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To prove gross negligence under Washington State law you have to show intentional or reckless misconduct. Assumption of the risk prevents river tuber for suing for his injuries hitting a strainer.

Washington defines assumption of the risk the same way most other courts do. However, the names they sue to describe assumption of the risk are different in some cases and confusing in others.

Here, assumption of the risk stopped claims both for negligence and gross negligence for this tubing case.

Summary

Assumption of the risk is growing again as a defense to different types of claims by plaintiffs. In this case, the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries for a tubing accident which barred his negligence claim and his gross negligence claim. The standard of proof needed to prove a claim that cannot be defeated by assumption of the risk in Washington is a much higher level of action on the part of the defendant.

Here the plaintiff failed to plead or allege that level of acts by the defendant.

Washington also uses different names for the types of assumption of the risk that are applied to cases, which can lead to greater confusion.

If you are a defendant, instead of attempting to understand what is or is not assumption of the risk. Spend your time educating your customers, so they know and assume the risk they may be facing.

Pellham, v. Let’s Go Tubing, Inc., et al., 199 Wn. App. 399; 2017 Wash. App. LEXIS 1525

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

Plaintiff: Brian Pellham

Defendant: Let’s Go Tubing, Inc., et al.

Plaintiff Claims: presented sufficient evidence of gross negligence because Let’s Go Tubing chose the excursion lo-cation, knew of the existence of a hazard, and failed to warn Pellham of the hazard. He argues that the rental company’s gross negligence supersedes any release of liability and assumption of the risk contained in the form he signed.

Defendant Defenses: that summary judgment was appropriate because Pellham failed to establish a duty, the liability release disposes of the claim, and Pelham’s evidence does not create [**7] a genuine issue as to any fact material to establishing gross negligence.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Facts

The plaintiff rented an inner tube from the defendant. The rental included delivery to the put in by the defendant. This is commonly described as a livery operation as compared to a pure rental where the renter takes the inner tube and goes wherever.

Upon arrival, the plaintiff signed a release and rented an inner tube. The plaintiff uses releases in his business, although what type of business was never discussed by the court.

The bus driver for the defendant told most of the tubers that upon entry they should push off to the far side of the river to avoid a tree that had fallen into the river immediately downriver but out of sight of the put in.

The plaintiff did not hear this warning. The plaintiff and four friends tied their inner tubes together. The current was swift and they quickly rounded the bend where they saw the tree across the river. The rental company gave each renter a Frisbee to use as a paddle. Everyone used the Frisbee to paddle away from the tree, but the plaintiff hit the tree. Falling into the river the plaintiff broke his ear drum. He went under the tree and upon resurfacing; he struck a large branch which gave him a whiplash.

The plaintiff swam to shore and ended his tubing trip. The plaintiff eventually underwent a neck fusion surgery.

The defendant was legally not allowed to remove the strainer from the river.

The plaintiff sued the defendant. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

Washington has defined four types of assumption of the risk and has identified them slightly differently than most other states.

Washington law and most other states’ jurisprudence recognize four taxonomies of the assumption of risk doctrine: (1) express, (2) implied primary, (3) implied unreasonable, and (4) implied reasonable.

The first two, Express Assumption of the Risk and Implied Assumption of the Risk are still complete bars to a claim of negligence. The second two, Implied Unreasonable and Implied Reasonable have merged into contributory negligence and simply reduce the plaintiff’s damages.

Washington defines the types of assumption of the risk the same way most other states do.

Express assumption of risk arises when a plaintiff explicitly consents to relieve the defendant of a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff regarding specific known risks.

Implied primary assumption of risk follows from the plaintiff engaging in risky conduct, from which the law implies consent.

Implied unreasonable assumption of risk, by contrast, focuses not so much on the duty and negligence of the defendant as on the further issue of the objective unreasonableness of the plaintiff’s conduct in assuming the risk.

Implied reasonable assumption of risk is roughly the counterpart to implied unreasonable assumption of risk in that the plaintiff assumed a risk but acted reasonably in doing so.

Washington also names Implied Primary Assumption of the Risk as Inherent Peril Assumption of the Risk.

Inherent peril assumption bars a claim resulting from specific known and appreciated risks impliedly assumed often in advance of any negligence of the defendant. Plaintiff’s consent to relieve the defendant of any duty is implied based on the plaintiff’s decision to engage in an activity that involves those known risks. One who participates in sports impliedly assumes the risks inherent in the sport.

How the plaintiff was injured defines whether or not Inherent Peril Assumption of the Risk applies. The court went on to define the inherent peril assumption of the risk as:

One who engages in sports assumes the risks that are inherent in the sport. To the extent a risk inherent in the sport injures a plaintiff, the defendant has no duty and there is no negligence. A defendant simply does not have a duty to protect a sports participant from dangers that are an inherent and normal part of a sport.

Inherent peril assumption of the risk extends to water sports. One who plays in the water assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity. Water sports include inner tubing and canoe rentals. Inherent risk applies because “Bodies of water often undergo change, and changing conditions in the water do not alter the assumption of risk. There is no duty to warn of the presence of natural transitory conditions.”

For the plaintiff to assume the risk, three elements must be found.

Inherent peril assumption, like express assumption of risk, demands the presence of three elements. The evidence must show (1) the plaintiff possessed full subjective understanding (2) of the presence and nature of the specific risk and (3) voluntarily chose to encounter the risk.

Washington also requires the plaintiff to understand the risk. “The rule of both express and inherent peril assumptions of risk requires a finding that the plaintiff had full subjective understanding of the presence and nature of the specific risk.”

However, that does not require knowledge of the specific issues that caused the injury, just knowledge that the injury could occur. Meaning, if the injured party knows that trees fall into rivers, would be enough. There is no requirement that the injured plaintiff knew that a tree fell into the river.

…Brian Pellham assumed the risks involved in river tubing, including the fallen tree. Pellham may not have precisely and subjectively known how the combination of a swift current, a bend in the river, and a fallen tree would produce his injury. Nevertheless, he knew of the potential of all factors. He may not have known of the location of any fallen tree in the river, but he knew of the potential of a fallen tree somewhere in the river.

However, even if the plaintiff assumed the risks, a plaintiff cannot assume the risk where the defendant unduly enhanced the risk.

While participants in sports are generally held to have impliedly assumed the risks inherent in the sport, such assumption of risk does not preclude a recovery for negligent acts that unduly enhance such risks.

This difference places a burden on the plaintiff, in what he or she has to prove to win their claim and a burden on the courts to define what is an increase in the level of danger.

Courts have struggled to properly distinguish between inherent peril assumption of risk (implied primary assumption of risk), which bars the plaintiff’s claim, and increased danger assumption of risk (implied unreasonable assumption of risk), which simply reduces the plaintiff’s damages.

However, here any negligence upon the part of the defendant did not increase the risk. The negligence occurred prior to the plaintiff entering the water. The danger was the tree in the river which the defendant could not do anything about.

When he noticed the risk, he lacked time to avoid the hazard. Pellham did not voluntarily proceed after knowing of the alleged negligence of Let’s Go Tubing. Any alleged negligence of Let’s Go Tubing occurred before Pellham entered the river. Therefore, increased danger assumption of risk does not apply.

The plaintiff also argued in this complaint, that the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent. Gross negligence in Washington is defined as failure to exercise slight care.

Gross negligence claims survive when a release has been signed. The issue before the court was whether gross negligence claims can be stopped if the plaintiff assumed the risk.

At the same time, gross negligence claims survive a release against liability. A sporting participant’s assumption of inherent risks effectively acts as a release from liability. Since gross negligence claims survive a release, gross negligence maybe should survive inherent peril assumption of risk.

The court then redefined how gross negligence was going to be reviewed in Washington applying an intentional reckless standard as the level required proving gross negligence when a plaintiff assumes the risk.

We join the other jurisdictions in imposing an intentional and reckless standard, rather than a gross negligence standard, when the plaintiff assumes the risks of inherent perils in a sporting or outdoor activity.

There is a difference between gross negligence and reckless misconduct under Washington’s law.

Gross negligence consists of the failure to exercise slight care. Reckless misconduct denotes a more serious level of misconduct than gross negligence. An actor’s conduct is in “reckless disregard” of the safety of another if he or she intentionally does an act or fails to do an act that it is his or her duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to him or her.

Because reckless conduct is a higher burden to meet, assumption of the risk becomes a defense that can beat a gross negligence claim in some situations in Washington. The plaintiff never pleaded reckless conduct on the part of the defendant so the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim was also denied.

Brian Pellham does not allege that Let’s Go Tubing engaged in reckless conduct. No evidence supports a conclusion that the inner tube rental company bus driver purposely omitted a warning to Pellham with knowledge that Pellham would suffer substantial harm.

So Now What?

Understanding the different slight subtlest between the various forms of assumption of the risk is difficult. Comparing them between states does nothing but create a confusing group of definitions that cross one another and at best confuse one another.

Better, set up a system to educate your guests or clients on the risks they may encounter. That time spent educating the guests can pay dividends both in keeping you out of court and keeping your guests happy and coming back.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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By Recreation Law Rec-law@recreation-law.com James H. Moss

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