Assumption of the Risk is a defense to negligence and gross negligence claims in this case against a college offering for credit tour abroad study.

Student died swimming in the Pacific Ocean and his parents sued the college for his death. College was dismissed because student was an adult and assumed the risk that killed him.

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

State: Georgia, Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (parents of the deceased)

Defendant: Oglethorpe University, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

There are some risks that the courts say you understand and accept the risks because we know of them. Examples are cliffs and water. Here, the family of a student who died on a study abroad trip while swimming in the ocean could not sue because the student assumed the risks of swimming.

What is interesting is the assumption of the risk defense was used to defeat a claim of negligence and Gross Negligence.

Facts

During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oglethorpe offered to their students a 12-day study-abroad trip to Costa Rica. The students were charged a fee for the trip to pay for expenses such as airfare, lodging, and food. The students were also required to pay the ” per credit tuition rate” and were to receive four credits toward their degree for academic work associated with the trip. Oglethorpe retained Horizontes, a Costa Rican tour operator, to coordinate the trip and to provide transportation and an English-speaking guide.

Dr. Jeffrey Collins was then the director of Oglethorpe’s study-abroad program. According to Collins, Oglethorpe tried to follow ” best practices,” which is ” defined as those protocols, procedures that as best and as far as possible ensure[ ] the safety of students.” He acknowledged that students would swim on the trips. Collins was not aware of any potential dangers in Costa Rica and did no investigation to ascertain if there were potential dangers in Costa Rica.

During pre-trip meetings with Downes and the five other students who had registered for the program, Dr. Roark Donnelly and Dr. Cassandra Copeland, the two professors who accompanied the students on the trip, asked the students if everyone was a good swimmer, and the students agreed that they were. The group also discussed swimming in the ocean, including ” that there are going to be currents.” One of the professors told the students that, during a previous study-abroad trip to another location, a student had recognized that he was a weak swimmer and was required to wear a life jacket during all water activities. After hearing this, the students continued to express that they were good swimmers. Before leaving on the trip, the students were required to sign a release agreement which included an exculpatory clause pertaining to Oglethorpe.

The students and professors flew to Costa Rica on December 28, 2010. During the course of the trip, on the afternoon of January 4, 2011, the group arrived at a hotel on the Pacific coast. The six students, two professors, the guide, and the driver got into their bus and drove to a nearby beach, Playa Ventanas, which had been recommended by the hotel. Upon their arrival, there were other people on the beach and in the water. There were no warning signs posted on the beach, nor any lifeguards or safety equipment present.

The students swam in the ocean, staying mostly together, and eventually ventured out into deeper water. After about 20 minutes, Dr. Donnelly yelled for the students to move closer to shore. Shortly thereafter, student Robert Cairns, a former lifeguard, heard a female student screaming. Cairns swam toward the screams, and the student informed him that Downes needed help. Cairns realized that ” some kind of current … had pulled us out.” Cairns swam to within ten feet of Downes and told him to get on his back and try to float. Downes could not get on his back, and Cairns kept telling him he had to try. After some time, Downes was struck by a wave, went under the water, and disappeared from Cairns’s view. Downes’s body was recovered from the ocean three days later.

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

The deceased student signed a release in this case, however the trial court and the appellate court made their decisions based on assumption of the risk.

Under Georgia law, assumption of the risk is a complete bra to a recovery.

The affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovering on a negligence claim if it is established that he[,] without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not.

Absent a showing by the plaintiff of coercion or a lack of free choice assumption of the risk prevents the plaintiff from recovery any damages for negligence from the defendant.

To prove the deceased assumed the risk the college must show:

A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff (i) had knowledge of the danger; (ii) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (iii) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.

The plaintiff does not have to know and understand every aspect and facet of the risk. The knowledge can be that there are inherent risks in an activity even if the specifics of those risks are not known.

The knowledge requirement does not refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks. Rather, the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.

Assumption of the risk is usually a jury decision because the jury must weigh whether or not the plaintiff truly understood the risks. However, if the risk is such that there is undisputed evidence that it exists and the plaintiff knew or should have known about it, the court can act.

As a general rule, whether a party assumed the risk of his injury is an issue for the jury that should not be decided by summary judgment unless the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.

Drowning is a known and understood risk under Georgia law of being in the water.

It is well established under Georgia law that ” [t]he danger of drowning in water is a palpable and manifest peril, the knowledge of which is chargeable to [persons] in the absence of a showing of want of ordinary capacity.

Because the deceased student was a competent adult, meaning over the age of 18 and not mentally informed or hampered, the risk was known to him. “As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.”

The plaintiff’s argued the college created the risk because they did not investigate the beach, have an emergency preparedness plan, ensure the professors had adequate training and did not supply safety equipment. However, the court did not buy this because there was nothing in the record to show the College created or agreed to these steps to create an additional duty on the colleges part.

Assuming that Oglethorpe, having undertaken a study-abroad program, was under a duty to act with reasonable care, and that there is evidence of record that Oglethorpe failed to do so, assumption of risk is nevertheless a defense to negligence.

The college was under not statutory or common law duty to provide any of the issues the plaintiff argued. Nor did the college create a duty by becoming an insurer of the students.

Appellants do not show, however, that Oglethorpe was under a statutory or common law duty to provide safety equipment to its students during an excursion to the beach, or that the ocean is analogous to a nonresidential swimming pool. Nor can we conclude that Oglethorpe became an insurer for the safety of its students by undertaking a study-abroad program, or that it was responsible for the peril encountered by Downes in that it transported him to the beach.

Even then the assumption of the risk defense would apply because assuming the risk relieves the defendant of any negligence.

Even if a defendant is negligent, a determination that a plaintiff assumed the risk or failed to exercise ordinary care for [his] own safety bars recovery for the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff, unless the injury was wilfully and wantonly inflicted.

The defendant was not liable because the student, as an adult would have appreciated the risks of drowning in the Pacific Ocean.

Because he was a competent adult, Downes would have appreciated the specific risk of drowning posed by entering a body of water so inherently dangerous as the Pacific Ocean. As Downes voluntarily did so, Oglethorpe established that he assumed that risk. Although Downes’s death was undeniably tragic, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court correctly granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

There are two important points in this decision.

First, although not discussed, the court allowed assumption of the risk to stop a claim for gross negligence. Normally, like assumption of the risk, whether or not a defendant was grossly negligent requires a review by the jury to determine if the facts alleged meet the definition of gross negligence in the state.

Second is the issue that the less you do the less liability you create. In the pre-trip briefing with the students the risks of swimming in the ocean were discussed. The students all stated they were strong swimmers and nothing more was done.

If the college had made them take a swim test, further questioned their swimming skills by requiring more information or making sure a professor who was a lifeguard was on the trip, the college would have created an additional duty owed to the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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