Tennessee Supreme Court makes writing releases a little trickier.

The facts support throwing out the release, but the way the court did makes it tough to write a release.

Copeland v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 745

State: Tennessee

Plaintiff: Frederick Copeland

Defendant: MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

To get to a physical therapy appointment arranged by a hospital the patient was forced to sign a release. While exiting the car service the plaintiff was injured. The Tennessee Supreme Court worked hard but said if you treat people this badly, we will throw out your release and did.

Facts

Mr. Copeland was a seventy-seven-year-old hospital patient recovering from knee replacement surgery who needed to go to a follow-up appointment at his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland did not select, hire, or pay MedicOne. Instead, the hospital where Mr. Copeland was a patient arranged for his transportation with MedicOne. The MedicOne driver presented Mr. Copeland with a pre-printed, two-sided document containing two different forms — the Run Report and the Agreement — which Mr. Copeland had limited time to review and sign before being transported to his doctor’s appointment. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The MedicOne driver spent only nineteen minutes at the hospital, which began with his arrival, and included going to Mr. Copeland’s room, pushing Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair to the hospital entrance, getting him into the van, loading his walker into the back of the van, and having Mr. Copeland review and sign the two forms.

The MedicOne driver presented the Agreement to Mr. Copeland on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with the expectation that he would sign it. The driver did not understand the implications of the Agreement, could not have explained it if asked, had no authority to alter it, and would not have transported Mr. Copeland to his appointment if he had not signed the document.

The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The exculpatory language provided that Mr. Copeland was releasing MedicOne from any and all claims arising from or in any way associated with any transportation services provided by MedicOne.

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

The facts explain the plaintiff was put in a position where he had no choice, suffer further injury by missing his appointment or sign the document.

The court said releases are fine in Tennessee, but not this one.

We find the exculpatory language in the Agreement to be overly broad and ambiguous. Although the Agreement also contains a severability clause, the three paragraphs containing broad, all-encompassing exculpatory language combined with the severability paragraph do not make it clear and unmistakable what Mr. Copeland was giving up by signing the Agreement, especially during the limited time he was given to read and comprehend the document.

That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns.

Based on the circumstances of the parties, including contemporary societal expectations, we conclude that enforcement of the Agreement against a member of the public in Mr. Copeland’s position would be contrary to the public interest.

The court went through the five steps necessary to write a valid release in Tennessee.

First, a party may not, for public policy reasons, exempt itself from liability for gross negligence, reckless conduct, or intentional wrongdoing.

Second, exculpatory provisions in contracts involving common carriers are unenforceable on the grounds of public policy and disparity of bargaining power.

Third, although exculpatory agreements are generally enforceable, in many states they are disfavored.

Fourth, most courts require that the exculpatory language be unequivocal and clear. An exculpatory clause must “clearly, unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably” state the intention to exempt one of the parties from liability for its own negligence.

Fifth, most jurisdictions do not enforce exculpatory provisions that are contrary to public policy.

Releases in Tennessee are still valid in Tennessee.

After reviewing precedent in this state and across the country, we conclude that the public policy in Tennessee has historically favored freedom of contract. Thus, contracts exempting one party from liability for negligence are not disfavored and are generally enforceable.

However, the court tightened up the requirements for a release to be valid. The court then created 3 factors that any release must meet to be valid in Tennessee.

…we hold that the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement should be determined by considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing these non-exclusive factors: (1) relative bargaining power of the parties; (2) clarity. of the exculpatory language, which should be clear, unambiguous, and unmistakable about what the party who signs the agreement is giving up; and (3) public policy and public interest implications.

The court also decided the bargaining power of the parties should also be taken into consideration.

Relative bargaining power. Although there is no precise rule by which to define sufficient disparity in bargaining power between the parties to invalidate an exculpatory agreement, two key criteria are the importance of the service at issue for the physical or economic well-being of the party signing the agreement and the amount of free choice that party has in seeking alternate services.

The court did carve out a specific exception, to some extent for recreational activities.

That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns.

So Now What?

If your activities are in Tennessee or your business is in Tennessee you need to check to make sure your release meets these new requirements.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Copeland v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 745

Copeland v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 745

Supreme Court of Tennessee, At Jackson

May 31, 2018, Session Heard at Nashville1; December 20, 2018, Filed

No. W2016-02499-SC-R11-CV

FREDERICK COPELAND v. HEALTHSOUTH/METHODIST REHABILITATION HOSPITAL, LP ET AL.

Prior History: Tenn. R. App. P. 11 [*1] Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Judgment of the Trial Court Vacated; Remanded to the Trial Court. Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court for Shelby County. No. CT-000196-16. Rhynette N. Hurd, Judge.

Counsel: Donald K. Vowell, Knoxville, Tennessee, and David E. Gordon and Erin L. Hillyard, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Frederick Copeland.

Diana M. Comes, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc.

Judges: SHARON G. LEE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which JEFFREY S. BIVINS, C.J., and CORNELIA A. CLARK, HOLLY KIRBY, and ROGER A. PAGE, JJ., joined.

Opinion by: SHARON G. LEE

OPINION

I.

Frederick Copeland was a patient at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital North Memphis (HealthSouth [*3] or the hospital) after having knee replacement surgery. On December 2, 2014, Mr. Copeland had an appointment to see his orthopedic surgeon. The hospital had contracted with MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc. (MedicOne), a medical transportation company, to provide transportation services for its patients, including Mr. Copeland.

On the day of Mr. Copeland’s appointment at his orthopedic surgeon’s office, a MedicOne employee driving a wheelchair van2 arrived at the hospital to take Mr. Copeland to and from the appointment. After the driver pushed Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair from his room to the entrance of the hospital, Mr. Copeland got out of the wheelchair, walked to the van using a walker, and climbed into the front passenger seat. Before leaving HealthSouth, the MedicOne driver gave Mr. Copeland a pre-printed two-sided document that contained on one side a Wheelchair Van/Transportation Run Report (Run Report) and on the other side a Wheelchair Van Transportation Agreement (Agreement). The Run Report provided that HealthSouth was responsible for MedicOne’s charges. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. [*4] The exculpatory language provided that Mr. Copeland was releasing MedicOne from any and all claims arising from or in any way associated with any transportation services provided by MedicOne. After Mr. Copeland signed the Run Report and the Agreement, the MedicOne driver took him to his doctor’s appointment.

After the appointment, the MedicOne driver returned to the doctor’s office to take Mr. Copeland back to the hospital. As Mr. Copeland was getting into the van, he lost his footing on the running board, fell, and was injured.

Mr. Copeland sued MedicOne for negligence in the Shelby County Circuit Court.3 MedicOne moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment based on the exculpatory language in the Agreement. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of MedicOne.4 The trial court found that the Agreement was not a contract of adhesion and that the services provided by MedicOne were not professional services, but merely transportation services, and so, the exculpatory provisions were enforceable. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the case involved non-professional transportation services and presented no significant public interest considerations. Copeland [*5] v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., LP, No. W2016-02499-COA-R3-CV, 2017 Tenn. App. LEXIS 548, 2017 WL 3433130, at *3, *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2017).

II.

The issue here is the validity of the exculpatory language in the Agreement signed by Mr. Copeland releasing MedicOne from any liability. HN3[] We review the trial court’s summary judgment ruling on this question of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women’s Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015) (citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997)); Circle C Constr., LLC v. Nilsen, 484 S.W.3d 914, 917 (Tenn. 2016) (citing Hamblen Cnty. v. City of Morristown, 656 S.W.2d 331, 335-36 (Tenn. 1983)) (stating that contract interpretation is a question of law).

There is a natural tension between Tennessee’s public policy that favors allowing parties to have freedom to contract5 and the public policy that disfavors allowing a party to escape the consequences of the party’s negligence. In Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429 (Tenn. 1977), we adopted factors to be considered when determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement. Olson involved an agreement, signed by a patient before a medical procedure, releasing the doctor from “any present or future legal responsibility associated with” the procedure. Id. at 429-30. The procedure was unsuccessful, and the patient sued the doctor. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit based on the agreement. Id. at 429. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Id.

On review, we acknowledged that HN4[] parties may agree that one party will not be liable for negligence to [*6] the other party, subject to certain exceptions. Id. at 430 (citing Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 340 S.W.2d 902 (Tenn. 1960)). This Court recognized a line of Tennessee cases upholding such agreements,6 but none involving a physician, who is a “professional person operating in an area of public interest and pursuing a profession subject to licensure by the state.” Id. at 430. We distinguished between “tradesmen in the market place” and those “experts” who were practicing state regulated professions. Id. This Court noted that because certain relationships require of one party “‘greater responsibility than that required of the ordinary person,'” an exculpatory agreement between such parties is “‘peculiarly obnoxious.'” Id. (quoting Williston on Contracts § 1751 (3d ed. 1972)). To guide the analysis, this Court adopted a series of factors from Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963), to be considered in determining whether a transaction affected the public interest:

a. It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.

b. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

c. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member [*7] of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

d. As a result of the essential nature of the services, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.

e. In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional fees and obtain protection against negligence.

f. Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.

Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431. Noting that HN5[] not all of these factors must be present for the exception to apply, we found that all the factors were present in Olson and held that the exculpatory agreement was unenforceable. Id. at 431-32.

After our decision in Olson, there was some confusion about whether the Olson factors applied only to exculpatory agreements involving professional services. In two cases, the Court of Appeals determined that the Olson analysis did not [*8] apply because the cases did not involve contracts for professional services. In Schratter v. Development Enterprises, Inc., 584 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1979), the Court of Appeals upheld an exculpatory provision in a residential lease, based in part on its determination that this Court had limited application of the Olson factors to professional service contracts.7 Likewise, in Parton v. Mark Pirtle Oldsmobile-Cadillac-Isuzu, Inc., 730 S.W.2d 634, 636 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1987) (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430), the Court of Appeals declined to apply the Olson factors to a contract for automobile repair because it concluded that this Court did not intend for the Olson analysis to apply to tradesmen in the market place.8 By the same token, in Petty v. Privette, 818 S.W.2d 743 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), the Court of Appeals applied the Olson factors to exculpatory language in a will that was intended to protect the attorney who had drafted the will. Finding only two of the Olson factors were present, the Court of Appeals held that this was insufficient to render the exculpatory clause in the will unenforceable as against public policy. Id. at 746.9

Yet the Court of Appeals in other cases applied the Olson factors when ruling on the enforceability of exculpatory provisions in contracts not involving professional services. In Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), the Court of Appeals analyzed an exculpatory release for participation in the Special Olympics. The intermediate appellate [*9] court held that the release did not fall under the exception provided by Olson based on the lack of any business motivations, citing the references in Olson to “‘business, bargaining strength in economic settings, purchasers, and payment of additional fees, to obtain protection against negligence'” and concluded that “the rule was intended to operate primarily in the marketplace.” Id. at 4 (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431). The Court of Appeals in Smith v. Peoples Bank of Elk Valley, No. 01A01-9111-CV-00421, 1992 Tenn. App. LEXIS 477, 1992 WL 117061, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 3, 1992), analyzed an exculpatory provision in a safe deposit box rental contract using the Olson factors. The intermediate appellate court held that the exculpatory provision was unenforceable because all factors were present — safe deposit box rental was regulated by statute and involved a service of great importance to the public; banks hold themselves out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public able to pay the rental fees; banks have greater bargaining power because most people cannot provide that type of protection for their valuables; it was a standardized contract of adhesion not open to negotiation; and the customer’s property was placed under the control of the bank. 1992 Tenn. App. LEXIS 477, [WL] at *4.

In still other post-Olson cases, the Court of Appeals did not mention the Olson [*10] factors or any professional services requirement but relied on the language of the contract to determine the enforceability of the exculpatory provisions. In Hays v. Ernesto’s, Inc., 1987 Tenn. App. LEXIS 2684, 1987 WL 11119, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 19, 1987), the Court of Appeals found that exculpatory language in a release signed by a party before riding a mechanical bull was enforceable because parties may contract for a release from liability and an assumption of the risk incident to negligence. Similarly, in Buckner v. Varner, 793 S.W.2d 939, 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990), the Court of Appeals upheld a waiver of liability signed by the plaintiff before participating in horseback riding.

After Olson, this Court upheld contractual provisions limiting liability to a sum certain. In Affiliated Professional Services v. South Central Bell Telephone Co., 606 S.W.2d 671, 672 (Tenn. 1980), the Court declined to apply the Olson analysis to a provision in a contract with a telephone company that limited the company’s liability for errors or omissions in yellow pages advertisements to the cost of the advertisement. Citing Smith v. Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co., 51 Tenn. App. 146, 364 S.W.2d 952 (Tenn. 1962) and noting that nearly every appellate court that had considered this frequently litigated issue had upheld the limitation of liability in these contracts with telephone companies, the Court found that the case did not fall within the purview of Olson and upheld the agreement. Affiliated Professional Services, 606 S.W.2d at 672. Later, in Houghland v. Security Alarms & Services, Inc., 755 S.W.2d 769, 773 (Tenn. 1988), this Court upheld a clause limiting the liability [*11] of a company providing security alarm monitoring to a sum certain, citing cases from other jurisdictions and noting that such limitations of liability have generally been upheld in these types of cases against providers of alarm monitoring services. The Court in Houghland mentioned Olson, observing that agreements such as the one examined there would be unenforceable if licensed professional personnel were involved. Id. (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d 429). Houghland and its progeny involved limitations of liability and liquidated damages provisions, and thus were distinguishable from the agreement in Olson. In addition, the alarm monitoring company in Houghland did not present the contract on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, but offered the customer the opportunity to pay more for the services in return for the company assuming greater liability. Id.; see also Underwood v. Nat’l Alarm Servs., Inc., No. E2006-00107-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 305, 2007 WL 1412040 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 14, 2007); E.B. Harvey & Co., Inc. v. Protective Sys., Inc., 1989 Tenn. App. LEXIS 105, 1989 WL 9546 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989).

In another post-Olson case, Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73, 75 (Tenn. 1985), this Court did not reference the Olson factors in finding that a release signed by a participant in a motorcycle race was enforceable in a claim for ordinary negligence.10 Instead, the Court noted that the public policy of Tennessee favors freedom to contract and [*12] that releases from liability in motor racing events are expressly permitted by statute in Tennessee.11
Id. at 75-76.

This Court next considered the applicability of the Olson factors to a nonprofessional services contract in Crawford v. Buckner, 839 S.W.2d 754 (Tenn. 1992). Analyzing an exculpatory clause in a residential lease contract, the Court found that the landlord-tenant relationship satisfied all of the Olson factors, and thus the exculpatory clause in the lease was unenforceable because it was contrary to public policy. Id. at 758-59. The Court explained HN6[] “where there is no declaration in the Constitution or the statutes, and the area is governed by common law doctrines, it is the province of the courts to consider the public policy of the state as reflected in old, court-made rules.” Id. at 759. Thus, “the exception to the freedom of contract rule for exculpatory [provisions] affecting the public interest is also a judicial declaration of public policy.” Id.

The Court in Crawford expressly overruled Schratter and other prior inconsistent decisions, noting Schratter’s conclusion that the Olson factors applied only to contracts involving professional services. Id. at 760. The Court held that “under the facts here,” the exculpatory clause in the lease was against public policy. Id. [*13] This limiting language appears to have added to the confusion about the applicability of the Olson factors because even after Crawford, the inconsistency in application continued.

In some post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals determined that the Olson factors did not apply because the agreement did not involve professional services. Petry v. Cosmopolitan Spa Int’l, Inc., 641 S.W.2d 202, 203 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1982) (stating that “Olson did not overrule Empress” because spas are not “businesses ‘of a type generally thought suitable for regulation'”) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431); Floyd v. Club Sys. of Tenn., Inc., No. 01-A-01-9807-CV-00399, 1999 Tenn. App. LEXIS 473, 1999 WL 820610, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 1999) (finding, based on Petry, that the Olson test did not apply to health club contracts); Henderson v. Quest Expeditions, Inc., 174 S.W.3d 730, 732-33 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (upholding an exculpatory waiver for whitewater rafting because it did not involve a professional trade affecting the public interest); Thrasher v. Riverbend Stables, LLC, No. M2008-02698-COA-RM-CV, 2009 Tenn. App. LEXIS 50, 2009 WL 275767, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2009) (quoting Russell v. Bray, 116 S.W.3d 1, 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003)) (upholding an exculpatory provision in a contract for boarding and training horses because the Olson test applied only to agreements involving a professional person).

Yet in other post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals applied the Olson analysis to contracts that did not involve professional services. Lomax v. Headley Homes, No. 02A01-9607-CH-00163, 1997 Tenn. App. LEXIS 360, 1997 WL 269432, at *7-9 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 22, 1997) (holding an exculpatory provision in a home construction loan agreement [*14] unenforceable under the Olson analysis); Hancock v. U-Haul Co. of Tenn., No. 01-A-01-9801-CC-00001, 1998 Tenn. App. LEXIS 828, 1998 WL 850518, at *4-5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 10, 1998) (concluding an exculpatory provision was enforceable in a self-storage facility contract because although three of the Olson factors were present, the “important questions” of state regulation, reasonable alternatives for the plaintiff, and control over the plaintiff’s property were lacking); Lane-Detman, L.L.C. v. Miller & Martin, 82 S.W.3d 284, 293-94 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002) (applying the Olson analysis to a contract with a law firm to provide background checks and holding that the contract was enforceable because “at most” three of the Olson factors were present, both parties to the contract were sophisticated commercial entities, and the services provided were not subject to regulation); Tompkins v. Helton, No. M2002-01244-COA-R3-CV, 2003 Tenn. App. LEXIS 433, 2003 WL 21356420, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 12, 2003) (applying the Olson factors to uphold a waiver signed at a racetrack because races are not of great importance to the public or a practical necessity; there was no disparity in bargaining power; and because the activity was voluntary, the plaintiff had not been placed under the control of the racetrack owner); Maxwell v. Motorcycle Safety Found., Inc., 404 S.W.3d 469, 474-75 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Henderson, 174 S.W.3d at 733; Tompkins, 2003 Tenn. App. LEXIS 433, 2003 WL 21356420 at *1) (determining that a release for a motorcycle safety course was enforceable under the Olson analysis because it was a voluntary activity much like a motor speedway race or whitewater [*15] rafting).

In other post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals found that exculpatory provisions were unenforceable and against public policy under the Olson analysis specifically because the cases involved professional services or services that affected the public interest in a way analogous to a professional services contract. In Russell v. Bray, 116 S.W.3d 1, 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430; Parton, 730 S.W.2d at 636), the Court of Appeals stated that the Olson analysis should be “limited to situations involving a contract with a professional person, rather than a tradesman.” The Russell court found that an exculpatory provision in a home inspection contract was suitable for analysis under the Olson test because unlike tradesmen, home inspectors do not perform hands-on tasks but sell their expert analysis and opinions. Id.; see also Carey v. Merritt, 148 S.W.3d 912 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (holding an exculpatory clause in a home inspection contract unenforceable based on the holding in Russell). In Maggart v. Almany Realtors, Inc., No. M2005-02532-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 482, 2007 WL 2198204 at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 26, 2007) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430-31), aff’d on other grounds, 259 S.W.3d 700 (Tenn. 2008), the Court of Appeals analogized an exculpatory agreement between employer and employee to exculpatory provisions in business contracts with consumers, observing that the relationship was one requiring greater responsibility [*16] on the part of the employer, which would render an exculpatory release in favor of the employer “obnoxious.”

There are also post-Crawford cases in which the Court of Appeals did not mention Olson, but relied solely on the common law of contracts and the language of the agreement to determine the enforceability of an exculpatory provision. Pettit v. Poplar-Union Extended Mini-Storage, 1995 Tenn. App. LEXIS 32, 1995 WL 30602, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 26, 1995) (holding an exculpatory provision in a self-storage contract enforceable because the language was unambiguous); Burks v. Belz-Wilson Props., 958 S.W.2d 773, 777 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997) (citation omitted) (finding a release for participation in a work-sponsored athletic event unenforceable because the wording was ambiguous and thus construed against the drafter); Fleming v. Murphy, No. W2006-00701-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 451, 2007 WL 2050930, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 19, 2007) (citing Ouzts v. Womack, 160 S.W.3d 883, 885 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004)) (“Under the common law of contracts, we interpret exculpatory clauses according to the plain meaning of their terms.”); Gibson v. Young Men’s Christian Ass’n of Middle Tenn., No. M2015-01465-COA-R9-CV, 2016 Tenn. App. LEXIS 337, 2016 WL 2937320, at *2-3 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 16, 2016) (applying the rules of contract interpretation and looking at the plain meaning of the words to find the exculpatory provision enforceable where the agreement was clear and the plaintiff was injured while using the facilities as contemplated by the parties).

Federal courts have followed suit by inconsistently applying [*17] Olson. See Teles v. Big Rock Stables, L.P., 419 F. Supp. 2d 1003, 1008-09 (E.D. Tenn. 2006) (analyzing a contract with a horse stable under the Olson test and finding that it did not fall under the Olson exception prohibiting exculpatory provisions, although there was a genuine issue of material fact as to gross negligence that precluded summary judgment); Farris v. KTM N. Am., Inc., No. 3:04-CV-354, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1635, 2006 WL 73618, at *3 (E.D. Tenn. Jan. 11, 2006) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430) (citing Olson in support of enforcing an exculpatory waiver for test driving motorcycles because it did not involve a service of great importance to the public, but noting that application of the Olson factors is typically limited to a contract for professional services).

This Court has not addressed the enforceability of exculpatory agreements since Crawford in 1992.12 Because of the inconsistency in how these agreements have been reviewed, we take this opportunity to restate the proper analysis to be applied to these agreements.

III.

Although courts throughout the country have taken numerous and varied approaches to exculpatory agreements, there are some common principles.13 First, HN7[] a party may not, for public policy reasons, exempt itself from liability [*18] for gross negligence, reckless conduct, or intentional wrongdoing. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981); Maxwell, 404 S.W.3d at 476 (citing Buckner, 793 S.W.2d at 941).

Second, HN8[] exculpatory provisions in contracts involving common carriers are unenforceable on the grounds of public policy and disparity of bargaining power. 14 Am. Jur. 2d Carriers § 853 (Nov. 2018 update) (noting that public policy forbids relieving carriers of responsibility based on their position of advantage over members of the public who are compelled to deal with them); see also Trailmobile, Inc. v. Chazen, 51 Tenn. App. 576, 370 S.W.2d 840, 841-42 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1963); Moss, 340 S.W.2d at 904. The same rule applies to inns and airports that assume “a duty of public service” to certain segments of the public. 1A Stuart M. Speiser et al., American Law of Torts § 5:39 (Mar. 2018 update).14

Third, HN10[] although exculpatory agreements are generally enforceable, in many states they are disfavored. See 8 Williston on Contracts § 19:25 (4th ed. 1993).15

Fourth, HN12[] most courts require that the exculpatory language be unequivocal and clear. Williston § 19:22. An exculpatory clause must “clearly, unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably” state the intention to exempt one of the parties from liability for its own negligence. Id. § 19:25; see also, e.g., Parton, 730 S.W.2d at 638 (holding an exculpatory [*19] clause invalid based on a lack of evidence that it had been pointed out to the plaintiff or that “a person of ordinary intelligence and experience” would understand that the agreement relieved the defendant of all liability); Sirek v. Fairfield Snowbowl, Inc., 166 Ariz. 183, 800 P.2d 1291, 1295 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1990) (stating that exculpatory language should alert the party signing the release that “it is giving up a very substantial right”); Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256, 261 (Fla. 2015) (holding exculpatory agreements enforceable if the language is “so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away”).

Fifth, HN13[] most jurisdictions do not enforce exculpatory provisions that are contrary to public policy. There is no bright line rule defining when a provision is contrary to public policy, but Williston suggests that whether an exculpatory agreement is void as against public policy depends on:

all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the making of the agreement; society’s expectations; the identity and nature of the parties involved, including their relative education, experience, sophistication, and economic status; and the nature of the transaction itself, including the subject matter, the existence or absence of competition, the relative bargaining strength [*20] and negotiating ability of the economically weaker party, and the terms of the agreement itself, including whether it was arrived at through arm’s length negotiation or on terms dictated by the stronger party and on an adhesive, take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Williston § 19:22.

This Court adopted the Olson factors based on the Tunkl analysis. Tunkl, however, is the minority approach, with only five other states currently relying on the Tunkl factors to determine the enforceability of exculpatory provisions.16 Courts in several states have observed that the factors fail to consider the totality of circumstances and, as a result, are overly rigid and arbitrary. See Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 527 (Md. 1994) (declining to adopt Tunkl because of concern that the six fixed factors may be too rigid and arbitrary); Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924 (Minn. 1982) (noting that although a number of courts cite Tunkl with approval, post-Tunkl cases generally consider disparity in bargaining power and whether the agreement involves a public or essential service); Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 744 (Conn. 2005) (stating that public interest cannot adequately be defined within the four corners of a formula, and thus the analysis should be guided but not limited by the Tunkl factors).

After reviewing precedent in this state and across the country, we conclude that HN14[] the public policy in Tennessee has historically favored freedom of contract. Thus, contracts exempting one party from liability for negligence are not disfavored and are generally enforceable. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430. That said, not all exculpatory agreements should be enforceable, and courts should determine their enforceability by consideration of the circumstances of the parties, the language used in the agreement, and the public interest. While the factors adopted in Olson remain instructive and may be considered when relevant, the Olson approach is too rigid, fails to consider all the relevant circumstances, and is followed by only a handful of jurisdictions.

We, therefore, need to restate our approach to determining the validity of exculpatory agreements. After surveying the factors adopted by courts in other states17 and considering Tennessee precedent, we hold that HN15[] the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement should be determined by considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing these non-exclusive factors: (1) relative bargaining power of the parties; (2) clarity [*22] of the exculpatory language, which should be clear, unambiguous, and unmistakable about what the party who signs the agreement is giving up; and (3) public policy and public interest implications. HN16[] The totality of the facts and circumstances of each case will dictate the applicability of and the weight to be given to each of these factors. The factors need not be weighed equally in any given case — rather, the analysis should involve balancing each of these considerations given the facts and circumstances surrounding the formation of the agreement. In addition, we hold that there is no “professional services criterion” that restricts application of this analysis to contracts for professional services. Therefore, we overrule Parton, 730 S.W.2d 634; Petty, 818 S.W.2d 743; Petry, 641 S.W.2d 202; Floyd, 1999 Tenn. App. LEXIS 473, 1999 WL 820610; Henderson, 174 S.W.3d 730; Thrasher, 2009 Tenn. App. LEXIS 50, 2009 WL 275767; Russell, 116 S.W.3d 1; Carey, 148 S.W.3d 912; and any other previous decisions to the extent these cases conflict with our holding.

We next turn to defining these factors to provide additional guidance in their application to the facts and circumstances of each case.

Relative bargaining power. HN17[] Although there is no precise rule by which to define sufficient disparity in bargaining power between the parties to invalidate an exculpatory agreement, two key [*23] criteria are the importance of the service at issue for the physical or economic well-being of the party signing the agreement and the amount of free choice that party has in seeking alternate services. Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (Okla. 1996). For example, a standardized form offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis may be invalid if there was great disparity of bargaining power, no opportunity for negotiation, and the services could not reasonably be obtained elsewhere. Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 924.18

Clarity of language. HN18[] The language of an exculpatory agreement must clearly and unequivocally state a party’s intent to be relieved from liability, and the wording must be “so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.” Sanislo, 157 So. 3d at 260-61.19 The language must also alert the party agreeing to the exculpatory provision that the provision concerns a substantial right. Sirek, 800 P.2d at 1295. The language in the agreement should not be so broad as to relieve the exculpated party from liability for any injury for any reason. Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777 (holding exculpatory provision relieving the defendant “from any and all liability . . . relating to participation in these events” unenforceable as overly broad and ambiguous); Roberts v. T.H.E. Ins. Co., 2016 WI 20, 367 Wis. 2d 386, 879 N.W.2d 492, 503 (Wis. 2016) (citing Richards v. Richards, 181 Wis. 2d 1007, 513 N.W.2d 118, 121 (Wis. 1994)).20 Ambiguous language [*24] will be construed against the party that drafted the agreement. Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777.

Public policy and the public interest. HN21[] The third factor, public policy and the public interest, is the most difficult to articulate. Public policy has been defined as “‘that principle of law under which freedom of contract or private dealings is restricted by law for the good of the community.'” Roberts, 879 N.W.2d at 501-02 (quoting Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Ctr., 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334, 339 (Wis. 2005)). A private contract violates public policy if it conflicts with the constitution, statutes, or judicial decisions of this state or tends to be harmful to the public good, public interest, or public welfare. Spiegel v. Thomas, Mann & Smith, P.C., 811 S.W.2d 528, 530 (Tenn. 1991). As this Court explained in Crawford, without a declaration in the constitution or the statutes of Tennessee, a judicial declaration of public policy is within the province of the courts. 839 S.W.2d at 759. Public policy is also determined by societal expectations that are flexible and change over time. See Wolf, 644 A.2d at 527-28 (“The ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.”).

HN22[] Whether the public interest is affected may be determined by considering whether a party to [*25] the transaction has a public service obligation, such as a public utility, common carrier, or innkeeper. Wolf, 644 A.2d at 526. This analysis also includes transactions that are not as readily defined, but are so important to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be contrary to society’s expectations. Id. (quoting Md.-Nat’l Capital Park & Planning Comm’n v. Wash. Nat’l Arena, 282 Md. 588, 386 A.2d 1216, 1228 (Md. 1978)); see also Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 744 (Conn. 2005) (citations omitted) (agreeing with the Maryland and Vermont Supreme Courts that the public interest must be determined based on the totality of the circumstances and that the analysis, guided but not limited by Tunkl, “is informed by any other factors that may be relevant given the factual circumstances of the case and current societal expectations”); Williston § 19:22.

In determining whether the service involved is a public or essential service, courts should consider whether it is a type of service generally considered suitable for public regulation. Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925-26. And in deciding whether enforcement of an exculpatory provision would be against public policy, courts should consider whether the services involved are of great importance to the public, which are a practical necessity for some members of the public. Id.; see also Plant v. Wilbur, 345 Ark. 487, 47 S.W.3d 889, 893 (Ark. 2001) (upholding release signed by a spectator at a car race because [*26] that activity involved a narrow segment of the public, unlike a public utility, common carrier, or “a similar entity connected with the public interest”).

IV.

In applying this restated analysis to the facts before us, we take the strongest legitimate view of the evidence in favor of Mr. Copeland as the non-moving party for summary judgment and allow all reasonable inferences in his favor. B & B Enters. of Wilson Cnty., LLC v. City of Lebanon, 318 S.W.3d 839, 844-45 (Tenn. 2010); Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn. 2008) (citing Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 89 (Tenn. 2000)).

We begin with the first factor — disparity in bargaining power. Mr. Copeland was a seventy-seven-year-old hospital patient recovering from knee replacement surgery who needed to go to a follow-up appointment at his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland did not select, hire, or pay MedicOne. Instead, the hospital where Mr. Copeland was a patient arranged for his transportation with MedicOne. The MedicOne driver presented Mr. Copeland with a pre-printed, two-sided document containing two different forms — the Run Report and the Agreement — which Mr. Copeland had limited time to review and sign before being transported to his doctor’s appointment. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The MedicOne driver spent only nineteen minutes [*27] at the hospital, which began with his arrival, and included going to Mr. Copeland’s room, pushing Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair to the hospital entrance, getting him into the van, loading his walker into the back of the van, and having Mr. Copeland review and sign the two forms.

The MedicOne driver presented the Agreement to Mr. Copeland on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with the expectation that he would sign it. The driver did not understand the implications of the Agreement, could not have explained it if asked, had no authority to alter it, and would not have transported Mr. Copeland to his appointment if he had not signed the document.

Mr. Copeland had a practical necessity to get to his medical appointment. He had the difficult choice of signing the Agreement or delaying or forgoing his medical care that day. Mr. Copeland’s situation was analogous to the difficult choice presented to the plaintiff in Wofford v. M.J. Edwards & Sons Funeral Home, Inc., 490 S.W.3d 800 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015). There, a funeral home presented the plaintiff with a contract for funeral services after her father’s body had been embalmed. Relying on Buraczynski v. Eyring, 919 S.W.2d 314 (Tenn. 1996), the Wofford court ruled that the arbitration clause in the contract was unenforceable because it was a contract of adhesion, offered on a take-it-or-leave-it [*28] basis, and the plaintiff’s failure to sign the agreement would have interrupted the rendition of services and caused delay, resulting in a “difficult choice.” 490 S.W.3d at 824. Recognizing that the Buraczynski analysis rests on the critical finding of a unique relationship built on trust (such as the doctor-patient relationship in Buraczynski), the Wofford court found that the plaintiff had no realistic choice other than to sign the contract, and that asking her to stop the funeral services at that point would be like asking her “to swap horses midstream.” Id. at 816. Mr. Copeland may not have had a preexisting relationship with MedicOne that was “unique and built on trust,” but he did have a hospital-patient relationship with HealthSouth, the entity that had arranged for his transportation by MedicOne. Mr. Copeland also faced the same kind of difficult choice — refusing to sign the Agreement, offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis that would have potentially interrupted and caused a delay in his medical care by requiring him to reschedule his appointment or, as the Court of Appeals suggested, calling a taxi. In our view, asking Mr. Copeland to make such a choice would be like asking him to “swap horses in [*29] midstream.” Id. There is ample evidence in the record of relative disparity in the parties’ bargaining power.

We now turn to the second factor — the clarity of the Agreement’s exculpatory language. Much of the exculpatory language appears in bold print and all capital letters. Even so, although portions of paragraphs three and four purport to limit the exculpatory language in those paragraphs to simple negligence by expressly excluding gross negligence and willful misconduct, this limiting language begins by stating, “WITHOUT LIMITATION OF THE FOREGOING . . . .” The “foregoing” in paragraph three reads:

Client does hereby release and forever discharge MedicOne . . . from any and all claims, suits, rights, interests, demands, actions, causes of action, liabilities, accident, injury (including death), costs, fees, expenses and any and all other damages or losses of any kind whatsoever, whether to person or property . . . arising out of, incidental to, associated with, or in any way related to any transportation services provided to Client by MedicOne.

Similarly, the “foregoing” in paragraph four reads:

CLIENT WILL INDEMNIFY, DEFEND AND HOLD HARMLESS MEDICONE RELATED PARTIES FROM AND AGAINST [*30] ANY AND ALL CLAIMS ASSERTED BY CLIENT, ANY PERSON OR ENTITY RELATED TO CLIENT OR ASSERTING A CLAIM BY OR THROUGH CLIENT, OR ANY OTHER THIRD PARTIES OR ENTITIES WHICH, IN ANY WAY, ARISE OUT OF, ARE INCIDENTAL TO, ASSOCIATED WITH, OR IN ANY WAY RELATED TO ANY TRANSPORTATION SERVICES PROVIDED TO CLIENT BY MEDICONE.

Paragraph six contains no limitation for claims of gross negligence or willful misconduct, but purports to release MedicOne from “any liability, damage or expense arising out of any claim in any way associated with or relating to any transportation services provided to Client by MedicOne.”

HN23[] Courts in many jurisdictions, including Tennessee, have found such unlimited language to be so overly broad as to render the provisions unenforceable. See Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777 (holding release “from any and all liability claims, demands, actions or causes of action whatsoever, arising out of or any injury, illness loss or damage including death relating to participation in these events” unenforceable because it would “extend its exculpation to unbounded limits”); Fisher v. Stevens, 355 S.C. 290, 584 S.E.2d 149, 152-53 (S.C. Ct. App. 2003) (finding a waiver signed at a racetrack to be overly broad and unenforceable based on public policy because the waiver released from liability “any [*31] persons in any restricted area”); Jesse v. Lindsley, 149 Idaho 70, 233 P.3d 1, 7-8 (Idaho 2008) (holding exculpatory clause in a residential lease unenforceable because it purported to release the landlord from liability “for any occurrence of any nature”); Alack v. Vic Tanny Int’l of Mo., Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 337-38 (Mo. 1996) (finding exculpatory clause unenforceable based on its ambiguity because the clause did not specifically state that the customer was releasing the health club from liability for negligence and used words like “any” and “all” injuries and claims, which could include intentional or grossly negligent conduct that cannot be excluded from liability); Roberts, 879 N.W.2d at 503 (holding waiver unenforceable because it was too broad and all-inclusive, ambiguous about whether it covered injury while waiting in line for the activity, and was a standard pre-printed form with no opportunity to negotiate).

We find the exculpatory language in the Agreement to be overly broad and ambiguous. Although the Agreement also contains a severability clause,21 the three paragraphs containing broad, all-encompassing exculpatory language combined with the severability paragraph do not make it clear and unmistakable what Mr. Copeland was giving up by signing the Agreement, especially during the limited time he was given to read and comprehend [*32] the document.

Finally, we turn to the third factor — public policy and public interest implications. Mr. Copeland’s appointment with his doctor was a medical necessity. That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns. Maxwell, 404 S.W.3d at 475; Henderson, 174 S.W.3d at 733. Although public policy and the [*33] public interest are difficult concepts to define, some relationships require greater responsibility of one of the parties. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430. MedicOne was in a position of greater responsibility when it undertook to transport Mr. Copeland to and from his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland had limited time to read and comprehend the overly broad and ambiguous Agreement and the Run Report. Under these circumstances, it is not reasonable to conclude that Mr. Copeland could have just called a taxi or rescheduled his appointment. HN24[] Our public policy protects patients and clients of professionals, residential tenants, employees, bank customers, and homebuyers from exculpatory provisions. It only makes sense that our public policy should also protect a hospital patient under the circumstances faced by Mr. Copeland when he signed the Agreement. Based on the circumstances of the parties, including contemporary societal expectations, we conclude that enforcement of the Agreement against a member of the public in Mr. Copeland’s position would be contrary to the public interest.

V.

In sum, after considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing the inequality in the relative bargaining power of the parties, the [*34] lack of clarity of the exculpatory language, and the public policy and public interest implications, we hold that, as a matter of law, the exculpatory provisions in the Agreement signed by Mr. Copeland are unenforceable and do not bar his claim against MedicOne. We vacate the judgment of the trial court, reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We tax the costs of this appeal to MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc., for which execution may issue if necessary.

SHARON G. LEE, JUSTICE


California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.

Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al

Defendant: Rhodyco Productions

Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence

Year: 2018

Summary

This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.

Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.

Facts

The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.

Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event

The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.

Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.

The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.

Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.

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

The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.

In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.

Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action

For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.

Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.

Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.

Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.

Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.

California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.

A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”

California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.

“‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”

However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.

Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.

Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.

The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.

Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.

…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”

Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.

However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.

The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.

In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.

Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.

Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the 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 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.”

When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”

Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.

The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”

The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.

The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.

While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.

The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”

The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.

The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.

So Now What?

At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.

Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?

There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.

1.    Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

2.    Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

3.    Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

4.    A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions

Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

August 13, 2018, Opinion Filed

2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710 *; 2018 WL 3830002

EDEN GONZALEZ HASS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. RHODYCO PRODUCTIONS, Defendant and Appellant.

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of San Francisco of City and County, No. CGC-12-520492, A. James Robertson II, Judge.

Counsel: Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Jeffry A. Miller, Lann G. McIntyre, Shawn A. Toliver, Helen L. Greenberg for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Office of Gerald Clausen, Gerald Clausen, Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP, Robert J. Waldsmith, Jeffrey R. Smith for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: Opinion by Reardon, J., with Streeter, Acting P. J., and Smith, J.*, concurring.

Opinion by: Reardon, J.

Opinion

REARDON, J.—After crossing the finish line at the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, Peter Hass (Hass) tragically suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed, and died. Hass’s wife, Eden Gonzalez Hass, and his two minor children (collectively, the Hass Family) consequently filed this wrongful death action, alleging that numerous race-affiliated individuals and entities—including event organizer David Rhody, individually and doing business as RhodyCo Productions (RhodyCo)—were negligent in the organization and management of the race, particularly with respect to the provision of emergency medical services.1 The trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion in this matter, concluding that the instant action was barred [*2]  under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. However, after the Hass Family filed a motion for new trial, the trial court reversed itself. Specifically, the court found that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend their complaint to plead gross negligence, conduct falling outside of the scope of the written waiver and release. On appeal, RhodyCo argues that the trial court’s initial grant of summary judgment was correct, even if the issue of gross negligence is considered on its merits. The Hass Family, in contrast, generally champions the court’s new trial order, but argues that the express release in this case was invalid on additional grounds rejected by the trial court and that the court should have concluded on the evidence before it that a triable issue of material fact exists as to RhodyCo’s gross negligence. We agree with the trial court that summary judgment was not warranted in this case based on primary assumption of the risk. However, we believe the trial court erred in requiring amendment of the complaint to plead gross negligence and determine, [*3]  based on our independent review of the record before us, that a triable issue of material fact exists on this issue. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part, with instructions to enter a denial of RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The annual Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon & 5K Run in Golden Gate Park (Half Marathon) consists of two different events—a 13.1-mile half marathon and a five-kilometer run. In 2011, the anticipated attendance for the two races was estimated to include 10,000 participants and 600 volunteers. RhodyCo provided event management and production services for the Half Marathon from 2006 through 2011. In order to obtain the necessary temporary street closure permit for the event, RhodyCo was required to submit an emergency medical services plan (EMS Plan) to the City and County of San Francisco (City) for review and approval by the City’s emergency medical services agency (Agency).

The approved EMS Plan for 2011 stated, as it had in previous years, that the medical personnel at the Half Marathon would be provided by Palmer College of Chiropractic-West (PCCW) and American Medical Response (AMR). More specifically, [*4]  it asserted that PCCW would “‘provide event trained Medical Personnel for the event, (students are all CPR certified and have taken emergency response class). Med Teams will be located at key areas (Start Line, Finish Lines, Postrace Medical Tent, and mobile units on the course). The head clinician event day, Dr. Hal Rosenberg [phone number], will be onsite at the Postrace Medical Tent. AMR will provide an [emergency medical technician] who will be posted with PCCW Med Team in the postrace Medical Tent at the Finish of the race—AMR is also providing an ALS ambulance to respond [to] medical emergencies—the standby will be posted on Lincoln at the Great Hwy … . The Standby and Medical Team will be equipped with cellphone active Nextel radios with direct communication to the Event Coordinator and each other.'” Other portions of the approved EMS Plan, however, indicated that one M.D., 6+ EMTs, and one automatic external defibrillator (AED) would be located at the finish line.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” [*5]  based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event,” Hass participated in the Half Marathon on February 6, 2011. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line at 10:05:34 a.m., Hass suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed. Another runner, Dr. Charles Whitehill, crossed the finish line 13 seconds after Hass and heard him fall. Dr. Whitehill—who had significant experience in providing and overseeing resuscitation efforts for patients—began to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Hass within 30 to 60 seconds of arriving at Hass’s side. Dr. Whitehill was involved in CPR efforts for five to eight minutes, after which CPR was continued by another bystander who identified himself as an off-duty paramedic. Approximately 11 minutes after Hass collapsed a third bystander brought the AED from the postrace tent, which was located somewhere between 100 and 200 yards beyond the finish line. When the AED was applied, it showed that Hass had no shockable heart rhythm. CPR efforts were then continued until paramedics from the City’s fire department arrived at approximately 10:31 a.m. and took over treatment. Unfortunately, Hass was pronounced dead shortly thereafter [*6]  at 10:49 a.m. RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for over 25 years, including at least 400 running, walking, and other events involving over 1.5 million participants. Hass’s tragic death was the only fatality ever experienced at a RhodyCo-managed event.

On May 3, 2012, the Hass Family filed this wrongful death action (Complaint), alleging, among other things, that RhodyCo had negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.” In particular, the Hass Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances. RhodyCo answered, generally denying the Complaint allegations and asserting several affirmative defenses, including primary assumption of the risk and express contractual assumption of the risk and release of liability.

RhodyCo then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing [*7]  that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was completely barred based on the two aforementioned affirmative defenses. Specifically, RhodyCo claimed that Hass had agreed to be bound by the Release when he registered for the Half Marathon, which included a waiver of liability and assumption of the risk agreement that was binding on his heirs. In addition, RhodyCo asserted that sudden cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running and that it had done nothing to increase this risk. Under these circumstances, RhodyCo opined, the Hass Family’s action was barred under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.

In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the Hass Family argued with respect to the Release that it was void to the extent it purported to cover emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest; that it was not a clear and unambiguous waiver of future liability for a wrongful death claim; and that it was ineffective to exempt RhodyCo from liability for gross negligence. With respect to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, the Hass Family agreed that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running, but argued that [*8]  a sponsoring entity is nevertheless obligated to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks to the extent it is able to do so without altering the nature of the sport. They further maintained that RhodyCo had increased the risk of death beyond that inherent in the sport by failing to comply with the EMS Plan.

On the issue of negligence, the Hass Family presented evidence indicating that medical emergencies (including cardiac arrests) are more likely to occur near the finish line of a race because runners tend to push themselves to improve their times, causing an adrenaline rush and an arrhythmia. Moreover, as the City, itself, has recognized: “[C]losing off several major streets at the same time to accommodate a race often causes … potential interference with emergency services.” (San Francisco Transportation Code, § 6.11, subd. (a).) The Hass Family argued that, although RhodyCo’s EMS Plan for the Half Marathon properly identified the finish line as a “‘key area'” and indicated numerous resources would be stationed there—including a medical doctor, AED, and “6+” EMTs—the only medical personnel assigned to the finish line were Dr. Rosenberg (a chiropractor) and the event coordinator (a chiropractic [*9]  student), neither of whom were actually at the finish line when Hass collapsed. They further claimed that the AED was in the medical tent located approximately 200 yards away, in the postrace expo area; that no event medical personnel arrived at the scene until 10 minutes after Hass collapsed; and that, when a bystander arrived with the AED at the 11-minute mark, it was too late to help Hass. The Hass Family also found fault with the communications equipment provided by RhodyCo for the Half Marathon. Although the EMS Plan represented that “all event safety personnel” would have “cell phone active radios,” the Hass Family averred that only six or seven radios were provided to the medical team; that no radio was provided to the ambulance or to either chiropractic doctor onsite; and that there was no radio in the medical tent. Finally, the Hass Family presented declarations from several experts indicating that the standard of care for an event like the Half Marathon is to have a competent medical director who is a medical doctor and to follow the medical plan. Moreover, according to one of the Hass Family’s experts, because races like the Half Marathon can disrupt the local 911 system, [*10]  the standard of care additionally requires enough onsite ambulances (and/or backfilling of ambulances) to provide for rapid medical care for runners who collapse due to sudden cardiac arrest, particularly near the finish line.2

As stated above, the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, concluding that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was barred under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. The Hass Family then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court had erred in its legal analysis of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. In addition, they asserted that all of the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the Release were erroneous. In particular, they argued that they were not required to plead gross negligence in the Complaint and that, in any event, it was an abuse of discretion to deny their request to amend the Complaint to cure any such perceived defect. The Hass Family also provided new evidence that they alleged supported finding a triable issue with respect to gross negligence—the deposition testimony of Dr. Brown, the head of the Agency, stating that nothing in the EMS Plan indicated [*11]  that chiropractic students would be substituted for EMTs at the finish line and that his discussions with RhodyCo regarding the use of chiropractic students was limited to their use on the mobile teams. Dr. Brown also testified that he had never discussed with RhodyCo the propriety of substituting a chiropractic doctor for a medical doctor as race supervisor. RhodyCo opposed the motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court’s initial decision was correct under the law; that Dr. Brown’s deposition testimony should not be considered as the Hass Family had not acted with diligence in producing it; and that, regardless, the statements from the deposition highlighted by the Hass Family were undercut by other deposition testimony.

After hearing, the trial court granted the Hass Family’s new trial motion. Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did [*12]  reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

RhodyCo’s notice of appeal and the Hass Family’s notice of cross-appeal now bring the matter before this court.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

CA(1)[] (1) As described above, the procedural posture of this case is somewhat convoluted. Although the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, it subsequently reversed itself on one ground (primary assumption of the risk) and then deferred ruling on another ground it had previously rejected (gross negligence) pending amendment of the Complaint, effectively granting a new trial on both issues. HN1[] Such an order is appealable. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 858 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar) [noting, in finding appealability under similar circumstances, that it “makes no difference” that an order granting a new trial following an order granting summary judgment “may operate like an order denying summary judgment, which is nonappealable”].) Further, HN2[] although orders granting a new trial are generally examined for abuse of discretion, any determination underlying the new trial order is scrutinized using “the test appropriate for that determination.” (Douglas v. Fidelity National Ins. Co. (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 392, 407 [177 Cal. Rptr. 3d 271]; see also Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 859–860.)

Here, then, [*13]  the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the appropriateness of summary judgment are subject to our de novo review. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 860; In re Automobile Antitrust Cases I & II (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 127, 150 [204 Cal. Rptr. 3d 330] (Automobile Antitrust Cases).) In this regard, we review the trial court’s ruling; not its rationale. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 150.) “Thus, ‘[t]he sole question properly before us on review of the summary judgment [order] is whether the judge reached the right result … whatever path he [or she] might have taken to get there.'” (Id. at pp. 150–151.)

CA(2)[] (2) Moreover, HN3[] the underlying issues implicated by RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion are also subject to our independent review. For instance, HN4[] “‘[c]ontract principles apply when interpreting a release, and “normally the meaning of contract language, including a release, is a legal question.” [Citation.] “Where, as here, no conflicting parol evidence is introduced concerning the interpretation of the document, ‘construction of the instrument is a question of law, and the appellate court will independently construe the writing.'”‘” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1483 [72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471] (Cohen); see also Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754–755 [29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177] (Paralift).) CA(3)[] (3) Similarly, it has long been recognized that HN5[] application of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine is a legal question, to be determined by the courts as a matter of law. (See Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003–1004; see also Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 257 [179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473] [“‘[T]he legal question of duty, [*14]  and specifically the question of whether a particular risk is an inherent part of a sport, “is necessarily reached from the common knowledge of judges, and not the opinions of experts”‘”].) In our resolution of this matter, then, we are writing on what is essentially a clean slate, bearing in mind that HN6[] we should resolve any evidentiary doubts in the Hass Family’s favor, given that they are the party opposing summary judgment. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 151 [“In undertaking our analysis, we ‘”accept as true the facts … in the evidence of the party opposing summary judgment and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them.”‘”].)

B. Express Waiver

During the online registration process for the Half Marathon, Hass was presented with the following warning regarding his need to execute the Release: “Please read any waiver carefully. It includes a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprives you of the ability to sue certain parties. Do not agree to this document unless you have read and understood it in its entirety. By agreeing electronically, you acknowledge that you have both read and understood all text presented to you as part of the registration process. You also understand and agree [*15]  that events carry certain inherent dangers and risks which may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage, or death. Your ability to participate in the event(s) is/are subject to your agreement to the waiver and by agreeing herein, you accept and agree to the terms of the waiver and release agreement.” (Italics added.) The document referenced in this warning—which could either be printed out or read in its entirety online—is entitled “Waivers” and reads in pertinent part as follows: “I understand that by registering I have accepted and agreed to the waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me during registration and that these documents include a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprive me of the right to sue certain parties. By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from participation in the event. [¶] In consideration [*16]  of your accepting this entry … , I, intending to be legally bound, do hereby for myself, my heirs, executors, and/or administrators, waive and release any and all claims for damages I may accrue against … RhodyCo … any and all contractors, their employees, representatives, agents and heirs from any and all injuries that may be suffered by me at or enroute to or from this event. I attest that I am physically fit and sufficiently trained for this strenuous competition. I will assume my own medical and emergency expenses in the event of an accident or other incapacity or injury resulting from or occurring in my participation. …” (Italics added.)3

As stated above, RhodyCo argued in its summary judgment motion that the Release signed by Hass acted as a complete bar to the instant action. The trial court initially agreed, rejecting the Hass Family’s arguments that the wording of the Release was insufficient to exempt RhodyCo from wrongful death claims and that the Release was void on public policy grounds. In addition, because gross negligence was not specifically alleged in the Complaint, the court refused to consider the Hass Family’s third argument—that RhodyCo [*17]  had engaged in gross negligence falling outside of the scope of the Release. However, the trial court later granted a new trial on this issue, stating it would allow the Hass Family to amend its Complaint to cure this defect. The court declined to determine whether a triable issue as to RhodyCo’s alleged gross negligence existed, pending the filing of the amendment. In this appeal and cross-appeal, the parties raise all three of these issues involving the impact of the executed Release as potential grounds either supporting or undermining the trial court’s summary judgment decision. We therefore address each contention in turn.

1. Waiver of Wrongful Death Claim

CA(4)[] (4) Our high court has explained that HN7[] wrongful death claims “are not derivative claims but are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs.” (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 841 [114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584]; see also Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 [250 Cal. Rptr. 299] (Madison) [“‘The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'”].) “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a [*18]  subsequent wrongful death cause of action … .” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 725 [183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234].) Rather, a distinction is made in these circumstances “between the legal ineffectiveness of a decedent’s preinjury release of his [or her] heirs'[] subsequent wrongful death action and the legal effectiveness of an express release of negligence by a decedent which provides a defendant with ‘a complete defense.‘” (Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at p. 597.) In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action. (Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 758, 763–764 [276 Cal. Rptr. 672] (Saenz); see also Ruiz, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 851–852 [“although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his [or her] heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk”].) Under such circumstances, the releasor is essentially agreeing not to expect the other party to act carefully, thus eliminating that person’s duty of care. (Coates v. Newhall Land & Farming, Inc. (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, 7 [236 Cal. Rptr. 181] (Coates).)

As an example, in Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d 1, the decedent, a dirtbike rider, signed a release before using the defendant’s motorcycle park. (Id. at pp. 3–4.) After [*19]  the decedent was fatally injured, his heirs sued, arguing that the defendant had been negligent in the design and maintenance of the trail on which the decedent was hurt. (Ibid.) The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the decedent’s release barred the subsequent wrongful death action. Specifically, the court noted that, in the first half of the release, the decedent “expressly waived liability for injuries or death which might result from respondents’ ordinary negligence in the future. In the second half, he expressly assumed all risk of injury from dangers inherent in dirtbike riding on respondents’ premises.” (Id. at p. 7; see also id. at p. 4 & fn. 2.) The court concluded that this express assumption of the risk also bound the decedent’s heirs. (Id. at p. 8.) The court additionally opined that whether or not the decedent had “sufficient knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death” was irrelevant under the circumstances of the case because “knowledge of a particular risk is unnecessary when there is an express agreement to assume all risk.” (Id. at pp. 8–9.)

CA(5)[] (5) Our own decision in Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d 758 is in accord. There, the decedent fell out of a raft on a white-water rafting trip hosted by Whitewater, a commercial rafting [*20]  company, and drowned. (Id. at pp. 759, 762.) Prior to this fatal incident, the decedent had signed a release, stating: “‘I am aware that certain risks and dangers may occur on any river trip with Whitewater … . These risks include, but are not limited to, hazards of and injury to person and property while traveling in rafts on the river, accident or illness in remote places without medical facilities, the forces of nature … . [¶] … I hereby assume all of the above risks and, except in the case of gross negligence, will hold Whitewater … harmless from any and all liability, actions, causes of action, debts, claims, and demands of every kind and nature whatsoever which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my trip or participation in any activities with Whitewater … .’ The agreement further stated it operated as a release and assumption of risk for his heirs.” (Id. at p. 763, fn. 7, italics added.) Noting that “drafting a legally valid release is no easy task,” we opined that HN8[] “‘[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.'” [*21]  (Id. at p. 765.) Given that the plain language of the Saenz release indicated that the decedent consented to assume the risks associated with white-water rafting and release Whitewater from any and all liability arising out of the trip, the fact that the exculpatory sentence did not explicitly state that it covered Whitewater’s negligence and did not specifically mention death or drowning was insufficient to invalidate the otherwise clear release. (Id. at pp. 765–766; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [“‘If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant.'” (italics added)].)

Indeed, generally speaking, “‘[w]hether a release bars recovery against a negligent party “turns primarily on contractual interpretation, and it is the intent of the parties as expressed in the agreement that should control.”‘” (Sanchez v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 62, 66–67 [79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 902].) Moreover, in this regard, “‘[o]ur analysis is not based on the mechanical application of some formula. The presence or absence of the words “negligence” or “bodily injury” is not dispositive. We look instead to the intention of the parties as it appears in the release forms before the court.'” (Id. at p. 67; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1488
[noting that release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law].) By [*22]  signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks. They further contend that the release language contained in the next sentence of the Release is similarly ineffectual in the wrongful death context because it is limited to “any and all claims for damages I [i.e., Hass] may accrue,” thus excluding claims accrued by his heirs. We are not persuaded.

HN9[] CA(6)[] (6) “With [*23]  respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1484.) Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence. In particular, and as we remarked in Saenz (also a wrongful death action), we believe that the juxtaposition of the assumption of risk language and the blanket release language conveys the message that Hass assumed all risks related to participation in the Half Marathon while excusing RhodyCo from any liability arising from the race. (See Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at pp. 756–757 [considering broad release language as well as assumption language in upholding release in wrongful death action]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 765 [same]; Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d at pp. 7, 9 & fn. 2 [release valid where decedent waived all liability for injury or death and assumed risk of injury from dangers inherent in riding dirt bike on premises]; see also National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 937–938, 940 [264 Cal. Rptr. 44] (Street Racers) [in case claiming lack of competent medical [*24]  attention/rescue equipment, release is valid even though it included an assumption of “‘all risk inherent in racing'” because it also released “in unqualified terms … all claims arising from plaintiff’s participation in the race”].)4

We similarly reject the Hass Family’s assertion that the assumption of risk language used in the Release—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—is ambiguous as “accept” in this context could reasonably mean “understand” as well as “assume.” (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [an ambiguity in a release exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning; an ambiguity “‘should normally be construed against the drafter'” of the release].) The complete sentence at issue reads: “By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from [*25]  participation in the event.” (Italics added.) Since the signator, in the first part of the sentence, has already acknowledged understanding the contents of the waiver—which includes the statement that there are risks inherent in participating—it seems unlikely that he or she would be asked to acknowledge such an understanding a second time in the latter part of the sentence. Rather, the much more reasonable interpretation of this second clause is that the signator is agreeing to shoulder—i.e., take on or otherwise assume—the dangers and risks inherent in the activity.

Finally, in construing the Release, we are cognizant of the fact that “[i]n cases arising from hazardous recreational pursuits, to permit released claims to be brought to trial defeats the purpose for which releases are requested and given, regardless of which party ultimately wins the verdict. Defense costs are devastating. Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.” (Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d at p. 938.) While certainly imperfect, we believe that the Release was intended to be, and was accepted as, a comprehensive assumption of all risks associated [*26]  with race participation. We therefore agree with the trial court that the Release constitutes a complete defense to a wrongful death action based on ordinary negligence.

2. Public Policy

CA(7)[] (7) The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
HN10[] A contractual provision exculpating a party from liability is invalid under this statute if it “affects the public interest.” (Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 96, 98 [32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441] (Tunkl).)

CA(8)[] (8) In Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92, HN11[] our high court identified six characteristics typical of contracts affecting the public interest: “‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often [*27]  a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'” (Id. at pp. 98–101, fns. omitted.) Not all of these factors need to be present for an exculpatory contract to be voided as affecting the public interest. (Id. at p. 98.) However, in Tunkl, the Supreme Court found all six factors were implicated and, on that basis, concluded that a release from liability [*28]  for future negligence imposed as a condition for admission to a charitable research hospital affected the public interest and was thus invalid. (Id. at pp. 94, 101–102.) In making this determination, our high court found “hardly open to question” the fact that “the services of the hospital to those members of the public who are in special need of the particular skill of its staff and facilities constitute a practical and crucial necessity.” (Id. at p. 101.)

In contrast, California courts have consistently declined to apply the Tunkl factors to invalidate exculpatory agreements in the recreational sports context. (See Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d 934 [upholding release in case claiming lack of competent medical attention/rescue equipment]; see also Platzer v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1259 [128 Cal. Rptr. 2d 885] [fall from chairlift during ski lesson]; Randas v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 158, 161–162 [21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 245] [swim class]; Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at p. 756 [skydiving]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 764 [commercial river rafting]; Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at pp. 593, 597–599 [scuba diving]; Okura v. United States Cycling Federation (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1462, 1464, 1466–1468 [231 Cal. Rptr. 429] [bicycle race].) Although they acknowledge the current state of California law, the Hass Family invites us to revisit the issue based on an analysis of the Tunkl factors by the Washington Supreme Court in Vodopest v. MacGregor (1996) 128 Wn.2d 840 [913 P.2d 779] (Vodopest). In that case, the plaintiff agreed to join a mountain trek that was designed as a research trip to test the efficacy of a breathing technique used to eliminate high altitude [*29]  sickness. (Id. at pp. 843–844.) Portions of the research proposal were submitted to the University of Washington Human Subjects Review Committee (University) for approval. (Id. at p. 845.) Prior to the trek, the plaintiff executed a broad release in researcher MacGregor’s favor. (Ibid.) A similar release which included the University was rejected by the University as invalid because “releases from liability for negligence are not allowed as a part of any approved study, as the federal government does not allow exculpatory language in human subject experimentation.” (Id. at p. 846.) Ultimately, the plaintiff suffered a cerebral edema from altitude sickness on the trek and sued MacGregor for negligence and gross negligence. (Id. at p. 847.)

The sole issue on appeal in Vodopest was whether the release signed by the plaintiff violated public policy and was thus unenforceable. (Vodopest, supra, 128 Wn.2d at p. 848.) The court noted that medical research was a significant component of the trek and that the “critical question” in the case was “whether the alleged conduct giving rise to the cause of action for negligence occurred in the context of the mountain trekking or within the scope of the research project.” (Id. at pp. 850, 852–853.) It concluded—after consideration of the six Tunkl factors—that to [*30]  the extent MacGregor attempted to use the release “to release herself as a researcher from negligent acts performed in the furtherance of medical research,” it was unenforceable as violative of public policy. (Id. at p. 853; see id. at pp. 853–862.) In particular, the court opined that “there are critical public policy reasons to maintain the usual standard of care in settings where one person is using another as a medical research subject.” (Id. at p. 856.)

CA(9)[] (9) Vodopest is obviously distinguishable on its facts and we reject the Hass Family’s invitation to depart from long-existing California precedent based on this Washington decision. HN12[] Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way. (Cf. Okura, supra, 186 Cal.App.3d at p. 1468 [bicycle race participant retains complete control and can drop out of the race or [*31]  adjust his pace at any time; organizers have no control over how the participant approaches the race].) The Tunkl court, itself, made clear that such private, voluntary exculpatory contracts are permissible: “While obviously no public policy opposes private, voluntary transactions in which one party, for a consideration, agrees to shoulder a risk which the law would otherwise have placed upon the other party, the above circumstances [admission to research hospital] pose a different situation. In this situation the releasing party does not really acquiesce voluntarily in the contractual shifting of the risk, nor can we be reasonably certain that he receives an adequate consideration for the transfer.” (Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d at p. 101.) Here, Hass was permitted to make the voluntary decision, in return for being allowed to participate in the race, to shoulder the risk of RhodyCo’s potential negligence. “‘”‘The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power, and … should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.'”‘” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, fn. 53 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095] (Santa Barbara).) We decline to exercise it here.

3. Gross Negligence

CA(10)[] (10) The final issue with respect to the impact [*32]  of the Release in this matter is whether the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether RhodyCo acted with gross negligence in its management of the Half Marathon. Even if the Release was sufficient to block a claim for ordinary negligence—as we have held—HN13[] it is insufficient, as a matter of public policy, to preclude liability for gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 751 [“an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy”].) For purposes of this distinction, 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.” (Id. at pp. 753–754.) “‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,'” amounts to ordinary negligence. (Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 48 [135 Cal.Rptr. 761].) In contrast, “‘[g]ross negligence‘ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754.) “‘“[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, [*33]  and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.‘” (Gore v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 184, 197 [167 Cal. Rptr. 881]; see also Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792].) In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'” (Gore, supra, 110 Cal.App.3d at p. 198.)

CA(11)[] (11) In the present case, we agree with both parties that the trial court erred by refusing to consider the Hass Family’s claim of gross negligence because they had not pled gross negligence in their Complaint. Several appellate courts have opined that California does not recognize a separate cause of action for gross negligence. (Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 766, fn. 9; Ordway v. Superior Court (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 98, 108, fn. 5 [243 Cal. Rptr. 536], disapproved on other grounds in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 306–309 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) In Santa Barbara, the Supreme Court did not definitively resolve this issue, commenting only that it did not view its holding invalidating releases for future gross negligence “as recognizing a cause of action for gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779–780.) Instead, as is more relevant here, the high court went on to declare: “Our holding simply imposes a limitation on the defense that is provided by a release. HN14[] A plaintiff is not required to anticipate such a defense [citation]; [*34]  instead, the defendant bears the burden of raising the defense and establishing the validity of a release as applied to the case at hand.” (Id. at 780, fn. 58.) Thus, regardless of whether gross negligence can be a separate cause of action, and/or the Hass Family could have alleged gross negligence in the Complaint in anticipation of RhodyCo’s likely defense, they were not required to do so. The consequences of this pleading decision in the context of a summary judgment motion were summarized in Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 1715 [22 Cal.Rptr.2d 781]—which involved alleged negligence by a ski rental company in the adjustment of ski bindings—as follows: “Had plaintiff anticipated the defense of the release agreement in his complaint and alleged facts suggesting [its invalidity], the matter would have been a material issue which defendants would have had to refute in order to obtain summary adjudication.” (Id. at pp. 1723–1724, 1739–1740; see also id. at p. 1740 [“‘If … the plaintiff pleads several theories or anticipates affirmative defenses by a show of excusing events or conditions, the challenge to the opponent is made by the complaint, requiring the moving defendant to affirmatively react to each theory and excusing or justifying event, or condition which supports a theory, if the motion is [*35]  to be successful'”].) In contrast, “[s]ince plaintiff’s complaint said nothing about the agreement, the matter of [its validity] was not a material issue for purposes of defendants’ initial showing on its motion for summary adjudication. [The defendant] met its initial burden by adducing evidence of the … agreement and plaintiff’s execution. The burden thereafter shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Id. at p. 1740.)

Similarly, here, although the Hass Family set forth certain facts in the Complaint which could be viewed as supporting a claim of gross negligence, it cannot be said that the Complaint—which does not even mention the Release—anticipated the Release defense or raised gross negligence as a material issue which RhodyCo was required to refute in order to succeed on summary judgment. Instead, RhodyCo met its initial burden by producing evidence of the existence of the Release and its execution by Hass. The burden then shifted to the Hass Family to raise a triable issue of material fact as to gross negligence.

CA(12)[] (12) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Hass Family, we believe they have met their burden in this case, making summary judgment inappropriate. [*36] 5
It is true that HN15[] summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence may be warranted where the facts fail to establish an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care as a matter of law. However, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence.” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal. Rptr. 356].) In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context. We conclude only that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to them, it is possible that the Hass Family could establish that, despite the potential for grave risk of harm in the sport of long-distance running, RhodyCo failed to implement the EMS Plan in several [*37]  material ways and that its management of the Half Marathon—in particular with respect to the allocation of medical resources to the finish line and communication among race personnel—constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care for events of its type. This is sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to gross negligence.
6

In sum, we have concluded that the Release is not void on public policy grounds and that it is adequate to bar the Hass Family’s action for ordinary negligence. However, since we have additionally determined that a triable issue of material fact exists as to whether RhodyCo’s provision of emergency medical services was grossly negligent, the trial court’s new trial order reversing its initial grant of summary judgment was appropriate, unless the Hass Family’s negligence action is completely barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. We therefore turn finally to that question.

C. Primary Assumption of the Risk

CA(13)[] (13) In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, the Supreme Court considered the continued applicability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in light of the court’s prior adoption of comparative fault principles. (Id. at pp. 299–300.) Specifically, [*38]  HN16[] our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the 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 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.” (Id. at p. 308.) When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.” (Id. at p. 315.) In contrast, secondary assumption of the 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.” (Ibid.; id. at p. 314 [“a jury in a ‘secondary assumption of risk’ case would be entitled to take into consideration a plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport … in determining whether the plaintiff properly should bear some share of responsibility for the injuries he or she suffered”]; see also Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1003 [in a secondary assumption [*39]  of the risk case, “the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence“].)

CA(14)[] (14) The Supreme Court further concluded in Knight that HN17[] “the question whether the defendant owed a legal duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm … [turns] on the nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309.) Although Knight dealt with the duty owed by a coparticipant in recreational activity (an informal touch football game on Super Bowl Sunday), it also discussed the potential liability here at issue, that of operators and organizers of recreational events. (Id. at pp. 300–301, 315–317.) For instance, the Knight court opined: “In the sports setting … conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself. Thus, although moguls on a ski run pose a risk of harm to skiers that might not exist were these configurations removed, the challenge and risks posed by the moguls are part of the sport of skiing, and a ski resort has no duty to eliminate them. [Citation.] … [¶] Although defendants generally [*40]  have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm. The cases establish that the latter type of risk, posed by a ski resort’s negligence, clearly is not a risk (inherent in the sport) that is assumed by a participant.” (Id. at pp. 315–316, italics added.) The high court also cited with approval a case involving an injury from a thrown baseball bat in which the jury returned a verdict in favor of the baseball player (since throwing bats is inherent in the game), but implicitly recognized “the duty of the stadium owner to provide a reasonably safe stadium with regard to the relatively common (but particularly dangerous) hazard of a thrown bat.” (Id. at p. 317.) Finally, Knight acknowledged a line of cases in which the duty of an operator is defined “by reference to the steps the [*41]  sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Id. at p. 317.)

CA(15)[] (15) Twenty years later, in Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa), the Supreme Court revisited the scope of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine in the specific context of the duty owed by an operator/organizer. The Nalwa court summarized the doctrine as follows: HN18[] “‘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.’ [Citation.] The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. [Citations.] Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Id. at p. 1154.) Applying this analytical framework to the case at hand, the high court concluded that the operator of a bumper car ride at an amusement park had [*42]  no duty to protect the plaintiff from the collision which fractured her wrist. (Id. at pp. 1152, 1157–1158, 1162–1163.) Rather, “[l]ow-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in—are the whole point of—a bumper car ride.” (Id. at p. 1157.) Thus, “‘[i]mposing liability would have the likely effect of the amusement park either eliminating the ride altogether or altering its character to such a degree—by, for example, significantly decreasing the speed at which the minicars could operate—that the fun of bumping would be eliminated, thereby discouraging patrons from riding.'” (Id. at pp. 1157–1158.)

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family. In particular, according to RhodyCo—under the test articulated in Nalwa—it had no duty to minimize Hass’s risk of death from cardiac arrest. Or, put another way, it had no duty to [*43]  reduce the natural consequences of Hass’s cardiac arrest or increase his chances of recovery.

In taking this position, RhodyCo acknowledges that the appellate court in Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497] (Saffro) held that a race producer has a duty to conduct a “reasonably safe event,” which “requires it to take reasonable steps to ‘minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.'” (Id. at p. 175.) In Saffro, a marathon runner suffered a grand mal seizure after a race and was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia, likely caused by his inability to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids containing electrolytes (such as Gatorade) during the race. (Id. at p. 176.) Although the race organizer sent written materials to participants prior to the event indicating that such liquids would be provided in sufficient quantities, the evidence suggested that they were not. (Id. at pp. 176–177.) The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the race organizer, concluding that hyponatremia is an inherent risk of running a marathon. (Id. at pp. 177–178.) The appellate court reversed, stating that a race organizer’s duty to conduct a reasonably safe event includes “the obligation to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia by providing adequate water and electrolyte [*44]  fluids,” especially where the race organizer had made representations to the participants that such fluids would be available. (Id. at p. 179.) Since Saffro had presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the race organizer had breached this duty, summary judgment was improper. (Id. at pp. 179–181; see also Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1079, 1082–1083 [although collisions with coparticipants are an inherent risk of motocross, operator of a motocross track has a duty to minimize this risk without altering the nature of the sport by providing a warning system, such as caution flaggers; triable issue of fact existed as to whether failure to provide a caution flagger constituted gross negligence].) RhodyCo claims that Saffro is inapplicable both because it is a secondary assumption of the risk case and because the “duty to minimize risk” language from Knight that Saffro and other cases have “latched onto” is dictum which has been abrogated by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Nalwa.

We disagree with RhodyCo that the Nalwa court’s formulation of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine somehow supplanted the high court’s earlier discussion of the matter in Knight, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court’s statements [*45]  regarding an organizer/operator’s duty “to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) Rather, Nalwa—far from disagreeing with Knight—referenced it as the “seminal decision explicating and applying primary assumption of risk in the recreational context.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1155.) Moreover, Nalwa‘s formulation of the limited duty existing in a primary assumption of the risk case—”the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity”—comes directly from Knight. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1154–1155, 1162–1163.) Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, Nalwa did not reject cases such as Saffro and Rosencrans which concluded, based on language found in Knight, that operators/organizers have a duty to minimize risks without altering the nature of the sport. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 & fn. 7.) Instead, it characterized them as “decisions addressing the duty to reduce extrinsic risks of an activity” and found them distinguishable in that particular case because it concluded that the risk of injury from bumping—at any angle—was not an extrinsic risk, but was instead a risk inherent to riding bumper cars. (Id. at pp. 1157–1158, 1163.)

CA(16)[] (16) Indeed, Nalwa expressly states that “[t]he operator of a bumper car ride might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to [*46]  increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 316) by failing to provide routine safety measures such as seatbelts, functioning bumpers and appropriate speed control.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.) Thus, Nalwa actually reaffirms Knight‘s conclusions regarding the duties owed to participants by operators/organizers of recreational activities. In short, HN19[] such operators and organizers have two distinct duties: the limited duty not to increase the inherent risks of an activity under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine and the ordinary duty of due care with respect to the extrinsic risks of the activity, which should reasonably be minimized to the extent possible without altering the nature of the activity. Nalwa explains the interplay between these two types of duties by confirming that an operator’s or organizer’s negligence with respect to extrinsic risks “might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.)

In the present case, both parties acknowledge that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of the sport of long-distance running. Further, it is not suggested on these facts that RhodyCo did [*47]  anything that increased the risk that Hass would have a heart attack.7 Moreover, requiring runners to slow down or take breaks in order to decrease this inherent risk would alter the character of racing to such a degree that it would likely discourage runners from participating. However, as both Knight and Nalwa teach us, this is not the end of the inquiry. While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 [while risk of injury from bumping bumper cars is generally low, an operator could violate its duty not to increase this inherent risk by failing to provide routine safety measures]; Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315–316 [negligent maintenance of towropes by ski resort could violate duty not to expose skiers to increased risk of harm]; Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc. (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 1283, 1297–1302 [222 Cal. Rptr. 3d 633] [crash landings caused by failure to safely pilot a hot air balloon are an inherent risk of hot air ballooning, but an operator has a duty not to increase that risk by failing to instruct participants on safe landing procedures, a customary practice in the ballooning industry]; Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 610–611 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536] [although [*48]  contact with the floor is an inherent risk in dancing, school may have increased student’s risk of harm through failure to properly disseminate its no-flip policy]; Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1083–1086 [negligent failure to provide collision warning system in motocross]; Saffro, supra, 98 Cal.App.4th at pp. 175, 179–181 [duty not to increase risk of dehydration and hyponatremia by unreasonably failing to provide adequate fluids]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 364–367 [114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265] [although falling is an inherent risk of skiing, failure to mark off race area containing jumps which an ordinary skier would not expect to encounter may breach duty not to increase inherent risk]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] [although being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of golfing, golf course owner had a duty to design course to minimize the risk of being hit where possible without altering the nature of golf].) As the Fourth District recently opined in Grotheer, “[w]hat the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do … is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317–318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.” (Grotheer, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 1300.) And, in Solis, the appellate court succinctly [*49]  illustrated the issue raised by these cases as follows: “[F]alling off a horse is an inherent risk of horseback riding. But if a person put a barrel in the middle of the Churchill Downs racetrack, causing a collision and fall, we would not say that person owed no duty to the injured riders, because falling is an inherent risk of horseback riding.” (Solis, supra, 94 Cal.App.4th at p. 365.)

When viewed under this analytical framework, Rotolo v. San Jose Sports & Entertainment, LLC (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 307 [59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 770], disapproved on another ground as stated in Verdugo v. Target Corp. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 312, 327 [173 Cal. Rptr. 3d 662, 327 P.3d 774], and Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8 [45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855]—two cases relied upon by RhodyCo—are not inconsistent. In Rotolo, parents of a teenager who died as a result of sudden cardiac arrest while playing ice hockey sued the ice hockey facility for wrongful death, claiming that the facility had a duty to notify facility users of the existence and location of the facility’s AED. (Rotolo, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 313.) The appellate court disagreed, noting that sudden cardiac arrest is a risk inherent in playing strenuous sports and that the facility had done nothing to increase this risk. (Id. at p. 334.) During the course of its analysis, the Rotolo court stated: “We have found no authority for the proposition that a sports facility operator has a duty to reduce the effects of an injury that is an inherent risk in the sport, or to increase [*50]  the chances of full recovery of a participant who has suffered such a sports-related injury, or to give notice regarding any first aid equipment that may be available for such a purpose.” (Id. at pp. 334–335.) In making this determination, however, the Rotolo court searched exhaustively for a duty that the facility could have breached in this context and could not find one. (Id. at pp. 319–339.) In particular, it noted that the facility had not breached its duties to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition or to summon emergency medical aid.8 (Rotolo, at pp. 316–317, 332–334.) Since the sports facility had not acted negligently with respect to any risks extrinsic to the sport of hockey, thereby increasing its inherent risks, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred recovery. (Id. at pp. 334–335.) Similarly, in Connelly, the plaintiff argued that the ski resort had insufficiently padded a ski lift tower, thereby causing him serious injury when he collided with it. (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at pp. 10–11.) The appellate court concluded that colliding with a ski lift tower is an inherent risk of skiing and that the ski resort had done nothing to increase this risk by padding the towers, which the resort had no duty to do in the first place. (Id. at pp. 12–13.) In essence, the court concluded that the ski [*51]  resort had not breached its underlying duty to provide a reasonably safe ski resort and thus the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence action. (See id. at pp. 11–14.)

CA(17)[] (17) It is undisputed in this case that RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for “high profile” running and walking events for over 25 years and that, while these events involved over 1.5 million participants, Hass was the first fatality. Thus, while death from cardiac arrest is undeniably a risk associated with long-distance running, it appears from RhodyCo’s own facts to be a slight one. The question therefore remains whether RhodyCo, as the organizer of the Half Marathon, acted negligently in its provision of emergency medical services—a risk extrinsic to the sport of long-distance running—in such a way that it exposed Hass to an increased risk of harm over and above that generally inherent in the activity itself. Since we have previously concluded that the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether RhodyCo was grossly negligent in this regard, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine does not act as a complete bar to the present negligence action. [*52] 9 The trial court’s decision to reverse itself on this ground and allow the case to continue was therefore not error.

CA(18)[] (18) As a final matter, we note that HN20[] imposing a duty of due care with respect to “extrinsic” risks for operators and organizers of recreational activities makes sense based on the policies underlying the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. As stated above and as articulated in Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pages 1156–1157: “The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration—or cause abandonment’ of the activity. … [¶] … Allowing voluntary participants in an active recreational pursuit to sue other participants or sponsors for failing to eliminate or mitigate the activity’s inherent risks would threaten the activity’s very existence and nature.” (Id. at pp. 1156–1157.) Moreover, “active recreation, because it involves physical activity and is not essential to daily life, is particularly vulnerable to the chilling effects [*53]  of potential tort liability for ordinary negligence.” (Id. at p. 1157.) The Nalwa court counseled that the doctrine’s parameters should be drawn according to this underlying policy goal. (Ibid.) Obviously, requiring an operator or organizer of recreational activities to provide a reasonably safe event, reasonably maintained attractions, and/or customary safety warnings—far from chilling vigorous participation in such activities—would almost certainly increase their attractiveness to potential participants. Moreover, an owner or event organizer is still protected from liability with respect to the inherent risks of these activities. And, given that participation in these recreational pursuits is almost always contingent on the signing of a release, such owners and organizers are generally also relieved of the consequences of their ordinary negligence. Allowing owners and organizers to avoid accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750–751; see also id. at pp. 767–776 [rejecting as unsupported by empirical evidence the assertion that refusing to uphold agreements releasing liability for future gross negligence [*54]  will lead to the extinction of many popular and lawful recreational activities].)

III. DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. In particular, the trial court is instructed to enter an order denying RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment. The Hass Family is entitled to its costs on appeal.

REARDON, J.

We concur:

STREETER, Acting P. J.

SMITH, J.*