Cycling case challenges suit shield: Cities now have immunity

With a lawsuit filed by a North Hollywood man who was injured on the L.A. River bike path, cycling advocates are hoping to overturn a state law that prevents riders from suing cities when they've had crashes on public bikeways.

•••

Published February 16, 2007 by The LA Daily News 
BY KERRY CAVANAUGH

CA — With a lawsuit filed by a North Hollywood man who was injured on the L.A. River bike path, cycling advocates are hoping to overturn a state law that prevents riders from suing cities when they've had crashes on public bikeways.

Bicycling groups say David Prokop's case could force cities to take legal responsibility for bike paths and lead to safer, better-designed routes.

But it could also mean high-priced lawsuits for Los Angeles and could slow the development of new bike paths.

The case began in November 2002 when Prokop – a longtime cyclist, athlete and editor of Runner's World and Muscle and Fitness magazines – was riding along the Los Angeles River near Griffith Park.

The paved bikeway ends at a gate at Victory Boulevard, but there's a narrow portal for cyclists or pedestrians to enter and exit.

The pavement is printed with large block letters directing riders to "walk bike" through the gateway, but like many cyclists, Prokop attempted to ride through the portal.

He lost control, crashed into a fence and needed more than 100 stitches for a gash in his forehead. He sued the city for his medical expenses, alleging the narrow bike exit was poorly designed and unsafe.

But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out his case, citing previous court rulings that the city is not liable under state law for injuries people get from riding on a trail. And a bike path is considered a trail.

Prokop appealed. He would not comment on the case, but supporters said the suit is about giving cyclists the same protections as drivers.

If a driver crashes a car because of an unsafe or faulty highway condition, he or she can sue the state. But bicyclists hurt on a poorly built bike path can't, said Amanda Eichstaedt, president of the League of American Bicyclists board.

"In this day and age, with global warming and trying to reduce dependency on oil, as we encourage people to ride their bikes to get around, they should be afforded the same rights and responsibilities as people in their automobiles," Eichstaedt said.

Matt Benjamin with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition said bike paths are built with public transportation money to be used for bicycle commuting.

"If there's an unsafe situation there, it needs to be remedied, and if they're not liable in these cases, there is going to be little incentive to fix the situation," he said.

But the city has argued that immunity helps keep paths open to the public.

In court briefs, Deputy City Attorney Blithe Bock cited previous court rulings explaining why cities are not held liable for bike paths:

"In today's litigious society, it does not take a very large crystal ball to foresee the plethora of litigation cities or counties might face over bicycle paths, which are used by a variety of people … all going at different speeds.

"The actual cost of litigation, or even the specter of it, might well cause cities or counties to reconsider allowing operation of a bicycle path, which, after all, produces no revenue."

The case will be heard at the Court of Appeals on Feb. 28.

kerry.cavanaugh@dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390