November 22, 2007

Bicycle Path Litigation Hits a Roadblock Put up by State Immunity Laws

Article reprinted with permission from the February 1, 1995 edition, page 31
Bicycle Retailer and Industry News

A Legal Viewpoint

By Steven W. Hansen, Esq.

There's been much debate in the trade press recently about the safety of bicycle paths. A few years ago I had what could have been a deadly, head-on collision on an over-crowded bike path near a Southern California beach.

My bicycle was almost totaled. I walked away with no injuries. The other rider went to the hospital. While a lawsuit was never filed because of the accident, bicycle path and trail litigation in California appears to have been on the rise, at least until recently.

It appears that the various divisions of the California State Courts of Appeal are favorably interpreting statutes that give broad immunity from liability to city, county and state governments.

I want to discuss three cases involving immunity filed over the last two years at the appellate level involving accidents on recreational paths and trails. These immunities are similar in most states. In the federal system, immunities can vary in scope. And similar immunities are provided for private landowners in some states.

In Giannuzzi versus the State of California, decided in January 1993, a motorcyclist was injured while riding on a dirt trail. He was trying to avoid a large pile of loose dirt placed by state workers at the base of a hill, without warning, within the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Park.

The injured rider sued claiming the pile had created a dangerous condition on public property. An attorney for the state denied liability on the basis of an immunity for paved and unpaved trails, or for paths used for recreational purposes.

The court held that motorcycling in the park was a recreational purpose and that no cause of action could be maintained against the state.

While this case involved a motorcyclist, it could just as easily have been a mountain bike rider. But more importantly, the ruling in the case provided a basis for a September 1994 decision involving a cyclist.

In Armenio versus the County of San Mateo, a cyclist was injured while riding his bicycle along the Sawyer Camp Trail near San Francisco. He claimed that county workers had improperly patched the paved trail, causing the accident.

The cyclist's attorney tried to distinguish his case from the Giannuzzi case, but to no avail.

The court began by noting the legislative purpose behind recreational-use immunity to encourage public entities to open their land for recreational use without the burden and expense of defending injury claims.

This is consistent with land access goals of most off-road advocacy groups. While the trail was paved, it was not used for access but for recreational purposes. The cyclist's allegations were not sufficient to overcome the immunity.

In a different twist in a 1993 case, Judge versus the County of Sacramento, an attorney for the county argued that a paved bike path was protected by "design immunity." Here are the facts: A rider was rendered a quadriplegic when he rounded a curve on the American River trail, crashing into an oncoming cyclist.

So called "design immunity" protects government agencies from liability for injuries caused by designs approved in advance by government officials, or if credible public employees could have approved the designs.

The cyclist's attorney, in opposing the county's claim of immunity, offered a declaration from a traffic engineer stating the sight distance around the curve at speeds of 20 miles per hour was inadequate.

The cyclist admitted, however, that he was traveling at less than 12 mph at the time of the accident. The county's engineer testified that a speed of 13 miles per hour or less was a proper and safe design speed for the curve. The court agreed.

There are numerous other immunities provided to most local, state and federal agencies. In California, government agencies are immune from accidents arising out of weather conditions affecting streets, such as ice, rain, sand, mud or rocks.

Local and state agencies also are immune from liability involving participants or spectators who engage in hazardous recreational activities, including bicycle racing or jumping.

Government agencies are usually viewed as having deep pockets, much like manufacturers. However, government agencies have a plethora of absolute immunities to turn to in court. Manufacturers don't.

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