Most references in case law to assumption of the risk are to this California decision. The basis for understanding Assumption of the Risk is this decision based on an injured finger during a pickup football game.

The definition of primary and secondary assumption of the risk was clearly set forth in this decision. This decision also related primary assumption of the risk with the inherent risk of an activity. The decision also eliminated the equally confusing reasonable implied assumption of risk, unreasonable implied assumption of risk theories.

Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296; 834 P.2d 696; 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2; 1992 Cal. LEXIS 3969; 92 Cal. Daily Op. Service 7261; 92 Daily Journal DAR 11765; 92 Daily Journal DAR 11870

Date of the Decision: 1992

Plaintiff: Kendra Knight

Defendant: Michael Jewett

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and assault and battery

Defendant Defenses: assumption of the risk

Holding: for the defendant

Most references to assumption of the risk when needed to clarify the definition in a decision come back to this seminal case: Knight v. Jewett.

The injury in this case occurred during a football game during half time of a super bowl game. The plaintiff and defendant were guests invited to watch the game. Each team had 4-5 players of both sexes. It was purely a pick-up football game. The plaintiff and defendant were on opposite teams.

The court never determined which set of facts were controlling in the case. Generally, the plaintiff and defendant ran into each other during a play. The plaintiff maintained she told the defendant not to play so hard. On the next play, the defendant stepped on the plaintiff’s hand while she was on the ground, injuring her finger.

The injury resulted in three operations and eventual amputation of the finger.

The plaintiff filed suit, which the trial court dismissed based upon the defendant’s motion for summary judgment where he argued assumption of the risk by the plaintiff prevented her recover. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court decision, and the case was appealed to the California Supreme Court which led to this discussion.

Summary of the case

The California Supreme Court wrote extensively about the history and nature of assumption of the risk. A little of that decision will be reviewed here.

The court ruled the basics of negligence claims. “As a general rule, persons have a duty to use due care to avoid injury to others, and may be held liable if they’re careless conduct injures another person.” It then looked at this in comparison of sports and recreation.

In the sports setting, however, conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself. Thus, although moguls on a ski run pose a risk of harm to skiers that might not exist were these configurations removed, the challenge and risks posed by the moguls are part of the sport of skiing, and a ski resort has no duty to eliminate them. 

The court then examined the issue of inherent risk of a sport or activity. An inherent risk is one that without those risks, the sport would not exist. Another way of looking at it is you cannot participate in the sport without possibly experiencing the inherent risks of the sport.

Although defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.

As sports evolved, the actions of other parties in an activity might exceed or be considered careless, but still part of the sport. “In some situations, however, the careless conduct of others is treated as an “inherent risk” of a sport, thus barring recovery by the plaintiff.”

This then leads to the variations in how the courts interpreted the defense.

“The divergent results of the foregoing cases lead naturally to the question how courts are to determine when careless conduct of another properly should be considered an “inherent risk” of the sport that (as a matter of law) is assumed by the injured participant.

The issue of the careless coparticipant in a sport or recreational activity has generally been resolved in the US as a risk of the sport.

The overwhelming majority of the cases, both within and outside California, that have addressed the issue of coparticipant liability in such a sport, have concluded that it is improper to hold a sports participant liable to a coparticipant for ordinary careless conduct committed during the sport–for example, example, for an injury resulting from a carelessly thrown ball or bat during a baseball game–and that liability properly may be imposed on a participant only when he or she intentionally injures another player or engages in reckless conduct that is totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.

The court looked at the history of the defense and found that it has been used in several different ways and was a very confusing defense.

Indeed, almost a half-century ago, Justice Frankfurter described the term “assumption of risk” as a classic example of a felicitous phrase, “undiscriminatingly used to express different and sometimes contradictory ideas,” and whose uncritical use “bedevils the law.”

The defense had been applied in California to cases where spectators were injured at sporting events where it was determined that no duty was owed to the spectator. In other cases, it was used in sport and other activities where:

… it was clear that the defendant had breached a legal duty of care to the plaintiff, and the inquiry focused on whether the plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily had chosen to encounter the specific risk of harm posed by the defendant’s breach of duty.

The court then reviewed comparative fault or the doctrine of contributory negligence. Until the adoption of the doctrine, it did not matter what assumption of risk theory was used, both prevented recovery. However, after the adoption of the doctrine it became important to define which theory applied. One was merged with contributory negligence and the other either by exemption in a statute or by court decision was allowed to survive.

Contributory Negligence was the result of a change in how liability and consequently, damages were applied by a jury. Instead of determining who won or lost, completely, the jury was tasked with determining what percentage of fault applied to the parties in a case. If the plaintiff was less at fault than the defendant, the percentage of fault is different in each state, and then the defendant recovered that percentage of the damages.

However, that division of the fault left many in the sports and recreation field at a loss when the plaintiff did assume the risk of injuries which the court felt should bar a claim.

The court then started to define the new approach of assumption of the risk.

First, in “primary assumption of risk” cases–where the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm–a plaintiff who has suffered such harm is not entitled to recover from the defendant, whether the plaintiff’s conduct in undertaking the activity was reasonable or unreasonable.

Second, in “secondary assumption of risk” cases–involving instances in which the defendant has breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff–the defendant is not entitled to be entirely relieved of liability for an injury proximately caused by such breach, simply because the plaintiff’s conduct in encountering the risk of such an injury was reasonable rather than unreasonable.

The basic distinction results in a totally different result. The first prevents the plaintiff from recovering, and the second may affect the plaintiff’s recovery. By that I mean one is a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery and the second, because of comparative negligence may reduce or limit the plaintiff’s recovery.

This third classification is different. However, if you look at the injuries of different sports it makes sense; compare the risks of jump rope versus the risk of boxing.

Third and finally, the question, whether the defendant owed a legal duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm does not turn on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the plaintiff’s conduct, but rather on the nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.

The court reached the following conclusions with respect to how the two different applications of the theory would be applied to the facts and the result.

In cases involving “primary assumption of risk”–where, by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties’ relationship to the activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury–the doctrine continues to operate as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.

Secondary assumption of risk was defined as:

In cases involving “secondary assumption of risk”–where the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty–the doctrine is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.

Coparticipants in sports were then defined to be protected from their careless acts because the injured participant assumed the risk.

Accordingly, we conclude that a participant in an active sport breaches a legal duty of care to other participants–i.e., engages in conduct that properly may subject him or her to financial liability–only if the participant intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.

As such the defendant in this case was found not to be liable to the plaintiff because the defendant’s carelessness was a risk of the activity, and the plaintiff assumed the risk under the primary assumption of risk doctrine.

So Now What?

First, this court wrote a decision that is still referenced today and is used by the majority of states to define assumption of the risk; primary and secondary for a state.

The real issue, and the one that courts face every day, is to determine the inherent risks of an activity and what defines careless acts on the part of coparticipant. Leaving this decision to a judge or a jury that does not understand the activity could lead to confusion and losing decisions.

In that vein, when a statute is written such as equine or ski safety acts, then the statute defines the inherent risks of the activity. A long and comprehensive list such as that in the Colorado Ski Safety Act broadens the risks inherent in skiing.

In that vein, make sure you release does not limit the risks that are covered by your release. If your release just prevents suits for the inherent risks of the activity, those risks that in many states, the plaintiff must accept and assume any way you may be limiting the scope of your release.

Always educate your guests on all of the risks of the activity or as many as you possibly can. You want your guests to be informed of the risks, the more a guest knows and understands the better the experience. At the same time, the more the guest knows, the more the issue becomes primary assumption of the risk, a complete bar rather than secondary assumption of the risk.

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