The Truth, The Whole Truth

by Ed Youngblood, President
American Motorcyclist Association (AMA)

When a person steps up to the witness stand to testify in a court of law, he or she is required to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I expect that every attorney in America hears those words tens of thousands of times over the course of a normal career.

Several years ago, I received a visit from Richard Lester, a California attorney. Mr. Lester runs an organization called AIM, which stands for Aid to Injured Motorcyclists. AIM is a legal referral service. Mr. Lester has a list of attorneys all over the country, and when motorcyclists get injured, he offers them legal representation through an attorney in their state who will sue to collect damages.

The reason Mr. Lester came to me, however, was to tell me about NCOM, which stands for National Coalition of Motorcyclists. He said he had created NCOM to unify motorcyclist rights organizations, and in return all he wanted was their membership lists. Mr. Lester was not forthcoming with the information that would use these lists to promote his legal business. However, in response to my questions, he admitted this and suggested that AIM was basically a funding source for NCOM, since motorcyclists’ rights were his main interest.

I asked him what kind of cases he and his network of lawyers would take and he indicated that their main objective was to get what is due to motorcyclists who have been taken down by negligent motorists. Since I believe that there are many such occurrences that justify legal action, I told him that I believed there is a legitimate need for such representation. I explained to him, however, that the AMA is an organization made up of both individual and corporate members. I said that our role is to pursue the interests of the greater American motorcycling community, and that we strive to find ways to create unity and cooperation between the motorcycle industry and its customers. I told him that while I expect there are times when product liability suits are justified, we wanted to have no affiliation with an organization that pursued product liability litigation. He assured me that AIM would not take on product liability suits and that he understood our position.

What Mr. Lester did not realize was that I had already spoken with a long-time friend who was the leader of ABATE in a nearby state and had met with Lester previously. My friend, whom I trust implicitly, informed me that Mr. Lester had told him otherwise, stating that AIM would be happy to pursue product liability actions against motorcycle and accessory manufacturers. Our meeting ended amicably, but the AMA chose to enter into no affiliation with NCOM.

Over the years, NCOM became more active and visible, hosting conferences for state motorcyclist rights groups, funding projects and collecting names for the mailing lists used by AIM to promote its legal referral service. Eventually, Richard Lester took his activities international, forming ICOM — the International Coalition of Motorcyclists. He began to court the Federation of European Motorcyclists, flying its officers to the United States for his NCOM conferences, which gained status and prestige through the participation of freedom fighters from other countries.

In regard to this relationship, it is important to understand that one of the biggest legislative battles in Europe in recent years has been the fight against proposals to mandate leg protectors on motorcycles. Mr. Lester was well aware of this. For information on the seriousness of the leg protector debate, see the following issues of American Motorcyclist: June 1991, page 22; July 1991, page 33; March 1992, page 55; and May 1996, page 74.

Early this year, rumors began to circulate that Mr. Lester and his colleagues were actively involved in as many as 20 suits alleging that riders had suffered unnecessary leg injuries in part because manufacturers had negligently failed to incorporate leg protectors into their motorcycle designs. The rumors became open allegations on July 5 when Lester’s long-time assistant, Pepper Massey-Swan, quit her job in an act of conscience. She posted a letter to NCOM’s Board of Advisors and Legislative Task Force, charging that Lester had, when questioned by her, denied that AIM attorneys were representing such cases, adding that he would not tolerate such litigation. When she confronted him with the facts, Massey-Swan said Lester admitted the existence of the cases, but refused to order AIM attorneys to cease their involvement.

She stated in her letter, “It has been my understanding that NCOM was created to assist in the fight against anti-motorcycle legislation. AIM was a vehicle by which we were able to achieve this goal. ICOM was formed to offer our support to our European brothers and sisters, currently pouring all of their efforts into fighting against legislation that would force manufacturers to put leg protectors on motorcycles. Being a part of these law-suits in any way is contradictory to the core of beliefs and principles of the motorcyclist rights movement.” She continued, “This is a devastating blow to motorcyclists, one that’s sting will be felt for many years to come. That this office would be associated with these anti-motorcycle lawsuits is despicable and unprincipled.”

Apparently the NCOM staff was not the only group kept in the dark about AIM’s product liability suits. According to Ed Netterberg, chairman of the NCOM Board of Advisors, that group also remained uninformed. In a memo to the Board, Netterberg said, “I believe this type of information was withheld from us deliberately, knowing it would be unacceptable.”

On the same day that Massey-Swan delivered her letter of resignation, Lester, who was vacationing in Kenya at the time, quickly moved into damage control mode. He sent memos to his AIM attorneys and to the NCOM Board of Advisors and Legislative Task Force members in the United States, and wrote a letter to motorcyclist rights leaders in Europe, seeking an urgent meeting in London. The memos were marked: “FOR YOU EYES ONLY. READ AND DESTROY.”

In these documents he admitted that the litigation was going on, that he had knowledge of it, and that is was all a mistake which resulted from “inattentiveness” and his failure to “note the obvious conflict.” One memo acknowledged that in the neighborhood of 25 such cases had been pursued by AIM attorneys, and stated “In hindsight I should have seen that while trying to enforce the legal rights of the injured biker against the manufacturer, the AIM attorneys were aiding the forces trying to mandate leg protectors in Europe.” He described the whole affair as a “screw-up.”

Let me clearly state my concerns about this affair. First, I do not, and the AMA does not, take a position that injured motorcyclists do not require or deserve legal assistance. Of course they do. Nor do I claim that there is no place for product liability litigation. In some situations it has a legitimate purpose. I also would never suggest that NCOM has provided no good service to the motorcyclist rights movement. I’m sure it has. And I am in no way suggesting that Mr. Lester and other lawyers in America have not got every right to make a living in their chosen profession.

What I deplore is an organization that uses the rights movement for the purpose of generating contacts, credibility and mailing lists to pursue litigation that is destructive to the very cause it claims to be supporting. This activity, taking place over a period of years, can’t be credibly dismissed as a screw-up or an oversight. Anyone who has completed law school has received ample instruction in how to identify and avoid conflicts of interest. Ms. Massey-Swan stated in her letter of resignation, “Taking into consideration that he (Mr. Lester) will not get rid of these cases makes it clear to me that the driving force behind this office is money, not the rights of motorcyclists.” I find her statement compelling.

When Mr. Lester told me years ago that AIM did not intend to pursue product liability litigation, I believe he was not telling the truth. When he positioned AIM as a funding mechanism to support the motorcyclist rights movement through NCOM, I believe he was not telling the whole truth. It will be up to the many individuals and organizations in the motorcyclist rights movement who have accepted money from NCOM and ICOM to decide for themselves whether characterizing the activities of AIM as a “screw-up” resulting from inattention is telling nothing but the truth.

In sorting out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we need to ask ourselves if the various motorcyclist rights organizations we have placed our faith in are democratic, member-directed, non-profit organizations, and whether they are unaffiliated with outside enterprises that can confuse their mission, taint their credibility and pose serious conflicts of interest.

The AMA is such an organization. Most of the ABATEs and other state rights organizations in America are. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation is. The Federation of European Motorcyclists is. NCOM and AIM are not.