On Dec. 16, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous decision that clarified some important rights for bicyclists who use Maine’s roadways.

The Semian v. Ledgemere case involved a collision in Ogunquit in September 2010. Monica Semian, a college student from Romania, was riding her bicycle to a summer job along Route 1 when she was passed by a school bus owned and operated by Ledgemere Transportation.

Semian caught up with the bus when it stopped at an intersection, where it straddled the straight and right-turn lanes. The bus began to move forward and then stopped again. Believing that the bus driver would go straight, Semian began to pass the bus on the right to continue straight on Route 1.

The bus driver turned right, however, and Semian was unable to stop before she ran into the bus. She sustained substantial injuries when the bus ran over her and crushed her pelvis.

A jury found Ledgemere liable for injuries that Semian sustained and awarded her $750,000 in damages (which were reduced from $1 million because the cyclist was found to have been 25 percent at fault in the collision). The bus company appealed the decision to the state supreme court.

On appeal, Ledgemere argued that because Maine’s passing law includes a statement that a bicycle “may pass on the right at the bicyclist’s own risk,” no suit should have ever been brought and that the case should have been dismissed.

The bus company also argued that because state law permits a bicyclist to ride further to the left at places where right turns are permitted, Semian was required to be in the center of the road as she approached the intersection where the bus turned.

Because of the important public policy and safety implications of this case, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine submitted a friend of the court brief concerning the points of law being argued.

The coalition was concerned that if the bus company prevailed in its interpretation of the passing law, any time a bicycle was hit by a car while passing to the right of traffic – whether in a bike lane, in a shared lane or on a shoulder – the motorist would have been protected from any liability and the bicyclist barred from recovering damages.

This would have had a chilling effect on encouraging people to ride bicycles, which are typically ridden to the right of motor vehicle traffic, because cyclists would basically be denied the right to bring an action against motorists, even in cases where the motorist was clearly negligent.

Furthermore, on the question of where in the road Semian should have been, the coalition was concerned that a decision for the bus company would have required bicycle riders to occupy centered lane positions more often.

The Bicycle Coalition of Maine believes that for the sake of greater visibility, it’s often safer for bicyclists to travel in the center of the road than to the right of traffic. However, a win for Ledgemere would have made what is currently a right to ride in the center of the road into a duty to ride in the center of the road. The coalition felt that this interpretation would also discourage bicycling by requiring bicyclists to ride in the middle of the road in more places.

Fortunately, Maine’s highest court disagreed with Ledgemere on appeal. In its written decision, the court affirmed that while passing on the right could be risky, a bicyclist who was hit while doing so still had a right to bring suit against a motor vehicle driver who operated negligently. The court also upheld the point that while bicyclists have a clear right to be in the travel lane in certain situations, they are not required to move away from the edge of the road if they chose not to do so.

On both of these points of Maine law, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine provided additional information that was considered in the court’s decision. And in balance, the state supreme court’s decision was a good one for bicyclists’ rights to the road.