Federal District Court in Utah voids release for bicycle racing because of public policy!

Plaintiff was injured pre-riding a race course when he struck a barrier closing a street. Although the release was determined to be valid under Utah’s law, the court determined the Utah legislature had created laws and regulations to protect people that voided the release.

What is confusing is, but for a race being held at that location at a later date, everyone would be immune from suit for a road closure. Meaning cities and transportation departments are hard if not impossible to sue. How then could a race sponsor be sued for an accident on a road before the race?

Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

State: Utah, United States District Court for the District of Utah

Plaintiff: Gerald Finken

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc.; Breakaway Promotions, LLC; Ogden/Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, and Does 1-10

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Master bicycle racer training for race struck barricade on a closed road. Plaintiff was following race course map prior to race day. Court interpreted confusing Utah’s law on the subject of releases to hold the inherent risks of cycling did not cover barricades on the course and under Utah law, the release was void as against Utah Public Policy.

Facts

The 2014 USA Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate[].”USA Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.

Before publication, USA Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA Cycling to review, and then “USA Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course. USA Cycling disputes it prepared the map.

Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.

Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA Cycling’s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure.

On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA Cycling. Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. He was hospitalized for two days for serious neck and back injuries.

After the accident, USA Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event.

Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.”

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

The court first looked at Utah’s law on releases. The Supreme Court in Utah generally supported releases, but there were several exceptions to the law that made interpreting Utah’s law on releases difficult. See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.
The court found that three types of releases were void under Utah’s law.

Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.

The court looked at the indemnification language in the release and found that most jurisdictions did not support indemnification, including Utah.

As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.”

For a release to be enforceable, the release must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.

[Utah] Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law

If a release is not clear on its face, then it is unenforceable. The court found the release used by USA cycling was clear and released USA Cycling from claims of negligence. However, the court took issue with the language that was obviously intended to cover the race, and the accident occurred on a pre-race ride. The court found that this was a risk that was not inherent to a race on a public road.

But the plaintiff was not racing; he was riding, and closed roads are an inherent risk of cycling or driving or walking even!

After reviewing the language of the release, the court held the release was clear as to USA Cycling.

A co-defendant, Breakaway argued it was also covered by the release. The court found the language “Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials” was not broad enough to cover Breakaway, which was an independent contractor. The court did not find that Breakaway was covered by that language and therefore, not protected by the release.

In addition, the agreement between Breakaway and USA Cycling stated that Breakaway would be “solely and entirely responsible for its acts….” Nowhere in the agreement “was Breakaway as an event director, or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA Cycling.”

Having found the release was valid for USA Cycling the court then looked at whether or not the release was void for some other reasons, such as a violation of Utah Public Policy.

To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.”

The court then reviewed two cases decided by the Utah Supreme Court. In both of those cases, one, an equine case and the other the Rothstein case (See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.) the court held that since the Utah Legislature had created statutes to protect the activities, the release was barred because the accidents that had happened to the plaintiffs in those cases were not an inherent risk of the activity.

Looking at the incident in this case, the court applied the inherent risks of bicycle racing to the facts, even though the plaintiff was not racing at the time. The court found that hitting a barricade closing a road was not an inherent risk of cycle racing.

The analysis for this was the requirement that the requirement that bicycle races have a special event permit and liability insurance. Since the liability insurance would not have to pay for a claim based on the inherent risk of cycling, but only those non-inherent risks, the State of Utah must believe that those non-inherent risks should not be precluded by a release.

Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, and the traveling public.

The court then made its stretch and found:

The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA Cycling.

The court then denied the motion for summary judgment of both defendants USA Cycling and Breakaway Promotions, LLC.

So Now What?

Sometimes you are going to find a judge that is going to give the plaintiff’s money no matter what the law dictates. This appears to be one of those cases. However, this case is still going on and perhaps instead of settling the defendants will take the case to trial and win. At least appeal this decision so Utah is not stuck within an even worse decision.

In this case applying the risks of bicycle racing, which is sometimes done on a closed course with directors, smooth roads and no obstructions to everyday cycling. If you are riding along, and you come onto a closed road, you better be able to stop before you hit the barrier closing the road. That is a risk of cycling. That is not a risk of racing, and the plaintiff in this case was not racing. The plaintiff even admitted he was going.

There are going to be a lot more disclaimers on maps and information supplied to racers in the future from USA Cycling. The map will say this is the course ON RACE DAY. The release should be written to cover more than just the race, but all training and attendance at any USA Cycling event.

The USA Cycling release needs to be rewritten because as it was quoted by the court, the language limits the risks to the inherent risks of the sport, greatly reducing the value of the release. See Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.

At the very least, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to hold an amateur bicycle race, possibly even a professional bicycle race in Utah in the future. The liability is too great. The judge commented several times about the economic value cycling brought to the state then wrote a decision to end that financial benefit.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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