California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.Posted: September 24, 2018
Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.
State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four
Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al
Defendant: Rhodyco Productions
Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.
Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk
Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence
This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.
Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.
The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.
Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.
Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event
The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.
Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.
The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.
Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.
The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.
In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.
Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.
The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action
For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.
Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.
…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.
The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.
The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.
Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.
Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.
The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.
Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.
California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.
A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.
The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.
The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.
All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.
There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.
“‘ It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.  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.  The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards.  As a result 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 his services.  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.  Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”
However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.
Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.
Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.
The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.
Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.
…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”
Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.
However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.
The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.
In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.
Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.
Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.”
When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”
Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.
The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”
The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.
Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.
The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.
While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.
The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”
The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.
The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.
So Now What?
At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.
Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?
There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.
1. Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.
2. Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.
3. Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.
4. A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.
The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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