Iowa, Coralville Settle With Bike Accident Victim

By RYAN J. FOLEY | March 20, 2013

A mother of three who had to give up her nursing career after being disabled in a bicycle accident on a trail on the University of Iowa’s Oakdale campus will receive a $1.2 million settlement from the city of Coralville, the state of Iowa and a construction company, records show.

Bridgid Ruden of Coralville was wearing a helmet when she lost control of her bike on May 24, 2008 on the North Ridge Trail after riding through a mud patch at the bottom of a hill, slamming her head on the pavement. The crash put her in a coma, required several surgeries during an extended hospital stay and left her disabled with traumatic brain injury and epilepsy.

Ruden’s lawsuit contended the city, state and Horsfield Construction were negligent because of flaws in the way the trail was designed, constructed and maintained, which allowed water and mud to accumulate on that section of the trail and created a danger for cyclists.

The settlement avoids a trial that had been scheduled to begin later this month in Johnson County. District Judge Sean McPartland declined to dismiss the claims against the city and state in a pair of rulings in January, saying jurors should decide whether they were at fault. He rejected numerous arguments that they were shielded from liability in the case.

Ruden has been unable to return to her work as a nurse practitioner at a neonatal unit at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She has since become an inspirational speaker, sharing the story of her injuries, her prolonged rehabilitation and what she calls a miraculous recovery, with medical groups. Her teenage son, Ryan, received a national award from the Boy Scouts after he was credited with saving her life in 2009, months after the accident, when she suffered a violent seizure at their home.

“Obviously, this was a very traumatic event for the Ruden family and they are doing their best to move on with their lives,” said Cedar Rapids attorney Tim Semelroth, who represented the family. “This settlement will help them do that.”

Lawyers for the city and state had argued that Ruden knowingly put herself at risk by bicycling, contending that slippery surfaces are often found on trails. But McPartland’s ruling said Ruden’s attorneys had raised questions about whether the trail was built in accordance with accepted design standards and properly maintained.

The section where the accident happened was built in 1996 under a legal agreement in which the Iowa Board of Regents, the property’s owner, gave the city permission to extend the trail through university land.

Ruden’s attorneys argued that the trail was built lower than designed and with almost no cross-slope despite an original design calling for a 5 percent slope in that section to allow for drainage. They also found that a plan to include a drainage system and tiles to handle erosion and runoff were removed during construction. They alleged those flaws allowed water, silt and mud to build up after rainstorms and the city and state failed to warn users about the danger it posed. In fact, a sign told riders of a 20 miles-per-hour speed limit.

City lawyers blamed Horsfield for any construction defects, but McPartland ruled that “there is ample evidence” that the city had control over its contractor. “This was the city’s project from start to finish,” he wrote.

The case uncovered confusion about who was responsible for maintaining the trail: the city or the university. McPartland’s ruling said city and university workers “had differing ideas regarding who was actually maintaining the trail and who was responsible for maintaining the trail,” with the university mowing and the city doing other work.

The agreement to build the trail said that a future deal would spell out who was responsible for “major maintenance,” but that never happened. State lawyers argued the city was responsible, but McPartland rejected that argument.

The State Appeal Board approved the settlement last week, which calls for the state to pay $200,000, according to a copy released to The Associated Press under the public records law. Coralville City Attorney Kevin Olson said Friday the deal, when finalized in the coming days, will call for the city’s insurer to pay $600,000.

Olson said the city was not aware of any problems on the trail before the accident, and workers have always made sure to inspect the trail to make sure it is clear after rainfall.

“I’m sure they have addressed that situation in that spot for sure,” he said.

The city announced Wednesday part of the trail would be closed through May 1 during utilities work for a key road project near the Oakdale campus, which houses research laboratories and startup businesses.

Representatives of Horsfield, which would be responsible for the remaining $400,000 of the settlement, did not return messages.

Semelroth said the case was “a prime example” of why it is important for the law to allow victims who suffer life-altering injuries to recover damages from government entities and builders.

“Had it not been for the particular circumstances of this case,” he said, “the Ruden family could have very easily been left with no recourse.”

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