Articles Posted in Bicycle Accidents

Recently, a state supreme court issued an opinion in a personal injury case presenting an important issue for Indiana premises liability plaintiffs. The case raised the question of whether a landowner – in this case, a local government – is entitled to immunity under a recreational-use statute when the land in question is used for both recreational and non-recreational purposes. Ultimately, the court held that land need not be solely used for recreational purposes in order for immunity to attach.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff and her niece were riding their bicycles along a non-motorized asphalt trail. As the two were riding, they passed a ride-on lawnmower cutting grass along the trail’s edge. The mower was kicking up dust and debris, obscuring the riders’ vision.

As the plaintiff passed the mower, she covered her face and swerved, clipping the side of her niece’s bike. The plaintiff then lost control, fell, and injured her leg and knee. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the local government that owned and operated the trail.

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During the formative years of the United States, certain principles were included in the U.S. Constitution and early amendments that still exist today. However, over time, the country has moved away from some of these principles and limited their application through the passage of new laws. One of the principles that has been continually rolled back over the past two centuries is the idea of government immunity.

Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and subsequent case-law interpreting that Amendment, the federal and state governments enjoy immunity from lawsuits filed by citizens unless the government waives this immunity. Initially, this meant that very few lawsuits could be brought against government entities. However, the federal and state governments began passing various “tort claims acts,” which would statutorily waive immunity in some circumstances.

In Indiana, the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA) waives the government’s immunity in certain circumstances and provides procedural rules that Indiana accident victims must follow when bringing a lawsuit against the state government. The ITCA is designed to clarify under which situations the government can be held liable, and when the government’s inherent immunity remains intact. A recent case illustrates the difficulties one victim in another state had when he attempted to establish that his injuries fell outside the scope of government immunity.

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Sometimes government entities such as public universities are protected from lawsuits due to immunity. In Burgueno v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., a court found that a university was protected by immunity when a student was killed on a bike path that ran through the school. According to the court’s written opinion, the University of California, Santa Cruz student was living in an off-campus apartment and commuted to school on his bike. He was killed in a bicycle accident on the Great Meadow Bikeway, a paved bike path that ran through part of the school’s campus. The student’s family sued the school after his death, alleging that the school was liable because the path was dangerous. There had been a number of bicycle accidents on the path prior to the student’s death, and the family sued based on a dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death.

However, the trial court found that the claim was barred because the school was protected by immunity. A state code precluded governmental liability for injuries caused by the condition of any trail that provided access to recreational or scenic areas. The purpose of the law was to allow public entities to open their property for public recreational use. The idea was that if the public entities could be sued for poor road conditions, most paths would probably close.

The court found that the law applied to the Great Meadow Bikeway path because it was a path that provided access to recreational or scenic areas. It stated that even though the trail may have been used for both recreational and non-recreational purposes, the school was still protected by immunity. In this case, since the school was a public university, it had absolute immunity from any claims arising from injuries due to poor conditions on the path.

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On December 10, 2010, the Plaintiff in Marquez v. Kobler, (Indiana Court of Appeals 2013) was on bicycle, crossing an intersection in Indianapolis, when he was hit by an oncoming car that was turning left. An ambulance responded to the accident and the man was hospitalized with injuries. The bicyclist filed an Indiana negligence lawsuit against the driver who hit him. The suit argues that the plaintiff had the right of way at the intersection, and the defendant was negligent when she failed to yield, and should pay damages to the plaintiff as a result. The defendant argued that she was not entirely liable because the bicyclist was himself negligent by entering the intersection in the pathway of her vehicle, regardless of his right of way.The Accident

Mr. Kobler was riding his bicycle to work on the day of the accident when he stopped at the intersection of Sheila Drive and Pendleton Pike (U.S. Highway 36), and the traffic light was red. He intended to cross Pendleton Pike and travel north on Sheila Drive. The defendant, Ms. Marquez, was facing south on Sheila Drive, and intended to make a left turn and travel east on Pendleton Pike. There was a car in front of the defendant’s car in the left turn lane. When the light turned green, the plaintiff immediately started to propel his bicycle into the intersection and cross the street. The car in front of the defendant quickly made a left turn onto Pendleton Pike, crossing in front of the plaintiff as he entered the intersection. The defendant followed the car in front of her, noticing the plaintiff in her path immediately before she collided with him.

The Defendant’s Argument at Trial

The defendant argued that the plaintiff was at least partially responsible for the accident because the car in front of her crossed in the plaintiff’s path, and if he was paying attention he would have known to look for another car that could be turning left before he continued to cross the street. The defendant wanted the jury to hear this evidence, and have the option to find that the plaintiff was comparatively at fault, which could reduce or eliminate the defendant’s liability. Because the plaintiff undisputedly had the right of way under these circumstances, his attorney argued that the defendant was entirely at fault as a matter of law. Considering this, the plaintiff’s attorney moved the court to prevent the jury from finding him partially at fault, and instead to restrict their decision to the amount of damages. The trial court agreed with the plaintiff, ruling that there was no issue for the jury to decide with regard to liability, and that the defendant was 100% at fault for the accident. The defendant then appealed the decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals.
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