The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to defeat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality.Posted: July 24, 2017
Tour of the Canyonlands was an 18-mile mountain bike race near Moab, Utah. Six miles of the course were on roads. The course was an open course meaning, there might be automobile traffic on the roads; the roads would not be closed to traffic.
Two plaintiffs’ struck a truck on the road, killing one of the mountain bikers.
State: Utah, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
Plaintiff: Robert J. Milne, an individual; Timothy K. Sorrow, individually and as personal representative on behalf of his deceased son, Samuel B. Hall,
Defendant: USA Cycling Inc., a Colorado corporation, d/b/a National Off-road Bicycle Association; Cycle Cyndicate Inc.,
Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death
Defendant Defenses: release, failure to state a claim to prove gross negligence
Holding: For the Defendant
This is an attempt to recover damages by parents for the injuries they suffer when a son is hurt or dies. It probably involves as many emotional issues as it does legal ones such as how and why did my son die, why didn’t they do more to keep my son alive and possibly even some desire to protect others from the same
Two mountain bikers entered the Tour of the Canyonlands mountain bike race. Both had entered the race before and were classified as expert racers. They both signed a release prior to the race and had been told the first six miles of the course would be an open course.
An “open course” is one that is not closed to automobile traffic. Cycling on an “open course,” whether on a mountain bike or road bike, you will be encountering cars and be passed by cars. Approximately 25% of all mountain bike races are open course and a majority of road bike races in the US.
The race organizers had put up signs before the racing telling motorists that there was going to be a race. The organizers had volunteers along the route and first aid people to assist riders. They had made the effort to notify all campers on the race route about the race. The defendant driving the truck involved in the collision stated he was not notified about the race, but other people camping with him stated they had been notified.
The accident occurred when one racer attempted to pass another racer on the open part of the course while passing the automobile coming from the opposite direction. The automobile was a Ford Excursion pulling a 30’ trailer. The mountain bikers tangled, and one of the plaintiffs’s crashed into the truck.
Mr. Konitshek testified that, when he saw the oncoming bikers, he veered as far right in his lane of travel as possible, and remained on the right side of the road the entire time. He was going about 5 miles per hour when one of the bikers hit his left sideview mirror, causing it to bang into his window and shatter.
Mr. Hall had attempted to pass both himself and Mr. Milne. Mr. Byrd was immediately behind Mr. Milne, so Mr. Hall passed him first. Mr. Byrd testified that Mr. Hall passed very closely and, because of his proximity and his speed–Mr. Hall was riding about 25 miles per hour at that time–Mr. Casey could feel the wind coming off him as he passed. Then, as Mr. Hall began to pass Mr. Milne, their handlebars locked together, causing them to veer left and strike Mr. Konitshek’s camper. It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at least one racer testified that he saw the trailer run over Mr. Hall.
The release stopped the claims based on simple negligence and wrongful death of the plaintiffs. That left the claims for gross negligence. The Federal District Court (trial court) dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff had not pled any facts to prove their claim of gross negligence.
On the plaintiff’s gross negligence claims, the court determined that the undisputed facts showed that defendants had taken a number of steps to protect the racers’ safety, and even if those steps were taken negligently, they were not grossly negligent.
There was also an issue of the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the trial court had prevented from testifying because the trial court found him to not have any experience as a mountain bike race expert.
The plaintiff’s appealed the trial court’s decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The appellate court had a long discussion on the courts process to dismiss cases based on motions for summary judgment. The court then started into the analysis of the facts in this case and how they applied to the law.
Gross negligence in Utah is a failure on the part of the defendant to observe even slight care. “Under Utah law, “[g]ross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” The plaintiff to prove the defendant was grossly negligent must proof “conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.”
The facts argued by the plaintiff can then only be interpreted in one way for a court to determine gross negligence cannot be proved. However, even if there are different ways of viewing the facts, gross negligence claims can be beat if there is evidence the defendant did show care or was not lacking care.
However, appeals courts have affirmed grants of summary judgment on gross negligence claims where the undisputed evidence showed that the defendants took precautionary measures and did not ignore known and obvious risks.
In this case, the court could point out numerous instances where the defendant was not careless. “… the plaintiffs have fallen short of producing evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the defendants failed to exercise “even slight care” in organizing and administering this race.”
The court also looked at the knowledge of the racers and the fact they assumed the risk of the sport and injuries they encountered.
Mountain bike racing is an inherently dangerous sport, so the defendants cannot be considered grossly negligent merely because they organized a race that placed the racers at risk of injury and even death. Rather, the court must look at the specific steps the defendants took to ensure the racers’ safety in order to determine whether a jury could decide that they
were grossly negligent.
Although the issue of assumption of the risk was reviewed by the court and it obviously factored into the court’s analysis, it was not stated by the court as a reason for its decision.
The plaintiff argued the driver’s statements showed the defendant not done anything. However, the court seemed to discount the driver’s statements and found everyone else did know about the race. A defendant in the case looking not to lose a lawsuit would be more inclined to state he had not been notified.
Mr. Konitshek claimed that the organizers’ efforts to warn people in the area of the upcoming race were ineffective, because he did not know about the race until moments before the accident. Mr. Konitshek’s complaints about the sufficiency of the race organizers’ warnings do not rise to the level of creating a material issue of fact with regard to gross
negligence for two reasons. First, even if the race organizers’ warnings were imperfect, that does not negate the fact that they made rather substantial efforts to warn people, and their failure to reach every person in the area is insufficient to show gross negligence. Second, although Mr. Konitshek testified that he would have changed his plans if he had known about the race in advance, the plaintiffs presented no reason for this court to think that most drivers would change their plans to avoid a bicycle race on a 6-mile stretch of open road.
Utah requires a high disregard of safety issues to constitute gross negligence. Since automobile accidents were rare in mountain bike racing, this being the only one in the ten years of running this event, automobile accidents were not considered a serious threat to the participants. The issues were brought up by the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the court dismissed in one paragraph.
Thus, the organizers’ failure to shut down the road, mark and enforce a center line on the road, more closely monitor vehicular traffic, or more thoroughly warn other area drivers of the upcoming race cannot, as a matter of law, amount to gross negligence in light of the other safety steps taken by the organizers of this race.
Nor is gross negligence proved by 20/20 hindsight.
An examination of cases in other jurisdictions shows that courts have been reluctant to find that race organizers have been grossly negligent for failing to take every precaution that 20/20 hind-sight might counsel.
The court found the plaintiff’s had not presented evidence that could prove to a jury that the race organizers were grossly negligent and the actions of the race organizers in attending to the safety issues discounted or eliminated the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim.
We therefore agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs in this case have failed to provide evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the race organizers were grossly negligent.
The court then went on to support the trial courts exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert witness because the expert witness did not have sufficient experience in mountain bike racing.
There was a concurring opinion in this case. A concurring opinion is one where a justice sitting on the appeal agrees with the outcome of the decision but for a different reason than the majority of the justices. In this case, the concurring judge felt the plaintiff’s expert witness statements were enough to beat the gross negligence claim.
In this case, he would have excluded the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, but would have used his testimony where he stated the defendants exercised some degree of care for the participants as a reason to dismiss the gross negligence claim.
The dismissal of the claims of the plaintiff by the trial court was upheld.
So Now What?
I am seeing case after case where gross negligence claims are made to defeat a release. Twenty years ago, few cases pleaded a claim for gross negligence, and now every case does. As such part of your preparation for any activity, trip or program is to make sure you do not do anything that could support a gross negligence claim.
Gross negligence claims rarely proved at trial, extremely rare. As such their main reason they are pled is to get passed the motion for summary judgment, which increases the cost of continuing the case substantially. Therefore, any settlement offer will be increased significantly. A gross negligence claim hanging over the head of a defendant is also a real threat as some insurance companies will not pay to defend such a claim judgment based on gross negligence are not dischargeable in Bankruptcy.
Planning what safety precautions you should undertake should first start with understanding what your industry does. Know how other races are put on and what precaution to take is the first step. Then looking at your course, your participants or your ability to respond, you should modify the safety program to meet those differences.
Finally, have a release and fully inform every one of the risks. Most importantly inform them of all risks, maybe even repeatedly, that are different from everyone else or that substantially increase the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second most-used defense to negligence claims in recreation cases after a release. Always use both.
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Records help prove even if your release is weak, the plaintiff really understood the risks.
Plaintiff: Eric Walton
Defendant: Oz Bicycle Club
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: (1) that the release signed by Walton bars the present action; (2) that Walton assumed the risk of the injuries received; and (3) that Oz assumed no duty of due care towards Walton
Holding: for the defendant
In Walton v. Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita, the federal district court upheld a release used in a bicycle race. The race was held in Wichita Kansas, by the Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita. The plaintiff was rounding a corner in the lead on an open race course when he swerved to miss a car and crashed. An open bicycle race course means cars are on the roadway. An open course is not closed to traffic or pedestrians. A closed course, all cars have been prohibited on the course.
The defendant bicycle club filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court. The plaintiff when he signed up for the race was handed a release which he signed. The plaintiff had raced twenty to thirty times before and signed releases each time. He did not read this release but had read others and knew what he was signing. Prior to the start of the race the plaintiff had been informed that the course was not closed. The plaintiff encountered traffic on the race course at least twice prior to his crash.
The plaintiff was an employee of a bicycle manufacturing company which was also a sponsor of the race.
Summary of the case
The court first reviewed the issue of whether Assumption of Risk was a defense at this time in Kansas. The court concluded it probably not because the Kansas Supreme Court had not handed down a decision that was specific in stating assumption of risk was a defense in Kansas.
The court quoted the heading and four paragraphs of the release in its decision. The heading of the release read: “NOTICE: THIS ENTRY BLANK AND RELEASE FORM IS A CONTRACT WITH LEGAL CONSEQUENCES. READ IT CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING.”
The plaintiff argued that releases were not favored under Kansas law; however, the plaintiff never showed how the release at issue, was void under Kansas law.
The court in one paragraph summed up the requirements for the release to be valid under Kansas law:
Although exculpatory agreements have an inherent potential for abuse and overreaching, and hence are subjected to close scrutiny by the courts, these agreements have a vital role to play in allowing the individual to participate in activities of his own choice. If the individual has entered into an exculpatory clause freely and knowingly, and the application of the clause violates no aspect of fundamental public policy, the individual’s free choice must be respected. Here, public policy supports, rather than detracts from, the application of the exculpatory clause. “Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.”
The court looked at the release and found it to be valid. The release lacked the word negligence; however, it spoke to “rights and claims” for “any and all damages” sustained by participating in the event. The court concentrated on the fact the plaintiff had signed more than 20 other releases, participated in more than 20 races and had crashed in at least two races. This is another situation where the facts and knowledge of the plaintiff helped seal the release in the mind of the court.
So Now What?
It was obvious that the defendant’s ability to show the court 20-30 other releases for bicycle racing signed by the plaintiff was instrumental in proving the arguments of the plaintiff did not matter. You need to hold on to releases, you never know when one many years old maybe valuable in proving your case.
That does not require that you hold onto each paper copy of a release. Electronic copies are equally valid. Invest in a scanner and take all of your old releases and scan them. You can organize them by date or race or activity. You do not need to identify each release at the time. You cans scan them in a way that they are searchable later, and if you ever need to find one, you can.
Also instrumental was the fact the plaintiff was informed at the beginning of the race that the course was open, going to have cars on the course. Add to that the defendant could prove the plaintiff had avoided cars on the course during the race and had raced on open courses in the past. I would suggest putting important information such as the course being open into the release, so you can prove you gave the rider the information. Having that information in the release, should not, however, remove the responsibility to tell the people about the open course also.
While working at a ski area, we threw in the weather report and an area map into all big accident files. We never knew if any accident would lead to a suit, however, why worry about it. Make sure the file has everything you need, every back reference or proof needed when you build the file so you don’t have to search for it. We had a lot of stored weather reports and ski area maps, but if one was needed in a lawsuit, they were easy to find.
We also included all of the skiing history we had on the injured guest. Any logs from his skiing that year, each time his pass had been scanned if the injured guest had a season pass. Prior season pass or skiing history if we had it. Proof that the injured guest knew how to ski and assumed the risk or proof that the injured guest had signed numerous releases.
That ability to find information, electronically or on paper, saved the day in this bicycle race case.
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Walton v. Oz Bicycle Club Of Wichita, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17655 (Dist Kan 1991)
Eric Walton, Plaintiff, vs. Oz Bicycle Club Of Wichita, Defendant.
United States District Court For The District Of Kansas
1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17655
November 21, 1991, Decided
November 22, 1991, Filed
COUNSEL: PLAINTIFF COUNSEL: David P. Calvert, Focht, Hughey, Hund & Calvert, 807 North Waco, Suite 300, Wichita, KS 67203
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Don D. Gribble, II, Donald N. Peterson, II, Kahrs, Nelson, Fanning, Hite & Kellogg, 200 West Douglas, Suite 630, Wichita, KS 67202
OPINION BY: PATRICK F. KELLY
OPINION: Nearing the end of the sixth lap of the seven-lap bicycle race held in Hutchinson, Kansas on August 12, 1989, Eric Walton began to pull into the lead. Closely pursued by two other racers, Walton approached the intersection of Crazy Horse and Snokomo Streets. The course of the race required the racers traveling east on Crazy Horse to make a left turn at the intersection onto Snokomo.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Leaning into the turn at about 30 miles per hour, Walton cut the northwest corner of the intersection about two feet from the curb. Flying past the corner, Walton was able to see for the first time the car stopped at the stop sign at the intersection and which had been hidden by the crowd of spectators lining Crazy Horse. Walton turned to the right to avoid the car. His bike went off the roadway, striking the open door of the van owned by the race’s referee, Gaylen Medders. As a result of this accident, Walton sustained injuries which have formed the basis for the present action.
The defendant, Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita, Kansas, has moved for summary judgment on the claims advanced by Walton. Oz presents three arguments in support of its motion: (1) that the release signed by Walton bars the present action; (2) that Walton assumed the risk of the injuries received; and (3) that Oz assumed no duty of due care towards Walton.
[HN1] Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). [HN2] In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine all evidence in a light most favorable to the opposing party. McKenzie v. Mercy Hospital, 854 F.2d 365, 367 (10th Cir. 1988). [HN3] The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate its entitlement to summary judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. Ellis v. El Paso Natural Gas Co., 754 F.2d 884, 885 (10th Cir. 1985). The moving party need not disprove plaintiff’s claim; it need only establish that the factual allegations have no legal significance. Dayton Hudson Corp. v. Macerich Real Estate Co., 812 F.2d 1319, 1323 (10th Cir. 1987).
[HN4] In resisting a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials contained in its pleadings or briefs. Rather, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing the presence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial and significant probative evidence supporting the allegation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), the party opposing summary judgment must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. “In the language of the Rule, the nonmoving party must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)) (emphasis in Matsushita). [HN5] One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses, and the rule should be interpreted in a way that allows it to accomplish this purpose. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986).
Walton was an employee of the Continental Cyclery Company in Hutchinson, Kansas, and participated in the race as a member of the Continental Cyclery team. An experienced racer, Walton had participated in 20 to 30 prior races, and had experienced two prior accidents while racing.
The August 12 race in Hutchinson was sponsored by Continental Cyclery, as well as a local pizzeria and mortuary. The race was conducted under the auspices of defendant Oz Bicycle Club of Wichita, which conducts periodic bicycle races as a part of its “Toto Racing Series.” For the August 12 race, local sponsors arranged for standby emergency medical and law enforcement services, planned the course of the race, and arranged for corner marshals along the route. Medders, the chairman of Oz, took participant applications, and served as the official and timer of the race.
Entrants in the race paid an $ 8.00 fee to Oz. In addition, entrants were required to sign a release. This release provides in part:
NOTICE: THIS ENTRY BLANK AND RELEASE FORM IS A CONTRACT WITH LEGAL CONSEQUENCES. READ IT CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING.
In consideration of the acceptance of my application for entry in the above event, I hereby freely agree to and make the following contractural [sic] representations and agreements.
I fully realize the dangers of participating in a bicycle race and fully assume the risks associated with such participation including, by way of example, and not limitation, the following: the dangers of collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other racers, and fixed or moving objects; the dangers arising from surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety equipment, and weather conditions; and the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury associated with athletic cycling competition.
I hereby waive, release and discharge for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, assigns, and successors in interest (hereinafter collectively “successors”) any and all rights and claims which I have or which may hereafter accrue to me against the sponsors of this event, the Oz Bicycle Club, the promoter and any promoting organization(s), property owners, law enforcement agencies, all public entities, special districts, and properties (and their respective agents, officials, and employees) through or by which the events will be held for any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.
Similar releases were contained in the registration forms for each of the 20 to 30 prior races in which Walton had participated. Walton was given an opportunity to read the release. Having read similar forms on prior occasions, Walton did not read this release. Walton was aware of what was in the release and understood its terms.
Walton’s participation in the race was not required. However, Walton voluntarily wished to enter the race and knew that signing the release was a requirement for participation. Walton recognized the dangers of participating in a bike race. Walton signed the release.
Prior to the start of the race, Medders had warned the participants that the course of the race was not closed to traffic, and during the course of the race Walton had encountered other cars on the course. However, as he cut the corner at the end of the sixth lap, Walton had not thought of the possibility of a car, hidden by the crowd, laying in his path on the other side of the intersection.
The status of the doctrine of assumption of risk is not clear under present Kansas law. In Shufelberger v. Worden, 189 Kan. 379, 385, 369 P.2d 382 (1962), the court indicated that the doctrine of assumption of risk was generally limited to situations involving an “employment relationship or [a] contractual relationship, express or implied.” By a process of slow osmosis, the Kansas Supreme Court has held most recently that the doctrine of assumption of risk is “limited to cases such as this where a master-servant relationship is involved.” Borth v. Borth, 221 Kan. 494, 499, 561 P.2d 408 (1977). To what extent this evolution, reflected in Smith v. Blakey, 213 Kan. 91, 101, 515 P.2d 1062 (1973); Ballhorst v. Hahner-Forman-Cale, Inc., 207 Kan. 89, 484 P.2d 38 (1971); Perry v. Schmitt, 184 Kan. 758, 339 P.2d 36 (1959); George v. Beggs, 1 Kan.App.2d 356 Syl para. 1, 564 P.2d 593 (1977), is the result of an intentional, conscious modification of the law is uncertain. At no time have the state courts considered the impact of the adoption of comparative fault in relation to the continued validity of the doctrine of assumption of risk. But it is unnecessary to resolve the issue of assumption of risk here, since the court finds that the release signed by Walton is a valid exculpatory agreement which bars the present action.
In his brief in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, Walton presents several arguments in opposition to the application of the release agreement. Walton contends that the agreement reflects “overreaching” by the defendant, and cites the long list of persons protected by the agreement, including property owners in the area, law enforcement officers, and all public entities. This argument might be considered if the defendant were such a party, unconnected with either the race or the release agreement. Here, however, Oz is the bicycle club which helped to organize the race, took the applications of participants, and required the release agreements to be signed by those participants. In inserted, typed language, the agreement specifically lists “Oz Bicycle Club” as one of the parties protected by the release agreement.
Citing several Kansas cases, Walton contends that the law does not favor exculpatory agreements. This is certainly correct. But the cases cited by Walton merely establish that such agreements are disfavored and therefore are to be strictly construed. They do not establish that exculpatory agreements are inherently void as contrary to law. Mid-America Sprayers, Inc., v. United States Fire Ins. Co., 8 Kan.App.2d 451, 660 P.2d 1380 (1979).
It is correct, as Walton notes, that exculpatory agreements are void where they are contrary to established public interests. Hunter v. American Rentals, 189 Kan. 615, 371 P.2d 131 (1962); In re Estate of Shirk, 186 Kan. 311, 350 P.2d 1 (1960). Yet, despite this suggestion, Walton does not attempt to explain how bicycle racing affects important and established public interests.
The position advanced by Walton has been expressly rejected elsewhere. [HN6] Voluntary sporting competitions are not matters of important public interest, as that term is used in considering which matters may not be the subject of exculpatory agreements. “There is no compelling public interest in facilitating sponsorship and organization of the leisure activity of bicycle racing for public participation.” Okura v. United States Cycling Fed., 186 Cal.App.3d 1462, 231 Cal. Rptr. 429 (1986). See also Dobratz v. Thomson, 161 Wis.2d 502, 468 N.W.2d 654 (1991) (water skiing); Barnes v. Birmingham Intern. Raceway, Inc., 551 So.2d 929 (Ala. 1989) (automobile racing); Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063 (Wyo. 1988) (downhill skiing); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704 (Wyo. 1987) (mock gunfight conducted by gun club); McAtee v. Newhall Land & Farming, 169 Cal.App.3d 1031, 216 Cal.Rptr. 465 (1985) (motorcross racing); Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center, 168 Cal.App.3d 333, 214 Cal.Rptr. 194 (1985) (sky diving); Williams v. Cox Enternrises, Inc., 159 Ga.App. 333, 283 S.E.2d 367 (1981) (10,000 meter foot race). Even the fact that a participant considers the sport to be more than a “hobby” and hopes to someday participate at an Olympic level, will not raise the matter to a compelling public interest. Buchan v. U.S. Cycling Fed., 227 Cal. App.3d 134, 277 Cal. Rptr. 887 (1991).
Walton also argues that the danger herein — an automobile on the course of the race — was not a hazard normally associated with bicycle competitions, and cites the decision of the California Court of Appeals in Bennett v. United States Cycling Fed., 193 Cal.App.3d 1485, 239 Cal. Rptr. 55 (1987), in which the court found that an automobile’s presence on the course of the raceway was found to be a risk not normally associated with bicycle racing, and therefore not within the contemplation of an exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff. Unlike Bennett, where the bicycle race involved a “closed race” in which automobiles were not to be permitted on the raceway, the uncontradicted facts herein establish that the presence of automobiles on the course of the Toto race in Hutchinson was not unknown to the participants. Rather, the fact that the course was open to normal traffic was explicitly made known to the participants. Under the factual background of the case, there is no basis for the contention that the plaintiff could not or should not have anticipated the presence of automobiles on the raceway as a danger reflected in the release agreement.
[HN7] Although exculpatory agreements have an inherent potential for abuse and overreaching, and hence are subjected to close scrutiny by the courts, these agreements have a vital role to play in allowing the individual to participate in activities of his own choice. If the individual has entered into an exculpatory clause freely and knowingly, and the application of the clause violates no aspect of fundamental public policy, the individual’s free choice must be respected. Here, public policy supports, rather than detracts from, the application of the exculpatory clause. “Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.” Buchan, 227 Cal.App.3d at 147.
IT IS ACCORDINGLY ORDERED this 21 day of November, 1991, that the defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 35) is hereby granted.
PATRICK F. KELLY, JUDGE
Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 956 N.E.2d 954; 2011 Ill. App. LEXIS 725; 2011 IL App (1st) 103604; 353 Ill. Dec. 826Posted: October 22, 2012
Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 956 N.E.2d 954; 2011 Ill. App. LEXIS 725; 2011 IL App (1st) 103604; 353 Ill. Dec. 826
Brian Hellweg, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Special Events Management; Chicago Special Events Management; Henry Richard Zemola, Individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of Special Events Management and Chicago Special Events Management; Anthony w. Abruscato, Individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of Special Events Management and Chicago Special Events Management; Steven J. Hansen, Individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of Special Events Management and Chicago Special Events Management; Joshua L. Ruston, Individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of Special Events Management and Chicago Special Events Management; Peter G. Vanderhye, Individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of Special Events Management and Chicago Special Events Management; The Village of Elk Grove; Craig B. Johnson, individually and as an Agent and/or Employee of The Village of Elk Grove; Alexian Brothers Hospital Network, and Claudine Quevedo, as Mother and Next of Friend of Greg B. Quevedo, a Minor, Defendants-Appellees.
APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIRST DISTRICT, FIFTH DIVISION
956 N.E.2d 954; 2011 Ill. App. LEXIS 725; 2011 IL App (1st) 103604; 353 Ill. Dec. 826
July 8, 2011, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Released for Publication August 26, 2011.
Appeal denied by Hellweg v. Special Events Mgmt., 2011 Ill. LEXIS 1963 (Ill., Nov. 30, 2011)
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. 10 L 1057. Honorable James D. Egan, Judge Presiding.
COUNSEL: COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Carolyn Daley Scott.
COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Ronald G. Zamarin.
JUDGES: JUDGE EPSTEIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Joseph Gordon and Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion.
OPINION BY: EPSTEIN
[*956] JUDGE EPSTEIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Justices Joseph Gordon and Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion.
[***P1] Plaintiff, Brian Hellweg, appeals the involuntary dismissal of his negligence claims pursuant to section 2-619 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2008)). He maintains the trial court relied on an unenforceable release to dismiss his claims. We affirm.
[***P3] Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit seeking to recover damages he sustained while preparing for a 2009 bicycling race organized by defendants Special Events Management, Henry Zemola, Anthony Abruscato, Steven Hansen, Joshua Ruston, Peter Vanderhye, Village of Elk Grove, Craig Johnson, and Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. The race was held on municipal streets advertised as a “closed course,” an undefined term. Plaintiff was injured [**2] when he collided with a nonparticipating bicyclist, Greg B. Quevedo, a minor, while participating in a warm-up session organized by defendants. Plaintiff alleges they collided as a result of defendants’ failure to close the course as promised prior to the session. Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s negligence claims with prejudice pursuant to section 2-619, arguing, inter alia, that plaintiff signed a “2009 USA Cycling Event Release Form” (the Release) exculpating them from liability. Plaintiff responded the Release was unenforceable because his collision with Quevedo was not foreseeable. The trial court disagreed, granting defendants’ motions. Plaintiff appealed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (Ill. S. Ct. R. 304(a) (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)).
[***P5] [HN1] “The purpose of a section 2-619 motion to dismiss is to dispose of issues of law and easily proved issues of fact at the outset of litigation.” Van Meter v. Darien Park District, 207 Ill. 2d 359, 367, 799 N.E.2d 273, 278 Ill. Dec. 555 (2003). Section 2-619 allows the involuntarily dismissal of released claims. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2008). We review such dismissals de novo and must determine “whether a genuine issue of material fact exists and whether the defendant [**3] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Saichek v. Lupa, 204 Ill. 2d 127, 134, 787 N.E.2d 827, 272 Ill. Dec. 641 (2003). We accept “as true all well-pleaded facts, along with all reasonable inferences that can be gleaned from those facts,” and we “interpret all pleadings and supporting documents in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Porter v. Decatur Memorial Hospital, 227 Ill. 2d 343, 352, 882 N.E.2d 583, 317 Ill. Dec. 703 (2008).
[***P6] [HN2] Parties in Illinois may generally contract away liability for their own negligence. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd, 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 584, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Such “agreements are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party they benefit.” Falkner v. Hinckley Parachute Center, Inc., 178 Ill. App. 3d 597, 603, 533 N.E.2d 941, 127 Ill. Dec. 859 (1989). However, they “must be given a fair and reasonable interpretation based upon a consideration of all of [the] language and provisions.” Id.
[HN3] “[A]bsent fraud or wilful and wanton negligence, the contract will be valid and enforceable unless: (1) there is a substantial disparity in the bargaining position of the two parties; (2) to uphold the exculpatory clause would be violative of public policy; or (3) there is something in the social relationship between the [*957] two parties [**4] that would militate against upholding the clause. [Citations.] The rationale for this rule is that courts should not interfere with the right of two parties to contract with one another if they freely and knowingly enter into the agreement.” Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 584.
Plaintiff here does not claim fraud, wilful and wanton negligence, a special relationship with defendants, substantial disparity in bargaining power, or a public policy violation. He argues only that the risk at issue was not foreseeable and thus not assumed by him.
[HN4] “[A]n exculpatory clause, to be valid and enforceable, should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. [Citation.] In this way the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. [Citation.] The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was entered into. [Citation.] It should only [**5] appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” Id. at 585.
[HN5] “Foreseeability of a specific danger is thus an important element of the risk which a party assumes, and, for this reason, serves to define the scope of an exculpatory clause. This is but another way of stating that, although the type of negligent acts from which a person expressly agrees to excuse another need not be foreseen with absolute clarity, such acts cannot lie beyond the reasonable contemplation of the parties ***.” Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 577, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984).
[HN6] “Whether a particular injury is one which ordinarily accompanies a certain activity and whether a plaintiff appreciates and assumes the risks associated with the activity often constitute a question of fact.” Simpson v. Byron Dragway, Inc., 210 Ill. App. 3d 639, 647, 569 N.E.2d 579, 155 Ill. Dec. 398 (1991). Here, plaintiff’s release provides, in pertinent part:
“I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT, I AM ASSUMING RISKS, AND AGREEING TO INDEMNIFY, NOT TO SUE AND RELEASE FROM LIABILITY THE ORGANIZERS OF THIS EVENT AND USA CYCLING, INC. (USAC), ITS ASSOCIATIONS [**6] *** AND THEIR RESPECTIVE AGENTS, EMPLOYEES, VOLUNTEERS, MEMBERS, CLUBS, SPONSORS, PROMOTERS AND AFFILIATES (COLLECTIVELY ‘RELEASEES’), AND THAT I AM GIVING UP SUBSTANTIAL LEGAL RIGHTS. THIS RELEASE IS A CONTRACT WITH LEGAL AND BINDING CONSEQUENCES AND IT APPLIES TO ALL RACES AND ACTIVITIES ENTERED AT THE EVENT REGARDLESS WHETHER OR NOT LISTED ABOVE. I HAVE READ IT CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING, AND I UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS AND WHAT I AM AGREEING TO BY SIGNING.
In consideration of the issuance of a license to me by one or more of Releasees or the acceptance of my application for entry in the above event, I hereby freely agree to and make the following contractual representations [*958] and agreements. I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT CYCLING IS AN INHERENTLY DANGEROUS SPORT AND FULLY REALIZE THE DANGERS OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS EVENT, whether as a rider, official, coach, mechanic, volunteer, or otherwise, and FULLY ASSUME THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH SUCH PARTICIPATION INCLUDING, by way of example, and not limitation: *** dangers of collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects; *** THE RELEASEES’ OWN NEGLIGENCE, the negligence of others ***; and the possibility of serious physical [**7] and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event. *** I HEREBY WAIVE. RELEASE, DISCHARGE, HOLD HARMLESS, AND PROMISE TO INDEMNIFY AND NOT TO SUE the Releasees and all sponsors, organizers, promoting organizations, property owners, law enforcement agencies, public entities, special districts and properties that are in any manner connected with this event, and their respective agents, officials, and employees through or by which the event will be held, (the foregoing are also collectively deemed to be Releasees), FROM ANY AND ALL RIGHTS AND CLAIMS INCLUDING CLAIMS ARISING FROM THE RELEASEES’ OWN NEGLIGENCE, which I have or may hereafter accrue to me, and from any and all damages which may be sustained by me directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, my participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event. I agree it is my sole responsibility to be familiar with the event course and agenda, the Releasees’ rules, and any special regulations for the event and agree to comply with all such rules and regulations. I understand and agree that situations may arise during the event which may be beyond the control of Releasees, [**8] and I must continually ride and otherwise participate so as to neither endanger myself nor others.” (Emphasis in original.)
This agreement unambiguously absolves defendants of all claims arising out of the event even if caused by their own negligence. Plaintiff maintains the Release is nevertheless unenforceable because the presence of a nonparticipant bicyclist on the course is not a risk ordinarily attendant to closed course races. According to plaintiff:
“When a cycling race is advertised as closed course, it means that all intersections and streets are closed and barricaded to ensure that no one, other than those participating and involved in the race, are permitted onto the course. This enables the cyclists to ride along the streets and through the intersections on the course without having to worry that there will be another vehicle or non-participating cyclist crossing through the intersection.”
The presence of nonparticipants in bicycle races conducted on municipal streets is an inherent and reasonably foreseeable risk. Even assuming, arguendo, that such risk is absent in closed course races, a matter of dispute, plaintiff nevertheless assumed that allegedly extraordinary risk [**9] here by expressly agreeing to absolve defendants of liability for “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Closed course or not, plaintiff’s release plainly contemplates the possibility of pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and/or fixed or moving objects on the course. The Release encompasses plaintiff’s collision.
[***P7] Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that “the language ‘other riders or moving or fixed [*959] objects’ does not reasonably encompass a minor who was able to ride his bicycle onto the course due to the Defendants failing to properly close the streets.” According to plaintiff, he “did not nor could he have foreseen that Defendants would negligently fail to close the course,” and “there is no possible way that he could have contemplated that the Defendants intended that the release encompass their negligent conduct in failing to close the course.” We disagree. The Release unambiguously states plaintiff is relinquishing “ANY AND ALL *** CLAIMS ARISING FROM THE [DEFENDANT’S] OWN NEGLIGENCE.” (Emphasis in original.) Moreover, the relevant inquiry for purposes of enforcing the Release is not whether plaintiff foresaw defendants’ exact act of negligence [**10] or his exact collision. It is whether plaintiff knew or should have known colliding with a nonparticipant on the course was a risk encompassed by his release. As our supreme court explained in the context of automobile racing:
[HN7] “[A] myriad of factors, which are either obvious or unknown, may singly or in combination result in unexpected and freakish racing accidents. *** The parties may not have contemplated the precise occurrence which resulted in plaintiff’s accident, but this does not render the exculpatory clause inoperable. In adopting the broad language employed in the agreement, it seems reasonable to conclude that the parties contemplated the similarly broad range of accidents which occur in auto racing.” Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980).
Similarly, bicycle racing on municipal streets undoubtably poses risk of injury to the public, riders, and race personnel, even when the course is closed. Various scenarios could arise in which a rider is injured, including, as in this case, collision with a nonparticipant. All such scenarios need not be enumerated in the release. It is sufficient if the language used therein is broad enough to reasonably demonstrate the parties [**11] contemplated the risk at issue. The release here plainly assigns plaintiff the risk of collision on the course, including, but not limited to, “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” This includes plaintiff’s collision with Quevedo. Even if it did not, the Release was manifestly “designed to encompass all claims against defendant[s] based on [their] negligence, even though the precise cause of the accident may have been extraordinary,” Id. at 86. We affirm the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims with prejudice. The trial court properly concluded as a matter of law that plaintiff’s negligence claims are barred by the Release.
[***P9] We affirm the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims with prejudice. The Release is enforceable.