Is New York City Liable for Not Providing Bicycle Helmets?

“Bicycle sharing” or public bicycle programs have become very popular in U.S. cities in recent years. These public-private partnerships provide inexpensive short-term bicycle rentals as a means of encouraging residents and tourists to forgo automobiles and traditional public transportation. And while bicycle sharing has largely proven to be safe, they do raise liability issues when accidents occur.

Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC

One issue is whether bicycle sharing companies, and their sponsoring cities, have a duty to provide helmets to renters. A pending lawsuit in Manhattan federal court argues it is negligent to provide a bicycle sharing service without requiring helmets or at least making them available at rental sites. The lawsuit highlights the differences in bicycle sharing services from city to city.

The plaintiff in this case took part in New York Citi Bike Share, a program established by the City of New York in May 2013. In October of that year, the plaintiff rented a Bike Share bicycle and rode, without a helmet, through the Citi Bike docking station on East 56th Street in Manhattan. He then struck an unmarked concrete “wheel stop” barrier at the end of the docking station, causing him to flip over the handlebars of the bicycle and land on the ground. As a result, the 73-year-old plaintiff claims he suffered permanent injuries, including the loss of his senses of taste and smell.

The plaintiff's lawsuit argues the City and its contractors and bike share partners were negligent in the design and construction of the docking station. The plaintiff argues the wheel stop he hit “was not necessary” to the docking station's design and lacked proper markings or signage, such as painting the barrier a different color than the road or deploying road cones, to warn bicyclists of the potential hazard.

In response to claims from the Citi Bike program's lawyers that the plaintiff was negligent in not wearing a helmet, the plaintiff's most recent complaint details the City's decision not to require helmets as a condition of using Citi Bike or even providing helmet rentals on-site. The plaintiff noted the same vendors provided helmet “vending machines” in other cities like Vancouver, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia.

More notably, the plaintiff said the City ignored the advice of then-Comptroller John Liu's office, which advised the Mayor and City Council to require helmets as a condition of participating in Citi Bike. The Comptroller cited the U.S. Department of Transportation's findings that “bicyclists were not wearing a helmet in 97 percent of fatal accidents in New York City.” Indeed, City Council drafted legislation mandating helmets, but the measure was rejected by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg's deputy argued in 2012, “there’s no other major city in the country that has a mandatory bike helmet law” and it would be unenforceable in New York.

Raising Important Questions

It's important to remember this lawsuit only represents one side's view of the case. Discovery is expected to last for several months before a trial. But this case does raise important questions regarding a municipality's liability for the design and construction of a bicycle sharing program. If you have been injured as the result of using a public bike program and require legal advice, contact our office today.