Pennsylvania No Duty Rule stops lawsuit by underage rider.

A minor with 12 years of riding and competing on dirt bikes could not sue the commercial operation after crashing on the course.

Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

State: Pennsylvania; United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Kameron Hawkins and Amber Lynn Durbin

Defendant: Switchback MX, LLC d/b/a Switchback Raceway

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and negligence per se

Defendant Defenses: Pennsylvania No Duty Rule (Assumption of the Risk)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

The Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act specifically identifies downhill skiing and off-road riding as exempt from the comparative negligence act. In both those sports, the participant assumes the risk of their injuries due from the inherent risks of the sports.

Facts

Hawkins [plaintiff] began riding a dirt bike at the age of five or six.. He learned the ins and outs of dirt bike [motorized] riding from his father, who raced dirt bikes and often brought Hawkins to spectate at off-road races Hawkins began participating in races himself at “a young age” and even secured sponsorships. He testified that he was aware of the dangers of riding dirt bikes from early on in his experience, that his father instructed him to avoid jumps that “you don’t think you can handle,” and that he wore protective gear to guard against the risk of injury. He acknowledges that dirt bike riding is “a dangerous sport,” that “you could get hurt” on a dirt bike, and that a fall could cause “injury . . . or even death.” Despite his protective measures, Hawkins has suffered injuries in the past riding a dirt bike. Hawkins had been to Switchback on three prior occasions: once as a spectator, once as pit crew member for his friend Jonathan Franjko, and once as a rider.

The events preceding Hawkins’ accident on January 9, 2016 are disputed by the parties and not fully explored in the Rule 56 record. According to Hawkins, he arrived at Switchback with several friends and met with Brader, who asked them whether they had been to Switchback before. Hawkins relayed that, after the group responded affirmatively, Brader told them to sign in, accepted their payment, and provided them with wristbands to attach to their helmets to indicate they had been authorized to ride. He denied ever being asked to present identification and did not recall being asked his age.

Switchback’s account diverges considerably. According to Brader, Hawkins entered the indoor facility on January 9, 2016 with Franjko, who had a Switchback membership card. Brader did not recognize Hawkins and thought he appeared to be under the age of 18. Brader reported that he told Hawkins he needed to “take home a waiver and fill it out” and that he had to “bring [the waiver] out next time and join us another day.” Brader does not recall Hawkins signing in on Switchback’s sign-in sheet for January 9, 2016, but testified that he told Hawkins he “could not ride” without waiver and consent forms on file. Brader also testified that he does not know how Hawkins ultimately came to access the track on January 9, 2016. It is undisputed that Durbin did not execute a parental consent form allowing Hawkins to participate in dirt bike riding at Switchback.

On January 9, 2016, Hawkins somehow gained access Switchback’s indoor dirt bike racing track. Hawkins “attempted a jump, without enough speed,” on one of the track’s “table top jumps,” which caused the frame of his dirt bike to hit the ground and “flip [the] bike and Hawkins over.” According to Brader, it was only after this wreck that he became aware that Hawkins had accessed the track. Brader testified that Hawkins “didn’t look right” and that he offered to call an ambulance. Franjko confirmed that Brader asked “a couple times” whether Hawkins wanted medical attention. Hawkins left Switchback’s facility with his friends without receiving medical attention. Hawkins was subsequently treated for injuries including a lacerated kidney and pancreas, trauma to his spleen, a broken hip, a concussion, and post-concussion syndrome. The accident occurred four months before Hawkins’ 18th birthday.

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

The court first reviewed the requirements to prove a negligence claim in Pennsylvania.

Under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the “four basic elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages. That is, plaintiffs must prove: (1) the existence of a legal duty requiring a certain standard of conduct; (2) breach of that duty by the defendant; (3) a causal connection between defendant’s breach and plaintiffs’ injury; and (4) actual loss or damages.

The court then reviewed the claims of the plaintiff as whether the defendant owed a duty to the minor plaintiff because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries.

The defendant’s position was it had no duty to protect the plaintiff because of the inherent risk set out in the “no duty” rule in the Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act.

The plaintiff’s response to that argument was the negligence of the defendant was in allowing the plaintiff to access the track.

The court looked at the conflicting arguments by next reviewing assumption of the risk as applied in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act eliminated the defense of assumption of the risk in all areas except two when it enacted the statute. The two exemptions were downhill skiing and off-road vehicle riding. Meaning in those two situations, the no-duty rule retained the defense of assumption of the risk. The defendant has no duty to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport of downhill skiing or off-road riding.

The court then reviewed whether assumption of the risk applied to minors. That is “the court must ask what the “particular minor plaintiff knows, sees, hears, comprehends, and appreciates” with respect to the risk involved.”

Under Pennsylvania law, to prove assumption:

…the court must find that the plaintiff (1) “consciously appreciated the risk” attending the activity, (2) assumed the risk of injury by nonetheless engaging in the activity, and (3) sustained an injury that was “the same risk of injury that was appreciated and assumed.”

A factor in determining whether or not a minor assumed the risk is the minor’s age and experience. In this case that worked for the defendant because the minor was only four months from turning eighteen at the time of the accident and had been riding for twelve years.

The court then defined inherent risk as a risk “which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of the activity.”

The court broke down the inherent risks of off-road riding as identified in the statute, to see if the plaintiff’s injury landing on a table-top jump was inherent to the sport.

Common sense dictates that the risk of a fall or collision that does not involve another rider or object is equally inherent in the activity. Indeed, Hawkins’ own experience bears this out—he testified that his accident on January 9, 2016, was not his first; that he knew from personal experience that attempting jumps carried a certain risk; and that he wore protective gear in an attempt to mitigate that risk. We find that the risk of suffering serious injury when attempting a dirt bike jump is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of dirt bike riding and is thus inherent in the activity.

We further conclude that reasonable persons could not debate whether Hawkins appreciated and knowingly assumed that risk. Hawkins was nearly 18 years old at the time of the accident and had been riding dirt bikes for more than 12 years. He was a vastly experienced rider. He was well aware that dirt bike riding carried the risk of serious injury and even death. Indeed, Hawkins acknowledged that a dirt bike presents a certain danger “even when the bike’s on the ground.” Given this unequivocal record testimony, we have little difficulty finding that this particular rider—plaintiff Kameron Hawkins—knew, appreciated, and assumed the risks attending off-road dirt bike riding.

For these reasons, the court found the minor, because of his age and experience assumed the risk of his injuries, and the defendant was not liable for those injuries because of the Pennsylvania Comparative Negligence Act.

So Now What?

Assumption of the risk in most states is the only defense you have to injuries a minor receives. Unless your state has a specific statute that identifies your activity as one with inherent risk a person assumes, you need to prove the minor in your case assumed those risks.

To do that you must maximize all the avenues to educate and document that education of a minor, in fact, all participants in your activity or business.

Post videos of your activity showing crashes, flips and falls on your website and social media. Point out possible risks on your site and social media. Then confirm in some way that the minor observed that information.

You can go so far as to ask the minor and/or the minor’s parents of their experience in the sport. Have they participated in the sport before, seen it on TV, participated for how many years, etc.

A release is your best defense to a lawsuit, but for minors, in those states where releases are not valid and or minors, assumption of the risk is your best and sometimes only defense.

For more information see:

States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue

States that do not Support the Use of a Release

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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