In its investigation into the May 2016 crash, the Seattle Police Department said the death of Desiree McCloud “appears to be the sole result of some form of operator error.”
The brother of a bicyclist killed a year ago has filed claims against the city of Seattle and Sound Transit, saying the First Hill Streetcar trolley tracks were to blame for the crash.
Cody McCloud, who described the year after his sister’s death as a “literal hell” for his family, is seeking damages of at least $2 million in the claims, which were announced at a news conference Wednesday morning on the anniversary of Desiree McCloud’s death.
“Streetcar tracks are a known hazard — known to the city of Seattle,” said Phil Arnold, Cody McCloud’s lawyer. “Seattle had many opportunities to fix this mess.”
Arnold described the streetcar tracks as a “lethal bicycle trap.” He said the city knew the streetcar tracks were a hazard, and yet continually encouraged people to bike on its streets.
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Cody McCloud said the claims are “not about the money. It’s about a message: ‘Don’t kill me on these streets.’ ”
Claims for damages typically precede a lawsuit. If the agencies choose not to fulfill the claims within 60 days, McCloud’s lawyers plan to sue.
Desiree McCloud, 27, was riding with three other cyclists last May from East Capitol Hill to Alki Beach when the crash occurred. Surveillance images from a Seattle Police Department investigation showed her pedaling between the streetcar tracks on East Yesler Way when she attempted to pass another cyclist in her group.
That cyclist told police she saw McCloud’s bike wobble before McCloud crashed and tumbled to the pavement.
She died 11 days later at Harborview Medical Center. An autopsy found that McCloud, who was wearing a helmet, died as a result of blunt-force head trauma.
In their report last year, police did not find evidence to conclude whether the streetcar tracks played a role in McCloud’s crash.
“It is unknown if McCloud attempted to cross back over and if interaction with the rail was what led to her loss of control, and that question appears impossible to resolve,” police wrote in the report. “What is known is that no other vehicles were involved and that McCloud lost control of her bicycle, which caused her to fall to the ground. This incident, though obviously tragic, appears to be the sole result of some form of operator error on the part of McCloud.”
Arnold said he can prove Desiree McCloud’s tire became caught by the streetcar tracks, throwing her over her handlebars and into the pavement. He said he consulted a medical professor who is an expert in biomechanical engineering.
The professor, after reviewing medical records and other information, “concluded the only way this could occur would be for the bicycle to slow from beneath Desiree and throw her,” Arnold said.
Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick referred questions about the claim to the city of Seattle.
“Sound Transit provided funding for this project, but that was our only involvement,” Patrick said. “The city of Seattle planned, built and operates the streetcar.”
In an email, a spokeswoman with Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administration said it was city policy to not comment on pending claims.
Cyclists say streetcar tracks are dangerous because their tires can slip and their wheels can get caught in the flangeway gap — the groove where trolley wheels run.
The city does not collect data about streetcar-track crashes specifically, and many go unreported. After a request from The Seattle Times last year, more than 100 cyclists detailed falls they believe were caused by rail tracks.
Arnold said the city could have prevented Desiree McCloud’s death by excluding cyclists from East Yesler Way, separating the cyclists with a protected bike lane, marking the bicycle lane a “no-passing zone” or filling the gap with a rubber filler that compresses underneath the weight of a streetcar but would hold up for a bicycle.
The Seattle Department of Transportation has explored rubber flange filler in the past, but found the rubber didn’t last very long and could be slick for cyclists, too, a former rail manager told The Seattle Times in an interview last year.
Seattle has faced legal action over streetcar tracks before. In 2010, six bicyclists sued the city, claiming the South Lake Union streetcar tracks caused them to crash and Seattle knowingly allowed the unsafe conditions.
Although the city acknowledged the tracks could be hazardous, a judge agreed with the city’s argument that it had a right to build the streetcar line in the manner it chose and that the cyclists had not proved the city breached its duty to provide reasonably safe streets.
Jeffery Campiche, another lawyer working on Cody McCloud’s claims, said a 2016 case against the city of Port Orchard that was heard by the state Court of Appeals has clarified the legal standard in bicycle cases. He believes it will bolster McCloud’s case.
In the Port Orchard case, the appeals court decided it was Port Orchard’s duty to maintain roads to be “reasonably safe for ordinary travel, which includes bicycle travel.”
“How long would automobile drivers tolerate having in the middle of the road a trap that would flip their cars?” asked Arnold.
The Seattle Department of Transportation is working on a third streetcar line called the Center City Connector. Slated to open in 2020, the $135 million line would link the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars.