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.

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.

Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

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

Year: 2009

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
fate.

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.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Maine upholds release in a mountain bike race and awards defendants costs and attorney fees

Lloyd v. Sugarloaf Mountain Corp. et al., 2003 ME 117; 833 A.2d 1; 2003 Me. LEXIS 131

The plaintiff argued the release was not valid because the injury occurred during a practice run.

In this case, the plaintiff was injured during a practice run for a mountain-bike race. The plaintiff sued the ski area, Sugarloaf Mountain and the organization that sponsored the race National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA). NORBA is now part of USA Cycling. The name of the race was the Widowmaker Challenge mountain bicycle race. The name was mentioned several times in the opinion.

Before racing the plaintiff had to sign a release to join NORBAwhere he signed a release. He also signed a release to enter the race. The lower court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment and based on an indemnification clause in one of the releases granted the defendants judgment against the plaintiff for $18,420.50.

2011 USA Cycling Pro Gravity Tour at Northstar

The plaintiff argued the first release was superseded by the second release, and the second release was ambiguous and vague. He also argued that because the injury occurred during a practice run, the releases did not apply. All parties agreed that the racers had to participate in the practice session.

The NORBA release was a well-written release and excluded claim for liability for negligence of any person or organization. The race release simply said discharge the defendant for all claims and liability and promise not to sue. However, the race release contained indemnification language that allowed the defendants to counterclaim for the costs and attorney fees for defending the lawsuit.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and willful and wanton negligence. The race release gave the plaintiff the idea to sue for willful and wanton negligence I suspect because in the indemnification clause language, it excluded claims for willful and wanton negligence.

However, Maine does not support claims for willful and wanton negligence.

Summary

The court first looked at the releases to see if one release superseded the prior release. To supersede another agreement one agreement must be inconsistent with the other agreement. The court found this was not the case. Although they were similar and overlapped, and one was more specific than the other was not enough to make the releases inconsistent. Nor was there anything in either agreement to indicate that one release was to supersede the other release.

The next issue the court reviewed was whether the releases were valid under Maine law. Maine like most states holds that a release “…must “expressly spell out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.”” Releases are strictly construed against the party seeking immunity from liability.

The court found the membership release, the NORBA release that referenced negligence in the release “…sufficiently spells out the parties’ intent to extinguish the negligence liability of NORBA and Sugarloaf

The court then examined the claim that the practice run where the plaintiff was injured was not sufficiently connected to the race to be covered by the release. However, the court found that since the practice session was mandatory the release covered it. The court also found the language in the release covered the practice run.

The final argument made by the plaintiff was the release was against public policy in Maine. The court stated it would be “hard-pressed” to conclude that an event titled Widowmaker Challenge is a public service or that there was a compulsion on the part of the participants to sign that would make the release void as against public policy.

Finally, the court looked at the indemnification clause in the second or race release. The court found the language was unambiguous and that the plaintiff was contractually bound to indemnify the defendants.

There was a dissent in the case. The dissent argued the release should be upheld but that the indemnification clause in the release was unclear and ambiguous. Under Maine’s law to be clear the language of the release must be unequivocal in its intent:

…on the part of the parties to provide indemnity for loss caused by negligence of the party to be indemnified that liability for such damages will be fastened on the indemnitor, and words of general import will not be read as expressing such an intent and establishing by inference such liability.

The dissent also found the indemnification clause to be ambiguous. A contractual provision is “ambiguous if it is reasonably possible to give that provision at least two different meanings.”

The dissent found two different meanings to the clause in the defendant’s motions. NORBA’ s briefs argued the clause one way and Sugarloaf’s brief interpreted the clause a different way.

So Now What?

This case is pretty simple and quite clear.

1. Your release needs to include the word negligence under Maine law.

2. Your release must not be written to conflict with any other release that may be used in the same case to prevent litigation. If you are aware of two or more releases being signed by the parties for the same event, make sure the releases do not cancel each other out.

3. Make sure your release covers all aspects of the activity. You can never tell when an accident will occur, where a person will be injured or whether or not someone may sue because of those issues.

4. Although upheld by the majority a dissent always should be read to make sure your release or language incorporates any of those issues in the future. Dissents with a change of the court can become a majority opinion in the future, even with the legal precedent of stare decisis.

5. If you name your event with a scary name, there is a better chance that participants and the courts will understand it was a risk event.

6. Make sure your release is clearly written and written so that the person signing the release cannot argue they did not understand the release.

Sugarloaf needs to thank NORBA for writing a release that protected both of them. NORBA should thank Sugarloaf for at least writing an indemnification clause that worked.

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