Posts Tagged ‘Springwater Corridor’

Washington Cyclists are More Protected After Yesterday’s Supreme Court Ruling

January 31, 2014
Bollards installed near the I-205 bridge in May 2013, after a woman drove nearly two miles on the I-205 bike path

Bollards installed near the I-205 bridge in May 2013, after a motorist drove nearly two miles on the I-205 bike path

Many cyclists have faced the same danger that paralyzed cyclist Susan Camicia.  I know I have; countless times.  Susan was severely injured while bicycling along the bike trail on I-90.  As she approached an intersection, she had to veer to the left to avoid striking temporary fencing that had been installed by a construction contractor to prevent public access to a nearby construction site.  After navigating around the fencing, she looked up, just in time to see a wooden post that was erected to keep vehicles from entering the paved bike path.  Unfortunately she was unable to change her direction before striking the pole. She fell from her bike and as a result was rendered paraplegic. She brought a claim for injuries against the contractor who installed the fencing (for allowing the fencing to protrude onto the bike path) and the city (for allowing the dangerous condition to exist on the property).  The city responded that it was immune from liability under RCW 4.24.210–which provides immunity from liability for unintentional injuries to landowners who “allow members of the public to use [the land] for the purposes of outdoor recreation…without charging a fee of any kind therefor[e].”  Surprisingly, the trial court agreed with the city and granted summary judgment against Ms. Camicia.  On appeal, the Washington State Court of Appeals reversed the decision and held that the city was not entitled to summary judgment.  The city appealed.  The case made it all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court.  Yesterday, in Susan Camicia v. Howard S. Wright Construction Co. and City of Mercer Island, the court issued a ruling that better protects Washington’s cyclists.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) originally built the I-90 bike trail in the mid-to-late 1980’s.  Like many other bike paths in Washington, small wooden posts were originally installed at intersections with city streets to prevent vehicles from entering the asphalt trail.

After a series of governmental studies in which both the Federal Highway Administration and the Washington State Department of Transportation determined that the bike trail was “primarily for transportation and…an integral part of the local transportation system” and only “minimally and fairly insignificant[ly] used for recreational purposes, WSDOT determined the bike trail was not a public park or recreation area and later transferred the trail to the City of Mercer Island.  As a part of the sale, the contract stated: “It is understood and agreed that the…property is transferred for road/street purposes only, and no other use shall be made of said property without obtaining prior written approval of [WSDOT].”

Despite the above, and in response to Ms. Camicia’s injury claim, the City alleged that it “understood the trail to be primarily recreational in nature” and that recreation immunity follows even  if the land is used for “incidental recreational use.”  Distinguishing many cases relied upon by the city, the Supreme Court disagreed.  The court held:

To establish entitlement to recreational use immunity, the City must prove its portion of the I-90 trail is open to the public for outdoor recreation. Whether the City allowed the public to use the trail for purposes of outdoor recreation is a contested factual issue. Because the trier of fact [the jury] could find that the I-90 trail is open for the public purpose of transportation rather than recreational use, the Court of Appeals correctly held the City was not entitled to summary judgment in its favor.

Essentially, the Court precluded the blind application of recreational immunity unless the landowner (here the city) can prove the land was actually opened for recreational use and not transportation. I, like you, have ridden many times on trails in Vancouver (the Salmon Creek Trail, Padden Parkway Trail, and Burnt Bridge Creek Trail come to mind initially) and in Portland (the Springwater Trail and the Marine Drive Bike Path are fun), that have faced dangers (whether deteriorating asphalt, trail hazards, overgrown bushes and trees, or other unimaginables). Knowing that the cities who own these bike paths cannot simply hide behind the recreational immunity statute offers some level of protection–and assurance that they will keep these trails safer for our use.

As always, remember to be safe out there.

You can see more about Ms. Camicia and her story here (as well as her endorsement for “Outdoors for All”, an organization that provides recreational assistance for those with disabilities).


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