On May 12, 2016, a 15 year veteran Toronto firefighter suffered a fatal injury when her bike went off a cliff in Kelso Conservation area near Milton, Ontario. The 38 year old woman fell about 25 meters while cycling on a trail in the popular park. The trail is closed while an investigation is underway to determine the cause of this tragic cycling accident.
The Share the Road Cycling Coalition has examined cycling accident data and they report that the risk of getting into an accident while cycling is 26 to 48 times greater than for a motor vehicle accident. The most common cause of cycling accidents is when motorists fail to stop properly at an intersection, or proceed before it’s safe to do so. A 2012 study by the Ontario Coroner’s office of 129 cycling deaths found that most cycling deaths occur during recreational cycling rather than while commuting, and 78 percent involved a collision between a cyclist and motor vehicle. Sometimes the motorist was responsible for the collision and at other times the cyclist’s actions caused the collision, but in about half the cases both the motorist and cyclist contributed to the crash.
Whatever the cause of a cycling accident, the vulnerability of cyclists (relative to a motorist) means that the risk of serious injury is clearly much greater. Recent changes to Ontario traffic regulations have been aimed at reducing circumstances that commonly result in cycling accidents, such as fines to motorists passing too closely to cyclists, regulations requiring bike lights in night-time conditions, and stiffer fines for dooring a cyclist.
The vast majority of cycling accidents occur on city streets and rural roads. However, off-road or trail biking is increasingly popular and has some inherent and unique dangers that can also result in accidents and serious injury. There are many trails throughout Ontario, in parks, recreational areas and on undeveloped land, but these various trails are maintained at different quality levels and often cyclists bike on trails with which they’re unfamiliar. This means that unexpected hazards or driving at unsafe speeds relative to the terrain can easily result in a cycling accident.
In October 2015, a 58 year old mountain biker suffered fatal injuries in a crash on a trail at Blue Mountain Resort. The trail where the accident occurred was one of two restricted trails which bikers could ride on only if they passed two skill tests, which the cyclist had successfully completed. The accident happened where there was a bend in the trail and a small jump feature, but investigators were uncertain of the exact cause of the collision.
Studies of cycling accidents have determined that traumatic brain injury is usually the cause of death in fatal cycling accidents. The most common injuries while cycling are arm and leg injuries involving fractures, contusions and lacerations. Head and chest injuries can also occur, and are more likely to be catastrophic or fatal.
When any accident results in serious injury or death, investigation is required to determine the likely cause. In many cases, a cycling accident results from cyclist error; however, when another driver or an unsafe condition on a property causes a cycling accident, the negligent party can be held responsible for a cyclist’s injuries. Even if the cyclist may have been partially at fault in causing a collision, an injured cyclist or their family can make a claim against the negligent party for the losses sustained as a result of the injury. In cases of shared liability, the judge will make a decision on how responsibility and liability for the accident should be apportioned between the involved parties.
For cycling accidents involving a crash with a motor vehicle, the injured cyclist may file a civil suit for damages against the at fault driver. When a cycling accident occurs due to a hazard or other unsafe condition on a designated bike trail, the injured cyclist may bring a suit against the owner/operator of the trail, such as a resort operator or municipality. Under the Occupier’s Liability Act, occupiers have a reasonable duty of care to keep anyone who comes onto their property safe. An ‘occupier’ includes anyone who owns, rents or has control over the activities on a property. Businesses that charge admission for a property have a particularly high obligation to keep customers safe, but municipalities also have a duty of care to the public. On the other hand, in extreme cycling venues where a cyclist signed a liability waiver indicating that they assume all the risks of the activity, the owner/operator of the venue has limited liability only, for example, if injuries result from a hazard that would be completely unexpected for the activity.
In a determination of liability for a designated bike trail, some of the questions that impact whether the owner/operator may be held liable for a cyclist’s injuries include:
- Was the trail inspected with reasonable regularity?
- Are there procedures in place for fixing unsafe conditions discovered on the property?
- Were there any previous complaints about, or incidents of injury on, a potentially unsafe condition?
- Was there an effort to maintain cyclist sight lines by cutting back encroaching vegetation?
- What was the nature of the hazard or debris that caused the accident; how long was it there; and is it something that would not be anticipated?
- Was the accident caused by design flaws in the trail that should have been known?
- Was there a recent weather event, such as a rain storm, that caused the unsafe condition?
- Does the cyclist bear some responsibility for the injury, for example, due to driving while impaired, driving at unsafe speeds, faulty equipment, and so on.
Each cycling accident must be assessed based on the specific circumstances surrounding the event. Where inadequate or improper trail maintenance was a factor in a cyclist’s injuries, a negligent property owner or operator may be held liable for damages such as loss of income, medical and rehabilitation expenses, and pain and suffering for the injured cyclist. For tragic accidents that result in fatal injuries, the family of the victim may bring a wrongful death suit against the ‘at fault’ property owner or driver. To learn more about your legal rights, if you or a loved one were involved in a serious cycling accident, call the Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) for a no-obligation consultation.