Ohio Appellate decision defines assumption of the risk under Ohio law and looks at whether spectators assume the risk.

Spectators are always the biggest risk of many outdoor recreational activities. Even if they are behind fences or lines, the creep closer to the event and if a competitor leaves the track or run, it is the event host who might pay for the damages to the spectators.

Ochall et al., v. McNamer et al., 2016-Ohio-8493; 2016 Ohio App. LEXIS 5337

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

Plaintiff: Andrea Ochall et al.,

Defendant: William M. McNamer et al.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, recklessness, negligent and/or reckless design, construction, operation and maintenance, failure to warn or instruct, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent entrustment, negligent supervision, vicarious liability, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Defendants

Year: 2016

This court was almost tedious in its review of the facts and the application of the law to the facts in this case. This case is another one outside of the normal scope of this review; however, it covers assumption of the risk in infinite detail under Ohio’s law and deals with claims of spectators. Spectators are present at most sporting events and in some cases assume the risk, like the baseball rule at baseball games and sometimes do not.

The defendant land owner’s kids built  a go-kart track. The decision involves a go-kart track in a homeowner’s back yard. The track was just a simple asphalt track. There were no barriers, no bleachers, nothing else except one bench. The land owner worked for a paving company so the track was paved. There was also a paved driveway from the barn where the go-karts were kept to the track. The track was built for no other purpose than for the use and enjoyment of the landowners and people they might invite over.

The track owner’s next-door neighbors used the track a lot and owned a go-kart that was stored with the landowner’s go-karts. However, the neighbors never used the track without asking permission before hand.

One day, the neighbors wanted to invite their friends to the track. Those friends became the plaintiffs.

Everyone took turns driving go-karts around the track, including the plaintiff. When not driving the go-karts, most of the people seemed to congregate on the asphalt drive between the track and the barn. The plaintiff argued this was a safe environment and the place to stand. There were no barriers between this or any place around the track and the track.

Various times during the day, different people drove off the track. After going off the track people simply drove back on the track and kept racing.

When not racing, the plaintiff was taking pictures. Taking pictures obscured the plaintiff’s view of what was going on sometimes.

During one race, the headband of one of the go-kart drivers slid down over her eyes. She grabbed the headband and through it off. While doing so she drove off the track striking the plaintiff.

The last picture the plaintiff took was the driver throwing her headband off.

The plaintiff’s sued the paving company the landowner worked for, as well as the landowner. The paving company was dismissed earlier on its motion and was not part of this discussion.

The plaintiff’s sued the landowner and the neighbors who invited them. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on various motions filed by the different defendants. The plaintiff appealed. The arguments presented in the various motions were boiled down to two and discussed without regard to the plaintiffs and all defendants even though they filed separate motions.

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

The appellate court first looked at assumption of the risk and whether it applied to this case. Assumption of the risk means the defendant owes the plaintiff no duty. Therefore, there is no negligence. Ohio recognizes three types of assumption of the risk: express, primary and secondary (implied).

Ohio law recognizes three categories of assumption of the risk as defenses to a negligence claim: express, primary, and implied or secondary.” “Express assumption of the risk applies when parties expressly agree to release liability.” “Implied assumption of risk is defined as plaintiff’s consent to or acquiescence in an appreciated, known or obvious risk to plaintiff’s safety.” “Under this approach to assumption of risk, defendant owes to plaintiff some duty, but it is plaintiff’s acquiescence in or appreciation of a known risk that acts as a defense to plaintiff’s action.”

Primary assumption of the risk is the defense that is applied to people who voluntarily engage in sports or recreational activities.

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.”

The argument for this is some sports or recreational activities cannot be played without risk. If the risk is removed from the sport, then the value in playing or the sport disappears. Another baseball example is the batter assumes the risk of being hit by a badly thrown pitch. If you remove that risk, the batter has nothing to swing at and there is no game of baseball.

By participating in an activity, the plaintiff “tacitly consent[s]” to the risk of injury inherent in the activity. Id. The test requires that: “(1) the danger is ordinary to the game, (2) it is common knowledge that the danger exists; and (3) the injury occurs as a result of the danger during the course of the game.”

Ohio law applies the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to participants and spectators alike [emphasize added].

Thus, courts apply the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to cases involving sporting events and recreational activities, and generally extend the doctrine to relieve liability of owners, operators, and sponsors of recreational activities. The doctrine applies regardless of whether the activity was engaged in by children or adults, or was organized, unorganized, supervised, or unsupervised. The doctrine also applies to spectators and participants alike.

Assumption of the risk when applied to a sport or recreational activity is not dependent upon the plaintiff’s knowledge and appreciation of the risks of the sport or activity. Normally to assume the risk a person must know and understand the risk as required in primary assumption of the risk. In sporting or recreational activities, knowledge of the risk is immaterial. Whether a participant assumes the risk is solely based on the risks of the sport, not what the participant knows.

Furthermore, when considering primary assumption of the risk, “the injured plaintiff’s subjective consent to and appreciation for the inherent risks are immaterial to the analysis.” (Noting that the plaintiff’s subjective consent to the inherent risks of an activity are immaterial, because “[t]hose entirely ignorant of the risks of the activity, still assume the risk by participating in the activity”). Indeed, “primary assumption of risk requires an examination of the activity itself and not plaintiff’s conduct.”

Those risks that apply are the ones directly associated with the activity. Consequently, a court must proceed with caution when examining the activity and the risks because assumption of the risk is a complete bar because no negligence can be proved. Was the risk that injured the plaintiff a risk of the sport and if so, was that risk increased by the activity of the defendant. If the risks are part and parcel of the sport, then the defendant does not owe a duty to the plaintiff.

[O]nly those risks directly associated with the activity in question are within the scope of primary assumption of risk.'” “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.”

The doctrine of applying primary assumption of the risk to sports and recreational activities was created to ensure the sport was played vigorously and freely without fear of reprisal.

The “goal” of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine “is to strike a balance between encouraging vigorous and free participation in recreational or sports activities, while ensuring the safety of the players.” that the “overriding consideration in the application of primary assumption of risk is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the implicated activity and thereby alter its fundamental nature”);…

That doctrine then defines primary assumption of the risk when applied to a sport as:

…where injuries stem from ‘conduct that is a foreseeable, customary’ part of the activity, the defendant ‘cannot be held liable for negligence because no duty is owed to protect the victim from that conduct.’

The test is then applied with a three-part test.

Under the three-part test, a danger ordinary to a game is a danger which is customary to the game. (observing that “[f]alling is an ordinary danger of ice-skating,” and that “[c]olliding with the perimeter boards is an ordinary danger of ice rink skating”). When a danger is a foreseeable part of a game, there will be common knowledge that the danger exists.

Risks that are “foreseeable, common, and customary risks of the activity” are therefore assumed by participants whether they knew of the risks or not. The Ohio Supreme Court further defined the definition to mean “‘[t]o be covered under the doctrine, the risk must be one that is so inherent to the sport or activity that it cannot be eliminated.’”

Looking at the risks of go-karting the court found that it was an inherent risk of the sport for a go-kart to leave the track. (Since go-karts had been leaving the track all day, this seems pretty implicit and also gives the plaintiff notice of the risk, although not required by the definition of primary assumption of the risk.)

Pursuant to our de novo review, we have determined that an inherent risk of go-karting is the risk that a go-kart will deviate from its intended course upon the track and strike any object, which may be present around the track. As such, absent evidence of reckless or intentional conduct, primary assumption of the risk applies to the facts of this case and defeats appellants’ negligence claims. Accordingly, we have reached the same result as the trial court, albeit for different reasons.

Primary assumption of the risk barred the claims of the plaintiffs.

The court then looked at whether the actions of the driver who left the track and struck the plaintiff where reckless which would defeat the defense of assumption of the risk. The court looked at the definition of recklessness under Ohio’s law.

An actor’s conduct is reckless when the actor “‘does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another,'” but also “‘that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

That conduct must be measured against how the sport is played.

What constitutes an unreasonable risk under the circumstances of a sporting event must be delineated with reference to the way the particular game is played, i.e., the rules and customs that shape the participants’ ideas of foreseeable conduct in the course of a game.”

Thus, “[i]f the rules of a sport allow conduct intended to harm another player, as they do in boxing or football, for example, it follows that those same rules allow behavior that would otherwise give rise to liability for recklessness.”

The plaintiff argued the defendants were reckless in failing to inform the plaintiff of the rules of the track. The court found there were no rules and there was no obligation to create them. The track was a backyard track built by the songs of the landowner for their enjoyment. There were no rules nor was there a requirement for the landowner to create rules for the use of the track.

Additionally, there is no duty to reduce or eliminate the risks of a recreational activity. The only duty is to not increase the risk of the activity. Consequently, the land owners did not owe a duty to create rules for the track or to inform the spectators of any rules if they were created.

Courts from other jurisdictions, however, have held that “operators, sponsors and instructors in recreational activities posing inherent risks of injury have no duty to eliminate those risks, but do owe participants the duty not to unreasonably increase the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity

The son of the landowner who built the track stated he had a ruled that spectators should stay in the barn. However, he had never enforced the rule. The court found that rule of no real value and no duty to create, enforce it or tell the plaintiff about it.

Accordingly, as the organizer of the go-karting event that day, the McNamers owed appellants the duty to not increase the risk of harm beyond the risks inherent in the activity. Failing to inform appellants about Brian McMillen’s rule did not increase the risks inherent in the activity of go-karting, as it did not increase the risk that go-karts would crash into one another, or that a driver would lose control of their go-kart and deviate from the track. Accordingly, the McNamers did not have a duty to inform the Ochalls about Brian McMillen’s rule. Construing the evidence in appellants favor, we find no evidence demonstrating that the McNamers intentionally failed to inform the Ochalls about Brian’s rule when they had a duty to do so. Accordingly, appellants have failed to demonstrate that the McNamers were reckless by failing to inform the Ochalls about Brian McMillen’s rule.

There was a bench located near the track. The defendant land owner’s son argued it was for racers to sit on between races to rest. The plaintiff argued it was there for spectators and built to entice the plaintiff to stand near it where she was injured. However, the court did not agree with this argument either.

However, there is no evidence indicating that the McMillens placed the bench there to “entice” people to congregate in that area. More importantly, the bench did not conceal any danger from appellants. The bench did not obscure appellants’ ability to see the barrier-less nature of the track or the go-karts driving off the track. There also was no evidence indicating that Mrs. Ochall ever sat on the bench; rather, the evidence indicated that Mrs. Ochall “moved around quite a bit to take photographs.”

The plaintiff’s then argued it was reckless of the defendants to conceal the dangers of the track by failing to warn them of the risks or educating them of the dangers. However, they could not tie these arguments, failing to warn, to the injury received by the plaintiff. The court found even if they had been informed of the risks, it would not have changed anything; the plaintiff would still have probably been injured.

Another recklessness claim was directed at the adults in charge of the minor driver who injured the plaintiff when she drove off the track. However, again, they could not relate those claims to the cause of the accident.

Indeed, appellants fail to make any connection between Doe’s allegedly aggressive driving and the accident. The record indicates only that it was an unfortunate slip of Doe’s headband, and Doe’s attendant need to remove her hand from the wheel in order to remove the headband from her face, which caused the accident. There is nothing in the record indicating that Doe’s alleged aggressive driving caused the accident.

Finally, the plaintiff claimed the minor driver was reckless in how she drove.

Finally, Doe’s act of removing her headband from her line of vision did not amount to reckless conduct. Doe did not remove the headband with any conscious choice of action, or with knowledge that doing so would cause her go-kart to jerk, veer off the track, and strike Mrs. Ochall.

This argument failed because reckless conduct is a conscious act. There was no conscious decision to drive off the track. The decision was to remove the headband when it was blinding her.

…reckless misconduct requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man

The court could not find in the plaintiff’s recklessness arguments, a proximate cause or a relationship in the arguments that might have or would have changed the way things happened.

However, every tragic accident does not result in tort liability. Because Mrs. Ochall primarily assumed the risk of injury when she stood 10 to 12 feet away from the McMillens’ go-kart track, and no defendant engaged in reckless or intentional misconduct, the trial court properly granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment. Having overruled appellants’ first and second assignments of error, we affirm the judgment of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. As we have overruled the appellants’ assignments of error, the McMillens withdraw their assignment of error on cross-appeal.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court, and the case was dismissed.

So Now What?

The first issue is assumption of the risk applies to spectators. Spectators have always been the unknown possible lawsuit at events. Spectators usually pay to see the event so recreational use statutes provide no protection. They do not sign releases because they are not participating. However, based on this definition of assumption of the risk and the idea that a spectator should assume the risk because they watch the sport, a spectator is prevented from sung when injured under Ohio Law.

The second issue is the clear definitions of assumption of the risk defined in this.

On a side note, the plaintiff hired an expert witness who opined that the landowner should have built a small elevated wooden platform for spectators to stand on next to the track.

Hawn stated that a “reasonable solution to the safety issue for persons afoot” was to construct “a small elevated wooden platform (~7-8 inches in height) on the infield side of the start/finish/staging area.” Hawn concluded that the “failure to either provide a safe observation location or to otherwise dictate, communicate and enforce safety rules to protect guests from the potential hazard associated with spectating was unreasonable and made this an unsafe environment for persons afoot.”

The expert also opined that the spectator’s area should have been relocated to the inside of the track and elevated. (So you have a group of people above the track level all turning around together to watch the race……)

Can you see what would happen at backyard playgrounds, sandboxes and every other play or recreational device in backyards? Sand boxes would have to come with sneeze guards you see on salad bars so sand could not accidentally be thrown in a grandparent’s face.

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