Bicycle electrification has opened up new business areas for industry and trade and given people a new way to get around on two wheels. The advantages of electric bicycles are evident, but they also come along with new risks. In particular, the battery of an e-bike can become a source of danger under certain conditions and a central issue of the question of liability. Now, the Federal Court of Justice in Germany (BGH) has made a decision that could affect cases of conflict in the future.
The case under dispute concerned an electric scooter that had been carried into the workshop for inspection. There an employee of the workshop removed the battery of the electric scooter and started the charging process. When he noticed that the battery was heating up strongly, he disconnected it from the mains and placed it on the workshop floor to let it cool down. Shortly afterwards, the battery exploded and set the building on fire. The decision is about the question of who has to pay for the loss, the building insurance or the owner's liability insurance?
The Federal Court ruled in the judgement VI ZR 1234/20 that the “operation of a motor vehicle” in which legal interests were injured or damaged was to be interpreted broadly. Liability under section 7 (1) of the Road Traffic Act (StVG) is the price to be paid for the fact that using a motor vehicle would lawfully entail a source of danger. For the attribution of the operational risk, it was thus decisive that the cause of loss was closely connected in time and place with a certain operational process or a certain operational device of the motor vehicle.
Local and temporal connection is decisive
According to the Federal Court (BGH), the fact that the electric scooter and the battery were in a workshop for inspection was irrelevant to the question of liability. In this connection it makes no legal difference whether the fire occurs before, during or after a ride irrespective of the riding operation itself. However, even in these cases, the loss had been decisively affected by the motor vehicle itself and the dangers emanating from it. In this regard, it is sufficient that there is a causal connection between the fire or its spread and a facility of the motor vehicle.
According to the Federal Court (BGH), however, it had not been established that the heating and subsequent explosion of the battery had a close local and temporal connection with an operating facility. Because at this point, the battery had already been removed from the electric scooter and was no longer connected to it. In these cases, the battery is no longer or not yet part of the facility. The mere fact that the battery was previously in the electric scooter and discharged in it therefore does not establish the necessary causal connection. In the present case, it is therefore the building insurance and not the liability insurance of the owner that has to pay. The judgement can also be applied, for example, to comparable situations in connection with e-bike batteries and could therefore set an important precedent.
Specialist trade needs to catch up
Dirk Zedler, founder and managing director of Zedler-lnstitut für Fahrradtechnik und -Sicherheit, assesses the judgement of the Federal Court and sees a need for the specialist trade and the manufacturers to catch up: “Basically, there had already been agreement in the industry beforehand that with the electric bicycles workshops and bike shops had to face a new era. The judgement of the Federal Court now manifests that there are many points in the specialist trade and also with some manufacturers that still need to be handled. This ranges from a specially equipped electric charging corner with extinguishing or cooling facilities, if it comes to the worst, to a battery storage cabinet and hazardous goods training for all those who work with batteries. Especially with the latter, things do not look good in many companies. It is only with skilled awareness of danger that adequate measures can be taken. Finally, it is important to agree with the insurers whether they conform to the internal status quo and provide coverage for the risks. Make sure that you get that in writing.”
Author: Maxim Huber