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Bike Paths: Recreation or Transportation?

Is A Bicycle Path Legally Considered 
To Be For Transportation or Recreation?

A new ruling may affect your rights as a cyclist.


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At Bogaards Davis, we represent bicycle riders who are injured due to “dangerous conditions” on the road. Whether an injury is caused by a bad pothole, a poorly-designed bike lane, or a treacherous intersection, cyclists have the right to receive compensation so long as the public entity in charge of the “dangerous condition” knew (or should have known) about the hazard. Unfortunately, a recent case in Santa Cruz may change cyclists’ rights in this area of the law.

On December 15, 2015, the Sixth Appellate District Court made a ruling that may have repercussions for bicycle commuters throughout California. In the case of Burgueño v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., the court considered the case of Adrian Burgueño, a bicycle commuter who died while riding on the “Great Meadow Bikeway,” a paved trail owned and maintained by UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), which is a state entity.

Under California law, a plaintiff may sue the state if he is injured by a dangerous condition on public property. (Gov. Code §§ 835, 835.2.) Likewise, when it comes to road safety, state entities must make their transportation corridors reasonably safe. For instance, if a state entity knows that a sidewalk or road has a dangerous defect, it must take steps to address the danger and prevent the public from harm.

In this case, Mr. Burgueño’s family sued UCSC for the allegedly dangerous condition of the Bikeway, notably a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill. But before the facts of the case were considered, the court threw out the Burgueño family’s case as a matter of law. In other words, the Burgueño family never even got the chance to prove their case! The Court ruled that UCSC’s Bikeway could not be challenged due to “governmental recreational immunity,” a legal doctrine that protects the state from lawsuits brought by plaintiffs injured while pursuing recreational activities on the landowner’s property.

But was Mr. Burgueño’s commute on the Bikeway a “recreational” activity, or was he travelling on a “transportation corridor”?

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Photo: Googlemaps

Background

The Great Meadow Bikeway was built in 1973 with the purpose of providing a car-free transportation corridor to bicyclists travelling between downtown Santa Cruz and the UCSC campus. This path is paved, scenic, and is designated exclusively for bicyclists. The Bikeway also had a second use: many bicyclists use the Bikeway to reach mountain bike trails located in the forests above UCSC.

On the night February 10, 2011, Mr. Burgueño, a helmeted bicyclist, was riding on the Bikeway, heading home from class at UCSC. After descending a hill on the Bikeway, he entered a corner and crashed. He was found unconscious by another cyclist. Sadly, he died due to his significant injuries.

Around the time of Mr. Burgueño’s crash, the Bikeway was gaining some notoriety for bicycle crashes. The Bikeway features hills and turns, and riders are easily capable of reaching high speeds. Cyclists crashed on this path with frequency. According to a 2012 article in the San Jose Mercury News, there were 24 bike accidents on the Bikeway over a 4 1/2 year period. Of those bike accidents, 11 required ambulances, 6 required helicopter evacuations, and 2 cyclists died of their injuries—including the plaintiff in this case, Mr. Burgueño.

Following Mr. Burgueño’s crash, UCSC posted signs warning cyclists of the dangers

“Recreational Immunity” Halts the Burgueño Family Lawsuit

Following this accident, the Burgueño family sued UCSC (i.e., The Regents of the University of California), claiming that UCSC was responsible for Mr. Burgueño’s death. The Burgueño family alleged that UCSC’s Bikeway was unreasonably dangerous (e.g., that the turning radius of the corner was too tight).

Under this legal theory, the Burgueños sought to hold UC Santa Cruz responsible for the dangerous condition of the Bikeway, which led to Mr. Burgueño’s death. Supportive California law states that public entities are responsible for dangerous conditions of property:

A public entity is generally liable for an injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury and the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. (Gov. Code §§ 835, 835.2, emphasis added; see also, Montenegro v. City of Bradbury (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 924, 929.)


Here, the Burgueño family claimed that the bikeway was unsafe, particularly at night. They claimed that UCSC should have taken safety measures to protect bicyclists, such as installing barriers to prevent nighttime use, and warning the public of the dangers of using the path.

Early in litigation, UCSC won a Motion for Summary Judgment, which stopped the Burgueño lawsuit in its tracks. In December 2015, three judges from the Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal in San Jose upheld that ruling.

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Photo: UC Santa Cruz.

Legal Immunity for a Bike Path – As Long As It Has Some Recreational Purpose

Highlighting the fact that the Bikeway connects riders to nearby mountain bike trails, UCSC successfully argued that it had “absolute immunity from claims arising from Adrian’s tragic accident on the Great Meadow Bikeway” based on Government Code section 831.4, which protects state entities from lawsuits based on injuries suffered while on recreational trails. Attorneys for UCSC contended that this was a matter of encouraging public entities “to open their property for public recreational use without exposure to liability.”

In opposition, the Burgueño family argued that the Great Meadow Bikeway is not a recreational trail, but a “major transportation corridor” designed and used for bicycle commuting between downtown Santa Cruz and the UCSC campus.

Ultimately, the Court did not consider whether Mr. Burgueño himself was engaged in a recreational or transportation activity. Instead, the judges focused on how the Bikeway is generally used. The Court decided that UCSC was immune to the lawsuit because the Bikeway has a dual purpose: 1) providing a transportation corridor to commuting cyclists, and 2) providing a pathway for recreational cyclists. Because one purpose was recreational in nature, the judges found that governmental immunity was in effect, thus barring the Burgueño family’s claim.

What Does it Mean? Is This Ruling Fair to Cyclists?

Generally, the law tells recreational cyclists (e.g., mountain bikers), “By doing recreational riding on public property, you assume the risk of any injury—so don’t bother suing the state, you won’t get far!” Fair enough. But in this ruling, the Court treats bicycle commuters the same way, and therefore allows the state to shirk its responsibility to create safe bike infrastructure. 

Notably, in this case, the Court considered the general use of the trail rather than looking at the individual rider. The Court determined that, since the Bikeway was at least partially recreational, that Mr. Burgueno himself was engaged in a recreational activity (despite undisputed facts showing that he was commuting). Similarly, the Court did not consider that transportation was the primary purpose and use of the Bikeway. The Court didn’t look at how many cyclists used the path for transportation, versus how many used it for recreation. Instead, it ruled that even a small presence of recreational riders is enough to turn an entire path into a recreational pursuit (and therefore to remove the state’s duty to make it safe).

By lumping together commuters and recreational riders in this way, the Burgueño ruling sends an unfriendly message to bicycle commuters who ride on paved, public bike paths for transportation purposes: “This path might be unsafe, but don’t blame us!” This reduces the state’s obligation to ensure the safety of paved bike paths. This is a disappointing result that demeans bike infrastructure, which is generally regarded as safer than the street.

To understand the unfairness of this ruling, consider what would happen if this ruling applied to other activities with "dual purposes" of recreation and transportation. For instance, what if this ruling also applied to driving? That would mean that the state would never be liable for a dangerous condition on any road that is ever used in a recreational way (e.g., scenic Sunday driving). Additionally, the court’s logic would apply to any road that leads to a recreational activity (e.g., a mountain pass that leads skiers to Tahoe). Or, what if this ruling applied to walking? That would mean that the state would never be liable for a dangerous condition on any sidewalk that is ever used for a “recreational” activity like jogging, strolling, or running! When the Court's decision is applied to these other, similar activities, it becomes clear that this decision is unfair to cyclists, and is unsafe for the public.

We hope that a better ruling or law takes the place of the Burgueño decision. But our advice to riders remains the same:  Keep your head up, and ride safe!

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Photo: San Jose Mercury News

If you’re injured on your bicycle due to a dangerous condition, give us a call to arrange a free evaluation of your case. We ride. We get it.

 

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