Burgueno v. Univ. of Calif. – Liability for Fatal Bike Accident

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) counted 743 bicyclist deaths in the U.S. in 2013. Of those, 6 occurred in Alabama. That’s slightly fewer than the 9 counted by state Department of Transportation officials in 2012, but doesn’t necessarily indicate a downward trend. There were 176 crashes involving bicyclists in the state that same year, resulting in 138 injuries.

We are likely to see these numbers increase as bicycling grows in popularity in the state. The Alabama Bicycle Coalition reports there are dozens of popular trails throughout central Alabama, particularly around Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

Most bicyclists fatally injured die because of a collision with a motor vehicle, usually by drivers who aren’t paying adequate attention. However, there are cases in which cyclists are killed or injured on unsafe trails. In these cases, recovery of damages in civil court will depend on the circumstances of the crash, but also on who maintains the trail – and why.

Although property owners are usually responsible for maintaining safe conditions on site, particularly when the public is invited, there are laws that protect both public and private owners that open their land for recreational use.

Alabama’s Recreational Use Statute is codified in the Code of Alabama, Title 35, Property Chapter 15, Article 1. Essentially, it states that if land owners allow their property to be used by the public for free for recreational purposes, they hold only the bare minimum liability for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on those lands. They can’t deliberately endanger people, but they probably won’t be held liable for general negligence.

As far as governments are concerned, these entities too are sometimes protected when they allow recreational land to be used under sovereign immunity statutes.

These provisions aren’t absolute, but it’s important to discuss your options with an experienced Montgomery injury lawyer before deciding best how to proceed.

One recent example of this was seen in a California case, Burgueno v. Regents of the Univ. of Calif. Here, a full-time student was bicycling on a path – owned and maintained by the university – home from night classes when he crashed his bike and was killed. There was no motor vehicle involved.

His parents alleged the accident was preventable and resulted from the negligence and recklessness of the school in failing to have proper signage, lighting, runoff areas or physical barriers that would block people from using it at night. In fact, it had been the site of numerous other bike accidents before this one.

The school countered that it was protected from litigation under a governmental immunity statute (as this is a public university) that was providing land to the public for recreational use. Although the government had statutorily waived its immunity in a number of cases where negligence results in injury, this was an exception.

Defense moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted it.

On appeal to the California Court of Appeals for the Sixth District, plaintiff argued the trail wasn’t a “recreational trail” as understood by the statute. Rather, it was a “major transportation corridor” that was designed for students going back and forth from campus. Although some recreational groups did use it, this was incidental and not the sole purpose. Further, they argued, the school did make money off the trail (a key provision of any recreational use statute) because it was used as a draw to prospective students.

However, the appeals court was not persuaded by this, finding that just because the trail was used for both recreational and non-recreational purposes did not mean immunity was precluded.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:

Burgueno v. Regents of the Univ. of Calif. , Jan. 13, 2016, California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District

More Blog Entries:

Edwards v. Hanger – Auto Accident Statute of Limitations and Service Process, Dec. 30, 2016, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog

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