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If you really are bad, a judge will figure out a way to void your release

Davis, v. 3 Bar F Rodeo, 2007 Ky. App. LEXIS 423

Appellate court sends back to trial court on issue that release did not protect against Gross Negligence, and the deceased did not have time to read the release.

I guess I knew that these contests happened. I grew up in a rural community where we had greased pig contests, but nothing like this. The plaintiff entered a contest where he went into a rodeo and stood in a white circle. There were other participants also standing in circles. A bull was released into the ring. The last person standing in a white circle won. Prize money was $50.00. The contest was called the “Ring of Fear.” The bull struck the deceased bursting his liver.

$50.00?

The plaintiff’s spouse sued. The deceased prior to entering the ring signed a release. The release was comprehensive but apparently had all participant signatures on one form. Allegedly, the deceased was not given any time to read the release.

Prior to the bull being released into the ring, the bull was allegedly provoked by jabbing him with a wooden object and beating sticks against the bull’s cage. (I’m guessing PETA is not big in this part of Kentucky…….)

The trial court dismissed the complaint based on the release signed by the deceased. The plaintiff appealed.

Summary of the case

The appellate court first looked at the Kentucky Farm Animals Activities Act (FAAA) KRS 247.401 through KRS 247.4029. The court found the statute was applicable to the facts in this case. The court also found that the warnings found in the act provided immunity to defendants who posted the warnings. Failure to post the warnings did not create a claim of negligence per se or strict liability as the plaintiff argued. Failing to post the warnings simply failed to provide the immunity under the statute.

The court also found that the FAAA allowed farm animal event sponsors to sue the act if they posted the warning signs.

The court found that the FAAA had no duty to reduce or eliminate the inherent risks found in farm animal activities. The court also found that act did not protect sponsors that intentionally mistreat or aggravate a farm animal. That would be the antithesis of the purpose of the act.

The court then looked at the issue of the release and stated,

While agreements to exempt future liability for either ordinary or gross negligence are not invalid per se, they are generally disfavored and are strictly construed against the parties relying upon them. [Emphasize added]

Although not a definitive statement on the issue, it appears that under Kentucky law, a release will protect a defendant against a claim of gross negligence.

Releases in Kentucky will be upheld if they meet the following tests if:

(1) it explicitly expresses an intention to exonerate by using the word “negligence;” or

(2) it clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release a party from liability for a personal injury caused by that party’s own conduct; or

(3) protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract language; or

(4) the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision.

From a legal point, this is an extremely broad language about how a release will be interpreted by the courts.

The court then examined the release and found no language the court could interpret that could be used to say the release was going to stop a gross negligence claim. The court also found that intentionally mistreating the bull would “at the very least constitute gross negligence.”

The court followed up by stating that infuriating a bull would constitute willful of wanton conduct which “a party may not contract away any liability through a release.”

Finally, the court looked at a laundry list of additional issues raised by the plaintiff:

..that Appellees should have inquired as to the abilities of the participants to participate in the Ring of Fear. Finally, Susan contends that Charles did not have an opportunity to read the release prior to signing it.

The court stated that those were all factual issues to be resolved by a trier of fact.

So Now What?

Although the issue that a release in Kentucky may protect against gross negligence is great as well as the broad language that can be used in a release in Kentucky, the last two issues mentioned by the court allow numerous ways to void releases in Kentucky and place a burden upon the business or program operating in Kentucky and using a release.

That is requiring an outfitter to see if a guest has the sufficient skills, ability and desire to undertake the activities and making sure the person signing a release has sufficient time to read the release.

Solving the problems of the Defendant

First, I would have raised an assumption of risk argument, although I am not sure of the status of A/R in Kentucky. However, I believe that it is pretty obvious that you can get gored by a bull in a ring. The deceased and the plaintiff were going to the event for a rodeo so it had to have been obvious, to some extent.

Second by having separate releases rather than one sign-up sheet, the argument that the deceased did not have time to read the release could have been diffused if not eliminated. If each person has a sheet of paper, then there is no rush to get all the signatures on one sheet of paper.

Still to be resolved

The issue that the defendant did not enquire as to the ability of the participant to participate in the Ring of Fire is an open-ended opportunity for every lawsuit in Kentucky to go to trial.

How are you going to determine the requirements for a participant to undertake an activity? No matter what system, test or determination you make, you did not do a good job if someone is hurt or injured on your trip. Nor can you use medical information to determine if someone can participate because unless you are a physician, that would require diagnosis which you cannot do.

The only solution you can come up with to create a system so the participants can self-determine if they are able to participate. Show a video or create a checklist.  Make sure your release states that the person has watched the video, seen your website and reviewed the checklist and understands it is their responsibility to determine if they are able to participate in the activity.

This could be a nightmare in Kentucky.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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