Judge Eunice Lee, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit, cast the deciding vote to reverse a lower court judgment that significantly reduced the damages awarded to a bike messenger who was knocked off his bike when a Marine Corps recruiter negligently opened his car door as the messenger was riding by. Trump Judge Michael Park dissented and would have ruled against the messenger. The court issued its ruling in Dooley v United States in October 2023.
What happened in this case?
Kevin Dooley was working as a bicycle messenger and delivery person in the Bronx, New York. He was riding in the space between parked cars and traffic, which later became marked as a bike lane, when he was hit by a car door that suddenly opened. A Marine Corps recruiter had parked the car and opened the door without fully “checking for vehicles before opening the door.” Dooley fell off the bicycle, suffered injuries to his left knee and ankle, and required knee surgery and other treatment. Because an employee of the US on official business operated the car, Dooley sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
A magistrate found that the recruiter was negligent. He also concluded, however, that Dooley was partly at fault because of where he was riding, his speed, and the possibility that he had been smoking marijuana. Although he awarded damages to Dooley, the magistrate reduced the damages by $70,000. Dooley appealed to the Second Circuit.
How did Judge Lee and the Second Circuit Rule and Why Is It Important?
Biden Judge Lee cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that vacated the magistrate’s ruling that found that Dooley bore partial responsibility for his injuries and sent the case back to the court below. Judge Guido Calabresi wrote the decision. Trump Judge Michael Park dissented and tried to uphold the lower court ruling.
Judge Calabresi carefully reviewed the facts of what happened as well as governing New York law. He concluded that even assuming that Dooley had been negligent in how he rode the bicycle, that conduct “was not shown to be a cause of either the accident or the injuries.” Accordingly, he and Lee concluded, “charging Dooley with comparative negligence was error.”
Trump Judge Park claimed that the lower court had stated that Dooley’s negligence had helped cause the accident, based on statements to that effect by the magistrate. But the majority severely criticized this claim. According to the majority, Park had neglected “the most basic causation requirement in torts” because he relied on “conclusory statements” by the magistrate without “findings of fact” or “evidence.”
Judge Lee’s deciding vote and the 2-1 ruling is obviously important to Dooley’s ability to get justice for what happened to him. The decision is also important in future cases, particularly in New York, to ensure that proof of causation is required before an accident victim can be held partly responsible for injuries suffered. The ruling also serves as another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Lee to our federal courts.