article by Bob Mionske
What happens if one of the cyclists hits a pedestrian or a car or takes down a paceline on a group ride?
Bike clubs have long organized of all sorts of group rides for club members as well as the public. These rides provide a great introduction to the world of cycling. Because they attract an array of different cyclists, the level of etiquette and experience varies immensely among the participants. To your left, you could be looking at a retired professional. But to your right, you’ll find a super-strong newbie who also struggles with proper riding lines and basic bike handling — which is, of course, critical in a fast-moving peloton. You start to wonder: What happens if one of the cyclists hits a pedestrian or a car or takes down a paceline?
These are classic group ride liability scenarios. And, they all boil down to these two issues:
These are sophisticated legal issues, and the answers will depend on a range of legal factors and vary from state to state.
As attorney Kurt Holzer explains, the mere fact that one person is injured does not give rise to legal liability. Legal liability only exists when someone (or some entity) has a “duty” to another person. If that duty is not fulfilled (as the lawyers say there is a “breach of duty”) and the failure to fulfill the duty causes an injury, then liability attaches — meaning the injured cyclist might be able to pursue a successful legal claim. Generally, everyone has a duty to keep others free from the harm of their own conduct, and breaching that duty is known as negligence. The underlying concept of negligence is merely personal responsibility: If you do something wrong and hurt another person, you should pay for the damage you cause. But not all basic riding errors in a group ride constitute negligence. With such a fact-dependent definition of negligence, it makes sense to take all precautions ahead of time.
The easy example is when you are riding your bike through an intersection, and a driver runs a red a light and crashes into you. The driver had a duty to stop at the red light, and their breach amounts to negligence. Consequently, the driver must pay for the damages they cause you to suffer.
A group ride has a duty to keep its participants and bystanders safe. This duty can be breached if the group ride hosts an unreasonably dangerous ride based on the route or the behavior of the riders of the group injures one of the participants or a bystander.
Of course, nobody wants to think about lawsuits and legal cases when heading out on a group ride.
Indeed, riding is supposed to be about escaping life’s problems, and group rides make the experience social. When I first started riding, I informally met a group of racers on a regular basis. We wore wool shorts and a hairnet at best. Back then, you knew every roadie in town, no matter their gender or age. We rode together, and we never thought about legal consequences.
But, that was then. Today, our sport has become more mainstream. All kinds of people ride bikes, which means all kinds of people show up to group rides, with all different levels of ability and experience. That’s why you may want to consider taking precautionary measures to protect the organizers of your ride. The measures needed will depend on whether your ride involves a club, is an organized or sponsored group ride, or is just an informal greet-and-go.
Of course, every ride should exercise good practices by reminding its riders of issues like hazardous road sections, dangerous turns, café stops, and so on. As Idaho bike lawyer Kurt Holzer notes, “A good pre-ride talk, particularly when there are new riders present, not only makes for a better ride, it can limit liability claims.”
It’s important to remember that cycling takes place on public roads with live traffic, subject to traffic rules and liability concerns. Most of the time, nothing will go wrong. But in case something does, incorporating your club is the most effective way to address liability concerns for the ride’s organizers, or maybe even your group ride.
Just like companies in the business world, a group ride can protect itself by incorporating. Here is the gist: A corporation is a legal entity distinct from its organizers. This means that only the corporation itself can be held liable for the corporation’s actions.
In the world of bicycles, clubs have been incorporating to protect their organizers from legal consequences for years. They accomplish this by registering the club or group as a corporation in their local state. Typically, a club or group ride elects to incorporate as 501(c) non-profit organization. They qualify for non-profit status because they are in it for the betterment of society.
So, what happens if someone is seriously injured on your ride, and they intend to hold the ride’s organizers accountable? If you are an organized club and you are incorporated, your legal status will protect the organizers of the club from personal liability. And for that reason, all clubs should incorporate due to the formality of their operation.
You should also be aware that some organized and sponsored group rides have opted to incorporate. Their fear being that an injured rider may attempt to hold the ride’s organizers or the group ride sponsor accountable. On the other hand, a loosely organized greet-and-go probably does not need to worry about incorporating, because it lacks any aspect of cohesive unit aimed to benefit its organizers.
All incorporated clubs or group rides should obtain insurance. The insurance policy will cover the cost of a lawyer to defend your club or group ride, in the event that someone sues it. In addition, the policy will cover the cost of a settlement or liability judgment up to the amount of your coverage.
*Bob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic Games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske’s practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc.).
Mionske is also the author of “Bicycling and the Law,” designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem. If you have a cycling-related legal question please send it to Bob, and he will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at bicyclelaw.com.
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