Federal Appellate Court Determines Government Is Immune from Liability for Bicycle Accident Occurring in National Forest

Earlier this month, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in a case that arose from a bicycle accident that occurred on federally owned land. Ultimately, the case presented the court with the opportunity to determine whether the government was immune from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the discretionary acts of governments and government employees. Since the court determined that the alleged acts of negligence were discretionary, the court upheld the government’s sovereign immunity.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was riding her mountain bike in the De Soto National Forest. She did not look at the bulletin board at the trail head, which had a warning that the Couch Loop Trail was closed. The plaintiff and her friend continued down the Couch Loop Trail, eventually taking an alternate route off the main trail. This alternate route led the bikers to an area with various ramps, or “jumps.” The ramps were not built by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Forest Service claimed to have no knowledge of their existence.

The plaintiff rode over one of the ramps and fell, resulting in a serious injury. She filed a premises liability lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the government was negligent in maintaining the land and also negligent in failing to warn her about the dangerous conditions. The plaintiff claimed that government immunity did not apply in this instance, since the acts of the rangers were ministerial. A ministerial act is one that does not involve the exercise of discretion.

The government had several park rangers testify that they would clear the trails once a year of obstacles, and they would routinely conduct spot-checks for unsafe obstacles and other hazards. The plaintiff presented the Forest Service ranger manual, which required that rangers maintain clear trails.

The court began its analysis by discussing the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The general rule is that sovereign immunity attaches to allegedly negligent acts of the government. However, under the Federal Tort Claims Act, sovereign immunity is waived in personal injury lawsuits against the government, unless an exception applies. In order for an exception to apply, the government must prove that the act was discretionary and also that “the judgment [must be] of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield.” The idea is that the courts do not want to be in the position of second-guessing the discretionary acts of government employees.

The court held that both prongs of the exception were met and that sovereign immunity did attach. The court explained that while the rangers were required to keep the trails clear, there was no proscribed method for doing so. The court explained that the De Soto National Forest is 382,000 acres, and certain judgments had to be made regarding the forest’s upkeep. Similarly, the court determined that the decisions of the rangers were based on the “social, economic, or political public policy” that the doctrine of sovereign immunity was designed to protect. As a result, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

Have You Been Injured on Government-Owned Land?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured on land that is owned or operated by the federal, a state, or a local government, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. The skilled injury attorneys at the Virginia-based law firm of The Schupak Law Firm have extensive experience representing injured clients in all types of personal injury and wrongful death matters, including slip-and-fall cases. Call 703-491-7070 to schedule a free consultation today.

See More Blog Posts:

The Importance of Medical Experts in Virginia Medical Malpractice Cases, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, March 27, 2017.

Court Determines School’s Efforts to Melt Snow in Parking Lot Did Not Increase the Chance of Student’s Slip-and-Fall Accident, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, March 6, 2017.

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