David G. Smith
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Trail Etiquette and Your Rights on the Dirt

MikeLinksvayer.jpgThe East Bay Regional Park District covers 65 parks, 119,000 acres, and more than 1,200 miles of trails. The warmer months are the busiest for our local trails, with hikers, runners, equestrians, and mountain bikers all vying for many of the same paths.

More often than not, people observe proper trail etiquette and respect one another's space. Yet every now and then, people get hurt. If the injuries are serious enough, or the incident egregious enough, to prompt legal action, there are a few things to know about your rights on public property.

First, under California's Recreational Use Statute, private landowners are immune from liability for injuries suffered by people that enter the land free of charge for recreational purposes. Under California Government Code, public entities (East Bay Regional Parks for example) are not responsible for injuries caused by the condition of a paved trail (such as a bike path), unpaved road, or trail on public land used for recreational purposes. This law extends to private landowners who deed public easements to municipalities.

In other words, if you fall on the trail and hurt yourself, suing the park system won't get you very far.

There are exceptions, however. If the landowner "willfully or maliciously fails to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity," they could be liable.

If users pay the landowner for permission to use the land, or if the landowner invites the user onto the property, immunity does not apply.

Hikes, Bikes and Hooves

If an accident occurs between a mountain biker, hiker, and/or equestrian, one of the parties may be at fault. In a recent case, an equestrian was thrown off her horse when the horse got spooked by an off-leash dog. The incident occurred on a trail where dogs were required to be on leash. In this case, the dog owner had homeowner's insurance, and the equestrian could sue for damages under the insurance policy.

Another common conflict occurs between mountain bikers and hikers or trail runners. The cyclist may not slow down enough when riding around a blind turn; he or she may lose control of the bike; or one of the parties just doesn't pay attention. A mountain biker can potentially seriously injure a person on foot. What to do?

California is a "comparative fault" state. This means that a jury has to assess the culpability of all parties involved. If the jury ultimately decides that the biker and hiker were both 50 percent at fault, for example, the hiker would only be entitled to collect 50 percent of his or her damages (medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering). If the defendant does not have insurance, the injured party can obtain a judgment, but it's often difficult to collect a significant amount, especially if the party doesn't have it to begin with.

What if the biker was on a trail closed to bikes? Is the park district liable for failing to enforce the rule? Possibly. It could take a lot of research and discovery, but a jury could find that the park district's failure to police the trails led to a foreseeable risk of harm. Whether a personal injury lawyer would take on such a case would depend on the severity of the injury, among other factors.

When you head out to the trails this weekend, follow some common safety and etiquette tips to avoid injury in the first place:

• Cyclists, call out or ring a bike bell with passing.

• Cyclists should also slow down when proceeding around sharp corners.

• Bikes should yield to other trail users.

• When approaching equestrians, call out and stop. Ask the rider how to pass safely.

• Leave no trace. Put your trash in a receptacle or take it home with you.

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David G. Smith
2201 Broadway
Suite 506
Oakland, CA 94612

Phone: 925-308-6484
Fax: 510-893-2701
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