve written about on your blog where you’ve come close to being clipped by reckless drivers yourself.
A: Yes. I don’t think anyone who’s ridden a bicycle on the road hasn’t had some kind of experience like that. It does put you in the situation to really know what that feels like. You can really see how those things can happen when you feel like you’re doing everything right, and you’re being as careful as possible and you’re aware of your surroundings and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and something like that can happen. So being in that situation helps me to describe what a bicyclist was doing and why they were doing what they were doing.
Q: Younger people today are driving less and more likely to cycle. How does that influence your work as an advocate?
A: The more people who ride, the safer it is, and there are statistics now to back that up. The Alliance for Bicycling and Walking does a study every year, and it does show that as the numbers of cyclists in cities go up, it becomes more safe. And I think the reason for that is that drivers become more aware of the fact that they need to look out for cyclists. So I think that’s a good thing for all of us in terms of safety.