Can you be sued for causing a group ride crash?
You’re out on your regular morning bunch ride, surrounded by dozens of other riders; some you know, others you don’t. The bunch approaches an intersection and, looking up the road, you notice cars ahead of you starting to slow. You decide to follow other riders into the adjacent lane, and make a quick head check before pulling across.
When you turn back, you realise the bunch has slowed suddenly in front of you, and before you can react, you’re slamming into the back of another rider.
You hit the ground hard, landing awkwardly on your wrist. It doesn’t seem to be broken, but it’s not exactly comfortable either. The rider you’ve hit is on the ground too and as he stands up gingerly, you notice him holding his shoulder. His bike seems to have sustained some damage as well, but the extent of that damage isn’t clear.
So what happens now? Who’s to blame for the crash? Is it your fault for riding into the rider ahead? Or is it just one of those things that happens on a bunch ride?
Perhaps more importantly: Who’s going to pay for the surgery the other rider now needs to fix his broken collarbone? And what about repairs to his broken bike?
Can you be sued if you’re involved in a crash in a bunch ride?
Case study #1: Ken’s story
That story above? That actually happened to a rider in Melbourne a few years back. Let’s call him “Ken”. Ken hit another rider from behind but maintains the crash wasn’t his fault.
On that day, Ken and the rider he hit — let’s call him “Simon” — spoke by the side of the road, exchanged details, chatted about who had insurance coverage, and then went their separate ways.
That night Ken got a text message from Simon, asking how he would like to sort it out with insurance. After an initial reply, saying he admitted to no fault, Ken stopped replying to Simon’s subsequent text messages. When contact stopped, he assumed that was the end of it.
Two months later, Ken got another text message asking for his postal or email address. When Ken refused to comply, Simon got more insistent, saying if Ken didn’t provide the information he was after, he’d have to speak with the police.
A few weeks after that, a legal letter of demand arrived in Ken’s letterbox, claiming Ken’s negligence had caused the crash, and that he would need to cover the cost of repairing Simon’s bike and the cost of his collarbone surgery.
At this point, Ken spoke to his insurance company — his home and contents insurance covered him for third-party damage while out riding. Ken submitted a claim (at a cost of $250) and his insurance company looked into the case and ultimately ended up providing a lawyer for Ken’s legal defence.
More letters followed, and the case ended up in mediation at the local magistrates court. Over two sessions and after plenty of back and forth, Ken’s lawyer and Simon’s lawyer agreed to settle the case out of court, for around $8,000 — roughly half of what Simon had been claiming.
Insurance ended up covering the cost, leaving Ken just $250 out of pocket for his insurance claim.
If this case sounds unusual, that’s because it is. While cyclists do sometimes bring legal action against one another, it doesn’t happen all that often.
When a rider’s involved in a crash, they have a few options at their disposal*. They can cover any costs themselves; they can make a claim against their own insurance; or, if they feel another cyclist was to blame, they can lean on another cyclist’s insurance by way of a letter of demand — just as Simon did with Ken.
Normally if insurance gets involved, the case will be settled before it gets to court. Sometimes, though, the case does end up in court.
(*If a motor vehicle is involved, the rider likely has other options too. For example, in Victoria, a rider can make a claim with the Transport Accident Commission if they’re injured and a car was involved.)
Case study #2: A tale of two mates
Back in June 2009, two mates were riding together around Canberra when one of those riders, David Blick, hit a piece of wood that was lying on the road. His bike was thrown off balance, and Blick swerved into his mate, Michael Anthony Franklin. Franklin was thrown from his bike and landed on the road where he was then run over by a car.
Franklin spent 28 days in hospital with a fractured pelvis and vertebra as well as considerable internal bleeding. For many years afterwards he would be in and out of rehab for his injuries, he wasn’t able to work full time, and pain was a near-constant companion.
According to court documents, Franklin “assumed that he would be ‘covered for personal injury’ as the accident involved a motor vehicle.” A solicitor advised Franklin that the driver’s insurance would only cover him if it could be proven the driver had been negligent.
Franklin went on to bring a civil negligence case against his mate, claiming Blick failed to keep a proper lookout for dangers on the road and that he had not been riding safely. In his defence, Blick alleged “contributory negligence” — that Franklin’s own negligence had contributed to the accident — saying that Franklin failed to “keep a proper lookout” and failed to “take proper care for his own safety”.
Justice John Burns found in favour of Franklin. “I am satisfied that the defendant breached his duty of care to the plaintiff,” he said, “and that the plaintiff’s injuries as a consequence of falling from his bike and being struck by a car directly flow from the defendant’s negligence.”
The court ordered Blick to pay more than $1.65 million to Anthony, covering damages, past and future lost earnings, and more. Blick appealed the decision but the original finding was upheld. Reports suggest Blick’s insurance covered the full amount.
That case sent shockwaves through the Australian cycling community. It showed that you can be sued while out riding for something as simple as not pointing out a road hazard to your mate. It also had many riders wondering whether they could afford not to be insured while riding.
And the Canberra case certainly isn’t the only one to have such an impact.
Case study #3: The Spectrum Ride
The Spectrum Ride is a long-time weekly bunch ride in California’s Bay Area. It’s a high-speed event that’s taken seriously by those who attend and one that arguably blurs the lines between “group ride” and “road race”.
In one edition of the Spectrum Ride in January 2017, local doctor Adrian Goldstein fell heavily in one of two crashes that marred that particular ride. He was knocked unconscious, and suffered a range of injuries, including facial fractures.
Goldstein later brought a lawsuit against a total of 26 riders in that bunch, suing for “general damages” of $1 million plus medical expenses, lost earnings, and more. Goldstein alleged that all 26 of the defendants rode “negligently, carelessly and recklessly” which led to one of those riders, Michael Jacques, colliding with Goldstein, in turn bringing Goldstein to the ground.
Reports from other riders in that bunch suggested no one rider was to blame for the incident. “No one really at fault [except for] the city that left a cone out on some broken shoulder of the road,” wrote one rider on Reddit. “People avoided the cone, wheels touched, dudes crashed. Normal, everyday occurrence when you get a bunch of bikes all moving the same direction in close quarters.”
Somewhat remarkably, Goldstein’s case is still active in the San Mateo County Superior Court, more than three years after the initial incident. The court is set to decide in July whether the case should continue or whether it should be dismissed, as per a request from Jacques’ legal team.
As with the other cases mentioned above, the Spectrum Ride incident highlights a key issue when it comes to group cycling crashes: it’s often difficult to work out who’s to blame, and therefore who’s responsible for any damages that may result.
Who’s fault is it?
In the case of Ken and Simon, was the crash simply Ken’s fault because he was the rider that rode into Simon? Or could the blame be placed on the bunch as a whole? Is it just one of those things that happens on a bunch ride?
Another crash in Melbourne from a few years ago paints a similar picture. On that particular day, “Barry” rode into “Ethan” when the bunch slowed suddenly, leaving Ethan with a broken rear wheel and frame. To Ethan, the case was clear cut:
“Just imagine that you’re riding along, and you come to a gradual stop at a roundabout, you wait for a car, and you get rear-ended at speed,” he told CyclingTips. “So what’s your take on that? Not tapped. Rear-ended hard enough to smash your back wheel and crack your frame.
“There’s sort of line-ball situations where you just go, ‘Yeah, look, you know, let it go.’ And then there’s, ‘Come on, mate, what on earth were you doing?’”
Barry has a different perspective.
“I clearly had run into him from behind in the crash,” he told CyclingTips, “but you’re riding in a bunch, and there’s half a metre between you and the bike in front of you, and there’s a sudden slowing from a car going through a roundabout, and it just happened that my back tire locked up and I wasn’t able to stop before I ran into the back of him and crashed.”
In scenarios like this, it’s not unusual for the two parties to have different views about who was to blame and who’s responsible. But what does the law say?
Firstly, it’s important to note that laws differ significantly from state to state and from country to country. What applies in the Australian state of Victoria, doesn’t necessarily apply in the ACT, or in the US state of California.
In reporting on the Goldstein crash in 2017, Bicycling Magazine quoted San Francisco lawyer Claude Wyle, a litigator with 35 years’ experience in cycling cases. He pointed out that being part of a group ride carries an “implied assumption of risk” and that it would be difficult to successfully sue other members of that ride.
“The activity has such risk that you would normally assume what you are doing is dangerous,” Wyle told Bicycling at the time. “You are doing something that is so risky that you have allowed the other participants to waive the duty to act reasonably. If it is just healthy, aggressive competition, I doubt the case will be successful.”
For Goldstein to be successful in his case, he will likely have to prove, in Wyle’s words, that Jacques’ behaviour was “an extreme departure from what a normal cyclist would do in the same situation.”
If a crash happens on a bunch ride, and legal proceedings are initiated, it will generally be a question of negligence that comes under scrutiny.
Again, definitions vary between jurisdictions, but negligence generally means that an individual failed to act with reasonable care, in circumstances where doing so was likely to result in harm, and where that harm has resulted in someone else experiencing loss.
Claims of negligence are at the core of all of the examples mentioned so far, both from Australia and the US. Anecdotally though, such claims of negligence are more likely to occur in the US than elsewhere, given the deficiencies of the nation’s healthcare and health insurance system. A trip to hospital after a crash in a bunch ride might cost the rider (or the rider’s insurance company) tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For some riders, suing another rider might be the only way to recoup those costs. And as one US-based lawyer told CyclingTips, it might not even be the individual that brings the legal case against their fellow rider. “If you’re injured in circumstances where someone else may be at fault, your insurance company may decide to pursue litigation to try to recover what they paid for your medical bills,” they said. “[The insurers] generally have the right to do this under your policy” — a principle known as subrogation.
What to do in the case of a crash
So, let’s say you’ve been involved in a crash during a bunch ride and you think another rider is at fault. What do you do?
First of all, it’s worth repeating that the process and the specifics might differ from location to location. Dimi Ioannou is a principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn in Victoria, Australia and an expert in personal injury law. She’s had plenty of experience working with cyclists who have been injured while out riding. Here’s what she recommends you do immediately after a crash in which you’ve been injured or your bike’s been damaged, and when you feel someone else might be to blame.
“You should obviously see a doctor to make sure you’re OK,” she told CyclingTips. “Get the other cyclist’s contact and insurance details, get the details of any witnesses, report the date and time of the incident, take photographs of the injuries and where the incident occurred, keep records if you need to have any treatment or take time off work, and keep copies of any out-of-pocket expenses.
“And if you believe a road hazard played a part in the incident, the rider should report it to the local council or the relevant authorities.”
You should also speak to your insurance provider — if you’ve got one — and if you wish to pursue the other rider for costs, you might want to consider approaching a legal representative. They have a few avenues through which they can assist you.
“[The aggrieved rider] may have a legal claim against the cyclist who caused the incident, or a council or other authority if the road hazard contributed to the accident,” Ioannou told CyclingTips. “In these instances, we would usually bring up legal claims on behalf of the injured cyclist against the insurance of the other cyclist, whether it be their home and contents insurance or insurance obtained through a cycling club.
“To bring these kinds of injury claims, we need to investigate what occurred, whether there was a breach of any road rules, and whether there were any other hazards at fault. And the cyclist also needs to prove that they suffered a serious injury as a result of the incident.”
And what about if you’re on the other end of the equation: where you’ve been involved in a crash and someone else feels you’re to blame? The advice is much the same.
“You should provide your contact and insurance details to the injured cyclist, contact your insurance provider to inform them of the incident and discuss the details of your coverage,” Ioannou said.
Should we all have insurance?
Much of the advice above is predicated on the idea that you or another rider involved in the crash has insurance. But what happens if the rider responsible for the crash doesn’t have insurance for the aggrieved cyclist to lean on? Well, generally speaking, the rider responsible will themselves be responsible for covering any costs. But it’s not quite that simple.
“It is a lot more difficult to pursue an individual,” Ioannou said, “because you might not have any assets or any money in your name.” What happens next depends on the jurisdiction.
So should all cyclists have insurance cover of some kind, just in case they are responsible for a crash? Ioannou certainly thinks so.
“These kinds of incidents highlight the importance of insurance to cyclists including personal injury and third-party public liability insurance so they aren’t left out of pocket if they are injured or injured someone else in a cycling incident,” she said. “Just as motorists carry liability cover, cyclists on the road should do the same to protect themselves from liability where an injury or an incident does occur. And that’s why we strongly recommend that all riders should have third-party insurance.”
If you are looking for insurance you’ve got a few options available. As noted, your home and contents insurance might cover your bikes and any damage or injury caused while riding them. A membership for your local cycling club should also provide cover for yourself and for others. And there are offerings from advocacy groups like Bicycle Network (Australia), national cycling bodies like Cycling Australia, or standalone cycling insurance providers like Velosurance (US).
To be protected in a range of scenarios, you’ll want cover for:
– Accidental death or disablement
– Personal injury
– Loss of income
– Third-party liability
As always with such things, be sure to read the product disclosure statement or equivalent before making a decision, to make sure you’re getting the coverage you think you are.
The ethics of insurance
If we suppose that it makes sense for all cyclists to have insurance coverage, both for themselves and others, shouldn’t cyclists be more willing to make use of that insurance? Just as drivers would rely on another driver’s insurance to cover any damage they’ve caused, shouldn’t cyclists be more willing to use other riders’ insurance to cover any necessary costs?
Dimi Ioannou from Maurice Blackburn believes so, saying that’s what the insurance is there for.
“If you went to visit a friend, and you’re in their backyard to have a barbecue and you tripped over uneven concrete that was in the backyard, you could sue them under their home and contents insurance,” she said. “It’s the same thing.”
You might think: wouldn’t that reflect badly on the person being sued? After all, most people would likely regard it as a big deal if someone took legal action against them. Ioannou believes that there’s actually very little in the way of downside.
“It doesn’t reflect badly on the person [being sued],” she said. “The only thing is that their premium might increase because a claim’s been lodged.”
Of course there’s another perspective here. Getting sued can be stressful and distressing. That was certainly Ken’s experience when Simon sued him after their crash. He wasn’t so worried about the $250 excess he had to pay to make an insurance claim; he was more concerned about the mental anguish caused by the whole process.
“In the scheme of things, [$250 is] really nothing but the kind of psychological and mental stress that it puts someone through, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone,” Ken said. “I mean, I just want to ride my bike. I don’t want to be sued for this issue. My mistake was that I actually cared about another cyclist when I fell off and I went to him and I said ‘How are you going? You alright?’ I checked up on him. But the next thing he found out that I’ve got some insurance …”
Barry experienced a similar anguish when he received a letter of demand from Ethan for their crash.
“Even though it was a small cost to me to get it resolved … it was a pretty crappy overall experience, you know?” he told CyclingTips. “I had just moved to Melbourne. I had been living in Melbourne for about three months. I’d been on this group ride once before, and to be honest, I haven’t been back since. And it just really left me with a sour taste.”
Should cyclists be comfortable leaning on one another’s insurance for crashes in a bunch ride? Or should riders accept that taking part in a fast ride with other riders they don’t know comes with a chance of getting hurt or having their bike damaged? Assuming no one’s done something egregiously dangerous, should riders just accept that cost themselves, either through their own insurance or otherwise? Is taking part in a big group ride really any different to turning up to a race?
Barry doesn’t think so.
“You wouldn’t sue another racer if you were involved in a crash in a race for a broken bicycle,” he said. “That’s just part of the deal when you sign up for a bike race. And when you sign up for a bunch ride of 80 to 100 people you don’t know, then you’re assuming, in my opinion, some liability for whatever happens.”
Ultimately it’s up to each rider to decide how they feel about making insurance claims and taking legal action against fellow riders. And realistically, for most people, it will depend on the circumstances. How obviously was it another rider’s fault? How significant is the damage? Will your own insurance cover it? It could even depend on how contrite the other rider is.
Regardless of your approach, if there’s one thing the examples above have taught us, it’s that having insurance is probably a good idea when it comes to cycling. Hopefully you never have to use it — and hopefully no one has cause to do so either — but there is a certain comfort in knowing it’s there anyway, just in case.