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Legal Matters: Can a cycling group leader be found liable if a cyclist fails to wear a helmet?

You belong to an informal group of people who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking and bicycling. Scheduling the activities is done online by organizers who have permission from the group leader to lead activities. You are an organizer.

You enjoy bicycle rides on off-road trails, so you arrange to lead a number of bike rides. When scheduling a ride, you always include a statement that all riders must wear helmets.

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Helmets are not required for adults under Maryland law, which requires them only for bicyclists under age 16. But as the leader, you conclude that if a helmet protects the cranium of just one group member in a fall, it will be worth any minor annoyance to riders who don’t like helmets.

Statistics support an argument for wearing helmets. Implementation of effective bicycle helmet programs could have a substantial impact on rates of fatal and nonfatal bicycle-related head injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For example, from 1984 through 1988, if a presumed helmet-use rate of 10% had been increased to 100% (i.e., universal helmet use), an average of 500 fatal and 151,400 nonfatal bicycle-related head injuries could have been prevented each year, according to www.cdc.gov.

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Your group has one member who consistently ignores your helmet rule. You say nothing to her, because you find it awkward to say to an adult, “Alice, did you forget your helmet? Let’s try to do better next time, OK?”

Are you legally liable for failing to ban Alice from the ride if she falls off her bike, suffers a concussion or breaks a bone?

A section of the Maryland Code Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article may apply to the situation with Alice, although it does not specifically address informal adult activities.

The statute deals with liability of volunteer leaders in community recreation programs. It provides that a volunteer leader is not personally liable for damages caused by his actions unless the damages resulted from his negligent operation of a motor vehicle or in permitting an unsupervised competition, practice or activity, or another willful, wanton or grossly negligent act or omission.

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Gross negligence, a stronger standard than negligence, would require proof that the leader consciously and voluntarily disregarded the need to exercise reasonable care. To be found guilty of gross negligence usually requires that the accused person knew or should have known of the danger, but acted in a way that was obviously dangerous or unreasonable.

Back to the bicyclists. Is the group leader grossly negligent if she does not bar a bareheaded rider, who then suffers a serious accident? A trial could give a definitive answer, but probably not.

The leader encouraged safety by posting a requirement that riders wear helmets, but Alice’s failure to do so does not violate state law.

The leader might be found grossly negligent if she led riders over treacherous terrain, knowing that the riders’ skill levels were not up to the route, failed to warn that it was treacherous and someone was injured or killed.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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