You can’t sue for a danger which you could have seen when biking on someone’s land

Besides riding a BMX course before it is open is not smart.

Cottom v. USA Cycling, Inc, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6745 (W.D. Mich. 2002)

Plaintiff: Bradley J. R. Cottom and Melissa Cottom

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: the danger which injured the plaintiff was Open and Obvious

Holding: for the defendant on its motion for summary judgment


In this Federal District Court case from Michigan, the court discusses the open and obvious rule applied to a mountain biker on someone else’s land. In this case, the plaintiff entered upon an unfinished BMX or dirt bike track being built by USA Cycling, Inc. and was injured in loose dirt. Because the condition of the track was open and obvious, he could not recover from the defendant.

The plaintiff was a fairly experienced BMX rider. He had seen a dirt track being built and went over to investigate. He saw construction workers as well as cyclists on the track. Talking to one construction worker, he as assured the track was safe. He rode around the track once without incident. On the second lap, he fell when he hit a rock or slipped on loose gravel and hyperextended his knee and broke his leg.

Summary of the case

Under Michigan’s law, the plaintiff was identified as a licensee. A licensee is someone who:

…is a person who is privileged to enter the land of another by virtue of the possessor’s consent. A landowner owes a licensee a duty only to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the dangers involved. The landowner owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee’s visit.

The other two categories describing people on another’s land are trespasser and invitee. A trespasser is there without any benefit for the land owner generally, and an invitee is one who is there for the benefit to the landowner and at the bequest of the landowner.

The defense is whether the danger that injured the plaintiff was hidden or open and obvious.

USA Cycling [defendant] argues that because the condition of the track was open and obvious, it did not owe Cottom [plaintiff] a duty of protection or warning. USA Cycling notes that Cottom was able to observe the track prior to riding, that he rode around the track one time without falling, and that he was able to get a feel for the track conditions prior to his accident. Thus, according to USA Cycling, there were no hidden dangers present and it cannot be held liable for Cottom’s accident.

To prove the danger that injured the plaintiff was not open and obvious the plaintiff must complete a two-step test. Plaintiff must prove that the defendant should have known of the potentially dangerous condition and that the plaintiff did not know about the dangerous condition. The court stated the plaintiff failed to prove the second part of the test because there is no requirement to safeguard licensees from dangers that are open and obvious because those dangers come with their own warnings. The open and obvious test is an objective one, whether a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have foreseen the danger.

…there is no duty to take steps to safeguard licensees from conditions that are open and obvious, for “such dangers come with their own warning. A danger is open and obvious if “‘an average user with ordinary intelligence [would] have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection.”

The plaintiff’s experience, visual review of the track and one lap without incident defeated his claim.

Cottom, an experienced BMX cyclist, was able to casually inspect the track and the track conditions before his accident by watching other bikers on the track and then riding on the track once himself. A reasonable person in this position would foresee the dangers the track presented, making the condition of the track open and obvious. In fact, most Americans have ridden bicycles in their youth and know that bike riders lose control of their bikes in loose dirt or that a rock will cause a bike to tip over.

First, the unpacked, gravelly condition of the track surface did not make the likelihood of injury higher than an ordinary, complete bike track. It is just as difficult for an ordinarily prudent person to ride a bike on a race track of loose dirt without losing control of the bike or falling as it is on any other dirt track. Second, there was not a high potential for severe harm. Thousands of people ride bikes every day, and many of them fall while riding their bikes on sidewalks, bike paths, tracks or trails. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes, or occasionally broken bones or more serious injuries, are the normal incidents of bike riding, especially BMX bike riding as in this case.

Because the plaintiff was able to inspect the track himself, had seen other bikers on the track and ridden the track once before falling on this second lap the plaintiff had a chance to see any dangers. The danger that cased the injury, therefore, was open and obvious and the defendant did not owe any greater duty to the defendant licensee.

Once this burden was met by the defendant the only option left to the plaintiff was to argue the danger was unreasonable. Whether there were special aspects of the danger that created or differentiated the risk. The court explained the differences this way.

For example, a pothole in a parking lot presents an open and obvious risk for which the premise’s owner would not normally be liable if someone were to trip and fall because of the hole. An unguarded, 30-foot-deep pit might present an unreasonable risk, however, because of the danger of death or severe injury.

The plaintiff was unable to argue that a rock on a dirt track was an unreasonable danger.

Thousands of people ride bikes everyday, and many of them fall while riding their bikes on sidewalks, bike paths, tracks or trails. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes, or occasionally broken bones or more serious injuries, are the normal incidents of bike riding, especially BMX bike riding as in this case.

The risks of the track were ordinary, not an unguarded deep pit. Nor was he able to prove the person who gave him the assurance that the track was safe was an employee of the defendant or that the person providing the warning had any greater knowledge about the track than the plaintiff.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

This decision besides explaining the landowner’s duty for hidden dangers and the defense of open and obvious danger has great language in it for any cycling decision. The court sets forth facts that falling is a part of cycling. “Bumps, bruises, and scrapes or occasionally broken bones or more serious injures” are normal for bike riders. If you are a land owner, bike rental company, or cycling retailer, this is important language to keep available or even incorporate into your release.

If you are a land owner offering your land to someone, you should review your risks with an attorney specializing in real estate. You have multiple defenses available to you so you can allow people the opportunity to recreate. The first is all states have a statute that provides indemnity for landowners who allow others to recreate for free. These laws are called Recreational Use statutes. They differ wildly from state to state and the amount of protections they provide. Make sure you understand what you must and must not do to qualify for this protection.

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