By Bob Mionske
Last week we got a note from C.A. in Connecticut, who asked:
In general, what is the legality of a group ride? If I email my friends and say, “Let’s all meet at my place at 6 AM for a century ride, I’ll lead,” and someone joins me and gets hit by a car while on my ride, to what degree can I be held legally accountable? Second, what if my group includes a university cycling team with members under 18?
In response to that question, we talked about the most simple case, that of co-participant liability in a sport—what happens if you misjudge that gap in the big sprint and accidentally nip someone’s wheel? Most states follow what is known as the Knight standard, after a California case:
When an inherent sports risk is involved, a co-participant is liable only if he or she intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that so reckless that it is totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the active sport.
But some states use the Knight standard only for contact sports, and continue to use simple negligence for non-contact, non-competitive, cooperative sports:
In the individual sports of running, bicycling and skiing there is the possibility of collision. But by participating, one does not voluntarily submit to bodily contact with others, such contact is not inevitable, and one’s conduct should be governed by ordinary negligence standards.
But in your case, C.A. you are not just riding along—you invited the participants and are “leading.” Here, there are two possibilities: you could be considered a coach or you could be considered a sponsor/organizer. As an organizer, the important factor is the control, involvement, knowledge and direction that you exercise over the event. The second important criteria is the lack of knowledge or sophistication that your participants bring. The question the court will ask is: “What was your ability to prevent trouble, and what was your participant’s lack of ability to keep themselves out of trouble?” The fact that some of your participants are minors is not, in and of itself, a significant factor, other than the general tendency for younger and less experienced participants to depend on adults for control and guidance during sports.
Also surprising is what is not important: money. Whether you are getting paid or not, and how much, is usually not a factor, other than establishing a clear line of authority and responsibility. A good explanation of organizer liability was given in Vogel v. West Mountain (New York, 1987). A competitive skier was injured in a badly designed slalom course. The resort settled, and Vogel, the skier, went after the event’s sponsor, Miller Beer. The court said “no.” The decision lays out a pretty complete blueprint of what it takes to sue an event organizer for negligence, and, while it never uses the word, defines what an “organizer” is:
Mere sponsorship, absent control, does not render Mille legally responsible. It is well established that before a defendant may be found liable for negligence, a duty must exist. The difficulty with this case is that Miller is merely a sponsor of an athletic event. Nonetheless, Vogel urges that as a result of the fact that she was induced to enter the race on the basis of Miller’s involvement, coupled with the financial benefits enjoyed by Miller as sponsor, that Miller owed a duty to ensure that the event was conducted in a safe manner.
An important criterion is whether the realities of everyday experience demonstrate that the party to be made responsible could have prevented the negligent conduct. Here, Miller was not in a position to supervise West Mountain’s running of the race, since they didn’t enjoy the necessary expertise. Moreover, the record demonstrates that West Mountain, not Miller, actually designed, supervised, and controlled the event. Under these circumstances, it would be unreasonable to impose a duty on Miller since, very simply, it was not in a position to prevent the negligence.”
Likewise, coaches have a duty to exercise reasonable care consistent with their skill, training, experience and position of responsibility, and can be liable for negligence if they breach that duty, as a judge explained in Tan v. Goddard (1993):
“There are precedents reaching back for most of this century that find an absence of duty in negligence between co-participants, and often, to spectators, but the law is otherwise as applied to coaches and instructors. For them, the general rule is that coaches and instructors owe a duty of care to persons in their charge. The coach or instructor is not, of course, an insurer, and a student may be held to notice that which is obvious and to ask appropriate questions, but all authorities have recognized the existence of a duty of care.”
This duty of care is not limited to competition or competitive activity. The Tan case involved a horse riding school, and the court concluded that the school “owed Tan a duty to see that the horse assigned was safe under the conditions for a given activity.” A few months later, in another riding school accident, the same court made the point even more clearly in Galard v. Seahorse Riding School (1993):
The occasion of plaintiff’s fall was not during competition with other riders. Instead, she had placed her training in the hands of defendants, who were employed to instruct and coach her. The defendants certainly had a duty to avoid an unreasonable risk of injury to Galardi and to take care that her jumping array was not beyond the capabilities of horse and rider.
Did you notice the “employed to instruct and coach” language? The obvious follow-up is: “What does it take to be considered a coach?” Unlike the problem of co-participants, where there are lots of cases dealing with informal sports (I even found a case concerning a game of kick-the-can), there aren’t many cases regarding informal coaching. In fact, I found only one, a 1995 California case, Wicker v. Oosten . Oosten owned a water-skiing boat. His daughter invited a teenaged friend, Wicker, to come along for a weekend at the lake, and Wicker got hurt skiing while Oosten was driving the boat. The case is a little muddy, although both parties seemed to agree that Wicker knew how to ski well, but that she sued anyway under a coaching theory because Ooster was driving the boat and was much older than her. The court summarized what Wicker was getting at:
When faced with participants in an active sport, one participant breaches a legal duty to another only if the participant intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport. The law is otherwise as applied to coaches and instructors. For them the general rule is that they owe a duty of care to persons in their charge.
So Wicker wanted Ooster to be considered her coach, and Ooster argued that they were simply coparticipants. The court first looked to the nature of the activity, finding that in recreational waterskiing, the purpose of the boat driver is to work with, not challenge, the skier:
In this case, the sport was non-competitive—waterskiing, a cooperative sport. The boat driver operates the boat in a manner that is consistent with, and enhances, the excitement and challenge of the active conduct of the sport.
And yes, I would agree that to some extent this finding contradicts that in Galard v. Seahorse Riding School . As best I can figure, the injured equestrian in the earlier case was being pushed to her limit by her coach to improve her performance in anticipation of competition, while here there was no competitive aspect at all. Next, the court looked at Wicker’s participation, finding that it was a one-shot recreational opportunity, not a regular organized activity like football practice or conditioning camp, and that Wicker neither needed nor sought instruction:
Next, the record reveals that Wicker was invited by Oosten’s daughter to attend a family waterskiing trip. There was no requirement that she go waterskiing, nor any evidence that Oosten had assumed any role of instructor, trainer or coach in her waterskiing runs.
The biggest part of the teenager’s case was that the Oosten should have a coach-like level of responsibility because he was an adult and she was a legally a child. The court spent most of it’s time considering this argument, and rejected it:
To assume that by virtue of the fact that Oosten was an adult and Wicker a teenager there was an “entrustment relationship” incorrectly assumes that by simply relying on the physical differences between herself and Oosten, Wicker cannot be labeled a coparticipant. We fail to see why a difference in age should matter. In the context of this case, the waterskiing was a purely recreational sport undertaken by family and friends. Most recreational sports engaged in by adults have participants with widely varying skill levels, and the disparities sometimes result from advancing age. (We note however, that reckless behavior may include situations wherein a young child is allowed to engage in a sporting activity despite his or her inability to effectively compete in a game because of age.)
The last sentence is an important point that we haven’t talked about yet. We have assumed so far that all older children or teenagers in our rides are physically qualified to engage in the sport. However, an adult that allows a child to participate in a sport, or to undertake a task within a sport (carry the ball, for example), and who knows or reasonably should know the child is not up to it is subject to liability, even if the adult is a co-participant.
So what about your informal rides, C.A? Unfortunately, the answer is heavily dependent on detailed facts and the law of your specific state.
The more control and direction you exercise over the organization of these rides, the closer you come to acting as a “road captain,” and the more the other participants look to you to use your expertise to help them and reduce their risk, the higher will be your exposure to liability as an organizer or promoter of the event.
Similarly, if they reasonably consider you a coach or instructor, even an informal coach, you will have a higher duty of care.
Probably the two most important factors are that the ride be cooperative, not competitive and that your relationship to the riders is not one of “confrontational preparedness” for competition.Confine your advice to suggestions about general skills and do not challenge or test the limits of the riders.
Anything that reduces the expectations of the other riders in you works in your favor. The age of the riders is not an issue—but their lack of experience and knowledge, and the degree to which they look to you for guidance, is relevant. The fact that your ride invitation is in writing is also not an issue—written documents make things easier to prove, but rarely change any aspect of the underlying law.
In a nutshell, to what degree are these riders “placing themselves in your hands?” A little—then you are probably a mere co-participant. A lot? Then you may be a coach or event organizer.
(Research and drafting provided by Bruce Epperson J.D.)
Bob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who representedthe U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the roadrace), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championshiproad 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).If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to email@example.comBob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He willalso select a few questions each week to answer in this column. Generalbicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.Important notice:
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