Liability of race organizer for State Park Employees?

Legally a complicated issue with no clear answer on how to prevent this issue in the future

Chapple, Et Al., v. Ultrafit USA, Inc., Et Al., 2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366 (Ohio App. 2002)

Plaintiff: Roger Chapple & Joyce Chapple

Defendant: Appellee Ultrafit, Inc., Jeffrey Sheard

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: no duty

Holding: for the defendant

I would guess this is a subrogation case. A subrogation claim is based upon the subrogation clause in an insurance policy. This clause gives your insurance company that pays a claim on your behalf to sue someone in your name to recover what the insurance company paid. If you were hurt at work, and worker’s compensation paid a claim on your behalf, worker’s compensation could sue to recover for the damages WC paid.

However, that is just a guess in this case.

This is an interesting fact situation. The plaintiff was an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation, (ODNR). The defendant was running a triathlon in one of Ohio’s state parks. The plaintiff signed up to work the triathlon through normal procedures with ODNR and the park.

The plaintiff had no interaction with the defendant prior to the accident. The triathlon was delayed for a while because of weather issues. Eventually, the triathlon started after a delay. The plaintiff was in the park, rolling a hose in an area where a leg of the race had been when he was struck by lightning. The plaintiff and his spouse sued for their injuries.

The issues are whether appellees owed a duty to Roger Chapple, was he an employee of O.D.N.R. or other status, and if a duty of care existed, did it require a postponement or cancellation of the event.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at many factual issues that were pled at the appellate level that were in conflict with the deposition of the plaintiff. (Plaintiff on appeal said one thing and during his deposition said something else.) Although the court made note of those issues to deny arguments of the plaintiff, no other action was taken.

The issue was whether the defendant was negligent. The negligence argument was centered on whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff. The first part of that argument was whether the injury was foreseeable.

The existence of a duty is an essential element of negligence action. The foreseeability of injury is obviously a factor to consider under appropriate circumstances. An injury is foreseeable if a reasonably prudent person, under like or similar circumstance knew or should have known that an act or nonperformance of an act was likely to result in harm. Here, appellants assert that, because appellee had authority to postpone or cancel the race, that a duty to appellant existed. The defect in this argument is that the weather had cleared considerably at starting time. Lightning flashes were to the north. Appellant did not believe that danger was present.

However, there were a few issues with that argument. The plaintiff knew that during lightning, ODNR had a policy that he was to return to his vehicle. The argument made by the defendant was, there was no obvious lightning around the plaintiff, the lightning had all moved to the north. The final issue was who had control to cancel the event. The plaintiff argued that it was solely under the control of the defendant.

The control asserted is that appellant was included with the use of the facilities, and appellees retained the exclusive ability to cancel or postpone the triathlon. However, no direction occurred. It can only be argued that appellee possessed a general authority to cancel or postpone.

None of those arguments were persuasive with the court.

The facts in the case sub judice indicate that Roger Chapple [plaintiff] chose to work outside and felt that no danger existed. Roger Chapple believed that park rules provided that he waits in a vehicle if a weather danger existed, even though Mr. Hart [unknown person] disputes the existence of such a policy in his deposition. As stated before, Roger Chapple had no contact with appellees and nothing in any deposition supports direction by appellees.

Because the plaintiff was an employee of ODNR and not of the race organization, it was clear that the liability for the injury had to be ODNRs. Control of the event was vested with several groups, and the plaintiff was still under the control of ODNR. “We must disagree with the Assignment of Error and conclude, as the trial court did, that there is insufficient support for the existence of a duty, control of the activities of appellant, nor negligence of appellee.”

So Now What?

If you are organizing events, you should always clarify who is responsible for what and who will ensure what. Here, clarification that ODNR is responsible for ODNR’s employees might have eliminated this issue.

However, who else would ever be in control of someone else’s employee is interesting. If someone is wearing a uniform, that person is the responsibility of the person issuing the uniform.

Another option is to always have volunteers sign a release. All volunteers should sign a release just so volunteers do not sue other volunteers.

This is an interesting case and possible ODNR procedures, and paperwork would not allow you to clarify the liability issues further. Government paperwork is difficult to modify. Sometimes, you just have to rely on insurance.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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