Doctrine of Primary Assumption of Risk precludes a student for suing for injuries in a for credit college karate class

Ohio holds there is no difference between a sport and recreation and a for credit class sport, assumption of the risk applies evenly to both.

Morgan, v. Kent State University et al., 2016-Ohio-3303; 54 N.E.3d 1284; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 2160

State: Ohio, Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth Appellate District, Franklin County

Plaintiff: Aaron S. Morgan

Defendant: Kent State University et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: primary assumption of the risk and release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

The plaintiff enrolled in a for credit karate class with the defendant university. The syllabus stated the students would be using holds, releases, throwing punches and kicks, that the students were expected to protect themselves from. Students were also expected to wear a mouth guard and padded gloves.

The course syllabus for beginning karate listed objectives for the students, including: “[d]emonstrat[ing] basic self-defense techniques including release from various holds and counter attacks, joint locks and throws.” Additionally, the syllabus listed a variety of fighting techniques, including punches and kicks, that the students were expected to perform. Students enrolled in the class were required to wear a mouth guard and padded gloves.

One day the plaintiff was sparring with the instructor. The instructor was not wearing padded gloves. The student was expected to protect himself from punches. If the student dropped their guard, normally the exercise was paused till the student was able to protect themselves again.

In this case as the plaintiff lost his footing he dropped his guard and the instructor punched him in the face.

On October 24, 2012, while appellant was sparring with Malecki, he lost his balance and dropped his guard. When appellant dropped his guard, Malecki punched appellant in the face. According to appellant, Malecki’s palm struck him on the nose. Malecki was not wearing padded gloves when he struck appellant. Appellant’s nose immediately started bleeding. Malecki and a student employee helped to stop appellant’s bleeding and then filled out an incident report. Appellant later sought medical care and was told that he suffered a nasal fracture.

The student suffered injuries from the punch and sued. Lawsuits in against the State of Ohio are brought in the Ohio Court of Claims. Kent State University is a state school, owned by the State of Ohio.

The Court of Claims granted the defendants motion for summary judgment and the student appealed to the Ohio Appellate Court.

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

The plaintiff argued four different reasons why the Court of Claims decision should be reversed. The appellate court looked at the second argument first. That argument was the doctrine of primary assumption of risk as defined in Ohio did not apply to his claim.

The court first examined the requirements to establish a negligence claim under Ohio law.

“[I]n order to establish actionable negligence, one seeking recovery must show the existence of a duty, the breach of the duty, and injury resulting proximately therefrom.” “Under the law of negligence, a defendant’s duty to a plaintiff depends on the relationship between the parties and the foreseeability of injury to someone in the plaintiff’s position.”

A defendant has a duty to plead assumption of the risk if it is applicable in a case. That duty means the defense is an affirmative defense and must be plead with the answer or lost.

Ohio recognizes three different Assumption of the Risk defenses.

Ohio law recognizes three categories of assumption of the risk as defenses to a negligence claim: express, primary, and implied or secondary.” Ohio courts have historically applied the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to cases involving sporting events and recreational activities.

Primary assumption of the risk is the defense that is argued when a participant in a sporting event is injured by an inherent risk of the activity.

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries.”

An inherent risk in a sport or activity is one that is so much a part of the sport that to eliminate the risk, the sport would not exist. If there is not inherent risk, then a claim of negligence may occur.

When applied to sporting events in Ohio, the knowledge or consent of the injured plaintiff is not at issue. It is not what the plaintiff knew or assumed that is important, it is solely a question of the risks of the sport.

When considering a defense of primary assumption of the risk, “the injured plaintiff’s subjective consent to and appreciation for the inherent risks are immaterial to the analysis.” Thus, even persons “‘entirely ignorant of the risks of a sport, still assume the risk * * * by participating in a sport or simply by attending the game. The law simply deems certain risks as accepted by plaintiff regardless of actual knowledge or consent.

Primary assumption of the risk is a look at the sport or activity, not the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s knowledge or ascent to the activity.

…’primary assumption of [the] risk requires an examination of the activity itself and not plaintiff’s conduct. If the activity is one that is inherently dangerous and from which the risks cannot be eliminated, then a finding of primary assumption of [the] risk is appropriate.’

If the risk is an inherent risk of the activity, then the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies and the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff. If no duty is owed, then no breach occurred. If no duty is owed then no negligence occurred.

“The affirmative defense of primary assumption of the risk completely negates a negligence claim because the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff against the inherent risks of the recreational activity in which the plaintiff engages.” “‘Because a successful primary assumption of risk defense means that the duty element of negligence is not established as a matter of law, the defense prevents the plaintiff from even making a prima facie case.'”

The court found the risks the plaintiff suffered were an inherent risk of karate and the plaintiff assumed the inherent risks of the sport.

The Court of Claims found that “[t]here is no question that the martial arts class was a sports or recreational activity with an inherent risk of injury.” Furthermore, the Court of Claims found that “[p]hysical contact between participants during karate sparring is simply a foreseeable hazard of the activity.”

Karate is a recreational activity involving physical contact in the form of punches, kicks, and other techniques as detailed in the course outline for the beginning karate course in which appellant was enrolled. Thus, by its very nature, karate, as a martial art, is an inherently dangerous activity from which the risk of harm cannot be eliminated. Indeed, the course outline notes that a “mouthguard; sparring gloves; athletic supporter w/cup” are required. As danger is inherent in karate, it is common knowledge that such danger exists, and appellant’s injury occurred during the course of participating in the inherently dangerous activity, we find that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies in this case.

Because the risk was inherent, it was assumed and the plaintiff had no claim because there was no negligence.

Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, KSU owed no duty to protect appellant from the inherent risks of the activity. As a result, appellant is precluded from establishing a prima facie case of negligence, and the trial court did not err in granting KSU’s motion for summary judgment.

After making this finding, the court held that the plaintiff’s first and third assignment of error were moot. Moot meaning no longer at issue because of the finding on the second assignment of error by the court.

The fourth assignment of error was a procedural claim for attorney fees and the court ruled no attorney fees were to be paid to the plaintiff.

The appellate court agreed with the lower courts and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

First it is always interesting to see how a court will rule when a student is injured in a for credit class at a college or university. The syllabus is always entered as an exhibit. Consequently, as a professor, lecturer, instructor, adjunct or whatever word someone has coined to describe the person in front of a classroom out of high school, make sure you syllabus includes the risk of the activity.

This might mean your syllabus becomes an assumption of the risk document. A syllabus in many states is an agreement between the student and the college (without a signature, but never the less a contract). Consequently use that opportunity to inform the student of the risks they may encounter in your class.

Second, if you are doing an activity where the court may not fully understand the risks of the activity, you need to prepare that defense in advance of any litigation. Do not limit your documents to identifying just the inherent risks of an activity, but all of the risks of an activity. Have videos available or on your website for your guests to review so they understand what is going to happen and what the real risks are.

Most importantly, do what you do best. Educate. The more your students know before their desks, they should fully understand all aspects of what they are going to encounter.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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