Tennessee still has not caught up, and assumption of the risk is not a defense to sport or recreational activities.

There is no assumption of the risk defense in Tennessee. Consequently, cyclists in a paceline who crash can be liable to each other for the crash.

Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852

State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville

Plaintiff: Carolyn Crisp

Defendant: Michael Nelms, et Al.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: inherent risk

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2018


Cyclists in a paceline could be liable for a fatality of one of the riders because Tennessee has no assumption of the risk as a defense. Paceline riding is inherently dangerous; however, court chose to ignore that issue. Recreation in Tennessee is risky for sports & recreation participants.


A paceline is a group of riders cycling right behind the first ride, single file in a row. Cyclists do this because it increases the speed of the entire group and saves everyone’s energy. The rider in front is expanding 10% or more, less energy and the riders behind can expand up to 30% less energy. Pacelines are what you see in large cycling races like the Tour de France.

On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3] and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.

The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms’ front tire struck Long’s back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that “another rider hit” Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.

Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: “I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand.” On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.

In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedent’s widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4] June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

What a crock.

I’ve written extensively about most states bringing back the assumption of the risk defense for sports and recreational activities. Without players being protected from the risks of the sport, the sport or activity will have no enthusiasm and very little value. Tennessee has not adopted that doctrine. Tennessee states that assumption of the risk is a factor used to help determine the damages. Meaning when the jury determines if there was any negligence and then determine damages, the damages can be reduced by how much of the risk the plaintiff assumed.

Assumption of the risk is a complete bar to litigation in the vast majority of states. Not in Tennessee.

Tennessee still prevents litigation over inherently risky activities. However, this court in its zeal to allow the plaintiff to win, totally ignore the fact that riding in a paceline is an inherently dangerous activity.

Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedent’s age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.

By ignored, I mean the court bent over backwards to find a way to allow this case to proceed by simply ignoring the law concerning inherently dangerous activities. The court moved from inherently dangerous to finding a duty. No duty is owed in an inherently dangerous activity.

INHERENTLY DANGEROUS: An activity is inherently dangerous if there is (a) an existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person; (2)likelihood that any harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of commons usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes. (Restatement, Torts 2d § 519(1))

See Definitions.

If assumption of the risk is not a defense, and if you ignore the issue of whether the risk is inherently dangerous. Consequently, you are back to simple negligence and the duties that each person owes another.

Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others.

The court even acknowledged why assumption of the risk is a doctrine that should be adopted in sporting and recreation situations.

The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition.

However, Tennessee does not believe it.

We do not share these court’s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.

If there is a duty of reasonable care, you can then proceed to prove negligence. Negligence in Tennessee is defined as a five-step process.

To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation.

From there it was easy to fabricate the idea that paceline riders owed each other a duty of reasonableness.

Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.

Think about the absurdity of the above statement. A group of cyclists in a paceline has the right of way. A large truck pulls out in front of the first rider. Based on the analysis of the facts by the court, the first rider is now supposed to hit or get hit by the truck. He or she cannot apply their brakes.

The Tennessee Appellate court sent the case back for trial.

So Now What?

Honestly, this is a scary case. Because Tennessee’s law is antiquated, any participant in any outdoor recreation activity or sporting event could be sued for any injury they receive during the event. Insurance costs in Tennessee will continue to rise because it will be cheaper to settle these cases then to try to win at trial.

And the court’s refusal to look at the inherent risks of cycling in a paceline was a plaintiff’s dream. Even professional’s crash in pacelines. Amateurs are always going to be at risk and there is nothing you can do about the risks. Don’t ride in a paceline, and you don’t get the benefits that a paceline provides.

If you engage in any event in Tennessee, you can walk away a defendant. Stay away from Tennessee if you are recreating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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