If you agree to the rules you have to follow the rules

Sanctioning body said you must do XYZ, which creates a standard of care you will be judged by

McDonough v. National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA), 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8036 (Dist. Del 1997)

Plaintiff: Arthur Mcdonough and Linda Mcdonough, in their own right and as Parents of Bradley Alan Mcdonough, deceased

Defendant: National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA), U.S. Cycling Fed., and Delaware Trail Spinners

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the plaintiff, sent back for trial


In this case the deceased was racing in an Off Road [Mountain] Bike Race when he died of dehydration. The lawsuit was started by his parents against the organizations that sanctioned the race, NORBA, the race, and the race course owner. The suit alleged failure of the standards created by the sanctioning organization even though race had agreed to follow the standards.

The decedent died racing in a mountain bike race after being discovered along the race course unconscious. This was the deceased second NORBA race. There were no water or aid stations along the course. However the riders had access to their own water bottles on their bikes.

The plaintiffs argued there was no way for a beginner to access their water bottle on the course because it was so difficult unless they stopped riding. The only water available was what the participants brought with them. No physician, ambulance or emergency medical personnel at the race.

As a sanctioned race, NORBA provided defendant Delaware Trail Spinners the race organizer, with a “Pre-Event Planning Checklist.” In order to host the event the defendant Trail Spinners had to go through the checklist and agree to abide or provide the items on the checklist. The race director for Trail Spinners specifically stated that “there would be an ambulance on site and adequate water or fluids for participants and spectators before, during, and after the race.” NORBA also sends an official who according to the checklist will confirm issues and sign off on the checklist. In this case the NORBA representative did not sign off on the checklist.

To be able to race participants had to sign a one day membership to NORBA and sign a release. The court pointed out that no one explained the release to the participants. The back of the trial membership form said that everyone had to carry 8 ounces of water and that if the race exceeded sixty minutes NORBA would provide water to the race participants.

Before the race began one of the Trail Spinners race organizers, spoke to the 80 to 100 race participants. He told them without a bullhorn or PA system that there was no ambulance on site, but that one could be called if needed. He also told the contestants to be “”careful, . . . take their time” and not to “ride over your head, which means going beyond your ability.” McGroerty also told them to “watch their bodies, make sure they didn’t push themselves too hard because it was hot out.” Finally, he told them that “if they felt dizzy or nauseous, to back off, stay cool and keep from going too hard.”

The deceased was found after a search in an unconscious state off the trail. The friend called 911 from his cell phone and went and got assistance back at the race headquarters.  When he arrived back with two people to help him they started CPR. The deceased bike still had a water bottle with water in it. The deceased died of heat stroke fifteen days later.

Summary of the case

Delaware law, the state where the race was held, was the law applied to this case. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release and the defense of primary assumption of the risk. Delaware merged secondary assumption of risk with comparative negligence, however Primary or express (written) assumption of risk is still a defense. The court defined the differences as:

Primary assumption, sometimes referred to as express assumption of risk, “involves the express consent to relieve the defendant of any obligation of care while secondary assumption [of risk] consists of voluntarily encountering a known unreasonable risk which is out of proportion to the advantage gained.”

The court quickly concluded that the summary judgment granted by the lower court should be overturned. The court felt that

…genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether McDonough understood that the release included a waiver against the hazards created by defendants’ alleged negligent and reckless conduct in promoting the race.

The court reviewed the record of the case pointing out every place where the requirements set forth by the sanctioning body, NOBA were not met by the race. (Whether those issues would have made a difference was never discussed.)

The court then shifted and wrote that because it could be argued that the deceased did not understand the release was a waiver of the risks that it was a material fact, which voided the release.

In the present case, plaintiffs assert that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether McDonough understood that the release included a waiver against the hazards created by defendants’ alleged negligent and reckless conduct in promoting the race. The court agrees.

The court arrived at this decision by stating the law and then interpreting it differently than all other courts had interpreted the law.

However, for the release to be effective, it must appear that the plaintiff understood the terms of the agreement, or that a reasonable person in his position would have understood the terms.

Thus, the understanding of the parties when the release was executed, in light of all the facts and circumstances, is paramount in determining whether the language is clear and unambiguous.

If you don’t understand what you are signing, then the release was not clear and unambiguous. I know of no other case that has argued that before.

So Now What?

The obvious issue here was the written documentation that required water and first aid and the documentation given to the deceased that stated water would be available where not available. Every race, camp, organization needs to develop a checklist or risk management plan so they can operate. However, as in this case, failing to follow any checklist was enough to lose the defenses of Primary Assumption of the Risk and Release and send your case to trial.

ØIf it is written down and you agree to it, you must follow it.

ØIf it is written down by an organization that you belong to or are sanctioned by, then you must agree to it.

ØIf an organization that you belong to writes a standard, then you must meet the standard!

The court then looked at these facts and was not happy. It then applied the facts in such a way that the court could find the release invalid and send it back for trial.

To see other cases where the defendant lost because they violated their trade associations standard of care see:

ACA Standards are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp                                                                             http://rec-law.us/zmKgoi

Expert Witness Report: ACA “Standards” are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp                                                   http://rec-law.us/y7QlJ3

Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management (or in this case an insurance policy) must pay for.                                                       http://rec-law.us/14MebM4

Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 millionhttp://rec-law.us/11UdbEn

Trade Association Standards sink a Summer Camp when plaintiff uses them to prove Camp was negligent                                           http://rec-law.us/wszt7N

To Read other articles about standards see:

Can a Standard Impeded Inventions?                http://rec-law.us/yOcca2

Playgrounds will be flat soon                             http://rec-law.us/zGC4DZ

Staying Current                                                  http://rec-law.us/ArdsVk

Stop Feuding, I doubt, move forward anyway, I think you can.   http://rec-law.us/P763zu

This is how a standard in the industry changes          http://rec-law.us/w76X3K

Words: You cannot change a legal definition    http://rec-law.us/AbJ540


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2 Comments on “If you agree to the rules you have to follow the rules”

  1. What if the race said there would be no support. No water no nothing. If everyone new that and agreed to that would that be OK?


  2. Marcus Miller says:

    I feel this is very unfortunate for the mountain biker to die such a horrible way of heat stroke. This case had some wary outcomes. The biker was suppose to have 8 oz of water and then if the race was longer than 60 minutes, they would provide water, which there were no water stations along the course. Only water available was the water they brought with them. Also, NORBA said there would be on site medical staff and ambulances, which there weren’t. I believe there needs to be water stations and medical staff on hand at a “Race” where people are competing often passing their ability level. This case is back on trial.


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