Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds use of an express assumption of the risk agreement to bar a claim for wrongful death during a triathlon

The court defined the written agreement, signed electronically, as an assumption of the risk agreement, even though a lower court had called it a liability waiver.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme 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: Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Statute

Defendant Defenses: Express Assumption of the Risk Agreement

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds release to stop claims under PA’s wrongful-death statute. Since the deceased assumed the inherent risks of the sport, that removed the duty of the defendant triathlon therefore, the triathlon could not be negligent. No negligence, no violation of the wrongful-death statute.

Facts

In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon.

The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the deceased. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted the plaintiff’s appeal which resulted in this decision.

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

The release or wavier used in this agreement is not included in the decision. One small section is quoted, which speaks to the risks the participants in the triathlon must assume. Which makes sense since the court refers to the agreement as an express assumption of the risk agreement rather than a release or waiver.

Pennsylvania follows the Restatement Second of Torts in defining assumption of the risk.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.”

Under Pennsylvania law, “when a plaintiff assumes the risk of an activity it elminates the defendants duty of care”. When the deceased signed the valid agreement and expressly assumed the risks inherent in the triathlon, the decedent extinguished the defendant triathlon’s duty of care.

If there is no duty to the deceased there cannot be any negligence. Existence of a duty and a breach of that duty is the first of four steps to prove negligence.

A negligent act is required to be successful under Pennsylvania’s wrongful-death statute.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive.

There were three dissents in the decision. The dissents argued the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute voided the waiver. Since the right of the plaintiff under the wrongful-death statute was a right of a survivor, and the decedent could not sign away a survivor’s rights, the release, waiver or assumption of the risk agreement was void.

So Now What?

You can breathe a little easier in Pennsylvania when using releases signed electronically. It is important to make sure you include assumption of the risk language in your release to make sure the possible plaintiff assumes those risks if the court throws out the release or finds another way to sue the document to defend you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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