CALIFORNIA—Catherine Williams filed and won a lawsuit against Sonoma County for a large pothole they neglected to properly fix and on November 15, the county announced they will not seek an appeal.
In 2016, Williams and her friend were biking down a hill on a road maintained by Sonoma County when they came across a large pothole in the road, according to the court’s opinion summary. Court documents describe the pothole as being four feet long and three feet wide and four inches deep. Williams testified that she was biking fast – 25 miles per hour or more – when she crashed because she did not know the pothole was there and was not able to avoid it when she did see it, court documents state.
Williams suffered several serious injuries and sued the county of Sonoma because someone reported the pothole “more than six weeks earlier,” but nothing was done to fix it, the court mentioned. In September 2020, a jury ruled in Williams’ favor and she was awarded $1.3 million in damages.
The Press Democrat interviewed a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Shirlee Zane, “I don’t believe we should be wasting taxpayer money on suits like this, honestly. I think we need to do a better job of making sure cyclists are protected.”
The county tried to argue to the court that Williams’ claim was forbidden because of the assumption of risk doctrine – meaning that she biked at her own risk. The court, in their opinion, disagreed stating, “Primary assumption of risk arises when…a defendant owes no duty to protect a plaintiff from particular harms.” The court said that according to the law, Sonoma County did have a duty to provide pedestrians with safe road conditions.
In Sonoma County, the court’s opinion claimed that “certain operators, sponsors, and instructors….owe[s] participants the duty not to unreasonably increase the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.” The county claimed they had “no role” and “no duty to avoid unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of her cycling activity.”
The court stated in their opinion they read the law “too narrowly” because “the County owes a duty to maintain safe roads for all foreseeable uses, including…bicycling.” The court stated that Sonoma County “owes a duty not to increase the inherent risks of long-distance, recreational cycling.”
Zane told the Press Democrat that, “This will be a continued issue” and that the county must continue to address road conditions for bicyclers because “Sonoma County is so attractive to cyclists all over the country. And we should be paying close attention.”