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Solicitor paralysed in mountain biking accident wins claim against his instructor

Posted: 21/11/2016

The High Court ruled last week in Ahmed v Maclean on a claim brought against a mountain biking instructor by one of his clients who had suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of an accident while he was taking part in a training course for beginners. The claimant, a solicitor, was rendered paraplegic as a result of the accident.

Asif Ahmed, the claimant, had owned a mountain bike for a few years but had relatively limited off-road biking experience and had never undertaken any mountain biking specific trails or instruction. He decided to enrol on a mountain biking tuition course aimed at novice bike riders which he booked over the internet. The organisation which operated the courses ran a franchise system for the delivery of mountain biking training in the UK. 

There were three ‘students’ enrolled on the course, and despite the fact that it was described as a course for novice mountain bikers, the three participants had very different levels of experience. It was alleged that the defendant instructor, Leon Maclean, did not take the opportunity to assess the experience and skills of any of the three participants before starting. They were asked to sign a safety checklist which indicated that participants should get off and walk if they felt unable to do any part of the course but the evidence suggested that none of the participants had read this. It was also disputed whether the defendant had drawn this to their attention.

Mr Maclean took the three course participants out on some local tracks and did some instruction on riding over obstacles. They then reached a downhill single track which went through wooded terrain. The instructor advised that there were two routes which could be used to descend the slope, one to the right, and the main one straight ahead. He then demonstrated how to ride down the main route, using his brakes to slow him down, and with his body balanced towards the rear of the bike.

Mr Ahmed attempted to ride down the main route under the instructor’s supervision but encountered difficulties and was unable to maintain his stability. The instructor advised him that his technique was ‘ok’ and to try it again but to start from further back in order to give himself more speed when riding down the slope. Mr Ahmed walked back up the track and started his run down but veered to the left, failed to brake and jammed his wheels in a grassy mound. As a result, he went over the top of the handle bars, landing on the ground at the bottom of the slope.

Of the two issues for determination, the first was whether, on the balance of probabilities, Mr Ahmed’s accident had been caused by the instructor failing to exercise reasonable skill and care when providing him with tuition on the course. Consideration was given to the evidence of the two other participants. Both indicated that the slope that Mr Ahmed was attempting to descend could be intimidating and felt that he had lost confidence at a key moment, resulting in his loss of control.

In addition, both parties obtained expert evidence and video evidence of bikers using the trail. Mr Ahmed’s case was that repeated individual assessment of his ability to perform each of the necessary skills to descend the slope was required in order to ensure that it was safe for him to attempt this.

The second issue to be assessed by the court was whether Mr Ahmed had been wholly or partly responsible for the accident due to his own lack of care. The instructor argued that even if he had been partly liable for the accident, the claimant was also to blame for not having indicated that he had considered it beyond his capacity to ride down the slope.

The court ruled:

  1. The accident had been caused by the instructor’s failure to carry out his tuition with reasonable skill and care. He had failed to carry out an adequate assessment of the participants’ individual skill levels at the start of the course. He then progressed the tuition which he had provided to the group without sufficient regard to Mr Ahmed’s capabilities. Having seen him struggle with the slope the first time, he permitted him to attempt a second descent and encouraged him to do so at a speed which was likely to have increased the risk of serious harm being caused. Primary liability rested with the defendant.
  2. However, the court also held that Mr Ahmed bore some responsibility for his own safety. The evidence showed that he had appeared to be so hesitant and unsteady about riding down the slope on the first attempt that he should have appreciated that he had lacked the ability to do so safely, and ought to have raised the matter with the instructor rather than attempt it again. The court felt that it was significant that the accident had occurred during his second descent rather than the first, when he should already have realised that he lacked the skills to manage the slope. However, there had been some measure of false reassurance from the instructor who had told Mr Ahmed that his technique had been ‘ok’ and had advised him to ride at greater speed in the second attempt. While those matters had not totally eclipsed his responsibility for his own safety, they were of some relevance to the apportionment of liability. The court held that the appropriate amount of responsibility which he should bear in relation to the cause of the accident was 20%.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the personal injury team at Penningtons Manches LLP, comments: “Cases involving accidents where claimants are participating in sports which carry an element of risk are always difficult to assess and are usually disputed both in terms of primary liability and potential contributory negligence. The substantial amount of evidence produced by each side in this claim demonstrates how each case has to be assessed on its own facts. However, there are some general principles that can be drawn from the court’s judgment:

  • it is incumbent on an instructor teaching a sport which carries a notable risk of injury to ensure that he knows the level of experience that individuals have before requiring them to undertake specific actions;
  • an instructor must ensure that individuals have the understanding and skills to attempt actions with reasonable safety;
  • where participants are clearly having difficulty with a certain activity and there is a risk of injury, an instructor needs to assess carefully how to proceed;
  • individuals who realise that they are having difficulty with something, or do not have the skills to undertake an activity, should recognise that this is the case and have an obligation to raise this with the instructor. 

This appears to be a sensible finding and also a reminder of the importance of safety being a priority in all sports which inherently carry a risk of serious injury.”

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

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