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Assumption of the Risk to be a bar to a claim the defendant must not owe a duty to the plaintiff that means the plaintiff must be involved in recreation or a sport.

The old idea of you knew what you were doing could result in an injury, and you did it anyway does not necessarily prevent lawsuits now days.

Kindrich III et al., v. Long Beach Yacht Club et al., 167 Cal. App. 4th 1252; 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 824; 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 1705

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

Plaintiff: Carl Kindrich, III, Barbara Kindrich, and Michael Kindrich

Defendant: Long Beach Yacht Club and Charles Fuller, skipper

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in their use and maintenance of both the boat and the dock, Barbara claimed loss of consortium, and Michael claimed emotional distress

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2008

The facts in this case are easy, and to regular readers, sort of annoying. The plaintiff’s father died. The deceased had been a member of the defendant yacht club and wanted to be buried at sea. The yacht club loaned a boat and a skipper to the deceased family to take his ashes out to sea.

Boarding the boat, there was a set of stairs that allowed everyone to climb on the boat. Upon returning the stairs were removed. The Defendant/Skipper/Boat Captain asked the plaintiff to jump down to tie the boat up. He did, injuring his knee.

Free boat to carry out his father’s wishes, knowing the risk, and he still sues. The plaintiff sued the Yacht Club and the skipper, both of whom were donated for disposing the ashes of the plaintiff’s father.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The defendant yacht club filed a motion to dismiss based on assumption of the risk. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

The court went through a detailed analysis of assumption of the risk in California. The basis of the analysis was the California Supreme Court decision in 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.

The court first started by defining when assumption of the risk is applied as a complete bar and the differences between primary and secondary assumption of the risk.

Assumption of risk that is based upon the absence of a defendant’s duty of care is called “‘primary assumption of 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.”

Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to a claim. “Primary assumption of risk, “where plaintiff is held to agree to relieve defendant of an obligation of reasonable conduct toward him”” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 306), remains as a complete defense.”

The court stated that the decision in Knight changed how the court should view assumption of the risk. “Knight shifted the focus of assumption of risk from a plaintiff’s “subjective knowledge and awareness” of the risk to the nature of the activity in question.”

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.” Knight justified maintaining the defense in a sports setting because there “conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself” and imposing liability “might well alter fundamentally the nature of the sport by deterring participants from vigorously engaging in activity that falls close to, but on the permissible side of, a prescribed rule”

The old definition looked at whether the plaintiff knew about the risk and voluntarily assumed the risk. Now the court looks at what was going on to determine what happened. Even if the plaintiff did not understand the activity or the risks, by engaging in the activity, they may still assume the risks. This in many senses is a broader definition which helps the defendant. However, when the activity is not a sport, it is a very narrow definition.

The court then looked at all the California cases that had determined that the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff; therefore, the assumption of the risk was a complete bar to the plaintiff’s claims. From that it determined that the complete bar applied if the plaintiff was participating in a sport.

After reviewing a substantial number of cases applying primary assumption of risk to a variety of activities, the court concluded that “[c]ompiling all of the distinguishing factors, it appears that an activity falls within the meaning of ‘sport’ if the activity is done for enjoyment or thrill, requires physical exertion as well as elements of skill, and involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”

Jumping off a boat is not a sport. It is a common everyday occurrence. As such the activity is not one where the plaintiff assumes the risk because the defendant might owe the plaintiff a duty. The existence of the stairs to begin the boat ride is proof that a duty may be owed. The case was reversed and sent back for further proceedings.

So Now What?

So I’ve posted a lot of cases looking at assumption of the risk. However, you need to make sure you understand that normally, assumption of the risk is not a complete bar to a lawsuit as in this case. For assumption of the risk to bar a plaintiff’s suit, the plaintiff must be involved in an activity or sport.

Here the plaintiff was jumping off a boat. Although the facts make it appear like the suit should be thrown out because when you jump from a boat, it is obvious you can be hurt. The rule states it only applies to how much the trier of fact thinks you were responsible for your injury not whether you assumed the risk as in the past.

Assumption of the risk may still be a complete bar to recovery. It will be dependent upon the state and how the jury sees the facts. However, that must be decided by the trier of fact, and cannot be decided by motions.

By that I mean if the plaintiff does not prove that the defendant was at least or 50 or 51% liable (dependent upon the state) for their injury the plaintiff loses. In some states, the percentage of the plaintiff’s fault only reduces the award to the plaintiff by that percentage the plaintiff is liable, so if the plaintiff is found to be 90% liable the plaintiff only recovers 10% of the damages.

The issue as to how assumption of the risk is to be applied to the facts is based on whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff. In a sport, the defendant does not owe any duty unless the acts of the defendant are reckless or intentional, generally (varies by state). Here, the stairs that were there originally created a duty when they were removed.

The reasoning behind keeping assumption of the risk in some activities as a complete bar is, if the risks are removed from the sport, which the defendant would have to do if they were to protect themselves from suit, the sport would not exist. The risk is part and parcel of the sport. Alternatively, without the risks, the sport would not exist.

The controlling term is “sport”. It does not have to be a team sport or a contact sport, but it has to be more than couch surfing or jumping from a boat.

If you are engaging in the activity for a challenge, a thrill, or enjoyment and requires physical exertion, then assumption of the risk may be a complete bar to a claim by the plaintiff.

You could always put that in your release too………….. J

There is a dissent in this case that reasons that “No good deed goes unpunished” and the actions of the plaintiff fit the definition of assumption of the risk, and the older result should apply in this case.

How would they ever be able to tie the boat up if in this fact situation? If a passenger on the boat cannot jump off the boat to tie the boat up, the captain either has to hand over control of the boat to a passenger (see any problems here) or the boat must wait until someone comes down and brings a set of stairs.

Never thought I would write about a “Yacht Club.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss

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