This California decision looks at assumption of the risk as it applies to non-competitive long distance bicycle rides and also determines that assumption of the risk also overcomes a violation of a statute (negligence per se).

A negligence per se claim can be stopped if the plaintiff assumed the risk under California law. This is probably a rare look at negligence per se in the fifty states.

Moser v. Ratinoff, 105 Cal. App. 4th 1211; 130 Cal. Rptr. 2d 198; 2003 Cal. App. LEXIS 138; 2003 Cal. Daily Op. Service 987; 2003 Daily Journal DAR 1320

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Five

Plaintiff: Christian Moser

Defendant: Joanne Ratinoff

Plaintiff Claims: negligently, recklessly and carelessly operated, owned, controlled and maintained” her bicycle “so as to collide with the defendant.

Defendant Defenses: Primary Assumption of the Risk and Secondary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2003

The plaintiff and the defendant participated in an “organized long-distance bicycle ride on public highways involving hundreds of participants.” The ride, the Death Valley Double Century was a 200-mile ride (double century). During the ride, the defendant swerved from the right side along the curb to the left into the plaintiff causing a collision. The plaintiff suffered injuries.

Prior to the ride, both participants signed releases. The releases explained several of the risks of the activity, but did not protect participants from claims of other participants. “The document does not purport to be a release of anyone other than the “event holders, sponsors and organizers.”

The case was dismissed at the trial court level because collisions are an inherent risk of cycling. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The court first looked at the requirements for the defendant to prove assumption of the risk by motion.

When a defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis of implied assumption of the risk, he or she has the burden of establishing the plaintiff’s primary assumption of the risk by demonstrating that the defendant owed no legal duty to the plaintiff to prevent the harm of which the plaintiff complains.

Under California law, a participant is generally responsible for their own injuries caused by the ordinary care or skill of another.

The court then looked at whether the plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of his injuries.

When a defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis of implied assumption of the risk, he or she has the burden of establishing the plaintiff’s primary assumption of the risk by demonstrating that the defendant owed no legal duty to the plaintiff to prevent the harm of which the plaintiff complains.

Express assumption of the risk is usually considered a written assumption of the risk. The court set out the definitions that must be met to prove express assumption of the risk in California.

The doctrine of express assumption of the risk is founded on express agreement. ‘Although in the academic literature “express assumption of risk” often has been designated as a separate, contract-based species of assumption of risk . . ., cases involving express assumption of risk are concerned with instances in which, as the result of an express agreement, the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from an injury-causing risk.’ Such an agreement, if valid, ‘operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement. . . .’ That express assumption of risk is founded on an express agreement undercuts the distributor defendants’ claim that it is good as against the world.

The court found that express assumption of the risk could not be applied to this case, as the defendants failed to prove that she was entitled to use the release signed by both parties before entering the race. However, the court found there could still be some value to the defendant from the release. “A person’s written acknowledgment of the risks inherent in an activity may, however, have an effect on determinations concerning implied assumption of risk.”

The court then looked at implied assumption of the risk, also known as secondary assumption of the risk, and whether it could be proved in this case. Under California law, implied assumption of the risk “embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”

Implied assumption of the risk was defined by the California Supreme Court as:

…a defendant owes no duty of care to protect a plaintiff against the risks inherent in a particular competitive sport (in that case, an informal touch football game) voluntarily played by the plaintiff, absent some reckless or intentional misconduct, but does owe a duty not to increase the risk of harm above that inherent in the sport. The court said that “[i]n some situations . . . the careless conduct of others is treated as an ‘inherent risk’ of a sport, thus barring recovery by the plaintiff.”

The reasoning for this is to impose a duty would place a chill on most sporting activities so that participants would not vigorously compete.

The test for implied assumption of the risk is not whether the defendant must protect the plaintiff from a known risk, but the nature of the activity.

The court then looked to determine if prior decisions had applied the defense of implied assumption of the risk to “organized non-competitive recreational bicycle riding.” However, the court did find that the risks and other factors made this type of cycling the same as other sports that implied assumption of the risk had been applied too by other California courts.

Nevertheless, this sport appears to fall within those activities to which these cases apply the assumption of risk doctrine. As the court said upon “[c]ompiling all of the distinguishing factors” from the cases,  an activity is a “sport” to which the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies if that 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.” That delineation is a useful one and covers the bicycle ride here.

The court also found that although bicycles are vehicles under California law, this type of activity was not the same as driving a car. This was done for enjoyment and physical activity.

However, the assumption of risk is not a blanket defense to all claims.

The primary assumption of risk rule “does not grant unbridled legal immunity to all defendants participating in sporting activity. The Supreme Court has stated that ‘. . . 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.’

Defendants have no legal duty to eliminate the risk or protect a plaintiff to the risks inherent in a sport. The next issue becomes what then are the inherent risks of a sport.

Conduct is not inherent in the sport if that conduct is “totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport . . . [and] if the prohibition of that conduct would neither deter vigorous participation in the sport nor otherwise fundamentally alter the nature of the sport.” A participant injured in a sporting activity by another participant may recover from that coparticipant for intentional infliction of injury or tortious behavior “so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport” but not for mere negligence.

The court then gave examples of non-inherent risks and inherent risks in sports as determined by other California courts.

Certain activities have been held not to be inherent in a sport and thus not subject to the primary assumption of risk doctrine. For example, drinking alcoholic beverages is not an activity inherent in the sport of skiing. On the other hand, in various sports, going too fast, making sharp turns, not taking certain precautions, or proceeding beyond one’s abilities are actions held not to be totally outside the range of ordinary activities involved in those sports.

The court then found that two riders riding side by side, a collision between the two, or one rider riding into the other was an inherent risk of cycling.

The analogies derived from the risks in other sports suggest that one cyclist riding alongside another cyclist and swerving into the latter is a risk that is inherent in a long-distance, recreational group bicycle ride. The release Moser signed warns of the risk of accidents caused by the participants, thus indicating that such accidents are an inherent risk of the activity.

The defendant in this case the court determined was negligent, but was not wanton or reckless or conduct so totally outside of the range of ordinary activity involved in cycling.

The final issue the court looked at is whether the claim of negligence per se is barred by express or implied assumption of the risk. Court looked at precedent, prior case law, to determine the issue and found none. There were several California Supreme Court decisions that looked at the issue but did not rule on it. On the court today, this court determined from those prior decisions that a majority, four, of the justices on the court would argue that a negligence per se claim is blocked by express assumption of the risk. “Nevertheless, a majority of the present California Supreme courts have expressed the view that a violation of a statute such as involved here does not displace the primary assumption of risk doctrine.”

The court upheld the ruling of the trial court, and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

First do not assume that assumption of the risk, in any form can bar a negligence per se claim. There are several states were this would not be true.

Second, the court’s analysis of the facts and the law are easily understood and supported by the case law quoted. This is a great case to understand the two types of assumption of the risk allowed in California.

Finally, in California of two or more people riding together is that one of those people assumes the inherent risk of colliding with the other.

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