Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, February 3, 2003


Page 1


Court Rules Group Bike Riding a ‘Sport’ Under Knight v. Jewett


By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor


A bicycle rider on an organized ride assumes the risk of being run off the road by a fellow rider and cannot sustain a personal injury suit absent a showing of recklessness or intent, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Like rock climbing, judo, skiing, river rafting and recreational dancing, group endurance bike riding is a sport with inherent risks, the court said, and injured participants should know they could be hurt.

Even if the downed rider can show that the offending party violated the Vehicle Code when she twice swerved into him and caused him to fall, Justice Richard Mosk said, the present state of the law does not support overriding the primary assumption of risk doctrine.

“It is true that bicycle riding is a means of transportation—as is automobile driving,” Mosk said. “Normal automobile driving, which obviously is not an activity covered by the assumption of risk doctrine, requires skill, can be done for enjoyment, and entails risks of injury. But organized, long-distance bicycle rides on public highways with large numbers of riders involve physical exertion and athletic risks not generally associated with automobile driving or individual bicycle riding on public streets or on bicycle lanes or paths.”

The particular ride that sparked Christian Moser’s lawsuit against fellow rider Joanne Ratinoff was a staple of serious bikers—the Death Valley Double Century, a 200-mile ride through Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley Rides

A number of different sponsors and organizers conduct Death Valley rides, which usually are held in the early spring and late fall and often begin long before dawn to avoid the 100-plus degree temperatures that are typical in the valley much of the year.

The 1999 ride that attracted Moser and Ratinoff was organized by Hugh Murphy Productions. Like most, it was not a race. The object was to complete the course, which was restricted to public highways.

Each participant was required to wear a helmet and have bicycle lights, and to sign a release that said:

“I acknowledge that this athletic event is an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits and carries with it the potential for death, serious injury and property loss. The risks include, but are not limited to those caused by...actions of other people including but not limited to participants....”

Unlike many organized Death Valley rides, this one had no designated start time.

Moser and a friend started at 4 a.m., then encountered Ratinoff at a rest stop. The three rode together for a while, single file, but at some point Ratinoff pulled even with Moser on his left.

The accident apparently was spurred by the appearance behind them of an Inyo County Sheriff’s patrol car. Seeing the car, Ratinoff—riding at about 15-20 miles per hour—moved from her position to the right of Moser directly into him, and he fell.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory O’Brien agreed with Ratinoff that the 1992 case of Knight v. Jewett, which enunciated the primary assumption of risk doctrine, compelled summary judgment.

Mosk agreed.

“The analogies derived from the risks in other sports suggest that one cyclist riding alongside another cyclist and swerving into the latter is a risk that is inherent in a long-distance, recreational group bicycle ride,” Mosk said. “The release Moser signed warns of the risk of accidents caused by the participants, thus indicating that such accidents are an inherent risk of the activity. If liability attached to entanglements and collisions among 600 bicycle riders, the recreational sport of an organized bicycle ride likely would be adversely affected.”

Ratinoff’s movements toward the right side of the road that caused her to collide with Moser may have been negligent, the justice said, but they were not intentional, wanton or reckless or conduct outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport.

Vehicle Code

Moser argued that the primary assumption of risk doctrine was trumped by what he said was Ratinoff’s violation of two Vehicle Code provisions, one requiring riders to stay as far to the right side of a road as possible and one requiring that movements to the right or left be accomplished with “reasonable safety.”

The state Supreme Court has issued two rulings involving the interplay of the primary assumption of risk doctrine and statutes, one a Harbors and Navigation Code section, one an Evidence Code section.

But neither opinion produced a clear consensus among the justices on the impact of the statutes.

“The Supreme Court has not conclusively determined whether or not a violation of law can displace the primary assumption of risk doctrine,” Mosk said. “Nevertheless, four justices presently sitting on the California Supreme Court—a majority—expressed the view that Evidence Code section 669 does not itself override Knight, but rather that one must ascertain whether the violated statute was intended to do so.”

The case is Moser v. Ratinoff, B153258.


Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company