In 2007, Mickey Gendler suffered one of the worst accidents that could befall a bicyclist. He was riding over the Montlake Bridge during a Sunday ride around Lake Washington when a tire got wedged into a gap between metal panels of the bridge. He flipped over the handlebars, landed on his head and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. An environmental lawyer, Gendler did what came naturally: He sued the state, and dug into the construction problems that led to the accident.
It's one of the top five payouts made by the state in at least seven years, according to Glenn Kuper, a spokesperson for the Office of Financial Management. (He says the largest he's ever seen was a jury award to musician Koti Hu last week, who became a quadriplegic after an accident on an I-405 on-ramp. The state will pay $12 million of the $30 million award.)
In an interview today, Gendler says that "an identical accident" to his occurred in 1999, although that cyclist sustained far less serious injuries. A DOT engineer reported the accident to a state inspector, who wrote in a report that the panels must have been misaligned, according to Gendler.
DOT risk management director John Milton confirms that an engineer and an inspector knew about the 1999 accident, but says they concluded that the gap was not a problem because most bicyclists would not be traveling across it. The gap lies in a left lane (headed south) of the metal grate that opens and closes to let boats pass underneath. The majority of cyclists ride on the elevated walkways that lie on either side of the bridge.
But Gendler said he didn't like the walkways, which he found too narrow and obstructed by pillars. He preferred riding on the main road alongside the cars, and on this day, wanted to be in the left lane so that he could turn left immediately upon passing the bridge onto a street that leads to the Arboretum. Anticipating that might be an issue raised by the state, he brought a motion in court prior to the settlement asking the judge to rule on whether he had a right to be on the road. The judge ruled he had, according to Gendler.
The state finally filled the gap in 2009.
Gendler says he's not sure whether the settlement, large as it is, will cover his lifetime medical expenses. As he talks over the phone from his Phinney Ridge home, an aide is helping him dress. He says he needs someone with him at all times, and attends physical therapy three times a week.
He has some use of his hands, however, and can operate a computer with the help of voice activation software. So he still takes on legal cases. He can also flip pages of a book, last week finishing his first since the accident: Andre Agassi's autobiography Open.