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Bicyclist's family wants answers in her death

Wire • Jan 31, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Patti Byerly still has so many questions about the death of her twin sister this past summer.

She knows some details, of course, and they are forever etched in her mind: Michelle Kazlausky was riding the Columbus-to-Athens leg of the Pelotonia Tour for cancer research on Aug. 21 when she was hit by a pickup truck and killed at the intersection of Rts. 180 and 374 in rural Hocking County during a rainstorm.

Authorities say 58-year-old Ervin Blackston of Rockbridge had repaired part of the brake system on his brother's pickup truck just that morning.

Then, prosecutors say, the brake line that Blackston had not repaired failed as he approached the intersection where a state trooper was stopping traffic to let the Pelotonia riders turn. Kazlausky, a 57-year-old medical technologist in the oncology lab of University Hospital East, was hit.

Blackston has pleaded not guilty to vehicular manslaughter, a second-degree misdemeanor, and to an equipment violation. He is due back in Hocking County Municipal Court to change his plea Feb. 7. He could get up to 90 days in jail, though Prosecutor Laina Fetherolf said she won't ask the judge to impose any jail time.

Even as the criminal case lingers, Kazlausky's family looks for some way to turn the tragedy into something good, Byerly said.

She hopes the civil lawsuit her attorneys filed in Hocking County Common Pleas Court yesterday will do just that. The lawsuit against Blackston and his brother, Earl, isn't about money, Byerly said.

She said it is instead a chance for her to get the answers she seeks and to raise awareness: Neither of the Blackstons had any liability insurance, according to the accident report.

Byerly, a retired United Parcel Service employee from Reynoldsburg, said she wants the case to serve as a reminder that driving without insurance is against the law and that there are consequences to breaking it.

Blackston's attorney, Tim Gleeson, said he was unaware of the lawsuit and could not comment until he had seen it.

About 12 percent of Ohio's drivers were uninsured in 2009, and an average of 4.2 percent of drivers involved in crashes from 2000 to 2007 were uninsured, according to the Ohio Insurance Institute.

But Byerly wants people, especially bicyclists, to know something else: Kazlausky had paid for uninsured motorists coverage through her own auto insurance policy. It covered her even though she was on her bicycle and not driving her own car.

"There are a lot of people out there who might not know that if they have this uninsured motorists insurance, even if they

are walking down the street and get hit or are riding a bike and get hit, it could help them," Byerly said.

Kazlausky's insurance carrier, Progressive Insurance, also is named in the lawsuit, though Byerly's attorneys say that's not because the company has done anything wrong. Rather, it is a procedural issue.

The family has not accepted the insurance settlement due them or taken any money from the policy. That would be the easy thing to do, said Byerly's attorney, Mark Kitrick of Kitrick, Lewis & Harris law firm on E. Main St. in Columbus.

"But then Patti would never get the answers she seeks," he said.

The civil lawsuit will force Blackston to answer questions that he has not publicly addressed, questions that Byerly said the family, especially her two nephews, has a right to know: Why was Blackston driving without insurance? Where was he going that day? Why had he repaired that truck himself?

Byerly said her twin sister -- who was the older of the two by eight minutes -- believed in making a difference. That's why she rode in the Pelotonia in the first place and why she chose to ride the longest leg of the tour instead of the easiest.

"Whatever she did, she went all out. She got things done," Byerly said. "The last few months have been a nightmare that no one else should have to go through. Maybe if one person hears our story, and they change their insurance because of it, at least we've done something good."

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Copyright (c) 2011, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

By Holly Zachariah - The Columbus Dispatch (MCT)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbusdispatch.com.

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