Defendants awarded attorney fees in California cycling race. One unique argument was raised; the plaintiff signed the release on the wrong line

Plaintiff sued for her injuries she occurred when she crashed with male rider in the race. The release she signed was upheld including the provision that the plaintiff pay the defendant’s costs and fees if they won the case.

Kendall v. USA Cycling, Inc. et al., 2005 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5025

State: California; Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Eight

Plaintiff: Judith Kendall

Defendant: for USA Cycling, Inc. and Huntsman World Senior Games

Plaintiff Claims: Release not valid

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendants

Year: 2005

The legal issues in this case are not ground breaking, except for where the plaintiff signed the release. The court did a good job of explaining the reasoning for opposing the plaintiff’s arguments on why the release should be thrown out. However, the court did award attorney fees to the defendant for having to defend this case as per the release.

The plaintiff was cycling in the defendant Huntsman World Senior Games. The race was in Utah, and the plaintiff lived in California. To enter the race, the plaintiff signed a release for USA Cycling, and one for the Huntsman race.

The race was started at different starting times for the different categories and sexes of racers. Senior female racers started first with senior male racers starting five minutes later. During the race, a male racer overtook the plaintiff, and they tangled with the plaintiff falling and receiving injuries.

The plaintiff sued for her injuries and the two defendants, USA Cycling and the Huntsman filed motions for summary judgment based on the releases the plaintiff had signed. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion. One of the releases, the USA Cycling release included a provision that said the plaintiff if she sued would pay the defendant’s attorney fees and costs. The judge awarded $32,000 in fees against the plaintiff also.

The plaintiff appealed the dismissal and the award of attorney fees.

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

The first issue the plaintiff argued was the court should have applied Utah’s law to the case because that is where the accident occurred. (Remember the plaintiff started the lawsuit in California.) In order to determine what law that is to be applied to a case, the court must first look at whether or not there is a difference between the laws of the two states, California and Utah.

The plaintiff argued that Utah’s law was different because it prohibited cycling road races. However, the court investigated this claim and found that bicycle races were not prohibited; they only had to have the requisite permits. The permit process did not affect the facts in this case according to the judge, only traffic control so this issue had no effect on the outcome of the case.

Outside of traffic effects, and the concomitant general safety concerns whenever bicycles and motor vehicles are in close proximity, nothing within the permitting scheme suggests Utah authorities concerned themselves with a race’s details beyond its being “reasonably safe” for all concerned. Nothing hints that the approval of Utah authorities depended on the number of riders, their gender, or their starting times

The plaintiff also brought up that Utah treats releases differently. However, the court found although that may be true, the release in question would pass muster both in Utah and California so this issue was also not going to affect the outcome of the case.

But even if suspicion of preinjury releases existed in Utah law, the releases here would pass muster. Hawkins noted that Utah permits preinjury releases except when the activity affects the public interest. The Hawkins court explained, “It is generally held that those who are not engaged in public service may properly bargain against liability for harm caused by their ordinary negligence in performance of contractual duty . . . . Thus, most courts allow release of liability for prospective negligence, except where there is a strong public interest in the services provided.”

The court then looked into the requirements for a release to be valid.

The elements of a valid release are well established. First, it must be clear and unambiguous. Second, it must not violate public policy-an element we can quickly pass over here because a release covering recreational sports is not against public policy or the public interest. [bicycle racing does not involve public interest].) And third, the injury at issue must be reasonably related to the release’s object and purpose.

The plaintiff then argued the USA Cycling release was ambiguous because it had two signature lines. One line was for racers, and one line was for the parents of racers if the racer was a minor. The plaintiff signed the wrong line, signing as a parent for a racer.

Kendall’s assertion that the USA Cycling release was ambiguous turns on its placement of two signature lines: a signature line for the entrant, and, if the entrant were a minor, a signature line for the minor’s parent or guardian. Kendall signed on the parent’s line, not, as one might suppose, the entrant’s line. She argues her signature’s placement makes the release ambiguous.

This is a unique and new argument I’ve never seen before in arguing the validity of a release. It may be something to look for in the future, as some states may not rule the same as this court.

This argument did not matter also because the plaintiff could not argue that signing at the wrong place on a contract invalidated the release. Nor could she argue that she intended to sign the release to enter the event.

She offers no explanation to challenge the obvious inference that she simply misplaced her signature. She does not deny that she wanted to enter the race, and does not dispute that she needed to sign the form to be allowed in. Never does she claim she was signing on a minor’s behalf. In short, she offers no interpretation of her signature’s placement on the parental consent line other than her innocent mistake. As such, her signature is not susceptible to more than one interpretation.

The plaintiff then argued that the release should be viewed based on her intent, not the subjective intent. Again, the court rejected this argument finding that her intent was to sign the release to enter the race which required her to sign the release to do so.

Kendall notes that we must interpret the release by objective manifestations of her intent, not her subjective intent. Hence, according to her, it does not matter what she subjectively intended when she signed the release; what matters is the objective manifestation of her signature on the parental release line, which she argues compels us to find the release did not bind her (or at best was ambiguous) because she did not sign it as an entrant.

This argument rarely, if ever, works because the intent of a contract that is signed is evidenced by the contract. No other intent or even testimony on the intent can be taken except for what is found “within the four corners of the document.”

We conclude that the objective manifestation of Kendall’s intent cuts the other way. Although the face of the release shows she signed as a parent, she offers no explanation for her signature being there other than her desire to join the race. The objective manifestation of her intent, therefore, is she signed as an entrant-albeit on the wrong line.

In another interesting argument, actually a more interesting response the plaintiff argued the Huntsman release should be thrown out because it was ambiguous. (And possibly was.) However, the court said it did not matter because the USA Cycling release was enough.

We need not address possible drafting errors in the Huntsman release because the USA Cycling release covered all organizations involved in the race. The USA Cycling release stated it covered the “organizations . . . and their respective agents, officials, and employees through or by which the events will be held . . . .” Such language encompassed Huntsman, making Huntsman’s own release superfluous as to this point.

The plaintiff then argued she thought she would be in a women’s only race and by allowing men into the race the organizers substantially increased the risk. The court found this argument to miss the mark because the foreseeability issue was not whether it was foreseeable men would be in the race but whether or not it was foreseeable that she could crash.

Kendall contends the releases did not apply to her because she did not know or reasonably foresee she would be sharing the road with male racers in what she believed was a women-only race. She argues respondents thus wrongfully increased the risk she had assumed in entering an all-female race. Kendall’s focus on whether she could have foreseen colliding with a male racer misses the mark because foreseeability is irrelevant when a tortfeasor relies on an express, written release.

The court found this argument to miss the mark because the foreseeability issue was not whether it was foreseeable men would be in the race but whether or not it was foreseeable that she could crash.

For a written release, the focus instead is whether Kendall’s injuries related to the release’s object and purpose. When a risk is expressly assumed, the assumption is a complete defense against a negligence claim. Here, the release covered anyone participating in the Huntsman World Senior Games and included collisions with “other racers,” not just female racers. The release’s language thus covered Kendall’s accident.

On top of this, the plaintiff knew she would be on the same course as male racers. Additionally, being hit by another racer is inherent in bicycle racing.

Kendall received a race map and brochure when she submitted her race application. Those documents showed men and women would be using the same road course, and would be segregated by age, but not sex. That Kendall apparently chose not to read the documents (an inference we draw from her professed ignorance that men would be on the same course) does not make male racers unforeseeable or the scope of the release narrower. Moreover, the court here found the risk of being hit by another racer is inherent to bicycle racing.

The final issue was the award of attorney fees to the defendants as based on the language in the release.

The plaintiff argued that the award of attorney fees should be denied because only the USA Cycling release that the attorney fee award language in it, therefore, the issue should be thrown out. “Kendall notes that only the USA Cycling release had an attorney’s fee provision. She contends that even if USA Cycling is entitled to its fees, the motion should have been denied as to Huntsman.”

The plaintiff also argued the attorney fees should be thrown out because the award was for two releases and only one awarded attorney fees. The amount should be reduced for the work down for the release that did not have the language in the release.

Neither argument prevailed. The same law firm defended both motions and the work to defend both motions was indistinguishable from one motion to the other. The legal and factual issues in defending both releases overlapped legally and factually. It would be impossible to separate out the work, and the law does not require it.

Kendall filed one complaint against respondents, to which they replied with a shared answer and defeated with a shared motion for summary judgment. The evidence and legal arguments in support of respondents’ motion for summary judgment overlapped substantively and procedurally. The record does not show that respondents’ counsel would have spent any less time or that its arguments would have been any different if only USA Cycling had been a defendant. Because it is not fatal to a fee award if apportionment between issues and arguments is difficult, or even impossible, the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees for counsel’s work representing USA Cycling and Huntsman.

The dismissal of the complaint based on a release, the USA Cycling release, and the award of attorney fees and costs was upheld by the California Appellate Court.

So Now What?

There were some interesting issues in this case. Two releases are always a possible way to lose a case, as well as win one in this case. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both releases void.) In fact, the race organizer should be happy his race was a USA Cycling release, or he may have been writing a check.

The award of attorney fees is rare, and arises occasionally. (Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring the plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.) Only California does not quibble about the specific language in the release. Most courts discourage the award of legal fees in release cases and examine the language in the document to find anyway not to award the fees.

At the same time, but for the USA Cycling release, this case would have gone the other direction.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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