Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)
Supreme Court of New York, Kings County
December 4, 2018, Decided
2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U) **
[**1] STEVEN LEVINE, Plaintiff(s), -against-USA CYCLING, INC. & KISSENA CYCLING CLUB, INC., Defendant(s). Index No: 515257/15
Cycling, sanctioned, organizer, summary judgment, deposition, duty to plaintiff, participants, recreation, supervise, injuries, signs
DECISION / ORDER
Defendant, USA Cycling, Inc. (“USA Cycling”) has moved, pursuant to CPLR §3212, for an Order awarding summary judgment to the defendant and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s, Steven Levine, (“Mr. Levine”) complaint upon the grounds that the defendant was not negligent, and thus not liable for plaintiff’s injuries as they owed no duty to the plaintiff. The plaintiff opposes the relief sought by the defendant, USA Cycling, and maintains that the latter was negligent in that they had a greater involvement than just sanctioning the race in which the plaintiff was injured, and they failed to properly supervise, maintain and control the race in which the plaintiff who was not a participant in the race was seriously injured.
In the underlying matter, the plaintiff seeks to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained while cycling in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2014. At the same time the plaintiff was cycling as a recreational activity, a cycling event was taking place in the same area of Prospect Park. The plaintiff was cycling the same route as those participating in the event [*2] when he collided with another cyclist who was a participant in the bike race.
As a result of injuries sustained by the plaintiff, which included a fractured and displaced clavicle that required surgical intervention, an action was commenced on behalf of the plaintiff by the filing of a summons and complaint on or about December 21, 2015. Issue was joined by the service of a verified answer by USA Cycling on or about March 15, 2016. The plaintiff served a response to defendant’s Demand for a Verified Bill of Particulars dated March 24, 2016. Depositions of the plaintiff, as well as Todd Sowl, the chief financial officer of USA Cycling, were conducted on September 27, 2016.
In October 2016, the plaintiff moved to amend their complaint to add Kissena Cycling Club Inc., (“Kissena Cycling Club”) as an additional defendant. Kissena Cycling Club did not appear nor answer the complaint, but a default judgment had not been sought against said party.
Defendant’s contention (USA Cycling, Inc.):
The defendant, in [*3] moving for summary judgment and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, maintains that the relief sought herein should be granted because in the absence of a [**3] duty to the plaintiff there cannot be a breach and without a breach they cannot be liable for negligence.
The defendant maintains that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the event that was run by Kissena Cycling Club. They issued a permit to allow Kissena Cycling Club to use the name of USA Cycling during the event.
Defendant asserts that there is no evidence to support an argument as to the existence of a principal-agent relationship between USA Cycling and Kissena Cycling Club nor was there any evidence of control by USA Cycling or consent by USA Cycling to act on its behalf. In addition, there is no written agreement between the two entities.
In support of defendant’s motion, is the affidavit of Todd Sowl in which he stated that USA Cycling did not coordinate the Prospect Park event; did not control or employ any of the people organizing or managing or working the race; did not select the location of the race nor supervise the race. They did not have any employees or representatives at the race. In addition, they are not the parent [*4] company of Kissena Cycling Club nor is Kissena Cycling Club a subsidiary of USA Cycling.
Mr. Sowl testified at his deposition that while USA Cycling sanctions events in the United States they do not run cycling events. Mr. Sowl stated that while there are benefits to a third party such as Kissena Cycling Club for having an event sanctioned by USA Cycling which includes that a cyclist participating in the event can use the results for upgrading their national results and rankings and the third-party event organizers can independently obtain liability insurance for their event through USA Cycling, he nevertheless maintained that they have no involvement in the operation of the race or the design of the course.
[**4] Plaintiff’s contention:
In opposing the motion of USA Cycling for summary judgment, plaintiff maintains that USA Cycling was sufficiently involved with the cycling event that caused plaintiff’s injuries that would result in their owing a duty to the plaintiff. Plaintiff contends that USA Cycling was negligent in their failure to properly operate, supervise, maintain, manage and control the bicycle race.
The plaintiff asserts that USA Cycling by its chief operating officer, Mr. Sowl, [*5] in both his deposition and his supporting affidavit stated that his organization sanctioned the cycling event in Prospect Park. They collect some fees to compensate for sanctioning the event and provide insurance for the event.
The plaintiff maintains that the defendant did more than just sanction the race as they issued safety guidelines, rule books, post event forms, permits, an event checklist and insurance information to the Kissena Cycling Club, and even received a copy of the incident report.
The plaintiff asserts that negligence cases by their very nature do not lend themselves to summary dismissal since the issue of negligence is a question for jury determination. The plaintiff maintains that the proof submitted by USA Cycling does not satisfy their initial burden of establishing the absence of a material issue of fact.
This Court has considered the submissions of counsel’ for the respective parties, the arguments presented herein, as well as the applicable law, in making a determination with respect to the motion by defendant, USA Cycling, for summary judgment and a dismissal of plaintiff’s action.
The moving party in a motion for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating a prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by submitting sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issue of fact (Drago v. King, 283 AD2d 603, 725 NYS2d 859 [2nd Dept. 2001]).
In support of USA Cycling’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant offers the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl, as well as Charles Issendorf, the event director of Kissena Sports Project Inc. d/b/a Kissena Cycling Club, who was deposed on June 14, 2018 in the related action, as well as case law which examined whether a party under similar circumstances would have been found to be negligent and thus liable to an injured party.
To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate (a) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach thereof, and (3) injury proximately resulting therefrom (Akins v Glens Falls City School Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 333, 424 N.E.2d 531, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644 . In the absence of a duty, there is no breach and without a breach there is no liability (see Light v. Antedeminico, 259 A.D.2d 737, 687 N.Y.S.2d 422; Petito v. Verrazano Contr. Co., 283 A.D.2d 472, 724 N.Y.S.2d 463 [2nd Dept. 2001]).
In determining whether USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, this Court examined the role of USA Cycling and specifically [*7] its involvement in this race, as well as that of the Kissena Cycling Club. The Court further considered the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl as well as Charles Issendorf.
USA Cycling is the national governing body for cycling in the United States. They oversee the discipline of road, mountain bike, Cyc-cross, BMS and track cycling. Mr. Sowl testified that except for a few national championships, they do not actually run events. While [**6] they sanction events, the events are generally owned and operated by a third party (such as the Kissena Cycling Club). In sanctioning the race at Prospect Park, USA Cycling recognized the event as an official event and the results when considering national rankings. However, while they sanction events they do not sponsor them. The chief referee at the event is an independent contractor who works for the event organizer and not USA Cycling. Mr. Sowl further testified that USA Cycling does not share in any portion of the fees that are generated by the local events.
This lack of control over the event by USA Cycling and by contrast the control exhibited by the Kissena Cycling Club is further demonstrated through the deposition testimony of Charles Issendorf. [*8] Mr. Issendorf as the race director for Kissena Cycling Club has been organizing races for fourteen years. Mr. Issendorf characterized his club as more of a social club where its members race together. There are generally thirty races conducted between the months of March and September with the venues being in both Prospect Park and Floyd Bennett Field which is also situated in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Issendorf testified that he obtains the permit for the subject race directly from the representatives of Prospect Park. Mr. Issendorf is instructed to have certain safety measures implemented at all races. He sets up the course by putting out the safety measures which includes the safety signs that are needed for the race. He also organizes the race marshals, and the pace and follow motorcycles to ensure that there is a motorcycle in both the front and back of each group.1 Mr. Issendorf further testified that Prospect Park has rules in terms of the placement of safety cones and signs that are needed, as well as the race marshals. Kissena Cycling club provides what could be characterized as “lawn signs” and Mr. Issendorf personally places these signs in the grass along the bike route. There [*9] are also traffic safety cones throughout the course that contain a sign which bear the words “caution, bicycle [**7] race”, that are placed there by Mr. Issendorf. The signs are generally situated one hundred meters apart and they are placed at crosswalks, entrances to the park, as well as at high traffic areas where there is a concentration of people. As to the course, the two lanes to the right of a double white line is where the participants are allowed to race. To the left of the double white line is the location of the pedestrian or the recreation lane. There are written instructions on the website of the club which states that at all times the participants are not allowed to enter the pedestrian or recreation lane. The race organizers also make use of a portable PA system at the race in which the chief referee warns the riders to stay to the right of the white right lane, and if they were to cross into the recreation lane it would result in their disqualification.
This Court finds that while USA Cycling sanctioned the race of June 14, 2014, the plaintiff has not sufficiently refuted the assertion and proof offered by USA Cycling that the latter did not organize, direct, control, supervise [*10] or select the venue nor did they have any employees or agents at the cycling event, and thus, had no duty to the plaintiff. Courts have addressed situations that are akin to the case at bar. The Court in Chittick v. USA Cycling Inc., 54 AD3d 625, 863 NYS2d 679 [1st Dept. 2008]), in finding that an award of summary judgment and a dismissal of the action against USA Cycling was warranted, in which spectators were injured during a bicycle race when struck by the rear pace vehicle, determined that USA Cycling had no duty to prevent any negligence involved therein. The Court in Chittick determined that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the race by lending its name to the race. The fact that USA Cycling provided the rule book to the organizer of the race did not impose a duty upon them to enforce any of the rules thereon. There was also no inference drawn as to the existence of a principal-agency relationship between USA Cycling and the race organizer.
[**8] The Court in Megna v. Newsday, Inc., 245 AD2d 494, 666 NYS2d 718 [2nd Dept. 1997], in granting summary judgment to the defendant, determined that the defendant merely sponsored the race in which the injured plaintiff had participated. It was determined that the defendant owed no duty of care to the plaintiff as the defendant was not in any way involved in the design, layout, maintenance [*11] or control of the race course, and was not in a position to assume such control (see also Mongello v. Davos Ski Resort, 224 A.D.2d 502, 638 N.Y.S.2d 166 [2nd Dept. 1966]; Johnson v. Cherry Grove Island Management Inc., 175 AD2d 827, 573 NYS2d 187 [2nd Dept. 1991]).
This Court finds that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case that the defendant USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, and not having a duty was not negligent, and thus, not liable to the plaintiff. This Court finds that USA Cycling was not responsible for the layout and design of the race course, and all of the safety precautions that were in place on the day of the race were supervised by the employees and volunteers of Kissena Cycling Club. USA Cycling had no involvement in the positioning of the plaintiff, who was a recreational cyclist, and the riders in the race. The fact that USA Cycling sanctioned the race, provided safety guidelines on its website and assisted the local race organizers in obtaining insurance does not result in a finding that they are liable for an incident that occurred in a local race that is fully operated and managed by a local racing club.
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Sanctioning body said you must do XYZ, which creates a standard of care you will be judged by
Plaintiff: Arthur Mcdonough and Linda Mcdonough, in their own right and as Parents of Bradley Alan Mcdonough, deceased
Defendant: National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA), U.S. Cycling Fed., and Delaware Trail Spinners
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: release
Holding: for the plaintiff, sent back for trial
In this case the deceased was racing in an Off Road [Mountain] Bike Race when he died of dehydration. The lawsuit was started by his parents against the organizations that sanctioned the race, NORBA, the race, and the race course owner. The suit alleged failure of the standards created by the sanctioning organization even though race had agreed to follow the standards.
The decedent died racing in a mountain bike race after being discovered along the race course unconscious. This was the deceased second NORBA race. There were no water or aid stations along the course. However the riders had access to their own water bottles on their bikes.
The plaintiffs argued there was no way for a beginner to access their water bottle on the course because it was so difficult unless they stopped riding. The only water available was what the participants brought with them. No physician, ambulance or emergency medical personnel at the race.
As a sanctioned race, NORBA provided defendant Delaware Trail Spinners the race organizer, with a “Pre-Event Planning Checklist.” In order to host the event the defendant Trail Spinners had to go through the checklist and agree to abide or provide the items on the checklist. The race director for Trail Spinners specifically stated that “there would be an ambulance on site and adequate water or fluids for participants and spectators before, during, and after the race.” NORBA also sends an official who according to the checklist will confirm issues and sign off on the checklist. In this case the NORBA representative did not sign off on the checklist.
To be able to race participants had to sign a one day membership to NORBA and sign a release. The court pointed out that no one explained the release to the participants. The back of the trial membership form said that everyone had to carry 8 ounces of water and that if the race exceeded sixty minutes NORBA would provide water to the race participants.
Before the race began one of the Trail Spinners race organizers, spoke to the 80 to 100 race participants. He told them without a bullhorn or PA system that there was no ambulance on site, but that one could be called if needed. He also told the contestants to be “”careful, . . . take their time” and not to “ride over your head, which means going beyond your ability.” McGroerty also told them to “watch their bodies, make sure they didn’t push themselves too hard because it was hot out.” Finally, he told them that “if they felt dizzy or nauseous, to back off, stay cool and keep from going too hard.”
The deceased was found after a search in an unconscious state off the trail. The friend called 911 from his cell phone and went and got assistance back at the race headquarters. When he arrived back with two people to help him they started CPR. The deceased bike still had a water bottle with water in it. The deceased died of heat stroke fifteen days later.
Summary of the case
Delaware law, the state where the race was held, was the law applied to this case. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release and the defense of primary assumption of the risk. Delaware merged secondary assumption of risk with comparative negligence, however Primary or express (written) assumption of risk is still a defense. The court defined the differences as:
Primary assumption, sometimes referred to as express assumption of risk, “involves the express consent to relieve the defendant of any obligation of care while secondary assumption [of risk] consists of voluntarily encountering a known unreasonable risk which is out of proportion to the advantage gained.”
The court quickly concluded that the summary judgment granted by the lower court should be overturned. The court felt that
…genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether McDonough understood that the release included a waiver against the hazards created by defendants’ alleged negligent and reckless conduct in promoting the race.
The court reviewed the record of the case pointing out every place where the requirements set forth by the sanctioning body, NOBA were not met by the race. (Whether those issues would have made a difference was never discussed.)
The court then shifted and wrote that because it could be argued that the deceased did not understand the release was a waiver of the risks that it was a material fact, which voided the release.
In the present case, plaintiffs assert that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether McDonough understood that the release included a waiver against the hazards created by defendants’ alleged negligent and reckless conduct in promoting the race. The court agrees.
The court arrived at this decision by stating the law and then interpreting it differently than all other courts had interpreted the law.
However, for the release to be effective, it must appear that the plaintiff understood the terms of the agreement, or that a reasonable person in his position would have understood the terms.
Thus, the understanding of the parties when the release was executed, in light of all the facts and circumstances, is paramount in determining whether the language is clear and unambiguous.
If you don’t understand what you are signing, then the release was not clear and unambiguous. I know of no other case that has argued that before.
So Now What?
The obvious issue here was the written documentation that required water and first aid and the documentation given to the deceased that stated water would be available where not available. Every race, camp, organization needs to develop a checklist or risk management plan so they can operate. However, as in this case, failing to follow any checklist was enough to lose the defenses of Primary Assumption of the Risk and Release and send your case to trial.
ØIf it is written down and you agree to it, you must follow it.
ØIf it is written down by an organization that you belong to or are sanctioned by, then you must agree to it.
ØIf an organization that you belong to writes a standard, then you must meet the standard!
The court then looked at these facts and was not happy. It then applied the facts in such a way that the court could find the release invalid and send it back for trial.
To see other cases where the defendant lost because they violated their trade associations standard of care see:
ACA Standards are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp http://rec-law.us/zmKgoi
Expert Witness Report: ACA “Standards” are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp http://rec-law.us/y7QlJ3
Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management (or in this case an insurance policy) must pay for. http://rec-law.us/14MebM4
Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 millionhttp://rec-law.us/11UdbEn
Trade Association Standards sink a Summer Camp when plaintiff uses them to prove Camp was negligent http://rec-law.us/wszt7N
To Read other articles about standards see:
Can a Standard Impeded Inventions? http://rec-law.us/yOcca2
Playgrounds will be flat soon http://rec-law.us/zGC4DZ
Staying Current http://rec-law.us/ArdsVk
Stop Feuding, I doubt, move forward anyway, I think you can. http://rec-law.us/P763zu
This is how a standard in the industry changes http://rec-law.us/w76X3K
Words: You cannot change a legal definition http://rec-law.us/AbJ540
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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McDonough v. National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA), 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8036 (Dist. Del 1997)
Arthur Mcdonough and Linda Mcdonough, in their own right and as Parents of Bradley Alan Mcdonough, deceased, and Arthur Mcdonough in his own right and as Administrator of the Estate of Bradley Alan Mcdonough, Plaintiffs, v. National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA), U.S. Cycling Fed., and Delaware Trail Spinners, Defendants.
C.A. No. 95-504-SLR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8036
June 2, 1997, Decided
NOTICE: [*1] FOR ELECTRONIC PUBLICATION ONLY
DISPOSITION: Defendants’ motion for summary judgment denied.
COUNSEL: For plaintiffs: Donald Eilhu Evans, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware. Of Counsel: Edwin F. McCoy, Esquire., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
For defendants: Mason E. Turner, Esquire, of Prickett, Jones, Elliott, Kristol & Schnee, Wilmington, Delaware.
JUDGES: Sue L. Robinson, District Judge
OPINION BY: Sue L. Robinson
Date: June 2, 1997
ROBINSON, District Judge
This case is a wrongful death/survival action filed as a result of Bradley McDonough’s (“McDonough”) death on August 30, 1993. Plaintiffs are Arthur and Linda McDonough, the parents of the decedent (collectively referred to as “plaintiffs”). Defendants are The National Off-Road Bicycle Association (“NORBA”), United States Cycling Federation (“Federation”), and the Delaware Trail Spinners (“Trail Spinners”). The court has diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Presently before the court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 66) For the following reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment shall be denied.
[*2] In the summer of 1993, Bradley McDonough developed an interest in off-road bicycle competition. In the spring or early summer of 1993, McDonough acquired an off-road bike (also known as a mountain bike) and rode with his college friends, Randall Blaker (“Blaker”), Michael Odenwald (“Odenwald”), and Kenny Steidle (“Steidle”). (D.I. 71 at A51-A52) On August 8, 1993, McDonough, Blaker, Odenwald and Steidle participated in a NORBA sanctioned event in Windham, New York (“Windham race”). (D.I. 71 at A51) In all NORBA events, participants are required to obtain a permanent membership or a one-day trial membership. The application for the one-day membership contains a section entitled “Agreement and Release of Liability” (“release”). (D.I. 68 at A3)
On the day of the Windham race, McDonough, along with his friends, paid for a one-day trial membership and signed the release. (D.I. 71 at A 54-55; D.I. 68 at A5) In signing the release, Blaker stated that he did not really read it, but simply skimmed through it. (D.I. 71 at A54) Blaker stated that he assumed it was a release “to some degree and we understood that we were involved in a sport.” (D.I. 71 at A54-A55)
The Windham race course was [*3] basically a two lap course. (D.I. 71 at A56) McDonough and Steidle quit after one lap because they were tired. (D.I. 71 at A56) Blaker, who was behind McDonough and Steidle, also stopped after the first lap since his friends had stopped. (D.I. 71 at A56) Odenwald did not complete the race either, because his bicycle broke. (D.I. 71 at A56) All four friends had water bottles on their bikes during the race. (D.I. 71 at A54)
On August 15, 1993, McDonough and Blaker participated in another NORBA sanctioned event in Delaware, called the C & D Canal Classic (“C & D race”). (D.I. 84 at A109) The C & D race consisted of three race levels: (1) Beginners’; (2) Sport; and (3) Pro/Expert. (D.I. 71 at A22) McDonough and Blaker both entered the Beginners’ level. (D.I. 71 at A23 and A59) The Beginners’ course was a 14 mile course “over the local terrain which included steep and gradual hills, open gravel and dirt roads, and wooded trails.” (D.I. 71 at A23) The Sport and Pro/Expert courses also used the same 14 miles designated for the Beginners’ course. (D.I. 71 at A38)
The Beginners’ course was difficult because of its layout. (D.I. 71 at A38) The terrain on the Beginners’ course made it difficult [*4] for riders to access their own water without stopping. (D.I. 71 at A38) Some areas on the course were smoothed out so that riders could stop or ride slowly and access their water bottles. (D.I. 71 at 38) The course, however, did not have any neutral area where water was given out to the race contestants. (D.I. 71 at A38) The only water the race contestants could drink was the water that they brought themselves. (D.I. 71 at A38) No physician was present at the race. (D.I. 71 at A24) There was neither an ambulance nor emergency medical personnel present at the race site. (D.I. 71 at A23) Denise Dowd (“Dowd”), another participant in the Beginners’ level, stated that the course was “difficult due to the heat and humidity and layout.” (D.I. 71 at A87) Although Dowd is an avid biker and had participated in approximately 20 mountain bike races, it took her over an hour and fifteen minutes to complete the course. (D.I. 71 at A87)
Defendant Trail Spinners, a NORBA club member, received sanctioning from NORBA to promote the C & D race. In order to receive sanctioning, defendant Trail Spinners had to complete a “Pre-Event Planning Checklist” (“Checklist”) provided by NORBA. (D.I. 84 at A109-A110) [*5] The Checklist contains several questions relating to the safety precautions taken for the event. Trail Spinners, through its race director William Bowen (“Bowen”), represented on the Checklist that there would be, inter alia, emergency medical assistance on site and adequate water for the participants and spectators. (D.I. 84 at A110) Bowen specifically represented that there would be an ambulance on site and adequate water or fluids for participants and spectators before, during, and after the race. (D.I. 84 at A110) The Checklist also provided that: “A NORBA Official must be present at your event. The NORBA Official will complete their portion of the checklist before allowing the event to proceed.” (D.I. 84 at A109) The Checklist identifies Elizabeth Small (“Small”) as the NORBA Official. Small, however, did not complete her portion of the Checklist and did not sign it. (D.I. 84 at A110)
When McDonough arrived at the race site, he again paid for a one-day trial membership and signed the release. (D.I. 68 at A7) Blaker also paid for a one-day trial membership and signed the release. (D.I. 71 at A59) No one at the race site explained the documents to the race participants. (D.I. [*6] 71 at A41) The release provides in part:
I acknowledge that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport in which I participate at my own risk and that NORBA is a non-profit corporation formed to advance the sport of cycling, the efforts of which directly benefit me. In consideration of the agreement with NORBA to issue an amateur license to me, hereby on behalf of myself, my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, I release and forever discharge NORBA and the United States Cycling Federation, its employees, agents, members, sponsors, promoters, and affiliates from any and all liability, claim, loss, cost or expense, and waive any such claims against any such person or organization, arising directly or indirectly from or attributable in any legal way to any action or omission to act of any such person or organization in connection with sponsorship, organization or execution of any bicycle racing or sporting event, in which I may participate as a rider, team member or spectator.
(D.I. 68 at A5) On the back of the trial membership and release certain “Racing Regulations” are set forth. (D.I. 68 at A8). At section 4.6, NORBA recommends that each participant carry “at least [*7] 8 ounces of water.” (D.I. 68 at A8) Section 5.6 provides that neutral water will be provided for any race that exceeds 60 minutes in length. (D.I. 68 at A8)
According to James McGroerty (“McGroerty”), the President, Officer, and Co-Founder of Trail Spinners, it is commonly understood by those who participate in races that they are required to sign the release. (D.I. 71 at A45) McGroerty stated that: “Most of [his] friends who are avid racers look at the form as you are signing this paper basically saying yes, I am doing this race at my own risk on the course. If I get hurt, it’s my own fault. It’s basically the way we look at it when we sign these forms and compete in an event.” (D.I. 71 at A45) Dowd, who also signed the release that day, stated that she understood that the release was intended to protect the defendants from liability. (D.I. 71 at A89) Dowd, however, did not believe that the release was intended to relieve the defendants from providing “common sense safety precautions, particularly on site trained medical personnel with an ambulance.” (D.I. 71 at A89) Dowd stated that she would not have signed the release if she had known there was no medical assistance immediately [*8] available. (D.I. 71 at A89)
Before the start of the race, McGroerty addressed the race contestants from the hood of his car. (D.I. 71 at A38 and A42) He addressed the participants without a bullhorn. (D.I. 71 at A37) There were approximately 80 to 100 total participants in the group that raced with McDonough and Blaker. (D.I. 71 at A37 and A62) McGroerty told the race contestants that there was no ambulance on site, but that one could be called. (D.I. 71 at A42) McGroerty did not specifically warn the participants about heat exhaustion. (D.I. 71 at A42) Instead, McGroerty told the contestants to be “careful, . . . take their time” and not to “ride over your head, which means going beyond your ability.” (D.I. 71 at A42) McGroerty also told them to “watch their bodies, make sure they didn’t push themselves too hard because it was hot out.” (D.I. 71 at A42) Finally, he told them that “if they felt dizzy or nauseous, to back off, stay cool and keep from going too hard.” (D.I. 71 at A42) McGroerty did not get any questions after he addressed the participants. (D.I. 71 at A37) McGroerty testified that he does not have Red Cross, CPR or EMT certification of any kind. (D.I. 71 at A43) He [*9] also does not know the signs of exertional heat stroke. (D.I. 71 at A43)
At approximately 9:00 a.m., McDonough and Blaker left the starting line with other contestants. (D.I. 71 at A23 and A62) Both McDonough and Blaker had brought water bottles with them. (D.I. 71 at A61) The temperature on that day was “extremely hot  with high humidity.” (D.I. 71 at A85) Although McDonough and Blaker began the race together, they were separated because Blaker had a flat tire. (D.I. 71 at A63) After Blaker changed his flat tire, he continued in the race and eventually completed the course. (D.I. 71 at A64) McDonough, however, did not. (D.I. 71 at A64)
McGroerty found McDonough when he went to investigate whether some participants had accidently or deliberately missed the course markings. (D.I. 71 at A44) McGroerty first saw McDonough’s bike. As he approached the bike, he saw McDonough who was about five or six feet from his bike. (D.I. 71 at A44) According to McGroerty, other participants would not have seen McDonough since he was off to the side of the course, but could have seen his bike. (D.I. 71 at A44)
When McGroerty found McDonough, he was on the ground lying on his side and his breathing [*10] was heavy and labored. (D.I. 71 at A44) McDonough appeared to have trouble breathing and was not responsive. (D.I. 71 at A44) According to McGroerty, McDonough appeared to be unconscious. (D.I. 71 at A44) Based on these observations, McGroerty called 911 from his cellular phone. (D.I. 71 at A44) After calling 911, McGroerty went to the start/finish area and sought assistance. (D.I. 71 at A42 and A87) He led two people back to where McDonough was found and they administered CPR until an ambulance arrived. (D.I. 71 at A42 and A87-A88) According to Dowd, one of the two people who administered CPR, no one gave McDonough any water before the ambulance arrived because no water was provided. (D.I. 71 at A88) Blaker, however, testified that when McDonough’s bike was brought back from where McDonough had been found, it still had a water bottle attached to it that was half full. (D.I. 71 at A65)
Dowd stated that the race was “generally disorganized” and that there was a lot of confusion. (D.I. 71 at A86) According to Dowd, the race was delayed for 30 minutes and no maps of the course were given to the participants or posted. (D.I. 71 at A87-A88) Small, the NORBA official on duty at the race, [*11] reported to NORBA that the “race director [Bowen] was ‘light’ in the emergency medical area.” (D.I. 84 at A110) Small also reported that no course maps were available, but that the course was adequately marked. (D.I. 84 at A110) Overall, Small stated that mistakes were made since no water was provided, no emergency medical personnel were on site, and the course was too long. (D.I. 84 at A114)
Dowd stated that it took her about 5 minutes to reach McDonough and that the ambulance arrived 10 to 15 minutes after she began administering CPR. (D.I. 71 at A88) When the ambulance arrived, McDonough was treated by paramedics and helicoptered to the Medical Center of Delaware in Christiana, Delaware. (D.I. 71 at A23) Although hospitalized, McDonough died of heat stroke on August 30, 1993. (D.I. 70 at 1)
1. Summary Judgment Standard
[HN1] Summary judgment should be granted only if a court concludes that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). [HN2] The moving party bears the burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact is in dispute. Matsushita Elec. Indus. [*12] Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 n.10, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538, 106 S. Ct. 1348 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its initial burden, the nonmoving party “must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 587. “Facts that could alter the outcome are ‘material,’ and disputes are ‘genuine’ if evidence exists from which a rational person could conclude that the position of the person with the burden of proof on the disputed issue is correct.” Horowitz v. Federal Kemper Life Assurance Co., 57 F.3d 300, 302 n.1 (3d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). If the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of his case with respect to which he has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). The mere existence of some evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not be sufficient for denial of a motion for summary judgment; there must be enough evidence to enable a jury reasonably to find for the nonmoving party on that factual issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, [*13] Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). This court, however, must “view the underlying facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Pennsylvania Coal Ass’n v. Babbitt, 63 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
2. Express or Primary Assumption of Risk
[HN3] Since Delaware adopted a comparative negligence statute, 1 it has become necessary to distinguish between primary and secondary assumption of the risk. Koutoufaris v. Dick, 604 A.2d 390, 397 (Del. 1992); cf. Bib v. Merlonghi, 252 A.2d 548, 550 (Del. 1969) Primary assumption, sometimes referred to as express assumption of risk, “involves the express consent to relieve the defendant of any obligation of care while secondary assumption [of risk] consists of voluntarily encountering a known unreasonable risk which is out of proportion to the advantage gained.” Koutoufaris, 604 A.2d at 397-398. With the adoption of the comparative negligence statute in Delaware, secondary assumption of risk became “totally subsumed within comparative negligence.” Id. at 398. Primary assumption of risk, however, still exists as [*14] a complete bar to recovery. See id. (stating that primary assumption of risk “might well constitute a complete bar to recover, as a matter of law, even in a comparative negligence jurisdiction”) (citation omitted); see also Patton v. Simone, 626 A.2d 844, 852 (Del. Super. Ct. 1992); see also Staats v. Lawrence, 576 A.2d 663, 668 (Del. Super. Ct. 1990).
1 In 1984, Delaware adopted a modified comparative negligence statute, which allows a jury to apportion liability where both parties are negligent only if the plaintiff’s negligence is less than fifty percent. 10 Del. C. § 8132 (1984).
Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ action is barred, as a matter of law, because McDonough expressly assumed the risks inherent in an off-road bicycle race when he signed the release. Defendants contend that the release, in plain and unambiguous language, is intended to protect defendants from all liability arising out of any hazards encountered in an off-road bike race. (D.I. 78 at 9) Defendants assert that McDonough, [*15] as a college graduate and former participant in a NORBA event, must have had an understanding of the these inherent dangers when he signed the release. As further support, defendants note that McDonough signed an identical Agreement and Release just one week prior to the C & D race. Based on these facts, defendants assert that summary judgment is appropriate.
In considering the facts and making all reasonable inferences in plaintiffs’ favor, the court finds to the contrary. [HN4] A release will not be set aside if the language is clear and unambiguous. Hallman v. Dover Downs, Inc., 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15708, Civ. A. No. 85-618 CMW, 1986 WL 535 at *2 (D. Del., Dec. 31, 1986) (citing Chakov v. Outboard Marine Corp., 429 A.2d 984, 985 (Del. 1981); see Bennett v. United States Cycling Federation, 193 Cal. App. 3d 1485, 239 Cal. Rptr. 55, 58 (Cal. Ct. App. 1987). [HN5] Where the language of a release is ambiguous, it must be construed strongly against the party who drafted it. Hallman, 1986 WL 535 at *2; Bennett, 239 Cal. Rptr. at 58. [HN6] In an express agreement to assume a risk, a plaintiff may undertake to assume all risks of a particular relation or situation, whether they are known or unknown to him. [*16] Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496D, cmt. a, (1965). However, for the release to be effective, it must appear that the plaintiff understood the terms of the agreement, or that a reasonable person in his position would have understood the terms. Bennett, 239 Cal. Rptr. at 58. As the Bennett court stated, “there is little doubt that a subscriber of a bicycle release . . . must be held to have waived any hazards relating to bicycle racing that are obvious or that might reasonably have been foreseen.” Id. These hazards include “collisions with other riders, negligently maintained equipment, bicycles which were unfit for racing but nevertheless passed by organizers, [and] bad road surfaces . . . .” Id. Thus, the understanding of the parties when the release was executed, in light of all the facts and circumstances, is paramount in determining whether the language is clear and unambiguous. Hallman, 1986 WL 535 at *2. The evidence must establish that the parties intended the release to apply to the particular conduct of the defendant which has caused the harm. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496B, cmt. d, (1965).
In the present case, plaintiffs assert that [*17] a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether McDonough understood that the release included a waiver against the hazards created by defendants’ alleged negligent and reckless conduct in promoting the race. The court agrees.
For the reasons stated above, the court shall deny defendants’ motion for summary judgment. An order will issue consistent with this memorandum opinion.
Records help prove even if your release is weak, the plaintiff really understood the risks.
Plaintiff: Eric Walton
Defendant: Oz Bicycle Club
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: (1) that the release signed by Walton bars the present action; (2) that Walton assumed the risk of the injuries received; and (3) that Oz assumed no duty of due care towards Walton
Holding: for the defendant
In Walton v. Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita, the federal district court upheld a release used in a bicycle race. The race was held in Wichita Kansas, by the Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita. The plaintiff was rounding a corner in the lead on an open race course when he swerved to miss a car and crashed. An open bicycle race course means cars are on the roadway. An open course is not closed to traffic or pedestrians. A closed course, all cars have been prohibited on the course.
The defendant bicycle club filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court. The plaintiff when he signed up for the race was handed a release which he signed. The plaintiff had raced twenty to thirty times before and signed releases each time. He did not read this release but had read others and knew what he was signing. Prior to the start of the race the plaintiff had been informed that the course was not closed. The plaintiff encountered traffic on the race course at least twice prior to his crash.
The plaintiff was an employee of a bicycle manufacturing company which was also a sponsor of the race.
Summary of the case
The court first reviewed the issue of whether Assumption of Risk was a defense at this time in Kansas. The court concluded it probably not because the Kansas Supreme Court had not handed down a decision that was specific in stating assumption of risk was a defense in Kansas.
The court quoted the heading and four paragraphs of the release in its decision. The heading of the release read: “NOTICE: THIS ENTRY BLANK AND RELEASE FORM IS A CONTRACT WITH LEGAL CONSEQUENCES. READ IT CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING.”
The plaintiff argued that releases were not favored under Kansas law; however, the plaintiff never showed how the release at issue, was void under Kansas law.
The court in one paragraph summed up the requirements for the release to be valid under Kansas law:
Although exculpatory agreements have an inherent potential for abuse and overreaching, and hence are subjected to close scrutiny by the courts, these agreements have a vital role to play in allowing the individual to participate in activities of his own choice. If the individual has entered into an exculpatory clause freely and knowingly, and the application of the clause violates no aspect of fundamental public policy, the individual’s free choice must be respected. Here, public policy supports, rather than detracts from, the application of the exculpatory clause. “Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.”
The court looked at the release and found it to be valid. The release lacked the word negligence; however, it spoke to “rights and claims” for “any and all damages” sustained by participating in the event. The court concentrated on the fact the plaintiff had signed more than 20 other releases, participated in more than 20 races and had crashed in at least two races. This is another situation where the facts and knowledge of the plaintiff helped seal the release in the mind of the court.
So Now What?
It was obvious that the defendant’s ability to show the court 20-30 other releases for bicycle racing signed by the plaintiff was instrumental in proving the arguments of the plaintiff did not matter. You need to hold on to releases, you never know when one many years old maybe valuable in proving your case.
That does not require that you hold onto each paper copy of a release. Electronic copies are equally valid. Invest in a scanner and take all of your old releases and scan them. You can organize them by date or race or activity. You do not need to identify each release at the time. You cans scan them in a way that they are searchable later, and if you ever need to find one, you can.
Also instrumental was the fact the plaintiff was informed at the beginning of the race that the course was open, going to have cars on the course. Add to that the defendant could prove the plaintiff had avoided cars on the course during the race and had raced on open courses in the past. I would suggest putting important information such as the course being open into the release, so you can prove you gave the rider the information. Having that information in the release, should not, however, remove the responsibility to tell the people about the open course also.
While working at a ski area, we threw in the weather report and an area map into all big accident files. We never knew if any accident would lead to a suit, however, why worry about it. Make sure the file has everything you need, every back reference or proof needed when you build the file so you don’t have to search for it. We had a lot of stored weather reports and ski area maps, but if one was needed in a lawsuit, they were easy to find.
We also included all of the skiing history we had on the injured guest. Any logs from his skiing that year, each time his pass had been scanned if the injured guest had a season pass. Prior season pass or skiing history if we had it. Proof that the injured guest knew how to ski and assumed the risk or proof that the injured guest had signed numerous releases.
That ability to find information, electronically or on paper, saved the day in this bicycle race case.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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