Making statements contrary to release can be barred by a release, maybe, but may be gross, wilful and wanton negligence which the release does not stop.Posted: August 11, 2014
Plaintiff signed a release to participate in the Warrior Dash race. An employee of the race was encouraging participants to dive into a mud pit. Plaintiff dove into the mud pit rendering himself a quadriplegic.
State: Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan
Plaintiff: James Sa
Defendant: Red Frog Events, LLC, an Illinois corporation
Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct
Defendant Defenses: release and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted
Holding: for the defendant on the negligence claim because of the release, for the plaintiff on the gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct claims
This case is possible still ongoing. How the final decision will evolve is unknown. However, the federal district court did arrive at some great analysis of the case.
This case comes out of the new fad, extreme obstacle racing. In these races participants run through live electrical wires, jump through fire and here, crawl through a mud pit. These races are known by various names, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the most well-known.
In this case, the plaintiff signed up for a Warrior Dash 5K race and signed a release. The release specifically warned against diving into the mud pit. The mud pit was right in front of the bleachers and the last obstacle on the course.
At the mud, pit was an employee of the defendant with a microphone, and loudspeaker “acting as an emcee” for the event.
Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged.
So many people were diving into the mud pit that people were blogging about it and posting photos online.
The plaintiff followed the emcee’s “encouragement” and dove into the mud pit resulting in paralysis from the chest down. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.
A motion to dismiss is usually filed by the defendant prior to filing an answer. The basis is the pleadings are so lacking in any facts or there is no law to support a claim. In reviewing the motion, the court must accept the allegations and facts in the complaint as true. It is unclear in reading this case when the motion to dismiss was filed. This opinion is the court’s response to the motion to dismiss.
Summary of the case
The court first looked at whether the release acted to stop the negligence claims of the plaintiff. Releases are valid in Michigan. Under Michigan law a release’s validity:
…turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.
Whether the release is valid is a question of law. The plaintiff did not argue that he signed the release. The court pointed out possible ways the plaintiff could void the release which the plaintiff did not use.
He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.
Ninety-nine percent of the time plaintiff’s attack the validity of the release based on their competence or understanding of the release. In not doing so, I would guess the plaintiff shocked the judge so he put in this language. The plaintiff’s first argued the release was invalid because:
…that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.
(This argument has been used endlessly and is so easily avoided. Use the word negligence in your release.)
Here the language used by the defendant met the requirements to put the plaintiff on notice that he was giving up his rights to sue for negligence. “…although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.”
The release language under Michigan’s law is called the indemnity provision or clause. That translation of the phrase is different from most other states. Here, it is like saying, by signing the release the plaintiff agrees to indemnify himself for his injuries.
…the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.
The next argument of the plaintiff’s is brilliant and if successful would bring down hundreds of releases across the United States. Releases written by attorneys or non-attorneys in an attempt to soften the blow will put statements in the release about how safe the activity is, how well run the operation is or that accidents rarely happen.
The plaintiff argued that other statements in the release gave the plaintiff the impression that the defendant would not be negligent in the operation of the race.
For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.
The court did not accept this argument because the paragraph this language was in went on stating there was a risk of injury entering the race.
The final argument by the plaintiff was also unique and if accepted would invalidate dozens of releases. The plaintiff argued that the statements by the employee of the defendant, the emcee, invalidated the release. In legal language, the statements of the emcee “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.”
In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James [the plaintiff] to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.”
Under Michigan’s law, any waiver of a written contract must be in writing unless the waiver language is consistent with the strict compliance language of the contract. Meaning the waiver language must be of the same type and of the same legal tone as the original contract.
Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.
The court upheld the validity of the release and held the release stopped the simple negligence claims of the plaintiff.
On the second and third claims, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct, a release under Michigan’s law does not work. The issue then becomes are there enough allegations to the facts in the complaint and documents filed with the court to this point to support the plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct.
Under Michigan’s law:
Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.”
Under Michigan’s law, a release does not stop claims for gross negligence. So the gross negligence claim survives the defense of release. The issue then is whether the plaintiff as plead enough facts that a jury may find give rise to gross negligence.
…it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result.
The court, based upon the statements of the emcee at the mud pit encouraging people to dive into the pit were enough to possibly support a claim for gross negligence.
Under Michigan’s law, Wilful and Want misconduct is different and distinct from gross negligence.
“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to an-other, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.”
…willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.
Here again, the court found the actions of the emcee in encouraging participants to dive into the mud pit might be found to be an intent to harm or an indifference.
Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head-first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks, to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]”
Consequently, the court granted the motion to dismiss on the negligence claims and denied the motion to dismiss on the claims of gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct.
Again, this case probably is not over yet.
So Now What?
Don’t give an injured participant the opportunity to sue you. Don’t dance with the possibility that your language you use instead of the word negligence will meet the requirements of the law.
JUST USE THE WORD NEGLIGENCE IN YOUR RELEASE!
Second, don’t allow anyone who is an employee or may appear to participants to be an employee to encourage people to take actions that might injure them or is contrary to the rules of your activity.
It seems to be common sense; however, in the heat of the activity or an unfounded belief the release is ironclad, people get excited and might encourage a participant to take risks they are not expected or ready for.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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