Under California law, increasing the risk or changing the inherent risk of a sport or race eliminates the defense of assumption of the risk. Defendant found grossly negligent in its course design.

Wheel chair racer able to recover from the race organizer when he rode off the course after relying on the map and virtual tour the course director had created.

Blanchette v. Competitor Group, Inc., 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7714, 2019 WL 6167131

State: California: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

Plaintiff: Craig Blanchette

Defendant: Competitor Group, Inc

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

A wheel chair racer was injured when the course was changed after the wheelchair racer had reviewed the map and the virtual tour of the course. Because the defendant had substantially increased the risk to the racers by changing the course, the defense of assumption of the risk was not available to the defendant.

Facts

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.

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

The defendant argued at the appellate court that the plaintiff failed to establish gross negligence and that the defendant did not unreasonably increase the risk to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff did not unreasonably increase the risk to the plaintiff, then the plaintiff assumed the risk and could not recover for his injuries.

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)

The court first looked at the issue of whether or not the defendant was grossly negligent.

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.” ‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty, ‘” amounts to ordinary negligence.'” 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.’

California does not recognize gross negligence.

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.”

So even though California does not recognize gross negligence as a claim, it is defined as something falling short of reckless disregard of consequences and generates a harsher legal consequence. Whether that is defined as more money is not defined in the decision.

On appeal, the appellate court must look at the facts in favor of the plaintiff. Reviewing the facts and the jury’s decision, the court found there was enough evidence to support the jury’s conclusion. “Defendant’s behavior was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”

Although California does not support gross negligence, according to this decision, the court found, the plaintiff proved the defendant was grossly negligent.

The court then looked at assumption of the risk.

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.'” 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).

There is no duty to reduce the inherent risks in sports. Requiring a mitigation of the inherent risks of sports would alter the nature of the game.

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.'” “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[.]'”

There are three factors to be determined by the trial court in reviewing the defense of assumption of the risk. “…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.”

The defendant argued it did not do anything to increase the risk of harm to the plaintiff. The defendant defined the risk as: “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.”

The court again found the plaintiff’s argument convincing. The actions of the defendant did increase the risk of harm to the plaintiff.

[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.”

The bigger issue was the defendant changed the course from what was shown on the map and the virtual tour. The changes made by the defendant occurred where the plaintiff crashed.

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.

Because there was a difference of opinion, because each side had plausible arguments to sort its theory of the case, the facts must be decided by the trier of fact, the jury. Because there was enough evidence to support the jury’s conclusion, the decision of the jury would be upheld on appeal.

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.

So Now What?

Simply, the defendant had created a course, mapped it and provided a video tour of the course to the racers. The racer’s relied on the map and video tour of the course. When the course was changed it increased the risk to the racers causing injury.

When you provide information to guests, you must expect them to rely on that information and the information is wrong, you are possibly liable for any injury arising from the changes, or the increased risk of harm to the participants.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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