Judges Discuss “Extreme” Versus “Ordinary” Cycling

On a training ride in 2016, Catherine Williams hit a three by four foot pothole and went down hard. (The pothole had been previously reported to the Dept of Transportation & Public Works, and was repaired immediately after the incident.) She suffered severe injuries, including brain damage. She sued the County in 2017, and in December of 2018 a jury awarded her $1.85 million for medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering.

The County has appealed the verdict; I read several of the briefs and watched the arguments in the Appellate Court this morning. Each side had fifteen minutes to answer questions from the Justices.

The attorney representing the County works for a Los Angeles firm specializing in appeals. The County’s argument focused on the length, speed, and purpose of Williams’ ride, claiming that as she was engaged in an “extreme sport” and was not an “ordinary user” of the road, she assumed the “inherent risk of the sport.”  In other words, she should have known she could get hurt riding a bike and that County liability for poor road condition therefore does not apply to her.

The Justices’ line of questioning really hammered on this idea that the County’s liability varies based on the speed and purpose of a cyclist’s ride on a given day. One Justice gave the County attorney some hypotheticals and asked in which cases the County has duty. They included a woman riding at the same speed and distance but to work; a teenager riding the same speed but on her way to soccer practice; a 65-year-old woman riding the same speed on an electric bike she bought after having a knee replacement. They all seemed somewhat incredulous that some of these instances would release the County from liability for the cyclist’s injuries and questioned the whole idea of defining “ordinary” and “extreme” bicycling. (The attorney had quoted a study on “average” speed and distance for recreational and transportational cyclists.)

I came away from the hearing feeling fairly confident that the appeal will be denied, as did Williams’ attorney. The court has ninety days to issue a ruling but they guessed it would be more like two or three weeks.

The outcome of this case has implications for all cyclists. Making a distinction between how and why someone rides on any particular day is ludicrous; many of our rides serve multiple purposes at once – exercise, recreation, transportation, enjoyment of the outdoors, social interaction, JOY. Would liability for a motor vehicle crash depend upon whether the driver was heading to the movies or heading to work? Liability for a bicycle crash shouldn’t depend upon the rider’s motives that day. Cities and counties have a responsibility to make roads safe for ALL users. If the original jury award to Williams were to be overturned, that would deter jurisdictions from making repairs AND deter injured cyclists from filing suits. The County needs to take responsibility for their neglect. Yes, this will be a big financial hit to the County, ultimately coming from our tax dollars; but this might be the wake-up call the County needs to be more aggressive about road repairs.