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Bicycle Injuries on Bike Paths: Overcoming Trail Immunity

In California, cities and counties have been expanding their bicycle networks. Dedicated bicycle trails can offer separation from cars, but injuries and accidents can still happen. Whether it’s a pothole, a poorly marked post, or overhanging vegetation, cyclists can and do get injured. In most cases the government is immune from lawsuits over the condition of trails, but immunity is not absolute.

Suing the Government

The government is ultimately immune from lawsuits due to sovereign immunity, one of the perks of being in charge of the legal system. But you can sue the government by going through the California Government Tort Claims Act so long as you adhere to the statute. Where claims against private citizens have a two year statute of limitation for injuries in California, claims against the government have a six-month statute of limitations. Importantly, the government is immune from claims of negligence. Instead, plaintiffs must bring a claim for “dangerous condition of public property” which has a higher standard of proof than simple negligence.

On a negligence standard, it doesn’t matter whether the landowner knew of the dangerous condition because they have an obligation to inspect the property and maintain it in a safe condition. Governments do not. To prove a claim dangerous condition of public property requires showing that the government had notice for a substantial amount of time in which they could have fixed the condition, that injury was reasonably foreseeable, and the condition was a substantial factor. (Govt. Code § 835). In practice, this means that the first cyclist to be injured by a pothole probably doesn’t have a claim, but if the government fails to act, the next cyclist does. But if that pothole happens to be on a bike trail instead of a public road, the claim may be barred entirely.

Trail Immunity

Even if you want to sue the government for dangerous condition of public property, the law says you can’t do that if the dangerous condition was on a bike path. This is called “trail immunity” and it broadly prevents lawsuits over defective bike paths. Government Code § 831.4(c) states that a public entity is not liable for injuries that occur on:

Any paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk on an easement of way which has been granted to a public entity, which easement provides access to any unimproved property, so long as such public entity shall reasonably attempt to provide adequate warnings of the existence of any condition of the paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk which constitutes a hazard to health or safety. Warnings required by this subdivision shall only be required where pathways are paved, and such requirement shall not be construed to be a standard of care for any unpaved pathways or roads.

The public policy rationale behind this law is that governments would not want to provide recreational trails if it opened them up to lawsuits. Of course, there would be no lawsuits if they simply maintained them in a safe condition. In practice, this allows cities to let trails to fall into a state of disrepair. There is often more political will to build new bike paths than to maintain old ones.

Overcoming Trail Immunity

Trail immunity sets a high bar for recovery, but it is not absolute. Generally, a claim is going to be barred if it has to do with the surface of the trail. Potholes, root uplift, and cracking can happen over time and the law mostly gives the government a pass for these things unless they get bad enough over a long enough period and the government willfully disregards them.

When an injury is caused by something other than the surface of a trail, the injured cyclist has a better chance at winning a case. California courts have not granted trail immunity in situations where a pedestrian was hit by an errant golf ball from an adjacent golf course (Garcia v. American Golf Corp. (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 532) or where someone on a trail has a piece of city-owned tree fall onto them (Toeppe v. City of San Diego (2017) 13 Cal.App.5th 921).

Ultimately, it is hard to sue over a pothole in a bike path, but poor maintenance of trail adjacent plants and structures may give rise to a lawsuit. The best thing cyclists can do to help prevent injuries on bike trails is to show up at government meetings and make their voices heard to help improve cycling infrastructure and keep it maintained.

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Paceline Law Bicycle Injury Lawyer represents bicycle accident victims throughout Northern California. Our team understands how difficult and challenging these accidents can be, particularly in this