Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.

Plaintiff argued that because she did not sign the release, the release did not apply to her. However, the court found that the release was written broadly enough that it covered the plaintiff’s suit as well as finding that the release included enough assumption of risk language that the deceased knowingly assume the risk.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right,

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees, outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages.

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2016

This is an interesting case, because the Pennsylvania, wrongful death statute is written in a way that almost prevented a release from stopping a claim by a widow. The decision was also in front of the entire court of appeals and was a split decision.

This case centers on the Philadelphia triathlon. The deceased signed up for the triathlon electronically in January. While signing up for the triathlon, he signed a release to enter the race electronically.

At the start of the triathlon the deceased entered the water and never finished the swim part of the race. His body was found the following day by divers.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

The widow of the deceased, the plaintiff, filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. Most states have a wrongful-death  statute. The wrongful-death  statute is the specific ways that the survivors can sue the person who caused the death of a loved one.

After filing the original complaint the plaintiff then filed an amended complaint. The defendant filed objections which the trial court upheld arguing that the complaint failed to state facts, which would allow the court or jury to reach a claim of outrageous acts, gross negligence or recklessness and thus award punitive damages.

The defendant filed an additional motion for summary judgment which the court granted dismissing all the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims.

Most appellate courts may have anywhere from 3 to 15 or more judges sitting on the appellate court. When appeals are filed, judges are then assigned to these cases. Not all judges are assigned to every case. The majority the time a case is heard by three Appellate Ct. judges.

The decision in this case was split. Three judges affirmed the trial court’s order concerning some motions. However, two of the members of the appellate court concluded that the release executed by the deceased did not apply to his widow, the plaintiff, because she was not a signor release.

…however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.

The defendant then petitioned the court for hearing en banc. En banc means in front of the entire panel of the appellate court. The entire panel agreed to hear the case again specifically looking at five specific issues set forth below. In this case en banc meant in front of nine judges.

Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking para-graph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Only the fourth and fifth issues that the court identified, are relevant to us. The first is whether or not the decedent effectively executed an electric agreement and whether not the case should be dismissed because of the release.

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

The court first looked at the issue punitive damages and defined punitive damages were under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania like most of the states, defines punitive damages for acts that are outrageous because of an evil motive or recklessness or an indifference towards the rights of others.

In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” As the name suggests, punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.”

The plaintiff argued in her amended complaint that the defendant was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect and maintain the course, failed to warn or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards and failed to properly train and supervise its employees.

…inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees

The court looked at these allegations and held that they simply argued simple negligence, and none of the allegations rose to the level to be outrageous, evil or showing an indifference the welfare of others. The court sustained, upheld, dismissal of the gross negligence claims against the defendant.

These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed

The next issue important to us, is whether or not the plaintiff can contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct.

Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation.

The first major argument made by the plaintiff was there were two different releases presented to the court in different motions filed by the defendant. One was two pages long I will was 2 ½ pages long.

Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

However, the court found that this was not an issue, and both pieces of evidence were the same release. The defendant hired  a third-party firm to administer the sign up for the event and the execution of the release by the participants. The principle of the third-party firm testified that once the release is signed it is stored electronically and in storing the document it is shrunk so that when it is presented a second time it is actually a different size but the identical document.

The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.”

The third-party also demonstrated that there was no way the participant could’ve entered the race without a bib. The only way to get a bib was to sign the release.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver.

The plaintiff next argued that the release is unenforceable against claims of reckless or intentional conduct. However, the court quickly dismissed this, by referring to its earlier ruling that the complaint did not allege facts to support a claim of reckless or intentional conduct.

The next issue centered on the definition and wording of the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. To be successful in the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were tortious. Because the release was validly executed by the deceased, and it showed that he knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk of taking part in the competition, the deceased assumed of the risk and eliminated the tortuous act of the defendant.

Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

The plaintiff argued that a prior decision by the court had invalidated releases for wrongful-death  claims. The court distinguished that prior decision from this one because the prior decision required arbitration of the claims and that the decedent in that case had not signed the actual agreement. In that case the husband of the deceased when putting her in a nursing home signed  all the paperwork. The deceased did not sign a release or arbitration agreement.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious.

The court held that a release stops a claim under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute when it is signed by the deceased.

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories.

Consequently, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the plaintiff based upon the release.

So Now What?

Wrongful-death  statutes are quite specific in how they must operate and how they are to be interpreted by the courts. You should look at your wrongful-death  statute or have your attorney look at the wrongful-death  statute for the state where your release will be argued to make sure that it passes or succeeds in stopping a wrongful-death  claim. It would be extremely rare to find a release that did not stop the claims, absent proof of misrepresentation or fraud.

The second thing you need to do you always make sure you that your release covers not only all the defendants if you want to protect from any lawsuit but also includes all the possible plaintiffs who might sue you. This includes the deceased obviously but also a spouse and any children of the deceased. If the deceased is single, you want to make sure it includes any siblings or parents who may have a legal claim upon the deceased death.

The outcome would be pretty forgone in most states. However, nothing is ever set in stone in the law.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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