Blanchette v. Competitor Group, Inc., 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7714, 2019 WL 6167131Posted: April 7, 2020
Blanchette v. Competitor Group, Inc., 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7714, 2019 WL 6167131
Craig Blanchette, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Competitor Group, Inc., Defendant and Appellant.
California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division
November 20, 2019
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED
APPEAL from a judgment and postjudgment order of the Superior Court of San Diego County No. 37-2016-00018380- CU-PO-CTL, Richard E. L. Strauss, Judge. Affirmed.
Horvitz & Levy, S. Thomas Todd, Eric S. Boorstin; Daley & Heft, Robert H. Quayle IV, Lee H. Roistacher and Rachel B. Kushner for Defendant and Appellant.
Higgs Fletcher & Mack, John Morris, Rachel E. Moffitt; RDM Legal Group, Russell Myrick and Keith Rodenhuis for Plaintiff and Respondent.
Plaintiff Craig Blanchette (Plaintiff), then an elite wheelchair racer, competed in the 2014 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon (Marathon), which was owned and operated by defendant Competitor Group, Inc. (Defendant). During the race, Plaintiff was injured as he attempted a 90 degree left-hand turn, could not complete the turn, went through the orange traffic cones that marked the course boundary, and crashed into a car stopped at a traffic light in a lane outside the course.
Following a jury trial on one cause of action for gross negligence, the court entered a judgment in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant in the amount of $3.2 million. On appeal, Defendant argues, as a matter of law, that it neither acted grossly negligent nor increased the risk inherent in wheelchair racing on city streets. As we explain, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, either that it was not grossly negligent or that Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he received. Thus, we will affirm the judgment and the order denying Defendant’s postjudgment motions.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[ 1]
Due to a birth defect, Plaintiff’s femur bones are about two inches long, and Plaintiff has used a wheelchair since he was in the eighth grade. When Plaintiff was 15 years old, his grandfather bought him his first racing wheelchair. Plaintiff participated in his first professional wheelchair race two years later in 1986, placing fifth in a field of 250. He won his next eight races, setting four world records along the way. At age 20, Plaintiff won a bronze medal in the 1988 Summer Olympics; and over the next approximately 11 years of competition (i.e., prior to the year 2000), he set 21 world records and obtained sponsors.
Plaintiff took a break from wheelchair racing, competing in hand cycling for a few years. He eventually returned to wheelchair racing; and, by June of 2014, he was again “in race shape” as an elite athlete and participated in the Marathon.[ 2] Plaintiff described the “elite level” of wheelchair racing as the professional level, “allow[ing] you to make money competing[.]” Indeed, the Marathon had an elite athlete coordinator who invited Plaintiff, then a resident of Washington state, to come to San Diego to compete at the event. By that time Plaintiff had competed in hundreds of wheelchair races.
Plaintiff arrived in San Diego two days before the Marathon. Because he had not previously competed in a San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, during that time he “did everything” he was aware of to prepare for the race. He reviewed the basic course map; he studied “the virtual tour” video-at least 15 times-which played continuously on a monitor in the lobby of the hotel where the elite racers stayed; he went to the prerace exposition, where competitors signed in and received their racing bibs; and the night before the race, he attended the all-competitor meeting which included a general safety check, the distribution of additional copies of the basic course map, and the further opportunity to view the virtual tour video.
The basic course map that Defendant provided Plaintiff was on one piece of paper and covered the area from Balboa Avenue on the north to National Avenue/Logan Avenue on the south and from west of Interstate 5 on the west to Interstate 15 on the east. The marathon course is shown in a solid red line; the half-marathon course is shown in a solid blue line; and some of the shorter streets on the courses are unidentified. The virtual tour was a video of the entire racecourse, from start to finish, recorded from a car that traveled the streets of the course during normal daytime traffic conditions.[ 3] The entire video played at a speed that covered the entire 26.2-mile course in approximately five minutes-i.e., at a rate in excess of 300 miles per hour-and ran on a continuous loop in multiple locations.
The virtual tour video of the racecourse was especially important to Plaintiff, since wheelchair racers rely on the “racing line” they choose to maximize speed to gain an advantage during competition. According to Plaintiff, a wheelchair racer tries to “have the fastest racing line through” the turns; “you start wide, you taper down narrow,” completing the turn in “the exit lane.” In particular, from the virtual tour video, Plaintiff had studied the intersection where his accident occurred-11th Avenue just south of its intersection with B Street-and the racing line he would take as he turned left from B Street onto 11th Avenue.
According to the individual who was Defendant’s president and chief executive officer at all relevant times, [ 4] Defendant made available a one page document entitled “Turn by Turn Directions” (turn-by-turn directions) that listed each of the Marathon’s more than 40 turns and specified for each whether the entire street (“whole road”) or a portion of the street (e.g., “southbound lanes,” “east side of road,” etc.) was part of the racecourse. (See fn. 7, post.) Defendant presented evidence that these directions were available only on Defendant’s website and at an information booth at the prerace exposition. There is no evidence either that Defendant told Plaintiff about these directions or that Plaintiff knew about these directions; and Plaintiff testified that, before this lawsuit, he had never seen a copy of the turn-by-turn directions.
Defendant also presented evidence that it had provided the elite wheelchair racers with “a 24-hour concierge” who was able to answer questions they had, including information about or a tour of the racecourse. Defendant’s president and chief executive officer confirmed, however, that a competitor would have to contact the concierge and request services and that Defendant did not offer tours directly to the racers. In any event, there is no evidence that Plaintiff was aware of either the concierge or the services Defendant’s witness said the concierge could provide.
Finally, Defendant presented evidence that it provided bicycle-riding “spotters” on the racecourse who were responsible for providing visual cues to alert the elite racers-both those running and those wheeling-of course conditions. Defendant did not present evidence that any of its spotters was at or near the location of Plaintiff’s accident at any time; Defendant’s witnesses did not know the location of any of the spotters at or near the time of Plaintiff’s accident; and Plaintiff did not see any spotters on the racecourse at or near the place of his accident.
At the Marathon, Defendant hosted approximately 25, 000 athletes-five of whom competed in wheelchairs. The wheelchair racers started first, since they travel at much faster speeds than the runners.[ 5]
The accident occurred early in the race, approximately 3.9 miles from the start.[ 6] The Marathon began on 6th Avenue at Palm Street and proceeded north approximately one mile to University Avenue; the course continued east (right turn) on University Avenue for more than one-half mile to Park Boulevard; and then the course went south (right turn) on Park Boulevard for approximately two miles. The following two turns in quick succession, at times referred to “a zigzag” or “an S turn,” led to the accident: At the intersection of Park Boulevard and B Street, the racers made a 90 degree right turn (west) onto B Street; and one block later, they made a 90 degree left turn (south) onto 11th Avenue. At the speed he was traveling, Plaintiff was unable to negotiate the left turn from B Street onto 11th Avenue. Instead of completing the left turn and continuing south on 11th Avenue, at about 45 degrees, Plaintiff went off the course to the west and crashed into a car stopped at a traffic light in the western-most lane of 11th Avenue.
There are three lanes on B Street and four lanes on 11th Avenue. Under normal conditions on 11th Avenue, all four lanes of vehicle traffic travel northbound and merge into a freeway two blocks north of B Street. During the race, the far west lane of 11th Avenue was unavailable for the southbound racers; instead, it was kept open for northbound vehicle traffic from downtown to the freeway.
Approximately one hour before the race, Defendant closed the Marathon streets downtown and, as relevant to this lawsuit, set up traffic cones, 15 feet apart, which directed the Marathon racers to make the left turn from the three lanes of B Street to the three eastern lanes of 11th Avenue-thereby eliminating the west lane of 11th Avenue to wheelchair racers and making it available for vehicles traveling north to the freeway. At all times, including well in advance of the Marathon, Defendant knew that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be closed to competitors and open to vehicle traffic: Defendant was using the same course it had used in prior years; and Defendant had prepared and provided to many others “an internal working document” that contained sufficient detail to show the traffic cones and elimination of the west lane on 11th Avenue. In this latter regard, Defendant provided its “internal working document” to the course setup teams, the traffic control setup teams, the bands, the aid stations, the medical people, and “those that needed that level of detail”-but not to the elite wheelchair racers.
Not until he was racing-indeed, not until the point in time at which he was at the west end of the one block of B Street, turning left onto 11th Avenue at a speed in excess of 20 miles per hour-did Plaintiff first learn that Defendant had closed the west lane of 11th Avenue to racers and left it open to motor traffic. Nowhere in what Defendant provided-which included the basic course map, the virtual tour video of the course, and the information at the prerace exposition (sign-in) and the all-competitor safety check meeting-was Plaintiff told that, as the racecourse turned left from B Street to 11th Avenue: the west lane of 11th Avenue would be unavailable to racers; a row of orange traffic cones would separate the three east lanes of 11th Avenue (i.e., the course) from the one west lane (i.e., outside the course); or cars would be in the one west lane of 11th Avenue while the racers would be limited to the three east lanes, separated only by traffic cones 15 feet apart from one another.
This was significant to Plaintiff. In planning his speed and racing line for the S curve (right turn from Park Blvd. to B St. followed immediately by the left turn from B St. to 11th Ave.), he had to know his exit lane on 11th Avenue in order to “set up for this corner.” That is because, according to Plaintiff, “the width of the exit is the primary factor that determines the speed of entrance.” To safely set up for the S curve, for example, “you had to know the specifics of what was happening on 11th [Avenue] back on Park [Boulevard]” in order to maneuver the S curve “at the right speed.” More specifically, Plaintiff testified that he “would have needed to know about this racing lane elimination [on the west side of 11th Avenue] prior to entering the corner on [B Street]-off of Park [Boulevard].”[ 7] (Italics added.)
That did not happen. Based on the information Defendant provided Plaintiff-i.e., from studying the basic course map and the virtual tour video, and attending the prerace exposition and the all-competitor meeting-Plaintiff had no reason to suspect that his planned exit lane would be closed to wheelchair racers and open to cars. Given his speed, his “racing line,” and his view of the road, Plaintiff had only two seconds from the time he first learned that the west lane of 11th Avenue was unavailable as an exit lane until he crossed the boundary and crashed into the car in the west lane.
Plaintiff testified that, throughout his 30 years of racing, he had “never seen a lane elimination like that” on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue at the Marathon. Consistently, another of the elite wheelchair racers who competed at the Marathon testified that, based on the approximately 140 races in which he has participated over 27 years, he would not expect motor vehicle traffic like the wheelchair racers encountered on 11th Avenue. Finally, Plaintiff’s expert testified: changing a racecourse that a wheelchair racer is expecting an hour before the race is not only misleading but “would make the race inherently more dangerous”; “on Sunday morning there can be no changes”; and the organizer of the race is responsible for ensuring the safety of the competitors.
As a result of the crash into the stopped vehicle on 11th Avenue, Plaintiff suffered personal injuries, including broken bones, and the healing process required multiple surgeries. Since the accident at the Marathon, Plaintiff has been unable to compete as an elite athlete in longer wheelchair races.
II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In June 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint based on the injuries he suffered during the Marathon when he crashed into the stopped vehicle on 11th Avenue. The operative complaint is a first amended complaint in which Plaintiff alleged three causes of action-negligence, gross negligence, and fraud-against Defendant and two other entities.
As to the two other entities, the trial court granted their summary judgment motion, and there is no issue on appeal as to these defendants or the claims Plaintiff alleged against them. As to Defendant, the trial court granted its motion for summary adjudication as to the claims for negligence, fraud, and punitive damages; and there is no issue on appeal regarding these claims. The case proceeded to a jury trial on Plaintiff’s one claim for gross negligence against Defendant.
Over the course of seven days in January 2018, the trial court presided over a jury trial, and the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, finding in relevant part: Defendant was grossly negligent (vote 9-3); Plaintiff did not assume the risk of the injury he suffered (vote 9-3); Plaintiff suffered damages in the amount of $4 million (vote 12-0); and Plaintiff was 20 percent contributorily negligent (vote 10-2). Accordingly, the court entered judgment for Plaintiff and against Defendant in the amount of $3.2 million.
Defendant filed postjudgment motions, including supporting documentation, for a new trial and for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Plaintiff filed oppositions to the motions, and Defendant filed replies to Plaintiff’s oppositions. Following hearing, in March 2018 the trial court denied Defendant’s motions.
Defendant timely appealed from both the judgment and the order denying the postjudgment motions.
Defendant contends that the judgment should be reversed with directions to enter judgment in Defendant’s favor on either of the following two grounds: (1) As a matter of law, Plaintiff failed to establish gross negligence by Defendant; or (2) as a matter of law, Defendant established that it did not unreasonably increase the risk (i.e., Plaintiff assumed the risk) that Plaintiff would injure himself by turning from B Street to 11th Avenue at too high a speed to complete the turn.
The parties disagree as to the standard of review to be applied. Defendant argues that, because the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn, we review both issues de novo. In response, Plaintiff argues that, because material facts were disputed-or, at a minimum, conflicting inferences exist from the undisputed facts-we review both issues for substantial evidence. As we explain, under either standard we must consider the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff; thus, in essence, we will be reviewing both issues for substantial evidence. In doing so, we apply well-established standards.
We “look to the entire record of the appeal,” and if there is substantial evidence, “it is of no consequence that the [jury] believing other evidence, or drawing other reasonable inferences, might have reached a contrary conclusion.” (Bowers v. Bernards (1984) 150 Cal.App.3d 870, 873-874, italics deleted.)” ‘[T]he test is not the presence or absence of a substantial conflict in the evidence. Rather, it is simply whether there is substantial evidence in favor of the respondent.'” (Dane-Elec Corp., USA v. Bodokh (2019) 35 Cal.App.5th 761, 770.) “If this ‘substantial’ evidence is present, no matter how slight it may appear in comparison with the contradictory evidence, the judgment must be upheld.” (Howard v. Owens Corning (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 621, 631 (Howard).) The fact that the record may contain substantial evidence in support of an appellant’s claims is irrelevant to our role, which is limited to determining the sufficiency of the evidence in support of the judgment actually made. (Ibid.)
In determining the sufficiency of the evidence, we “may not weigh the evidence or consider the credibility of witnesses. Instead, the evidence most favorable to [the verdict] must be accepted as true and conflicting evidence must be disregarded.” (Campbell v. General Motors Corp. (1982) 32 Cal.3d 112, 118, italics added; accord, Howard, supra, 72 Cal.App.4th at p. 631 [“we will look only at the evidence and reasonable inferences supporting the successful party, and disregard the contrary showing”].) The testimony of a single witness, including that of a party, may be sufficient (In re Marriage of Mix (1975) 14 Cal.3d 604, 614; Evid. Code, § 411); whereas even uncontradicted evidence in favor of an appellant does not establish the fact for which the evidence was submitted (Foreman & Clark Corp. v. Fallon (1971) 3 Cal.3d 875, 890 (Foreman)).
Under these standards, as we will explain, substantial evidence supports the jury’s findings both that Defendant was grossly negligent (i.e., Plaintiff proved Defendant’s extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care) and that Plaintiff did not assume the risk of the injury he suffered (i.e., Defendant failed to prove that it did not unreasonably increase the risks to Plaintiff over and above those inherent in wheelchair racing). Thus, as we will conclude, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing reversible error. (See Jameson v. Desta (2018) 5 Cal.5th 594, 609 [“a trial court judgment is ordinarily presumed to be correct and the burden is on an appellant to demonstrate… an error that justifies reversal”].)
A. Gross Negligence
The jury answered “Yes” to special verdict question No. 1, “Was [Defendant] grossly negligent?” Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, the undisputed material facts do not support the jury’s finding of gross negligence. We disagree.
Ordinary negligence “consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 753-754 (Santa Barbara).)” ‘” ‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty, ‘” amounts to ordinary negligence.'” (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 358 (Willhide-Michiulis).) In contrast, to establish gross negligence, a plaintiff must prove “either a ‘want of even scant care’ or ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'” (Santa Barbara, at p. 754; accord, Willhide-Michiulis, at p. 358.)
California does not recognize a cause of action for “gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779-780.) Rather, as our Supreme Court explained, “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776.) For this reason,” ‘”‘ “[g]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” ‘” (Willhide-Michiulis, supra, 25 Cal.App.5th at p. 358.)
Defendant argues for de novo review on the basis that, according to Defendant, “the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn.” Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that many material facts were disputed, conflicting inferences exist, Defendant’s appeal “presents garden-variety challenges to a jury’s factual findings”-and, accordingly, the issues Defendant raises in this appeal are subject to substantial evidence review.
Persuasively, Plaintiff relies on Cooper v. Kellogg (1935) 2 Cal.2d 504 (Cooper). In Cooper, the plaintiff was a passenger in the defendant’s car, and late at night the plaintiff was injured when the defendant fell asleep, crossed into oncoming traffic, and hit a car traveling in the opposite direction. (Id. at pp. 506-507.) Under the law in effect at the time of the accident, the plaintiff could recover from the defendant driver only if the defendant was grossly negligent. (Id. at pp. 505-506.) Thus, to recover, the plaintiff had to establish “whether defendant [driver] was grossly negligent in permitting himself to fall asleep”-i.e., not merely “whether he was negligent in the manner in which he controlled the car[.]” (Id. at p. 507.)
Following trial, the court found that the defendant had not operated the vehicle in a grossly negligent manner. (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 507.) The plaintiff in Cooper argued on appeal that the uncontradicted evidence required a finding as a matter of law that the defendant driver was grossly negligent. (Id. at p. 508.) The uncontradicted evidence in Cooper included the defendant’s considerable activities during the 18 hours preceding the accident (from 8:00 a.m. until the accident at 2:00 a.m. the following morning[ 8]), and the defendant’s testimony that, despite the activities, he had no premonition or warning of sleepiness. (Id. at pp. 506-507.) The plaintiff could add nothing to the evidence of the accident, since he had fallen asleep. (Id. at p. 506.)
In response to the plaintiff’s argument that “the uncontradicted evidence requires a finding of gross negligence upon the part of [the defendant driver],” the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling: “Whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence is a question of fact for the determination of the trial court or jury, and this is so ‘even where there is no conflict in the evidence if different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at pp. 508, 511, italics added.) Thus, even though the evidence concerning the defendant driver and his activities during the 18 hours preceding the accident was undisputed, the Supreme Court refused to rule as a matter of law, deferring instead to the trier of fact: Despite the undisputed facts, “we cannot say that the only reasonable conclusion the trial court could reach was that there was such a likelihood of his falling asleep, of which he knew or should have been aware, that his continuing to operate the car amounted to gross negligence as defined above.” (Id. at p. 511.)
The analysis and result are the same here. We cannot say that the only reasonable conclusion the jury could reach was that Defendant’s actions were not grossly negligent. Even if some facts are undisputed, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff-as we must (see fn. 1, ante)-” ‘different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 511.) Thus, as in Cooper, we do not apply independent review. (Ibid.) Although Defendant does not present its arguments based on substantial evidence review, by contending that the undisputed material facts require as a matter of law a ruling that Defendant was not grossly negligent, Defendant is arguing that substantial evidence does not support the jury’s finding of gross negligence. As we explain, we are satisfied that substantial evidence supports the jury’s finding that Defendant was grossly negligent-i.e., Defendant’s behavior was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.[ 9]
Defendant argues: “As a matter of law, [Defendant] did not fail to use even scant care, or depart in an extreme way from the ordinary standard of conduct, when it posted the turn-by-turn directions on its website and made them available at its information booth, but did not physically hand a copy to [P]laintiff and the other wheelchair racers.” Very simply, this argument fails to consider or apply the appropriate standard of review.[ 10] As we introduced at footnote 1, ante-and as Defendant invites us to do, but fails to do in its analysis-we construe all facts and inferences in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. (Mary M., supra, 54 Cal.3d at p. 214, fn. 6 [on appeal where appellant contends the material facts are undisputed]; Carrington, supra, 30 Cal.App.5th at p. 518 [on appeal from the judgment where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict]; Jorge, supra, 3 Cal.App.5th at p. 396 [on appeal from the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict].)
According to Defendant, we should credit fully the evidence presented by Defendant-including but not limited to the testimony that the turn-by-turn directions were available to Plaintiff-and discredit the evidence from the wheelchair racers that races like the Marathon do not have either lane elimination (like that on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue) or vehicle traffic (like that in the west lane of 11th Avenue). However, this is not the appropriate standard when viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prevailing party. (See pt. III., before pt. III.A., ante.) To accept Defendant’s argument would result in this appellate court usurping the jury’s responsibility for determining credibility of witnesses and truth of evidence. (City of Hope National Medical Center v. Genetech, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 375, 394; Hawkins v. City of Los Angeles (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 384, 393 [” ‘”‘ “it is the exclusive province of the [jury] to determine the credibility of a witness and the truth or falsity of the facts upon which a determination depends” ‘”‘ “; brackets in original].) Even though a material fact may be “undisputed” as argued by Defendant, on the present record this means only that contrary evidence was not presented; it does not mean that Plaintiff agreed to the fact or that the jury-or this court on appeal-must credit the undisputed fact as a matter of law. (See Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 33 [defense summary judgment on claim of gross negligence inappropriate in part due to “credibility questions that need to be answered”].)
We consider, for example, Defendant’s actions in making the west lane of 11th Avenue unavailable for racers; in making the west lane of 11th Avenue available for vehicle traffic; in separating the wheelchair racers’ exit lane and the traffic lane with cones placed 15 feet apart; and in notifying the racers of this situation. Defendant’s president and chief economic officer testified that Defendant prepared turn-by-turn directions that communicated to racers that the west lane of 11th Avenue would not be available for racers and that Defendant made these directions available both on its website and at its information booth at the exposition.[ 11] However, Plaintiff testified that he neither saw nor knew of the turn-by-turn directions;[ 12] and the record does not contain evidence from anyone who actually saw the directions either on Defendant’s website or Defendant’s information booth. Thus, although Defendant tells us that it “is undisputed that the turn-by-turn directions were” on Defendant’s website and at Defendant’s information booth, at best the facts on which Defendant relies were uncontradicted, not undisputed; yet even uncontradicted evidence in favor of an appellant does not establish the fact for which the evidence was submitted (Foreman, supra, 3 Cal.3d at p. 890).
In any event, these facts raise inferences and credibility determinations that preclude a ruling-either way-whether Defendant was grossly negligent as a matter of law.
Through the basic course map and the virtual tour video it provided to the Marathon racers, Defendant represented to Plaintiff that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be open to the racers-including specifically the west lane, which Plaintiff reasonably considered and planned to use as the exit lane for his turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. At all times, however, Defendant knew that traffic cones would be used both to direct wheelchair racers to make the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and to eliminate the west lane of 11th Avenue to wheelchair racers. Although Defendant prepared an “internal working document” with this specific information and provided it to “those that needed that level of detail,” Defendant did not provide it to the wheelchair racers. One hour before the start of the race and with no notice to Plaintiff-at a time when Plaintiff was already near the starting line and warming up-Defendant placed traffic cones, 15 feet apart from one another, on the outside of the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and down the length of 11th Avenue, blocking Plaintiff from using the exit lane he had planned based on the basic course map and virtual tour video Defendant provided.
In this regard, the following evidence from two of the five elite wheelchair racers who competed at the Marathon was uncontradicted: One racer testified that, in his 30 years’ experience in wheelchair racing, he had “never seen a lane elimination” like that on the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue; and another racer testified that, based on his 27 years’ experience in over 140 wheelchair races, he would never expect motor vehicle traffic to be in the lane next to the wheelchair racers separated only by traffic cones placed 15 feet apart. Moreover, according to Plaintiff’s expert, Defendant was responsible for ensuring the safety of all racers, and on the morning of the race “there can be no changes” made to racecourse, because to do so “would make the race inherently more dangerous” for the wheelchair competitors. Given his speed, his racing line, and his view of the racecourse as he proceeded down the one block of B Street, Plaintiff had only two seconds to attempt to change his course from when he first learned that Defendant had closed the west lane of 11th Avenue and when he crashed into the car in the west lane of 11th Avenue. Had Plaintiff known of the lane elimination on 11th Avenue, he would have been able to negotiate the turn from B Street by “com[ing] into the corner differently.”
Like Cooper, even where (as here) there is no conflict in the evidence, because various conclusions can be drawn from the evidence based on inferences and credibility, we cannot say that the only reasonable finding the jury could reach was that Defendant’s actions were not an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to Plaintiff. Stated differently, the evidence and inferences from the evidence described in the preceding paragraphs substantiate the jury’s finding that Defendant was grossly negligent.
Defendant’s legal authorities do not support a different analysis or result. Defendant first cites seven cases-each followed by a one sentence (or less) parenthetical describing facts or quoting language-in which intermediate appellate courts ruled that a plaintiff could not establish a lack of gross negligence as matter of law. Defendant continues by citing five cases-each followed by a one sentence (or less) parenthetical describing facts or quoting language-in which intermediate appellate courts ruled that a defendant failed to establish a lack of gross negligence as a matter of law. Defendant then concludes by stating without discussion or argument: “Contrasting the facts of the cases that find no gross negligence as a matter of law with the facts of the cases that find possible gross negligence, it is apparent that our case falls in the former category.” Defendant does not suggest the reason, and we decline to speculate as to what “is apparent” to Defendant. In short, Defendant’s one-sentence argument is neither helpful nor persuasive.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff failed to prove gross negligence.
B. Assumption of the Risk
The jury answered “Yes” to special verdict question No. 3, “Did [Defendant] do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in marathon wheelchair racing?” Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, the undisputed material facts do not support the jury’s finding that Defendant unreasonably increased the risks inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. Stated differently, Defendant contends that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he sustained by competing as an elite wheelchair racer at the Marathon. We disagree.
Assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to a plaintiff’s claim of negligence. (6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2017) Torts, § 1437(2), p. 758.) Primary assumption of risk, when applicable, “completely bars the plaintiff’s recovery,” whereas secondary assumption of risk” ‘is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.'” (Cheong v. Antablin (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1063, 1068 (Cheong); see Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 314-315 (Knight ).) The presence or absence of duty determines whether an application of the defense will result in a complete bar (primary assumption of the risk) or merely a determination of comparative fault (secondary assumption of the risk). (6 Witkin, supra, § 1437(2) at p. 758.)
” ‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a)), some activities-and, specifically, many sports-are inherently dangerous. Imposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1154 (Nalwa).) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty which was “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies to a recreational activity like the Marathon, an event sponsor like Defendant owes the “participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Ibid. [primary assumption of the risk applied as a complete defense to bumper car passenger’s action against amusement park owner for injuries sustained when bumper cars collided].)
In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, our Supreme Court considered the proper application of the assumption of risk doctrine in terms of duty, given the court’s adoption of comparative fault principles in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804.[ 13] The court “distinguished between (1) primary assumption of 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 (2) 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.'” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at pp. 1068-1069, quoting Knight, at p. 308.)
The test for whether primary assumption of risk applies is whether the activity” ‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants… where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) “The test is objective; it ‘depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties’ general relationship to the activity’ rather than ‘the particular plaintiff’s subjective knowledge and awareness[.]'” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1068, quoting Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 313.)
In determining whether the doctrine of assumption of the risk will be a defense to a claim of negligence in a sporting activity, the trial court must consider three issues:”‘ “whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.” ‘” (Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1061 (Fazio); see Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317 [in analyzing the duty of an owner/operator of a sporting event, courts should consider “the risks inherent in the sport not only by virtue of the nature of the sport itself, but also by reference to the steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport” (italics added)].) The first two issues, which relate to duty, are determined by the court, and the third-viz., increased risk-is a question to be decided by the trier of fact.[ 14] (Fazio, at pp. 1061-1063.)
In its opening brief, Defendant explained that, at trial, in response to Defendant’s prima facie showing in support of its affirmative defense of primary assumption of the risk, “[P]laintiff had to prove that [Defendant] unreasonably increased the risk to him over and above the risks inherent in wheelchair racing on city streets.”[ 15] In this context, Defendant characterized the risk at issue as follows:
“The pertinent inherent risk was that [P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner at too high a speed, run off the race course, and crash.”
In this context, Defendant described the issue on appeal to be:
“[W]hether [Defendant], by not physically handing [P]laintiff a copy of the turn-by-turn directions, in addition to making them available on its website and at its information booth, unreasonably increased the inherent risk that [P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner at too high a speed, run off the race course, and crash.”
Defendant accordingly limited its substantive argument on appeal to establishing, as a matter of law, that it did nothing to increase the risk that “[P]laintiff would attempt to turn a corner too fast, run his wheelchair off the race course, and crash” and that it was not required to undertake any affirmative efforts to decrease that risk.
In its brief, Plaintiff criticized Defendant for “tak[ing] too narrow a view of its duty here (framing this issue as simply as whether it ‘unreasonably increased the inherent risk’ that [Plaintiff] would ‘roll over or run off the race course and crash’).” Plaintiff disagreed with Defendant’s “formulation,” corrected Defendant’s statement of the inherent risk at issue, and explained his position as follows:
“The ‘precise issue,’ instead, is whether… [Defendant] increased the risks inherent in wheelchair racing in multiple ways, including: (1) by failing to indicate on the basic course map provided to all competitors that the outside lane of 11th Avenue (the necessary ‘exit lane’ for a fast-moving wheelchair) would not be available on race day (or by failing to at least direct competitors to its much-heralded turn-by-turn directions for information regarding lane closures); (2) by affirmatively representing to racers through its ‘virtual tour’ that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be available to complete that turn; (3) by removing 13 feet… of the roadway from the critical ‘exit lane’ about an hour before the race began without ever alerting at least the… wheelchair racers to this change; and (4) by [f]ailing to take other necessary precautions (for instance, with announcements, required tours, better barricades, bigger signs, or sufficient spotters) to advise racers of that particularly precarious intersection.”
In its argument, consistent with its position on gross negligence, Plaintiff emphasized that Defendant affirmatively increased the inherent risks of marathon wheelchair racing by changing the racecourse from that shown on the basic course map and the virtual tour video. According to Plaintiff, an hour before the race began with the wheelchair competitors already at the starting line, Defendant increased the risks by: eliminating the west lane of 11th Avenue, whereas the basic course map and virtual tour video did not indicate the loss of a lane; and allowing vehicle traffic in the west lane of 11th Avenue, where wheelchair racers would ordinarily complete their left turns from B Street, separating the racecourse from vehicle traffic by plastic traffic cones placed 15 feet apart. In support of his argument, Plaintiff relied on the following testimony: In his 30 years of wheelchair racing, Plaintiff had “never seen a lane elimination like that” on the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue; and based on his 27 years of wheelchair racing, another Marathon wheelchair competitor would never have expected the motor vehicle traffic that the wheelchair racers encountered on 11th Avenue-i.e., motor vehicles traveling in the lane next to the wheelchair racers’ exit lane, where competitors were racing at speeds exceeding 20 miles per her, separated only by traffic cones placed 15 feet apart.
In its reply brief, Defendant acknowledged that Plaintiff considered Defendant’s increase to the inherent risks in wheelchair racing to be the elimination of the west lane of 11th Avenue without notice, but continued with its position from its opening brief, restating it in part as follows:
“Stated in terms of legal requirements, [Defendant] had no duty to eliminate or minimize the inherent risks of wheelchair road racing, one of which is that [P]laintiff would attempt to go too fast around a corner, run off the race course and crash. [¶] In the opening brief, we said the precise issue on appeal is whether [Defendant] unreasonably increased the inherent risk of injury by making the turn-by-turn directions available on its website and at its manned information booth, but not physically handing [P]laintiff a copy of the directions.”
Defendant again argued that it did not increase the inherent risks associated with wheelchair racing by eliminating the west lane and allowing vehicle traffic on 11th Avenue, because Defendant prepared turn-by-turn directions that a defense witness said were available on Defendant’s website and at Defendant’s information booth at the exposition.
The parties again disagree as to the standard of review. Defendant contends that, because the facts are undisputed, we are to review the judgment de novo; whereas Plaintiff contends that, because many facts-and inferences from the facts-are disputed, we are to review the judgment for substantial evidence. As before, Plaintiff has the better position.
As we explained in reviewing whether Defendant was grossly negligent (see pt. III.A.2, ante), even if some facts are undisputed, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff-as we must (see fn. 1, ante)-” ‘different conclusions upon the subject can be rationally drawn therefrom’ “; and if different conclusions can be drawn, then the issue to be determined is a question of fact” ‘even where there is no conflict in the evidence.'” (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 511 [uncontradicted evidence of arguably gross negligence does not require a finding of gross negligence as a matter of law].) Since the same “undisputed” evidence is at issue in reviewing whether Defendant increased the risks of injury to the wheelchair racers at the Marathon, we apply the same standard of review-i.e., substantial evidence.
The determination of whether Defendant increased the risks for wheelchair racers beyond those inherent in the sport of marathon wheelchair racing is an issue of fact.[ 16] (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at p. 1061; see pt. III.B.1., ante.) As we discuss, the same substantial evidence that supported the jury’s finding of gross negligence (see pt. III.A.2., ante) also supports the jury’s finding that Defendant affirmatively increased the risks associated with marathon wheelchair racing.[ 17]
Through the basic course map and the virtual tour video it provided to Plaintiff, Defendant represented that all lanes on 11th Avenue would be open to the racers-including specifically the west lane, which Plaintiff reasonably considered and planned to use as the exit lane for his left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. One hour before the start of the race and with no notice to Plaintiff-at a time when Plaintiff was already near the starting line and warming up-Defendant placed traffic cones, 15 feet apart from one another, on the outside of the left turn from B Street to 11th Avenue and down the length of 11th Avenue, blocking Plaintiff from using the exit lane he had planned. This action increased the risks otherwise inherent in wheelchair racing, because: Neither lane elimination on the racecourse nor vehicle traffic separated by traffic cones next to the wheelchair racers’ exit lane on the racecourse is a risk inherent in marathon wheelchair racing; yet Defendant’s actions both eliminated a lane on 11th Avenue and allowed for a lane of vehicle traffic on 11th Avenue next to the exit lane for the left turn from B Street, separated only by traffic cones 15 feet apart.
Thus, the record contains substantial evidence to support the finding that Defendant increased the risks inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. In short, the record contains evidence that Defendant changed the racecourse from what Defendant showed Plaintiff on the basic course map and virtual tour video-merely one hour before the start of the race-without disclosing the change to Plaintiff or the other wheelchair racers.
Consistent with its argument as to gross negligence, Defendant contends that, with regard to assumption of the risk, although “it is the racers’ responsibility to become sufficiently familiar with the race course to successfully negotiate its features,” Plaintiff failed to “go on [Defendant’s] website, visit [Defendant’s] information booth, or consult [Defendant’s] knowledgeable personnel” where Plaintiff could have received a copy of the turn-by-turn directions. Consistent with our ruling on gross negligence (see pt. III.A.2., ante), Defendant does not cite to evidence that Plaintiff knew of such resources, let alone that those resources had turn-by-turn directions or other information which disclosed the changes to the racecourse from the information Defendant affirmatively provided him in the basic course map and virtual tour video.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant did not meet its burden of establishing, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff assumed the risk of the injuries he sustained by competing as a wheelchair racer at the Marathon.
The judgment and the order denying Defendant’s postjudgment motions are affirmed. Plaintiff is entitled to his costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(2).)
WE CONCUR: HALLER, Acting P. J., O’ROURKE, J.
[ 1] Defendant argues for de novo review of the two issues (gross negligence and assumption of the risk) based on its contention that “the material facts are undisputed and only one inference can reasonably be drawn.” Defendant’s principal authority for this standard is Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 202 (Mary M.), which instructs that, when applying this standard, the facts must be considered “in the light most favorable” to the prevailing party. (Id. at p. 214, fn. 6.) Indeed, citing this same footnote in Mary M., Defendant acknowledges that, under this standard, even “[d]isputed material facts can become undisputed by construing them in the manner most favorable to the opposing party.” Construction of the evidence in a light most favorable to the prevailing party is consistent with established standards of review following a jury verdict and the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. (Carrington v. Starbucks Corp. (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 504, 518 (Carrington) [appeal from judgment where appellant contends the record lacks substantial evidence to support the verdict]; Jorge v. Culinary Institute of America (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 382, 396 (Jorge) [appeal from order denying motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict].)
[ 2] The Marathon was 26.2 miles. It began just north of downtown San Diego (on 6th Ave. near Palm St., west of Balboa Park) and finished in the south end of downtown San Diego (on 13th St. near K St., east of Petco Park).
[ 3] A copy of the virtual tour video was not available for trial. As described by Plaintiff, on one-way streets where the racers would be traveling against the flow of the traffic during the recording session, the camera was placed in the rear of the car, and when the video was prepared, the portions recorded from the rear of the car were spliced into the video in reverse.
[ 4] We describe this evidence-and the evidence in the subsequent two paragraphs of the text-since Defendant emphasizes it in Defendant’s appellate briefing. However, this is not evidence we consider when analyzing the evidence and inferences in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, as previewed at footnote 1, ante, and discussed at parts III.A.2. and III.B.2., post.
[ 5] The Marathon course diagram, which is an internal document that the course operations team prepares, indicates that the wheelchair racers were scheduled to start 5 minutes before the first group of runners.
[ 6] The reporter’s transcript contains testimony from Defendant’s president and chief executive officer that the accident happened “at a little less than a fourth of a mile” from the start line. Based on the course map and the testimony of two racers, apparently either the witness misspoke or the reporter’s transcript contains an error.
[ 7] Plaintiff testified that, had he been given advance notice that the west lane of 11th Avenue had been eliminated from the course he had seen on the virtual tour video, he would have planned for a different racing line and successfully completed the turn from B Street to 11th Avenue. The turn-by-turn directions-the existence of which was never made known to Plaintiff-described the S curve from Park Boulevard to 11th Avenue as follows: “1.6 [miles] Right (south) turn on Park Blvd[.], southbound lanes only “3.8 [miles] Right (west) turn on B St[.], whole road “3.9 [miles] Left (south, against traffic) turn on 11th Ave[.], east side of road[.]” Notably, these directions do not disclose either that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be unavailable to racers or that vehicle traffic would be traveling northbound in the west lane of 11th Avenue.
[ 8] The plaintiff and defendant left Santa Rosa around 8:00 a.m.; more than two hours later they had lunch in San Francisco; they drove to San Mateo and attended a football game; after the game, they drove to San Francisco, where they had dinner and attended the theater; they took the ferry to Sausalito around midnight; and the accident occurred as the defendant drove from Sausalito back to Santa Rosa. (Cooper, supra, 2 Cal.2d at p. 506.)
[ 9] Consistent with CACI No. 425, the court instructed the jury: “Gross negligence is the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or to others. [¶] A person can be grossly negligent by acting or by failing to act.”
[ 10] Defendant’s argument also implies that Plaintiff should have requested or taken advantage of the turn-by-turn directions. However, since there is no evidence suggesting that Plaintiff knew such information was available, we question how Plaintiff could have requested or taken advantage of it.
[ 11] Defendant does not contend that its turn-by-turn directions or any other evidence told Plaintiff that the west lane of 11th Avenue would be open to vehicle traffic or separated from the racecourse only by traffic cones 15 feet apart.
[ 12] In its reply, Defendant argues that Plaintiff was unaware of turn-by-turn directions because “Plaintiff chose not go on the website, visit the information booth, or consult the knowledgeable personnel.” (Italics added.) Defendant cites no evidence-and in our review of the record, we are unaware of evidence-that Plaintiff chose not to take advantage of those services. While that is one inference that can be drawn from Plaintiff’s testimony, that is not the only inference. Other reasonable inferences include that Plaintiff failed to take advantage of those services either: because he did not know they were available; or, since Plaintiff had never seen a lane eliminated like on 11th Avenue and elite wheelchair racers do not expect motor vehicle traffic to be separated from the competitors by traffic cones, he would not think to ask about such services. As Defendant acknowledges, because multiple inferences can be drawn from Plaintiff’s failure to take advantage of those services, such failure is not an “undisputed fact” for purposes of our appellate review. (Mary M., supra, 54 Cal.3d at p. 213.)
[ 13] Knight was a plurality opinion, but a unanimous court later “restated the basic principles of Knight‘s lead opinion as the controlling law.” (Cheong, supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1067, citing Neighbarger v. Irwin Industries, Inc. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 532, 537-538.)
[ 14] We recognize-as we did in Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at page 1061-that Court of Appeal decisions conflict as to whether the issue of increased risk is a legal question for the court or a factual question for the jury. (Id. at pp. 1061-1063.) We have no reason to reconsider our ruling and analysis in Fazio, and Defendant does not suggest otherwise. (See fn. 16, post.)
[ 15] In this regard, the trial court instructed the jury as follows, consistent with CACI No. 472, entitled “Primary Assumption of Risk-Exception to Nonliability-… Event Sponsors”: “[Plaintiff] claims he was harmed while participating in a wheelchair race as part of [Defendant’s] Rock and Roll Marathon. To establish this claim, [Plaintiff] must prove all of the following: [¶] 1. That [Defendant] was the operator of the Rock and Roll Marathon; [¶] 2. That [Defendant] unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in the sport of wheelchair marathon racing[; ¶] 3. That [Plaintiff] was harmed; and [¶] 4. That [Defendant’s] conduct was a substantial factor in causing [Plaintiff’s] harm.” (Italics added.)
[ 16] As we introduced ante, the other two issues associated with the potential application of the doctrine of assumption of the risk-whether marathon wheelchair racing is “an active sport” and “the risks inherent in that sport”-are legal issues that are reviewed de novo. (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at p. 1061.) Although Defendant does not directly raise either of those issues in its appeal, we have no difficulty concluding that: Marathon wheelchair is an active sport; and turning a corner at too high a speed and running off the racecourse is a risk inherent in marathon wheelchair racing. In its reply brief, Defendant suggests that we apply a de novo standard of review because “this appeal involves a mixed question of law and fact.” We disagree that this appeal involves a mixed question. Each of the three issues under Fazio is decided and reviewed separately: two are issues of law, and one-i.e., whether the defendant increased the risks inherent in the sport-is an issue of fact. (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1061-1063.) This appeal involves only the last issue, and as an issue of fact, it is reviewed on appeal for substantial evidence.
[ 17] In its reply brief, for the first time, Defendant “note[d]” that, in Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, “this court held that, in the summary judgment context, if there are disputed material facts, the jury will decide whether the defendant increased the inherent risk.” We agree that, if there are disputed material facts, then the jury must decide the factual dispute; and that is what happened in this case. Defendant then argues “that, after trial, if the case goes up on appeal, the appellate court is bound by the jury’s resolution of the factual disputes, but not by the jury’s determination that the defendant increased the inherent risk,” suggesting instead that “[t]he appellate court, based on the now-established facts, decides de novo whether the defendant increased the inherent risk.” Not only does Defendant fail to provide authority for its suggestion, in the context of the present appeal, the suggestion makes no sense. Here, the jury resolved the ultimate factual dispute-i.e., whether the defendant increased the inherent risk: “[Defendant] d[id] something or fail[ed] to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to [Plaintiff] over and above those inherent in marathon wheelchair racing.” As we ruled in Fazio: “[R]esolving the question of whether [the defendant] increased the risk of [the harm the plaintiff suffered] is properly decided by the trier of fact. This question… ‘requires application of the governing standard of care (the duty not to increase the [inherent risks]) to the facts of this particular case-the traditional role of the trier of fact.'” (Fazio, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1062-1063; italics and second and third brackets added.) For these reasons, we disagree with Defendant’s reply argument in support of de novo review.