Bike paths: Ride at your own risk.

Most experienced cyclists know that we risk our safety every time we venture into the traffic lane.

But maybe you didn’t know that you’re also at risk when you ride in a designated off-road bikeway (Class I). Except the risk there isn’t from careless or aggressive drivers.

It’s from a bottom-line obsessed bureaucracy that has little or no incentive to protect your safety, or even your life. Because they have no liability whatsoever for the condition of that bike path.

Trip on a misaligned manhole cover on the sidewalk — as my wife did a few years ago — and the company or government agency responsible for maintaining it is legally responsible. Get into an accident on the street because of a missing traffic sign or a dangerous road condition, and the city, county or state agency responsible can be held liable.

But suffer an injury because of a massive pothole or botched patch job in a bike lane, or a huge crack — or even criminal activity — on an off-road trail, and you’re on your own.

Swerving around the frequent bumps and cracks in the bike path around the Marina, I always assumed that someone would be injured there sooner or later — if they haven’t already. And that the county, which is responsible for most of the Marina del Rey area, would be sued as a result.

But I never knew that such a suit would be summarily dismissed.

It wasn’t until I read the statement from Council District 5 candidate David Vahedi that I had the slightest clue that no city, county or state government, nor any private enterprise, bears any legal responsibility for maintaining safe riding conditions on a Class I or Class II bikeway. (I’m assuming they’re still responsible for conditions on a Class III bike route, since those usually require riding in the traffic lane. But I could be wrong.)

When I asked Vahedi if her had any more information, he was kind enough to pass along the law that removed liability on off-road paths and trails, as well as the California appellate court ruling that greatly expanded it.

It’s clear that the original intent of the law was to encourage property owners to grant access to the public by removing liability for conditions they didn’t intentionally cause, and may not be aware of. For instance, DWP might not be willing to provide a trail leading to one of their reservoirs if they had to worry about being sued any time someone slipped and fell on a wet rock.

The problem came when the courts began to interpret any off-road path, trail or sidewalk — including heavily traveled Class I bikeways, such as the Marvin Broad Bikeway along the beach from Santa Monica to Palos Verdes — as being covered under the law. Or on-road bike lanes for that matter, such as the bike lane through the Sepulveda Pass, as Vehedi notes in his comments.

And even, as in his example from the Venice bike path, if they are fully aware of the problem and have done nothing to correct it.

So if you’ve wondered why things never seem to get fixed along our bikeways, that’s why. Problems get corrected when the agencies responsible face liability. If there’s no risk to them, it usually falls to the bottom of a long list of things they intend to get around to eventually, when and if their budget allows — even if that poses a greater risk for everyone else.

Yet while government and corporate lawyers have been quick to capitalize on their new-found freedom from liability, one section of the law has been universally ignored — the one that says warning signs have to be posted if there are any known health or safety hazards along a paved pathway.

So if authorities know that the lights are out along the L.A. River bikeway, they are required to post signs warning riders about it. If L.A. is aware — and they are — that the Ballona Creek trail runs through known gang territory and that riders have been subject to assaults, they have to provide a warning to anyone who might consider riding there.

And if Los Angeles and Santa Monica refuse to enforce the No Pedestrian signs on the beachfront bike path through their respective cities, they have to warn riders about the presence of pedestrians.

Otherwise, they can — and should — be held liable for any injuries that may result.

C.I.C.L.E. reposts an article tracing the early history of the bicycle. Bike craftsmen exhibit their work at the North American Handmade Bike Show. Once they clear the snow, Yellowstone opens its roads to cyclists and other non-motorized traffic for several weeks of car-free riding, starting in mid-March. A woman and her children are hit head-on by a car while riding on a popular bike path on Hawaii’s North Shore. And finally, Bike Date reposts a list of great bike safety tips from the Onion.

7 comments

  1. Will Campbell says:

    Your appeals court ruling link is coming back “not found” so I’m not sure if you’re referencing the 2007 appeal of Prokop v. City of Los Angeles.

    If not here’s some more info on that case, in which the ruling was upheld that the City of LA has absolute immunity for injuries suffered on bike paths:

    http://www.metnews.com/articles/2007/prok052207.htm

    • bikinginla says:

      Thanks, for the heads-up, Will. It looked right on my screen, so I had no idea it wasn’t linking. And I appreciate the link to the L.A. case!

      This particular case was Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont. The link should be fixed now, so you can click on it to read the entire ruling.

  2. Les G. Miklosy says:

    Attorney Vahedi interprets the language of California Government Code Section 831.4 to include Class II (any) bike paths on city streets. I interpret the language for a)unpaved road, b)trails and paved trails but not to city streets. Line 6 of the Code gives the reason for the exclusion of city streets. Line 6 reads “… riding, water sports, recreational or scenic areas and which is not a (1) city street or highway…” . Does anybody see how government immunity from Section 831.4 applies to bike lanes on city streets or highways?

    • bikinginla says:

      As a non-attorney, I can’t say I’m clear on exactly how that applies, myself. However, Vahedi is well versed in this law, since he litigated a case in which a cyclist was severely injured while riding in a Class 2 bike lane when the roadway crumbled beneath him. He took the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled against him based on 831.4 and Amberger v. the City of Piedmont.

      • Les G. Miklosy says:

        According to Farnham v. LA the cyclist was riding on Sepulveda Basin Bikeway which is a Class I paved bikeway not a Class II on a city street. All the cases I read involving Class I bike paths attach immunity by virtue of Code 831.4. I’m looking for a case involving Class II bikeways where either immunity or liability applies.

        • bikinginla says:

          Thanks for the correction, Les. My understanding was that it occurred on the Sepulveda pass, rather than the Sepulveda Basin. And I would be very happy to learn that the part about it applying to some class II bikeways is incorrect, as well.

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