Understanding Liability in a Bicycle Accident in California

California bicycle accidents

A bicycling accident can involve cars, pedestrians, other bicyclists, or even a roadway obstacle or defect. Learn how each might affect your lawsuit.

If you love the open road, it’s important to understand California bicycling laws. Accidents can happen, regardless of how careful you are, and knowing who might be liable in a bicycling crash will help you to evaluate your legal options.

Similar to pedestrians, bicyclists have become more prevalent in recent years. Riding a bike is a great form of exercise, it’s inexpensive, has less negative environmental impact than motor vehicle travel, and can be enjoyable for people of all ages.

But as the number of people on bikes increases, so does the number of accidents involving bicycles. Although some communities have designated bike lanes on major roads, most bicyclists must share the road with cars or trucks, and sometimes with pedestrians, too.

The California Department of Public Health shares these statistics about bicyclist injuries based on its most recent data:

  • The rate of bicyclist injury was 34 per 100,000 people in 2013.
  • In rural areas, there were twice as many bicyclist fatalities as non-fatal injuries.
  • About 4% of all traffic-related fatalities were bicyclists.
  • The highest rate of injury for bicyclists was for those between ages 15-24 who had been drinking.
  • The highest number of bicycle fatalities occurred in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, and the highest number of non-fatal injuries were in Inyo and Santa Cruz counties.
Facing factsBicycling has increased by more than 70% in larger U.S. cities over the past few decades.

Bicyclist liability in California lawsuits

You might already be familiar with the basics of personal injury law. When an accident or injury happens, the person who was at fault (liable) is responsible for paying the injured person’s expenses (called “damages”) related to the injury.

A personal injury can have both economic and non-economic damages:

  • Economic damages are anything that have a specific dollar value or cost. This would include any property damage (like replacement cost for your bicycle), medical treatment, therapy, surgery, assistive devices (like a wheelchair or walker), lost wages from time off from work, and future related expenses.
  • Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, other types of emotional distress, and sometimes punitive damages.

But what does it mean to be at fault?

If someone is negligent in a way that causes injury, they would owe damages to the injured person.

Negligence arises from failing to meet a duty or obligation. You don’t need to be acquainted with someone in order to owe them a duty — anyone who uses a roadway, sidewalk, or is out in public, owes a duty to the people around them.

Any driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist has a duty to act with due care to those around them in order to reduce the likelihood of anyone’s being injured.

Comparative fault law in California

California uses a comparative fault system of liability. In a lawsuit, the injured person who files the claim is the plaintiff. The person who was negligent, or caused the injury, is the defendant.

The California legal system maintains that most accidents are not completely the fault of just one person. Rather, the plaintiff might have added a contributing factor to the accident. Perhaps they were not at fault, but something could’ve been done differently to prevent injury.

If that happens, the court would reduce the amount of damages the plaintiff is awarded by the percentage for which they’re at fault.

Here’s an example:

Debbie is driving within the speed limit on a two-lane road, and there are other cars approaching in the opposite direction. She’s unsure where she needs to turn, so she’s squinting to try to read a street sign up ahead. Because she’s concentrating so hard on figuring out where her turn will be, she doesn’t notice Betsy riding her bicycle on the right-hand side of the lane. She swerves a little because she’s so focused on the street signs that she’s not paying total attention to the curve of the road.

Betsy is about to make a left turn and is using the correct hand signal to do so. She’s watching the oncoming traffic to look for a time to turn, but she doesn’t properly look over her shoulder at the cars approaching from the same direction. She sees Debbie’s car approaching, but gets ready to turn just as Debbie swerves to the right and they collide.

If Betsy were to file a bicycle accident lawsuit for her injuries in the collision, it’s likely that Debbie would bear most of the liability. As a driver, Debbie has the responsibility for being aware of her surroundings and watching the road. But under the California comparative fault system, the court might find that Betsy was partially at fault, too, for failing to properly gauge Debbie’s speed on approach.

If Betsy’s damages were calculated to be $20,000 and the court finds that she is 10% liable, it would reduce the award by 10% and she would recover $18,000.

Bicycle accidents caused by poor road conditions

A bicycle accident doesn’t always involve a motor vehicle. Sometimes, bicyclists crash because they must maneuver to avoid a pedestrian or obstacles. In other circumstances, the bike veers or goes off course because it hits a rut in the pavement, debris, or other hazard. Those accidents can result in serious injuries as well.

Who’s responsible in these cases? The cyclists, or the property owner?

In general, premises liability law says that the owner or manager of a property is responsible for ensuring that it is well-maintained and that there are not dangerous conditions for people legally allowed to use it.

For bicyclists, the property in question is usually owned by a city, county, or town that maintains roads or bike lanes.

Here are 2 actual cases involving damages awarded to bicyclists:

Sheng “Sam” Du vs. City of San Diego, KTA Construction, and Harris & Associates engineering firm

Sam Du was riding his bike to work and fell into a construction trench that crossed a bike lane on Sorrento Valley Road in San Diego. As a result of the crash, Du suffered permanent injuries including quadriplegia. He would require 24-hour care for the remainder of his lifetime.

The trench was 2 feet wide, 1 foot deep, and 20 feet from the curb. In the lawsuit, Du’s lawyer said that the city and the firms performing the construction hadn’t put up appropriate warning signs, so a bicyclist wouldn’t necessarily be made aware of the hazard.

Du received a settlement of $1.5 million from the City of San Diego, $4.25 million from the construction firm, and $14.25 million from the engineering firm.
William Yao vs. City of Los Angeles

Bicyclist William Yao was riding in a bike lane on Reseda Boulevard when his tire hit a patch of pavement that had been lifted 4 inches by a tree root. The city had received complaints about the uneven ground in that spot and had yet to fix it.

Yao was thrown from his bike and suffered injuries that left him quadriplegic.

The city settled with Mr. Yao in the amount of $7.5 million.

Unfortunately, these kinds of cases are fairly common. The settlements made to Mr. Du and Mr. Yao are larger than is typical because of the severity of their injuries. Lawsuits are filed every day related to bicyclist accidents because of faulty road conditions.

California bike laws

California bike laws are contained within its Vehicle Code, Article 4.

We’ve rounded up 10 important ones to know if you’re hitting the road on your bike:

  1. A bicyclist must follow the laws and responsibilities that are required of all drivers, which includes stopping at red lights and stop signs.
  2. A bicyclist must ride in the same direction as traffic.
  3. A bicyclist can ride in the traffic lane if they’re moving the same speed as the traffic. If the bicyclist is slower than the motor vehicles, they must ride as close as possible to the right curb or edge. The exceptions to this rule are if you must pass another bicyclist, if you’re preparing to make a left turn, or if you must avoid any road conditions that would make it unsafe to stay along the right curb.
  4. If the road includes a bike lane, you must use the bike lane if you’re riding more slowly than the flow of traffic. Each city or county determines whether it’s permitted for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks. The California Department of Transportation prohibits bicycling on most freeways and toll bridges.
  5. A bicyclist must yield to pedestrians.
  6. A crosswalk is intended for pedestrians, not bicyclists. The bicyclist should always allow pedestrians to use the crosswalk.
  7. A bicyclist under 18 is required by law to wear a bike helmet (although it is strongly recommended for people over 18, as well).
  8. If you wear ear buds, headphones, AirPods, or any other listening device while you ride, you must keep one ear uncovered.
  9. Your bike or clothes must have a white light visible from 300 feet in front of the bike when riding at night. You must also have:

    • A red reflector, or solid or flashing red light with a built-in reflector on the rear, that’s visible from 500 feet away
    • A white or yellow reflector on each pedal, shoe, or ankle that’s visible from 200 feet in front and rear
    • A white or yellow reflector on each side forward of the center of bicycle, and a white or red reflector on each side to the rear of the center of the bicycle (unless the bike already has front and rear reflector tires)
  10. Your bike must be able to make a one-brake wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.
Enjuris tip: A driver is required to maintain at least 3 feet between the car and a bicycle when passing. If the driver can’t provide 3 feet because of oncoming traffic or other conditions, they must pass the bicyclist slowly and reasonably so as to avoid an unsafe situation.

One more important fact about bicycling in California:

A bicyclist may not ride while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. BUT, a cyclist is permitted to use a handheld mobile phone while riding (unlike drivers, who must only use electronic devices if they’re hands-free).

Bear in mind, though, that even though you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Just like distracted driving, distracted bicycling is extremely dangerous.

What to do if you’ve been in a bicycle accident in California

How you handle the aftermath of a bike accident in California depends on how the accident happened.

If you were injured by the driver of a motor vehicle, you’ll need to pursue a claim with their insurance company if their car insurance coverage is enough to cover your damages.

If you were injured because of a defective road condition, or because of a pedestrian who caused the crash (or any other reason that’s not a driver), your legal options aren’t as straightforward. Since a pedestrian isn’t “automatically” covered (that is, not required to have insurance as you would to drive a car), the only course of action is to file a lawsuit if you can’t settle out of court.

This is when you might need a personal injury lawyer.

Filing a lawsuit and going through the court system is never the ideal way to handle a dispute — it’s time-consuming, expensive, and can be stressful. Your lawyer’s first reaction will be to try to settle with the negligent party before commencing a lawsuit.

What to expect from your bicycle accident lawyer

When you meet with your lawyer, they will want a detailed explanation of how the accident happened and what evidence might exist. Next, they’ll ask for the full extent of your injuries and to be granted access to your medical records.

Here’s some more information about hiring a personal injury lawyer:

The Enjuris personal injury law firm directory includes a list of qualified California lawyers who are ready to handle your bicycle accident case. They’ll know the best way for you to pursue your options and get the results you need.

California Department of Public Health, Bicycling Statistics


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