Ebikes are an integral part of many cities’ micromobility offerings as a way to get people from parts of the city to others not conveniently being served though typical mass transit. An ebike is a pedal bike assisted by an electric motor operated by a rechargeable battery. You can ride it without pedaling and top speeds are around 20 mph, or you can ride with pedal-assist and top speed is however fast you can pedal.
Pedal-bike sharing and escooter-sharing programs predated ebike-sharing, but all operate the same way. A company drops off ebikes at different locations, and the user logs in to a mobile app to pay for a rental of an ebike. They then can use the bike, and when they are done, the drop off the bike for someone else to use.
Though electric bikes and scooters have been around for some time, only in the last five years have they become so popular with inter-city commuters as a bike-sharing option. The reason for this is a perfect storm of social attitudes brought about by increased city traffic congestion, downtown revitalization efforts and environmental sensitivity.
Cities also tout these programs as a way to provide transportation to areas not served well with mass transit as well as getting people to points in between bus and train station depots.
The programs are generally considered a success, however, certain issues crop up such as who is going to pay when someone is injured in an ebike accident.
Ebike injuries are already mounting up. Bay Area cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Davis and Sacramento all have e-bike programs up and running and have also begun to deal with the inevitable accidents and injuries.
With these injuries also comes the inevitable fight over who is going to pay. Typically, when someone is injured, whoever is at fault for the injuries will pay for them. Where ebikes are concerned, who is responsible depends greatly on how the accident occurred.
Most ebike accidents happen due to either the rider’s negligence of the negligence of a motorist, cyclist or e-share rider. A typical accident occurs when an e-bike rider is struck by a vehicle, and it if is the fault of the motorist, then his or her insurance will pay for the damages.
However, in other accidents, the negligent party might be the ebike company or the city where the accident occurred.
Some accidents are caused by potholes or other street defects like poorly marked or confusing traffic patterns. If an accident occur with any of these as the underlying cause, then the city could be negligent and would bear responsibility.
The only problem is, cities, along with other municipalities in California, enjoy what’s called sovereign immunity. This is an age-old doctrine that originally protected the King from lawsuits by his subjects for all sorts of civil liability. When the U.S. became a nation, all states had some version of the doctrine as state law.
If a large crack caused an ebike to flip and injure the rider, whichever government layer is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the road can claim sovereign immunity if they are found to responsible. However, California passed the Tort Claims Act in 1963 that allowed its citizens to sue the state—including the city, county or any other government entity—for certain acts or inactions.
The act allows suits for civil claims for “money damages” which means that if you are injured or have property damage as a result of a crack in the road or a pothole, then you can sue them. However, there are limitations when it comes to road maintenance.
Under the act, you have to prove one of two things: 1) that the government repaired the road in a negligent manner, or 2) that the government had notice of a dangerous defect in the road and did nothing to fix it.
If your injury stemmed from either circumstance, then you can sue the government. However, history has proven it difficult to win the negligent fixing cases because it is hard to prove that the government improperly fixed the damage. An expert would have to testify that the repairs were made negligently and that it wasn’t the weather or normal wear and tear that led to the problem.
The other method deals with proving that the government had notice of the defect and did nothing to prevent the accident. If the crack had just appeared, and the government hadn’t been notified, then they wouldn’t be liable.
If the problem had been around a while, then it’s a bit easier to prove that they had notice or should have found the problem in their maintenance sweeps, but even in those cases, only around 10 percent are successful.
Ebike Company Negligence
The ebike companies, such as Ford GoBike or Uber’s Jump, could be liable if they were found to be negligent in the operation of the program. A rider falling off the bike claiming the seat broke or a pedestrian tripping over an ebike left by a user are examples of possible negligence by the company. To prove this, the injured rider must prove that the company was negligent in how they were administering the program.
The company is also responsible for any defect in the ebike. If the bike was made with a dangerous defect in production or in its design, then the company that made the bike could be sued. The good news here is that there is no sovereign immunity even if they have contracted with the city to provide the bikes for the public benefit.
The bad news is that the injured has to prove that the design was flawed or there was a defect in the making of the product and that the design flaw or the defect caused the injury. This is also difficult to prove and thus not all such claims are successful.
Not my Fault
The problem injured ebike riders face when there is an injury is that the city tends to blame the company, and the company tries to put the blame on the city. The City of Oakland and escooter companies like Bird, Lime, Lyft, Razor and Spin have been battling it out over who is responsible for accidents.
To do business in the city, escooter companies are forced to agree to not hold the city responsible for injuries due to road and bike lane repairs. The companies then put a user agreement in their app that absolves them of liability as well.
Even though this deals with escooters, the same pattern is happening in the ebike programs as well. In April of 2018, San Francisco began their ebike pilot program, and once this is over, they will review the program and then consider long-term agreements. When this happens, then the liability issue will raise its head again for the ebike.
What if I’m Injured in an Ebike Accident?
As of 2019, it’s too soon to tell where the laws, regulations and court judgments will place the liability for ebike accidents. But it’s a good guess that each entity will try to place blame elsewhere, and then the courts will have to decide who is liable.
So if you’re injured in an ebike accident, talk to an attorney from Bay Area Bicycle Law right away. The California law that blocks sovereign immunity from some ebike suits also places time restrictions and filing requirements that if done improperly will cause the suit to be dismissed.
Bay Area Bicycle Law is the only firm in northern California that exclusively represents those who’ve been injured in a bike accident. Call us today at (415) 466 8717 or contact us online. If you still wonder if we’re the right firm for you, or even if you need an attorney, we have written a page to help you weigh the pros and cons of hiring an attorney.