A more detailed picture of the circumstances surrounding the car accident in May that killed cyclist and former Altera Corp. chief executive Rodney Smith of Portola Valley may be forthcoming now that a wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against the driver by Mr. Smith's family.
In the Nov. 19 lawsuit, San Mateo attorney Terry O'Reilly, on behalf of Rodney Smith's wife, Mary Smith, describes the driver, Woodside resident Anthony Rose, 87, as careless and negligent when his vehicle collided with Mr. Smith, 67, who was riding in the bike lane on Sand Hill Road in unincorporated San Mateo County.
The incident occurred about 9:45 a.m. on May 25, 2007, near the crest of the hill between Interstate 280 and Whiskey Hill Road. Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Rose were eastbound. The speed limit there is 55 mph, but it is a roomy road with a wide shoulder and is popular with cyclists.
The scenario Mr. O'Reilly describes in the complaint -- that of a negligent driver drifting into the bike lane -- is at odds with a California Highway Patrol report that does not charge Mr. Rose, a former principal of Portola Valley School. The report faults Mr. Smith with a vehicle code violation for doing an unanticipated U turn from the bike lane out into traffic and into the path of Mr. Rose's car.
The damage to the bicycle, found at the edge of the paved surface, included a detached front wheel and a broken front fork, the report said. Mr. Rose's 1995 Volvo had a broken right headlight, two large round dents in the right front quarter panel, a large hole in the passenger side windshield, and a dent in the roof above that hole, the report said.
"No prior vehicle damage was claimed or noted," the report continued.
In an interview, Mr. O'Reilly disputed the idea that Mr. Smith was hit by the front end of a car that, he said, had "dents and scrapes all over it." Bicycles hit by a vehicle's front tend to be crushed, he said, adding: "The cop didn't do a very good job of pinning down the physical evidence."
Mr. O'Reilly said he has argued 20 to 30 bicycle-versus-vehicle cases over the last 40 years and that he employs experts in accident reconstruction. CHP officers, he said, have little time to work on such cases and don't have access to the same level of reconstruction expertise. "They do the best they can."
The narrative in the accident report describes Mr. Rose as seeing a bicyclist 50 to 100 feet ahead of him and about a foot inside the bike lane. When Mr. Rose was "several feet behind" him, the cyclist "suddenly turned to look over his left shoulder," then turned sharply into traffic. Mr. Rose was traveling 30 to 35 mph, the report said.
"I had no time to react," Mr. Rose is quoted as saying, adding that he saw Mr. Smith hit the windshield, was shaken emotionally by it, and pulled over and walked back to where Mr. Smith was lying.
In the interview, Mr. O'Reilly disputed that account. Street traffic in that area travels at least 60 mph, he said. And there were no skid marks at the scene, which leads Mr. O'Reilly to conclude that Mr. Rose did not immediately realize what had happened.
"Taking a U turn into Sand Hill traffic would be nuts," he told the Almanac. "I think the police made a big mistake here and I think it was out of the warmth of their hearts for this old fellow."
The CHP narrative said that, after the accident, Mary Smith took a trip in a squad car to track the couple's normal bike route with an officer.
Without knowing where the accident took place, she pointed to a reflective marker where they would "always turn around" to avoid a return trip that started on an uphill grade. That spot was two feet east of where Mr. Smith collided with the car, the report said.
After her initial disbelief that she had found the right marker, the report describes Ms. Smith as saying: "No, it is the right marker, but he still wouldn't have turned without making sure the roadway was clear first."
The lawsuit does not specify an amount of damages and is not meant to be punitive, Mr. O'Reilly said. "I'm sure this guy feels guilty enough as it is." But Ms. Smith wants to get to the bottom of this, Mr. O'Reilly said, adding that a lawsuit is the only way to force Mr. Rose's insurance company to divulge what it knows.