A Vicious Cycle

In Colorado, insurance offers little protection to badly injured motorcyclists.

But there were complications. For one thing, Kirschner wasn't ticketed after the accident, but Bill was, for improper passing; the Boulder police officer on the scene determined that he had crossed a yellow center line in an effort to get around the VW bus. Bill challenged that ticket, saying that Kirschner had failed to signal a left turn while simulating a turn to the right, and the citation was eventually dropped -- but it still provided ammunition to Nationwide. So, too, did the speed Bill was traveling. Witnesses guessed he was moving at 55 miles per hour or so at the time of the accident, and even though Bill thinks that's 10 or 15 mph too high, he was definitely going over the posted 35 mph limit. Finally, Bill's appearance hardly contradicted the negative representation of bikers that has been perpetrated over the years. "I hadn't worn a ponytail for twenty years; I had a styled cut," Bill says. "But my hair was shoulder-length, and I had a beard, and I was a construction worker and...well, you know -- I looked like a biker."

Legally, Bill's mild resemblance to a Hell's Angel and his decision to ride helmet-free shouldn't have made a difference -- but a lot of people in the motorcycle community are certain that in court, it would have. ABATE of Colorado's Deb Craig says, "I absolutely believe there are a lot of misconceptions about motorcyclists out there." This comment is echoed by Mike LaFore, the owner of LaFore's MC, a Lakewood motorcycle shop. His son Christian, who worked at LaFore's as a mechanic, was killed in July 1999 while riding a motorcycle on the Sixth Avenue frontage road near his business after a car pulled out from a side street in front of him. The driver of the car wasn't cited by police, in part because observers claimed that Christian was racing at 80 mph in a 35 mph zone. But Mike disputes that, and he feels his inability to get his side of the story investigated smacks of roadway bigotry. "Lots of people, law enforcement included, typecast the motorcycle public," Mike says, "and it isn't right."

Perhaps not, but Jim Hult, Bill's attorney, had to deal with reality, and he felt his client had several marks against him. "I've tried a bunch of motorcycle cases," he says, "and if people look a certain way and wear a helmet, they'll come out fine. But here I had a guy with kind of long hair and a beard driving a loud bike and who wasn't wearing a helmet. And some of the other facts weren't good for him, either. I just didn't think he'd get a fair shake."

Danny Hellman
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.
John Johnston
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.

With this in mind, Hult decided to negotiate with Kirschner's insurance company. In an eleven-page letter dated December 5, 1996, he laid out his case, concluding, "It is easy to see how a reasonable Boulder jury would likely award Mr. Head at least $100,000 for each category of his damages; that is, $100,000-plus for economic loss, $100,000-plus for pain and suffering, and $100,000-plus for physical impairment...However, to avoid the delay and expense of litigation, Mr. Head has authorized me to settle his claim for $100,000, the amount we assume is the total available insurance."

But this argument wasn't especially persuasive. Nationwide countered with an offer of $10,000, which it increased to $15,000 after some additional dickering. But Bill didn't wind up with anything close to this amount. His insurance company, USA for Healthcare, engaged in subrogation (that term again) by placing a lien on the reward and wound up getting over a third of the money -- and, of course, Hult received his fee as well. In the end, after years of litigation and at least one arbitration hearing, Bill took home $4,700.

This modest sum hardly improved the negative consequences of the accident. Unable to afford the high cost of living in Boulder, Bill was forced to move his family to rural Oklahoma, where his wife's family lived. Then, with debts hanging over his head, he declared bankruptcy in 1999. Personal problems escalated as well, and Bill and his wife divorced. Sexual problems factored into the marriage's dissolution, Bill says. He sustained serious burns to his scrotum and penis during the crash, and for a year afterward he could only get an erection if he injected medication into his genital region with a hypodermic needle. Using this method, Bill fathered a son, James, who's four and lives with his dad, but he says it caused considerable strain.

Bill also experienced significant periods of unemployment (he's currently working for a company in Muskogee that manufactures shopping carts), as well as another injury. Last August, Bill tripped, badly tweaking his damaged hip. "When I first had the hip rebuilt, they told me I'd probably have to replace it in five to ten years, at my expense -- and my fall happened right before the six-year anniversary," he recalls. "After the doctor checked me out, he said, 'You'd better start saving your money.'" That's easier said than done: While Bill still loves motorcycles, he doesn't own one anymore "for financial reasons. There's just nothing left.

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