Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release

If the industry says you should and calls it a standard you better

Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290 (Mass. Sup 2003)

Plaintiff: Derek A. Lautieri

Defendant: Jorun G. Bae

Third Party Defendants: defendants USA Triathlon, Inc., William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and court added gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Holding release released defendants who could not be held to gross negligence.

This decision is from a trial court in Massachusetts. It has limited value in Massachusetts and other states.

If you have read many of these articles, you understand that releases do not bar claims for gross negligence. In this case, the release did not bar the claim for gross negligence, even when the plaintiff did not plead gross negligence.

This is a car/bike accident case during a triathlon. The plaintiff was cycling in a triathlon with several other cyclists. The defendant Bae, driver pulled out in front of the cyclists resulting in a collision. The course was not closed to traffic.

The defendant car driver brought in as third party defendants the race organizer, William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management (Fiske), the race charity Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc. (BGC) and the triathlon association sanctioning body USA Triathlon, Inc., (USTA).

The third party defendants were brought in for “contribution.” Contribution is defined in Massachusetts as:

Where two or more persons become jointly liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, there shall be a right of contribution among them.” The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has consistently interpreted the language of this statute to mean that an “action for contribution is not barred if, at the time the accident occurred, the party for whom contribution is sought could have been held liable in tort.”

For the defendant, Bae to enable to enforce contribution against the third party defendants she must show that the third party defendants could be held liable at trial in tort. Any defenses available to the third party defendants against the original plaintiff will also be a defense to the contribution claim of the defendant Bae.

Therefore, in order for Bae to be able to enforce a right of contribution against any of the third-party defendants, she must be able to show that the particular third-party defendant could have been found tortiously liable to the plaintiff at the time the accident occurred.

Fiske was the person who put the triathlon together. Even though Fiske was operating as Fiske Independent Race Management, the court indicated that Fiske was not a corporation or company (LLC). USTA sanctioned the race, including providing liability insurance and standards, according to the court, on how the race should be run.

The defendant Bae argued that the third party defendants should be liable for failing to “a safe layout for the race course, failure to provide warning signs and directions, and failure to place volunteers and/or police personnel at the intersection where the incident occurred.”

The court determined that USTA was:

…the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

USTA is the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

In that position, USTA created regulations for running triathlons which the court quoted:

2. It is highly recommended to close the [bike race] road to traffic. If not possible, cone bike lanes with a minimum width of six feet from vehicles . . . 9. Control stoplights/stop sign intersections, traffic hazards and turnarounds with police and an ample amount of volunteers . . . 12. Use ‘Race in Progress’ or ‘Watch for Cyclists’ signs placed along the course to help warn motorists about conditions . . . 23. All turns, turn-arounds, traffic hazards and intersections must be monitored and marked with signs and volunteers. Any intersections with stop signs or stop lights must be controlled by police or professional traffic personnel.

Fiske did not follow any of the guidelines offered by the USTA.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

Summary of the case

The defense raised by the third party defendants was “release.” The plaintiff signed a release to join the USTA and receive a license. The plaintiff also signed an application which contained language similar to that of a release when she entered the race.

Under Massachusetts law, the enforceability of a release is a question (issue) of law to be decided by the court. “Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases.”

There can be no doubt . . . that under the law of Massachusetts . . . in the absence of fraud a person may make a valid contract exempting himself from any liability to another which he may in the future incur as a result of his negligence or that of his agents or employees acting on his behalf.” While any doubts about the interpretation of a release must be resolved in the favor of the plaintiff, an unambiguous and comprehensive release will be enforced as drafted.

Nor does the word negligence have to be found in the release. Releases, like all other states, do not bar claims of gross negligence. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant complained of any gross negligence. The court, however, stated that even though not pled, gross negligence could be found later against Fiske. If that was the case, then the releases signed by the plaintiff did not bar the claim against Fiske. “While these waivers are sufficient to release Fiske from all liability for harm caused by his own negligence, they do not release him from his own gross negligence.” The court found that the actions of Fiske could rise to the level of gross negligence.

The basis of that finding was Fiske did not follow the guidelines or regulations of the governing body, the USTA in running the race. “As this definition is necessarily vague, it is important to note that courts have found that “industry standards may be some evidence of negligence.”

To some extent, the court must have thought that Fiske’s failure to follow the standards of the USTA was very egregious to raise the issue of gross negligence in the case.

The court quoted the regulations cited above as evidence that what Fiske did when ignoring the industry standards was sufficient to void the release because it raised the possibility that Fiske was grossly negligent.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

The court further defined negligence and gross negligence under Massachusetts law.

Negligence, without qualification and in its ordinary sense, is the failure of a responsible person, either by omission or by action, to exercise that degree of care, vigilance and forethought which, in the discharge of the duty then resting on him, the person of ordinary caution and prudence ought to exercise under the particular circumstances. It is a want of diligence commensurate with the requirement of the duty at the moment imposed by the law.

Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others. The element of culpability which characterizes all negligence is in gross negligence magnified to a high degree as compared with that present in ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is a manifestly smaller amount of watchfulness and circumspection than the circumstances require of a person of ordinary prudence . . . It falls short of being such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a wilful and intentional wrong. Ordinary and gross negligence differ in degree of inattention, while both differ in kind from wilful and intentional conduct which is or ought to be known to have a tendency to injure.”

The court’s justification for not letting Fiske out of the case and for allowing the possibility of a claim for gross negligence was interesting.

While Bae has specifically pled negligence, and not gross negligence, this Court has considered the summary judgment motion as if a claim for gross negligence against the third-party defendants has been made.

Accordingly, because gross negligence may be considered an alternative theory of a standard negligence claim, Bae should be permitted to proceed with her claim of gross negligence against the third-party defendants.

The court then looked at the allegations against the USTA.

In order for Lautieri to establish that USTA owed him a duty of care at the time the accident occurred, Lautieri would have to establish that such a duty has a “source existing in social values and customs,” or that USTA voluntarily, or for consideration, assumed a duty of care to Lautieri. This is a burden that Lautieri–or, more appropriately, Bae, standing in Lautieri’s shoes–cannot meet.

There was no evidence that showed USTA participated or was supposed to participate in the planning, operation, supervision or running of the race. USTA did not even have a representative of USTA attend the race. Consequently, because there was no duty and USTA created no duty to the plaintiff the release barred the claims of the third party defendant.

The court’s discussion of the Boys and Girls Club was shorter.

A similar finding regarding the B&G Clubs is mandated. While there is evidence that the B&G Clubs provided volunteers for the triathlon, there is no evidence to support a claim of gross negligence against the B&G Clubs or any of its members.

USTA and the Boys and Girls Club were dismissed from the lawsuit.

So Now What?

The “release” or as identified by the court, application, was extremely weak. If the release had identified the course as being an open course, not closed to cars, this might have changed the outcome of the case for Fiske. No matter, the document was too weak not to create problems rather than resolve them in this case.

However, even if the release was stronger, it might not have gotten Fiske out of the case because of the court raised allegations of gross negligence. The USTA created regulations for running a race. By requesting and receiving sanctioning for the race, Fiske knowingly or unknowingly, became burdened or bound by those regulations. The court called them standards, regulations and guidelines throughout the decision, but the simple fact is they were a noose around the third party defendant’s neck.

You cannot look at your industry and not understand the standard of care in the industry or not find and follow the guidelines the industry is creating.

These “regulations” are fairly simple and appear to be commons sense. However, they substantially increase the cost of running an event. Closing a street requires government paperwork, government employees and usually help from law enforcement. All significantly increase the cost of running the event.

However, the regulations more importantly are proof that if an industry association creates regulations, standards, guidelines or rules, they are the standard of care against which members of the same industry will be judged in court.

For more articles on how standards created by an association are used to harm association members see:

ACA Standards are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Expert Witness Report: ACA “Standards” are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 million

Trade Association Standards sink a Summer Camp when plaintiff uses them to prove Camp was negligent

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