Comment: Conviction of road rage doctor is landmark case

Ruling could open door for more complaints from cyclists in US

The conviction of a Los Angeles driver who injured two cyclists in a road rage attack is a landmark ruling that could open the door for many more similar cases.

In previous incidents involving cars and bicycles in the US, the driver often got off the hook by claiming 'plausible deniability' – that it was an accident with no intent to harm.

Indeed, the driver in this case, Dr Christopher Thompson, had been involved in two previous incidents involving cyclists near his home in

Mandeville Canyon Road. In both cases, the
Los Angeles District Attorney's office did not find enough evidence to prosecute.

However, this time, key witnesses were able to prove that the former emergency room physician had deliberately tried to make the riders crash, and they were backed by several other cyclists who came forward to relate stories of harassment by Thompson.

'I did it to teach them a lesson'

Asked if he had slammed on his brakes after passing the pair, Thompson told the jury: "No, I did not slam on my brakes." But the court was then played a 911 tape where Thompson could clearly be heard telling the operator: "I slammed on my brakes."

This was backed up by traffic investigator Robert Rodriguez, who told the court Thompson had told him: "I passed them up and stopped in front to teach them a lesson."

The fact that intent was proven in this case should encourage other cyclists who have been the victims of road rage to come forward. However, riding defensively and avoiding needless confrontation is still the best way to avoid such incidents.

The case related to an incident on 4 July 2008 when cyclists Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr were descending

Mandeville Canyon Road
in Southern California.

As Thompson drove past in his car he yelled at the pair to ride in single file. One of them flipped him off, which prompted the doctor to pull in front of the cyclists and slam on his brakes.

Cyclist 'flipped off' driver

Stoehr hit the back of the vehicle and was flung over the side by the impact and onto the pavement. He suffered road rash and a separated shoulder.

Peterson flew face first into the rear windscreen. His nose was sliced off – it took 90 stitches to reattach it – and he lost several teeth.

Thompson called 911 to report the incident and admitted: "I slammed on my brakes." He told the operator: "They'll [the cyclists] tell you they are seriously injured but they're not."

When Rodriguez arrived on the scene, Thompson told the investigator: "The bicyclists flipped me off and yelled back. I passed them up and stopped in front to teach them a lesson. I’m tired of them. I’ve lived here for years and they always ride like this.”

The doctor was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. When several other cyclists came forward to relate stories of harassment, the DA's office decided to charge him with six felony counts including assault with a deadly weapon, battery with serious bodily injury, reckless driving causing specified bodily injury, and mayhem.

'Bicycle is inherently unstable'

Defense attorney Peter Swarth argued that the incident was just an unfortunate accident and that there was no intent behind the doctor's actions.

He spent a lot of time trying to prove that the cyclists had contributed to what happened, and even argued that a bicycle is inherently unstable and that is why the riders crashed.

He tried to paint the picture that the two cyclists had taken over the road and, because one of them had flipped Thompson off, were looking for a fight.

Swarth also questioned the cyclists about the condition of their bikes and brakes, and the distances involved. Accident reconstruction specialist Roman Beck testified that it would have taken Peterson only two seconds to come to a complete stop from the 30mph he was traveling at at the time of the incident. The defense contended that this was more than enough time to avoid hitting the back of Thompson's car.

When Thompson took the stand in his defense, he re-iterated his attorney's claim that bicycles are inherently dangerous because of their instability and unpredictability.

He told the court that he made an "arc-like" pass of the cyclists and then stopped to take a picture of them because they weren't riding in single file. He maintained that only after he had put the car in park and removed his seatbelt did the riders hit the back of the vehicle.

The jury of 12 men and women took less than a day to return a verdict of  guilty on all counts. Thompson was ordered to be held without bail until sentencing. He could receive a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

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