In May of 2002 Maribeth Blonski and a friend went mountain biking on trails around West Hartford Reservoirs in Connecticut. An avid cyclist, Maribeth was familiar with the trail and had no problem maneuvering through narrow paths, rocks, and woodlands. As she was finishing her ride, Maribeth put her head down and accelerated. She appeared to be racing her friend to the finish line.
Unfortunately, the finish line turned out to be a 15-foot yellow gate at the entrance to the reservoirs. Although the steel gate had been there for decades, Maribeth had never seen it closed. When she finally looked up, it was too late to avoid impact; her bike skidded under the gate, her head smashed into the barrier, and she broke several vertebrae in her neck.
The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), a nonprofit water utility company, owns the West Hartford Reservoirs. Although they are used for water filtration, many joggers, walkers, and cyclists also enjoy the 3,000 acres of wooded trails.
Maribeth sued the MDC for negligence, claiming that it had failed to protect mountain bikers by not warning them that the gate, which was usually open, was now closed.
The MDC, a municipal corporation, argued that it was immune from liability under the common law and statutory doctrine of government. It also claimed that the Recreational Land Use Act barred Blonski recovering for injuries incurred while engaged in the dangerous adventure sport of mountain biking. Finally, the MDC maintained that even if the utility was not immune from liability, Blonski’s negligence had caused her injuries.
The utility said that after the 9/11 attacks it had decided to close the gate as a security measure against terrorists and contamination. Despite the change in policy, the MDC maintained that the gate was clearly visible—and that, in this case, Blonski wasn’t paying enough attention as she rode the well-marked trails.
At the trial witnesses stated that when they first saw the closed gate they had no difficulty going around it. A police report stated that the trail was straight and level for 500 feet away and that the gate was clearly visible.
Blonski was awarded $2.9 million, less 30 percent. The jury found her 30 percent responsible for the collision, with the MDC primarily negligent for not posting a sign declaring the gate closed.