185 Mile Running Race release was clear and under Washington, law was sufficient to beat a Public Policy & ambiguous argument by plaintiff

Decision clearly sets forth the requirements for the plaintiff to prove her claims which she failed to do.

Johnson et al., v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al., 176 Wn. App. 453; 309 P.3d 528; 2013 Wash. App. LEXIS 1696

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division Three

Plaintiff: Robin Johnson and Craig Johnson

Defendant: Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2013

The plaintiff, an attorney signed up for the Spokane to Sandpoint race. The race is a team race run over two days and nights. The race is 185 miles long and an open course, meaning there is traffic on the course.

Spokane to Sandpoint promotes a long-distance relay race from the Spokane area to Sandpoint, Idaho, involving teams running a 185-mile course over two days, day and night. The course is open, meaning it is not closed to public traffic.

The racers sign up online and sign an electronic release. The racers also receive a race handbook. The handbook explains the race and includes sections on crossing roads, highways and train tracks.

The plaintiff was crossing a highway, and she was hit by a car. The driver of the car stated the plaintiff walked out in front of her without looking. The plaintiff settled with the driver before this appeal.

As Ms. Johnson was crossing U.S. Route 2, Madilyn Young was driving about 63 miles per hour southbound in the outside lane on U.S. Route 2, approaching the Colbert Road intersection. Ac-cording to Ms. Young’s statement to the police, she saw Ms. Johnson crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. Route 2 and saw her continue into the southbound lanes without looking for cars. Ms. Young was unable to stop in time to avoid a collision. Ms. Johnson suffered severe injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and this appeal followed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the requirements for the plaintiff to survive and proceed to trial.

To prevail on a negligence claim against Spokane to Sandpoint, the Johnsons must establish Spokane to Sandpoint owed them a duty. Whether such a duty exists is a question of law. Id. The parties may, subject to certain exceptions, expressly agree in advance that one party is under no obligation of care to the other, and shall not be held liable for ordinary negligence.

The court then looked at the requirements for releases to be valid under Washington’s law. (Of note, the court calls the exculpatory clause a waiver clause. However, the court refers to the agreement as a release.)

The function of a waiver provision is “to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury.” The general rule in Washington is that a waiver provision is enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.

Under Washington’s law, releases are valid, unless they violate public policy. There are six different factors identified as attributable to public policy in Washington.

Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees, or agents.

The court then went through all six factors and eliminated them all in one paragraph.

First, 185-mile relay races are not regulated; second, Spokane to Sandpoint is not performing an important public service such as a school; third, not all members of the public participate in relay races, unlike schools; fourth, Spokane to Sandpoint had no control over how Ms. Johnson ran or when she decided to cross U.S. Route 2; fifth, there was no inequality of bargaining since Ms. Johnson could have easily chosen not to participate and could have selected a different event; and sixth, while Spokane to Sandpoint set up the course, it did not control in what manner Ms. Johnson ran the race.

Generally, Washington law looks at whether the issues that identify a public policy issue are those that affect the majority of the public in Washington. The court also found that other Washington decisions have found that recreational activities were not a public interest.

The second issue was the plaintiff’s claim the defendant was grossly negligent. Like most states, a release in Washington will not stop a claim for gross negligence. Gross negligence is greater than ordinary negligence and is care appreciably less than care required in an ordinary negligence claim.

“Gross negligence” is “negligence substantially and appreciably greater than ordinary negligence,” i.e., “care substantially or appreciably less than the quantum of care inhering in ordinary negligence.” (“gross negligence” is “the failure to exercise slight care”). A plaintiff seeking to overcome an exculpatory clause by proving gross negligence must supply “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s act or omission represented care appreciably less than the care inherent in ordinary negligence. To meet this burden of proof on summary judgment, the plaintiff must offer something more substantial than mere argument that the defendant’s breach of care rises to the level of gross negligence.

The court then went through the facts and found that nothing required the defendant to do more than what the defendant did. Consequently, since there was no duty to do more, there was no breach of a duty, let alone acts, which were substantially below the duty.

The final argument the plaintiff argued was the release was ambiguous and not conspicuous. Here again, Washington’s law set forth the requirements for ambiguous and conspicuous quite clearly.

Factors in deciding whether a waiver and release provision is conspicuous include whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type, whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, what the language says above the signature line, and whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver.

The requirements basically require the release to be seen by the signor and not hidden. The exculpatory provisions must be evident, conspicuous and not hidden. The language must stand out so it is easily recognized with capital letters and/or bold type and there must be a signature line below the exculpatory provisions so that you can see your signature is related to the exculpatory provisions.

In this case, the release provisions were found not to be ambiguous. Additionally, the plaintiff admitted in her deposition that she understood from a legal perspective that the release would release her from claiming damages for any injuries.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and affirmed the decision.

So Now What?

This decision is refreshing because it clearly sets out the requirements needed to prove a release valid and invalid. The definition of gross negligence also easily defined to that you can understand your duties and a substantial breach of your duties leading to a gross negligence claim.

Also of note, which the court pointed out was the information provided to the plaintiff and other racers in the racer handbook. Although not an express assumption of risk agreement, the handbook was still proof, the plaintiff assumed the risk, even though that issue was not argued. The risks of the race were set forth as well as the steps taken by the defendant to protect the runners in the handbook.

Again, the more information you provide to your clients, the more information you give them the better your chances of winning if your release fails.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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