Federal Appellate Court Discusses Sovereign Immunity in Recent Bicycle Accident Case

Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a written opinion in a premises liability lawsuit brought by an injured bicyclist against the federal government. The case required the court to determine if the plaintiff’s case was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which generally grants immunity to government actors acting in a discretionary manner. Ultimately, the court determined that the government employees were acting in a discretionary manner and that the government was entitled to immunity.

Forest TrailThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was with a friend, mountain biking in the De Soto National Forest. The two began their ride on the Couch Loop Trail. However, the plaintiff did not stop at the trail-head’s bulletin board, which displayed a sign indicating that the loop was closed.

The plaintiff rode on the trail for a while, before taking an “alternate route.” This alternate route contained some obstacles that were illegally built by members of a local bike club. The plaintiff rode over one of the obstacles and fell, seriously injuring herself. She then filed a premises liability lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that it was negligent in maintaining the trail, as well as negligent for failing to warn her about the dangerous conditions present on the trail.

The government had several park rangers testify. The rangers explained that they cleared the trails once a year and conducted spot-checks throughout the recreational season. A ranger also testified that while they had no knowledge of the presence of the obstacles, a notice was put up at the trail-head explaining that the trail was closed.

The Court’s Analysis

The court began its analysis by discussing the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Generally speaking, the government is immune from liability. However, under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the government has agreed to waive this immunity in personal injury lawsuits unless an exception applies. The main exception is when the alleged act of negligence is a discretionary action. In order for the exception to apply, it must also be determined that the conduct at issue involves “judgment of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield.”

The court held that the actions of the park rangers were covered by sovereign immunity. The court acknowledged that the rangers were required to maintain safe trails, but the court noted that there was no specific direction for how rangers were supposed to carry out that duty. The court explained that the De Soto National Forest is 382,000 acres, and rangers would need to make some judgment calls about how to maintain the trails, due to the large amount of trails. Similarly, the court determined that the decisions of the rangers in this case were the kind that should be insulated from tort liability because they were based on “considerations of social, economic, or political public policy.” Thus, the court affirmed the government’s immunity and dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

Have You Been Injured on the Property of Another Party?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured in any kind of bicycle accident due to a hazard on the property of a business, private individual, or government, you may be entitled to monetary compensation through a premises liability lawsuit. The skilled personal injury attorneys at the law firm of Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC have extensive experience representing clients in all types of personal injury cases, including premises liability lawsuits. Call 410-654-3600 today to schedule your free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Physical and Financial Recovery after a Serious Bicycle Accident, Maryland Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Blog, published March 9, 2017.

Drivers May Have a Difficult Time Seeing Motorcyclists and Bicyclists, But That’s No Excuse for an Accident, Maryland Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Blog, published March 30, 2017.

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