United States District Court for the District of Utah
June 3, 2020, Decided; June 3, 2020, Filed
Civil No. 1:17-cv-79
Cycling, Defendant: Robert L. Janicki, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lance H. Locke, STRONG & HANNI, SANDY, UT.
For Ogden Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, Ogden/Weber Convention & Visitors Bureau, Defendants: Lloyd R. Jones, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF LLOYD R JONES, OKLAHOMA CITY, OK.
For Breakaway Promotions, LLC, Defendant: Dennis R. James, LEAD ATTORNEY, MORGAN MINNOCK RICE & MINER, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Gerald Finken entered the 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race. On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map published for the race. As he came around a turn on the route, he saw a concrete barrier blocking the road. Finken attempted to swerve around it, but crashed and suffered serious neck and back injuries. He has filed suit against USA Cycling, Inc. and Breakaway Promotions, LLC for negligently failing to warn riders about the barricade. Defendants have moved for summary judgment [*2] on the ground that Finken signed a waiver of liability. For the reasons stated below, the court denies the motions for summary judgment.
The 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA
Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 20); USA
Cycling Answer, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 30). It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 7 (ECF No. 56-7). Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate.” Id.
Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [*3] [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.1
Cycling Depo., 33:19-35:1 (ECF No. 38-5) (given by Charles R. Hodge).
Before publication, USA
Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Leif Depo., 9:24-10:10 (ECF No. 45-1). Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” Id. 10:10-14. “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Id. at 10:15-20. Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA
Cycling to review, and then “USA
Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course.” Sperry Depo., 30:4-17 (ECF No. 56-8). USA
Cycling disputes it prepared the map. Id. at 30:18-23; Leif Depo., 11:1-5 (ECF No. 45-1).
Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA
Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. [*4] Sperry Depo., 20:10-14, 23:1-3 (ECF No. 56-8). A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. Id. at 21:2-6, 22:16-20. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. Id. at 26:21-23. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.
Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Id. at 22:9-15, 23:8-11. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA
Cycling‘s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. Leif Depo., 12:22-24 (ECF No. 45-1). “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA
Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” Id. at 14:1-19, 15:3-5. The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. Id. at 14:18-22, 39:24-40:2. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Id. at 15:10-13. Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing [*5] pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. See id. at 13:11-17, 15:6-9, 16:13-22. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. Id. at 17:14-18. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Id. at 30:3-10. Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure. Sperry Depo., at 40:10-25 (ECF No. 56-8).
On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA
Cycling. Finken Depo., 60:5-7, 63:6-16 (ECF No. 38-3). Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Id. at 68:8-25. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. Id. at 78:18-79:12. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Id. at 77:10-16, 80:7-12, 82:24-83:21. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. Id. at 82:4-5, 83:25-84:2. He was hospitalized for [*6] two days for serious neck and back injuries. Id. at 107:16-108:25.
After the accident, USA
Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event. Leif Depo., 24:23-25:3, 26:3-7, 27:9-21. Finken contends Breakaway and USA
Cycling were negligent in not giving that warning sooner. Both defendants contend, however, they cannot be liable for negligence because Finken signed a pre-injury waiver entitled, “Acknowledgment of Risk, Release of Liability, Indemnification Agreement and Covenant not to Sue” (the “Waiver”).
Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Order Summary, at 4 (ECF No. 45-1). Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious [*7] physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id.
Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA
Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Id. (emphasis omitted). Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id.
I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
“Summary judgment is proper if the movant demonstrates that there is ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact’ and that it is ‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Thom v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). The defendants’ motions seek summary judgment based on the terms of a preinjury waiver. The parties have applied Utah law to address the claims in this case.
II. WAIVER AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENTS
In Utah, “[i]t is well settled that preinjury releases of claims for ordinary negligence can be valid and enforceable.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (citation omitted). “Indeed . . . the majority of jurisdictions” permit “people to surrender their rights [*8] to recover in tort for the negligence of others.” Id. (citations omitted). This does not mean, however, that preinjury waivers are favored. Rather, “the shortcomings of exculpatory clauses . . . provide ample cause to approach preinjury releases with caution.” Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, ¶ 11, 171 P.3d 442, overruled in part by Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150. Thus, not all preinjury waivers are valid. “Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (quotations and citations omitted).
As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.” Id. (citation omitted).
A. Clarity of the Waiver
“Preinjury releases, to be enforceable, must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.” Pearce v. Utah Athletic Found., 2008 UT 13, ¶ 22, 179 P.3d 760, 767, overruled in part by Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150, (quotations and citations omitted). The Utah [*9] Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law. Daines v. Vincent, 2008 UT 51, ¶ 25, 190 P.3d 1269 (citation omitted). If there is ambiguity as to the intent of the parties, that is a question of fact requiring admission of parol evidence. Id. (citation omitted). In this case, however, the court only addresses facial ambiguity because if the Waiver is not clear on its face, it is unenforceable.
The Waiver has clear language releasing USA
Cycling from negligence. What is less clear is negligence from what activity? The Waiver notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” due to such dangers as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, at 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis added). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id. (emphasis added). These provisions appear to provide notice about the event itself and [*10] the dangers that may arise from it. Finken‘s injuries, however, arose from a pre-ride. When a map is published of a racecourse on a public road, one reasonably anticipates that road is open to travel. Although both defendants knew the road was closed until the race, they did not inform participants of that fact. Thus, they exposed pre-riders to a risk that is not inherent in a race on a public road. See Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Fin., Co., LLC, 2019 UT 27, ¶¶ 19, 79, 445 P.3d 474 (citation omitted) (noting inherent risks are those that are an essential characteristic of a sport and “cannot be alleviated by the use of reasonable care” by an operator).
The Waiver goes on to state, however, that it releases “all damages which may be sustained by [Finken] directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id. (emphasis added). The only reason Finken was on the Old Snowbasin Road was in preparation for the event. His pre-ride therefore was in connection with his participation in that 2014 Championship race. Accordingly, the court concludes the Waiver was clear as to USA
Breakaway contends the waiver also applied to it because it releases [*11] “USA
Cycling‘s Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials.” Mem. in Supp., at 14 (ECF No. 56). While the Waiver does release those persons, Breakaway has not specified which of those it was. It has failed to show it was an event director, affiliate, agent, or official.
The Waiver was USA
Cycling‘s waiver, and it appears to protect those persons directly affiliated with USA
Cycling. Based on Leif’s title as National Event Manager and Rice’s title as Vice President of National Events, the “Event Directors” may reference them and not Breakaway. The term is not defined in the Waiver and is too ambiguous for the court to conclude the Waiver is sufficiently clear on its fact to apply to Breakaway.
Breakaway entered an Independent Contractor Agreement that specifies it was “not an employee, or servant of” USA
Cycling. Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 2 (ECF No. 56-7). The agreement further specifies that Breakaway would “be solely and entirely responsible for its acts, and for the acts of independent contractor’s agents, employees, servants and subcontractors during the performance of this agreement.” Id. ¶ 3 (emphasis omitted). Nowhere in the agreement does it identify Breakaway as an event director, [*12] or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA
B. Public Interest Exception
The public interest exception invalidates a preinjury release when “it attempts to limit liability for activities in which there is a strong public interest.” Berry, 2007 UT 87, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 442. The Utah Supreme Court has adopted the six factors stated in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (Cal. 1963) to determine if the public interest exception applies. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 17, 179 P.3d 760 (citations omitted). For recreational activities, however, it has gone one step further. In Pearce, the Court “join[ed] other states in declaring, as a general rule, that recreational activities do not constitute a public interest and that, therefore, preinjury releases for recreational activities cannot be invalidated under the public interest exception.” Id. at ¶¶ 18, 21.
As stated above, Finken‘s pre-ride was done in connection with his expected participation in the 2014 Championship. Because the event and the pre-ride were recreational activities, the court concludes the public interest exception is inapplicable in this case.
C. Public Policy Exception
Finken [*13] further contends the Waiver is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy. “To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 26, 301 P.3d 984. The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.” Id. (quotations, citation, and alteration omitted). Thus, this exception should be applied, “if at all, only with the utmost circumspection.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted).
i. Penunuri Analysis – Equine Act
In Penunuri, the Utah Supreme Court addressed whether Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act made certain preinjury waivers unenforceable as a matter of public policy. The waiver at issue in Penunuri, noted “that horseback riding involves significant risk of serious personal injury, and that there are certain inherent risks associated with the activity . . . that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them.” Id. at ¶ 3 (quotations omitted).
Utah’s Equine Act specifies “equine [*14] activity sponsors are not liable for injuries caused by the ‘inherent risks’ associated with equine activities.” Id. at ¶ 9 (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202)). The same section also specifies, however, that a sponsor may be liable if an injury results from actions of the sponsor. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202(2). The plaintiff argued the Legislature struck a balance as a matter of public policy by removing liability for inherent risks but keeping liability for negligent actions. She asserted the balancing of interests was similar to the Court’s analysis in Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 2007 UT 96, 175 P.3d 560. Thus, she argued any waiver barring recovery from a sponsor who was negligent was contrary to public policy. The Court disagreed.
It found the Equine Act did not have a public policy statement like Utah’s Inherent Risk of Skiing Act addressed in Rothstein. Id. at ¶ 24. When the Legislature eliminated liability for the inherent risks of horseback riding, it did “not explain the motivation behind” that decision. Id. at ¶ 32. Nor did the Equine Act note the economic importance of the activity for the State. Most importantly, it lacked the central purpose of the Skiing Act to “permit equine sponsors to purchase insurance at affordable rates.” Id. at ¶ 33 (quotations and citation omitted). [*15] “[I]t was that ‘central purpose’ . . . that led [the Court] to infer that the Legislature had struck a ‘public policy bargain’ when it eliminated liability for the inherent risks of skiing.” Id. Without “a similar expression . . . in the Equine Act,” the Court “resist[ed] the temptation to add language or meaning to the Act where no hint of it exist[ed] in the text.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the Court concluded the waiver in Penunuri did not violate public policy. The Court reached a similar conclusion in Pearce, whereby “a preinjury release between a public bobsled ride operator and an adult bobsled rider” was deemed enforceable. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 15, 179 P.3d 760.
ii. Rothstein Analysis – Skiing Act
The distinguishing factor between Rothstein and other cases is the combination of a public policy statement and a legislative balancing of risks between operators and participants. In Rothstein, a skier “collided with a retaining wall constructed of stacked railroad ties and embedded partially in the mountain.” Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶ 3, 175 P.3d 560. “At the time of the accident, a light layer of snow camouflaged the retaining wall from [the skier’s] view. . . . [T]he retaining wall was unmarked and no measures had been taken to alert skiers [*16] to its presence.” Id. Rather, the ski resort “had placed a rope line with orange flagging near the wall,” but the rope stopped short and created “a large gap between the end of the rope and a tree.” Id. The skier thought the gap “indicated an entrance to the Fluffy Bunny run.” Id. He suffered serious injuries when he collided with the retaining wall. Id.
When analyzing Utah’s Skiing Act, the Court observed that “[s]eldom does a statute address directly the public policy relevant to the precise legal issue confronting a court.” Id. ¶ 11. It nevertheless found a clear “public policy rationale” for the Skiing Act. Id. Within that statute, the Legislature found that skiing “‘significantly contribute[es] to the economy of this state.'” Id. ¶ 12 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51 renumbered at
§ 78B-4-401). The Legislature also found ski operators were having difficulty obtaining insurance at an affordable rate or at all. Id. (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51). Thus, it struck a balance where operators could not be held liable “‘for injuries resulting from those inherent risks.'” Id. (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51).
The bargain struck by the Act is both simple and obvious from its public policy provision: ski area operators would [*17] be freed from liability for inherent risks of skiing so that they could continue to shoulder responsibility for noninherent risks by purchasing insurance. By extracting a preinjury release from [the skier] for liability due to their negligent acts, [the resort] breached this public policy bargain.
Id. ¶ 16. The distinguishing factor between the balance struck in the Equine Act and the balance struck in Skiing Act was the express public policy statement that the balance was necessary due to the economic benefit to the State and the ski resort’s inability to insure itself for the inherent risks associated with skiing.
iii. Bike Racing Analysis
The facts giving rise to Finken‘s injuries are closely analogous to the facts in Rothstein. In Rothstein, a wall was unmarked and where one did not expect it to be. In this case, a barricade was unmarked on the course map and where one did not expect it to be. Neither the wall nor the barricade was within the inherent risks of the relevant sport. Although the facts are similar between the two cases, the issue before the court is whether Utah has a public policy that precludes USA
Cycling from avoiding liability for risks that are not inherent in a [*18] bike race.
The Utah Legislature has found there are inherent risks associated with bike riding. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-509(1)(a), (d). For injuries arising from inherent risks of participating in bike riding, the Legislature has afforded protection to “a county, municipality, local district, . . . or special service district.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(a). It also has afforded protection to “the owner of property that is leased, rented, or otherwise made available to” the government “for the purpose of providing or operating a recreational activity.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(b). The Legislature chose not to “relieve any other person from an obligation that the person would have in the absence of this section to exercise due care.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(3)(b). That balance is different from the Equine Act and the Skiing Act because it leaves operators of biking events without any statutory protections.
In another section of statute, the Legislature more particularly addressed bike races. It stated bike racing is permitted on a highway only if approved by the highway authority of the relevant jurisdiction. Id.
§ 41-6a-1111. The State has a significant interest in ensuring safety on its public highways. Bike racing can impact not just the participants, but spectators or those in a motor vehicle trying [*19] to navigate the same highway. Thus, the Legislature specified before approval may be granted, conditions must exist to “assure reasonable safety for all race participants, spectators, and other highway users.” Id.
The Utah Department of Transportation instituted regulations to carry out the intent and purpose of the statute. The Department noted one purpose of its regulation was to “[e]ncourage and support special events such as . . . bicycle races” because it “recognize[d] their importance to Utah’s economy and to the well-being of residents of and visitors to Utah.” Utah Admin. Code R920-4-1(1)(b). Nevertheless, “to further . . . governmental interests,” it implemented safety protocols to ensure “[t]he safety of all participants in, and spectators of, special events,” as well as the travelling public. Id. at R920-4-1(2)(b), (c).
One protocol requires a person or entity to obtain a special event permit before holding a bike race on a highway. Id. at R920-4-1(4)(g), (i). To obtain a special event permit, the applicant must “provide a detailed map.” Id. at R920-4-13. The applicant also must have “liability insurance,” and such insurance must list the State of Utah “as an additional insured.” Id. at R920-4-9(1); [*20] see also id. at R920-4-6. Consistent with statute, the applicant must obtain a waiver and release of liability from participants that releases the State and governmental personnel. Id. at R920-4-9(3)-(4). Although the statutory provision bars claims against the government for inherent risks, the regulatory waiver bars all claims. Similarly, though, there is no exclusion from liability for the operator of a bike race.
Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, [*21] and the travelling public.
Utah has recognized, however, that if liability insurance must cover inherent and non-inherent risks of a sport, the cost may be prohibitive and thereby hinder holding events or activities that would provide an economic benefit to the state. Hindering such economic benefits would be contrary to one of the stated purposes of the regulation. Thus, one may reasonably conclude that liability for inherent risks may be waived by the bike race participants so as not to hinder the economic benefits to the State.
The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of [*22] public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA
iv. Modification of the Utah’s Skiing Act
An additional issue has arisen since briefing on the motions. From 2007 until 2020, the Rothstein balance existed between operators and skiers whereby preinjury waivers were enforceable for risks inherent in skiing, but not for unforeseen risks arising from the negligent actions of the operator. See Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶¶ 16, 19, 175 P.3d 560. In 2020, the Utah Legislature altered this balance by passing legislation that allows preinjury waivers without regard to whether the risk was unforeseen. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-405 (2020). Moreover, claims brought on or after May 12, 2020, if not otherwise barred, have a noneconomic damages cap of $1,000,000. Id. at § 78B-4-406. The Legislature’s actions have abrogated the ruling in Rothstein and will necessarily impact future preinjury waiver analyses for other recreational activities.
The question here is whether the Legislature’s change of public policy should be applied retroactively to the analysis in this case. The United States Supreme Court has stated “the principle that the legal effect [*23] of conduct should ordinarily be assessed under the law that existed when the conduct took place has timeless and universal appeal.” Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 265, 114 S. Ct. 1483, 1497, 128 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1994) (quotations and citation omitted). Moreover, the Due Process Clause “protects the interests in fair notice and repose that may be compromised by retroactive legislation.” Id. at 266 (citation omitted).
Here, the legislation was approved on March 28, 2020, but made effective May 12, 2020. This shows a clear intent for future application of law. Accordingly, the public policy analysis applied in Rothstein was still applicable at the time of the events in this case and informs this court’s decision.
Conning v. Dietrich, 2011 NY Slip Op 51340U; 32 Misc. 3d 1215A; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3481
Suzanne M. Conning, Plaintiff, against Robert J. Dietrich, BROOKLYN TRIATHLON CLUB and JOHN STEWART, Defendants.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY
2011 NY Slip Op 51340U; 32 Misc. 3d 1215A; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3481
July 15, 2011, Decided
NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: bicycle, training, triathlon, route, summary judgment, shoulder, weekend, roadway, ride, cyclist, riding, participating, cycling, recreational, risk of injuries, issues of fact, participated, cross-claims, bicyclist, verified, hazard, sport, assumption of risk, experienced, recreation, amusement, triable, speed, mile, paceline
[**1215A] Negligence–Assumption of Risk–Injury during Cycling Event. Release–Scope of Release.
COUNSEL: [***1] For CONNING, Plaintiff: Alan T. Rothbard, Esq., Harrison & Rothbard, P.C., forest Hills, NY.
For DIETRICH, Defendant: Michael J. Caulfield, Esq., Connors & Connors, PC, Staten Island NY.
For STEWART & BTC, Defendant: French & Casey LLP, NY NY.
JUDGES: HON. ARTHUR M. SCHACK, J. S. C.
OPINION BY: ARTHUR M. SCHACK
Arthur M. Schack, J. [*2]
Plaintiff SUZANNE M. CONNING (CONNING), a resident of Brooklyn (Kings County), fell off a bicycle while participating in an August 2, 2008 triathlon training ride on New York State Route 28, a designated state bicycle route, in Ulster County. After her fall she was struck by an automobile owned and operated by defendant ROBERT J. DIETRICH (DIETRICH). Plaintiff had been training intensively for two upcoming triathlons she planned to enter. Defendant BROOKLYN TRIATHLON CLUB (BTC) organized weekend trips to allow triathletes, such as plaintiff CONNING, to train for upcoming events. Defendant BTC designated defendant JOHN STEWART (STEWART) to lead its cycling training the weekend of plaintiff CONNING’s accident.
Defendants BTC and STEWART move for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff’s verified complaint and all cross-claims against them, pursuant to CPLR Rule 3212, alleging, among [***2] other things, that: plaintiff CONNING assumed the risk of injuries she sustained by voluntarily participating in defendant BTC’s triathlon training weekend; and, plaintiff CONNING signed a valid waiver of liability releasing defendants BTC and STEWART from any liability that they may sustain in a BTC event. Defendant DIETRICH moves for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff’s verified complaint and all cross-claims against him, pursuant to CPLR Rule 3212, alleging that: plaintiff CONNING caused her own accident by following the cyclist in front of her too closely; and, there is no evidence that defendant DIETRICH failed to use reasonable care in the operation of his motor vehicle. Plaintiff opposes both motions. For the reasons to follow, the Court grants summary judgment to defendants BTC and STEWART and denies summary judgment to defendant DIETRICH.
Plaintiff CONNING had experience as a “triathalete” before the subject accident, having participated in three prior triathlons and other organized bicycling events, including a thirty-five (35) mile bike tour in September or October 2006. When plaintiff lived in Arizona, from 2001-2005, she participated several times per [***3] month in organized and informal cycling rides and mountain biked several times per year. Subsequently, plaintiff moved to New York and joined BTC in November 2007. In 2008, plaintiff began participating in instructional cycling rides with BTC members. Plaintiff Conning testified in her examination before trial (EBT) that: she gradually increased the frequency of her rides and the distance covered to develop endurance and strength; her training rides included bike paths in Brooklyn with pedestrians and highways with motor vehicles; and, she was aware of the potential hazards a cyclist encounters on roads, including small stones, ruts and cracks.
Defendant BTC organized a triathlon training weekend for the first weekend of August 2008, based in Phoenicia, New York, to train its members in the skills necessary for triathlon events. Plaintiff signed BTC’s waiver of liability, on July 29, 2008, before commencing training with BTC. Then, plaintiff CONNING voluntarily took part in BTC’s three (3) day training camp in preparation for her planned participation in upcoming triathlons. Plaintiff testified, in her [*3] EBT, that on Friday, August 1, 2008, she participated in a twenty (20) mile bicycle [***4] ride and then chose to take a thirty-five (35) mile ride the next day, led by defendant STEWART. In the August 2, 2008-ride, the six riders stayed in a paceline if the road was straight and level. In a paceline, bicycle riders, to reduce wind resistance, ride in a line with each bicycle approximately twelve to eighteen inches behind each other.
After the group traveled about twenty-five (25) miles, while on Route 28, plaintiff CONNING was last in the paceline, to keep weaker cyclists in front of her. The paceline was on the shoulder of Route 28, separated from vehicular traffic by a white line. Plaintiff CONNING testified, in her EBT, that while she was following a fellow cyclist, Cindy Kaplan, she observed the shoulder narrowing and a difference in elevation between the shoulder and the gravel area to the right of the shoulder. When plaintiff observed Ms. Kaplan leave the shoulder and swerve right onto the gravel surface, plaintiff voluntarily followed. Plaintiff testified, in her EBT, that she then attempted to get her bicycle back onto the shoulder, at which point the front wheel of her bicycle caught the slight rise in the shoulder’s elevation. This caused her wheels to stop and [***5] plaintiff CONNING was propelled over her bicycle’s handlebars onto Route 28’s roadway. Then, plaintiff CONNING was struck by defendant DIETRICH’s vehicle, which was traveling on Route 28. Further, plaintiff admitted that prior to the accident she never complained about roadway conditions to STEWART.
Summary Judgment Standard
The proponent of a summary judgment motion must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to eliminate any material issues of fact from the case. (See Alvarez v Prospect Hospital, 68 NY2d 320, 324, 501 N.E.2d 572, 508 N.Y.S.2d 923 ; Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 ; Sillman v Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 3 NY2d 395, 404, 144 N.E.2d 387, 165 N.Y.S.2d 498 ). Failure to make such a showing requires denial of the motion, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposing papers. (Winegrad v New York University Medical Center, 64 NY2d 851, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316 ; Qlisanr, LLC v Hollis Park Manor Nursing Home, Inc., 51 AD3d 651, 652, 857 N.Y.S.2d 234 [2d Dept 2008]; Greenberg v Manlon Realty, 43 AD2d 968, 969, 352 N.Y.S.2d 494 [2nd Dept 1974]).
CPLR Rule 3212 (b) requires that for a court to grant summary judgment the court must determine if the movant’s papers justify holding as a matter of law [***6] “that there is no defense to the cause of action or that the cause of action or defense has no merit.” The evidence submitted in support of the movant must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant. (Boyd v Rome Realty Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 21 AD3d 920, 921, 801 N.Y.S.2d 340 [2d Dept 2005]; Marine Midland Bank, N.A. v Dino & Artie’s Automatic Transmission Co., 168 AD2d 610, 563 N.Y.S.2d 449 [2d Dept 1990]). Summary judgment shall be granted only when there are no issues of material fact and the evidence requires the court to direct judgment in favor of the movant as a matter of law. (Friends of Animals, Inc., v Associated Fur Mfrs., 46 NY2d 1065, 390 N.E.2d 298, 416 N.Y.S.2d 790 ; Fotiatis v Cambridge Hall Tenants Corp., 70 AD3d 631, 632, 895 N.Y.S.2d 456 [2d Dept 2010]).
Plaintiff’s assumption of risk
Defendants BTC and STEWART make a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment and dismissal of the verified complaint and cross-claims against them because plaintiff CONNING assumed any risks involved with bicycle riding and she executed defendant BTC’s valid waiver of liability. The Court of Appeals, in Turcotte v Fell (68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 ), held, at 437: [*4]
It is fundamental that to recover in a negligence action a plaintiff must establish that the defendant [***7] owed him a duty to use reasonable care, and that it breached that duty . . . The statement that there is or is not a duty, however, begs the essential question — whether the plaintiff’s interests are entitled to legal protection against the defendant’s conduct. Thus, while the determination of the existence of a duty and the concomitant scope of that duty involve a consideration not only of the wrongfulness of the defendant’s action or inaction, they also necessitate an examination of plaintiff’s reasonable expectations of the care owed to him by others.
Further, in Turcotte at 438-439, the Court instructed that risks involved with sporting events:
are incidental to a relationship of free association between the defendant and the plaintiff in the sense that either party is perfectly free to engage in the activity or not as he wishes. Defendant’s duty under such circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.
The doctrine of assumption of risk is “intended to facilitate free and vigorous participation [***8] in athletic activities.” (Benitez v New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 NY2d 650, 657, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989). However, “[a]s a general rule, [sporting event] participants may be held to have consented, by their participation, to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation (see Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 277-278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 ).” (Turcotte at 439). (See Benitez at 657; Murphy v Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 NY 479, 482, 166 N.E. 173 ). To establish plaintiff’s assumption of risk, “it is not necessary . . . that the injured plaintiff have foreseen the exact manner in which the injury occurred, so long as he or she is aware of the potential for injury from the mechanism from which the injury results.” (Maddox at 278). “If a participant makes an informed estimate of the risks involved in the activity and willingly undertakes them, then there can be no liability if he is injured as a result of those risks.” (Turcotte at 437). Further, the Turcotte Court, at 438, in defining the risk assumed, instructed that:
in its most basic sense it “means that the plaintiff, in advance, has given his * * * consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation [***9] of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone. The situation is then the same as where the plaintiff consents to the infliction of what would otherwise be an intentional tort, except that the consent is to run the risk of unintended injury * * * The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence” (Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 68, at 480-481 [5th ed]; 4 Harper, James & Gray, [*5] Torts § 21.0 et seq. [2d ed]; Restatement [Second] of Torts § 496A comments b, c; see also, Bohlen, Voluntary Assumption of Risk, 20 Harv. L Rev 14 [assumption of risk is another way of finding no duty of care]; Comment, Assumption of Risk and Vicarious Liability in Personal Injury Actions Brought by Professional Athletes, 1980 Duke LJ 742).
Assumption of risk is frequently invoked in connection with voluntary participation in sports and recreational activities. “By engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly-appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and [***10] flow from such participation.” (Rivera v Glen Oaks Village Owners, Inc., 41 AD3d 817, 820, 839 N.Y.S.2d 183 [2d Dept 2007]). In Sanchez v City of New York (25 AD3d 776, 808 N.Y.S.2d 422 [2d Dept 2006]), the Court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint because “the injured plaintiff assumed the risks inherent in playing baseball in the gymnasium where she sustained her injuries, including those risks associated with any readily observable defect or obstacle in the place where the sport was played.” In Cuesta v Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church (168 AD2d 411, 562 N.Y.S.2d 537 [2d Dept 1990]) the Court granted summary judgment to defendant. Plaintiff, voluntarily acted as an umpire in his son’s Little League game. While standing behind the pitcher, he was struck in the eye by a ball thrown by the catcher. The Court held, at 411, that “[t]he injury is one common to the sport of baseball, and was foreseeable by the plaintiff prior to accepting the job as umpire.” In an assumption of risk case, “[p]laintiff can avoid summary judgment only by demonstrating that the risk of injury was somehow unreasonably increased or concealed in the instant circumstances.” (Mondelice v Valley Stream Cent. High School Dist., 2002 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1292, 2002 NY Slip Op 50403 [U], *3 [***11] [Sup Ct, Nassau County 2002, Winslow, J.]).
Plaintiff CONNING, in the instant action, was aware of the inherent risks involved in triathlon participation. She was an experienced cyclist and prior to her accident previously participated in triathlons and cycling events. In addition, she participated in weekly training for triathlon events. At the time of her accident no risks inherent in bicycling were veiled or concealed from her. “[B]y engaging in a sport or recreation activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation.” (Morgan v State, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 ). (See Marino v Bingler, 60 AD3d 645, 874 N.Y.S.2d 542 [2d Dept 2009]; Lumley v Motts, 1 AD3d 573, 768 N.Y.S.2d 24 [2d Dept 2003]; Cook v Komorowski, 300 AD2d 1040, 752 N.Y.S.2d 475 [4th Dept 2002]). “A reasonable person of participatory age or experience must be expected to know” that there are risks inherent with cycling. (Morgan at 488) A known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequence of participating in a sporting activity will be considered an inherent risk. (See Turcotte at 439; Tilson v Russo, 30 AD3d 856, 857, 818 N.Y.S.2d 311 [3d Dept. 2006]; Rubenstein v Woodstock Riding Club, 208 AD2d 1160, 617 N.Y.S.2d 603 [3d Dept. 1994]). [***12] Plaintiff, an experienced bicyclist, was aware of risks, in cycling on Route 28, when she left the shoulder where her training group was riding and went onto adjacent gravel. She should have been aware that road bikes of the type she was riding are designed to be ridden on pavement and their handling is greatly compromised on gravel.
Moreover, whether the risk of injury is open and obvious is a determinative factor in assessing plaintiff’s comparative fault. (See Palladino v Lindenhurst Union Free School Dist., 84 AD3d 1194, 924 N.Y.S.2d 474 [2d Dept 2011]; Krebs v Town of Wallkill, 84 AD3d 742, 922 N.Y.S.2d 516 [2d Dept 2011]; Bendig v [*6] Bethpage Union Free School Dist., 74 AD3d 1263, 1264, 904 N.Y.S.2d 731 [2d Dept 2010]; Mondelli v County of Nassau, 49 A.D.3d 826, 827, 854 N.Y.S.2d 224 [2d Dept 2008]; Mendoza v Village of Greenport, 52 AD3d 788, 861 N.Y.S.2d 738[2d Dept 2008]). Plaintiff CONNING, in the instant matter, alleges that defendants BTC and STEWART were negligent in allowing her to ride on “a decrepit and narrow path.” However, plaintiff rode her bicycle on the shoulder of Route 28 for one-tenth of a mile (about two city blocks) before her accident. She was able to observe the roadway as she was riding on the shoulder. Also, despite observing the narrowing of the [***13] shoulder, she continued to ride. Plaintiff, did not, as she knew she could have, slowed down or stopped.
Moreover, even for experienced cyclists “[t]he risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk of riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces.” (Goldberg v Town of Hempstead, 289 AD2d 198, 733 N.Y.S.2d 691 [2d Dept. 2001]). Similarly, “the risk of encountering ruts and bumps while riding a bicycle over a rough roadway . . . is so obvious . . . or should be to an experienced bicyclist . . . that, as a matter of law, plaintiff assumed any risk inherent in the activity.” (Furgang v Club Med, 299 AD2d 162, 753 N.Y.S.2d 359 [1d Dept 2002]). Plaintiff, in the instant action, was participating in a guided bicycle tour conducted by defendants BTC and STEWART when she hit a rut, an inherent risk, and fell off her bicycle. (See Rivera v Glen Oaks Village Owners, Inc. at 820-821; Reistano v Yonkers Bd. of Educ., 13 AD3d 432, 785 N.Y.S.2d 711 [2d Dept 2004]). In Werbelow v State of New York (7 Misc 3d 1011[A], 801 N.Y.S.2d 244, 2005 NY Slip Op 50549[U] [Ct Cl, 2005]), a self-proclaimed “rather competent rollerblader” was injured after she fell over a “crack” on a New York State bicycle path and the Court found that plaintiff assumed the risk of injury. The Werbelow Court held, at *3, [***14] that “there is no indication that there were unreasonably increased risks’ in this case, or that defendant acted recklessly, intentionally, or concealed the risks, such that the doctrine of assumption of risk would not apply.” “Since the risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk in riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces and the defective condition in this case was open and obvious, the infant plaintiff assumed the risk of riding her bicycle on the ballfield.” (Goldberg at 692). (See Rivera v Glen Oaks Village Owners, Inc. at 820). In the instant action, a rut in the road surface or a change in elevation between the shoulder and gravel area or a “decrepit and narrow” shoulder were not unique conditions created by either STEWART or BTC.
It is clear that defendants BTC and STEWART did not take plaintiff on an unreasonably dangerous roadway surface. The EBT testimony demonstrates that the cyclists did not anticipate that every patch of the roadway would be smooth. Cindy Kaplan, one of the cyclists in plaintiff’s training group, testified that “[i]n general the entire route was appropriate, the entire weekend was appropriate because that’s how the roads are Upstate . . . [***15] I guess you can’t expect it to be perfectly paved the whole time.” Plaintiff CONNING came into contact with a ledge or lip in the roadway while trying to get back on the path she diverged from. Unable to navigate the ledge or lip, she fell and was then struck by defendant DIETRICH’s passing car. Prior to plaintiff’s accident, defendant STEWART was diligent in pointing any roadway hazards to the bicycle riders in his group. The shoulder narrowing cannot be considered a roadway hazard because it was open, obvious and not something for cyclists to avoid. Thus, it is manifest that CONNING understood and assumed the risks of the activities she partook in based upon her prior participation in triathlons and cycling events before the date of her accident. Plaintiff CONNING assumed the risk in choosing to participate in the August 2, 2008 cycling event on Route 28 conducted by defendant BTC and led by defendant STEWART, with its known and obvious [*7] risks.
Plaintiff’s waiver of liability
Plaintiff CONNING, on July 29, 2008, signed defendant BTC’s waiver of liability making her aware of the risk of injury prior to her participation in BTC’s triathlon training weekend. This waiver states, in pertinent [***16] part:
I ACKNOWLEDGE that there may be traffic or persons ON THE course route, and I ASSUME THE RISK OF RUNNING, BIKING, SWIMMING OR PARTICIPATING IN ANY OTHER BTC EVENT. I also ASSUME ANY AND ALL OTHER RISKS associated with participating in BTC events including but not limited to falls, contact and/or effects with other participants, effects of weather including heat and/or humidity, defective equipment, the condition of the roads, water hazards, contact with other swimmers or boats, and any hazard that may be posed by spectators or volunteers. All such risks being known and appreciated by me, I further acknowledge that these risks include risks that may be the result of the negligence of the persons or entities mentioned above . . . or of other persons [or] entities. I AGREE NOT TO SUE any of the person or entities mentioned above . . . for any of the claims, losses or liabilities that I have waived, released or discharged herein. [Emphasis added]
It is undisputed that plaintiff CONNING, prior to and as a condition of participating in BTC’s training weekend, read and executed BTC’s waiver of liability. Therefore, she was aware of the risks explicitly stated in the waiver. Once “risks [***17] of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious” to plaintiff, plaintiff is deemed to have accepted the risks by taking part in the activity. (Turcotte at 439).
It is firmly established that a valid release which is clear and unambiguous on its face and which is knowingly and voluntarily entered into will be enforced as a private agreement between parties.” (Appel v Ford Motor Co., 111 AD2d 731, 732, 490 N.Y.S.2d 228 [2d Dept 1985]). Absent fraud, duress or undue influence, a party who signs a waiver will be bound by its terms. (Skluth v United Merchants & Mfrs., Inc., 163 AD2d 104, 106, 559 N.Y.S.2d 280 [1d Dept. 1990]). Plaintiff CONNING does not claim that she was fraudulently induced or unduly influenced or forced to sign BTC’s waiver of liability. She participated in BTC’s training weekend of her own free will and signed BTC’s waiver of liability as a condition of her participation in BTC’s events. A plain reading of the waiver of liability demonstrates that it relieves BTC and STEWART from liability for any injuries sustained by plaintiff CONNING, whether or not caused by defendants’ negligence.
In Castellanos v Nassau/Suffolk Dek Hockey, Inc. (232 AD2d 354, 648 N.Y.S.2d 143 [2d Dept 1996]), the Court found that the [***18] injury waiver form executed by plaintiff, an experienced deck hockey player, who participated in a deck hockey game at premises owned by one defendant and maintained or controlled by another defendant, was enforceable. The Court held, at 355, that:
The language of the agreement clearly expresses the intention of the parties to relieve the “organizers, sponsors, supervisors, participants, owners of the business and owners of the premises” of liability (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 99-100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 ). Moreover, the [*8] agreement is similarly clear in reciting that the plaintiff was aware of and assumed the risks associated with participating in the game of deck hockey (see Chieco v Paramarketing, Inc., 228 AD2d 462, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 [2d Dept 1996]).
“In the absence of a contravening public policy, exculpatory provisions in a contract, purporting to insulate one of the parties from liability resulting from that party’s own negligence, although disfavored by the courts, generally are enforced, subject to various qualifications.” (Lago v Krollage at 99). However, an exculpatory agreement, as a matter of public policy, is void, “where it purports to grant exemption from liability for willful or grossly negligent [***19] acts or where a special relationship exists between the parties such that an overriding public interest demands that such a contract provision be rendered ineffectual.” (Lago v Krollage at 100). Thus, “it is clear . . . that the law looks with disfavor upon agreements intended to absolve an individual from the consequences of his negligence . . . and although they are, with certain exceptions, enforceable like any other contract . . . such agreements are always subjected to the closest of judicial scrutiny and will be strictly construed against their drawer.” (Abramowitz v New York University Dental Center, College of Dentistry, 110 AD2d 343, 345, 494 N.Y.S.2d 721 [2d Dept 1985]). (See Lago v Krollage at 100; Gross v Sweet, 49 NY2d 102, 106-107, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 ; Sterling Investors Services, Inc. v 1155 Nobo Associates, LLC, 30 AD3d 579, 581, 818 N.Y.S.2d 513 [2d Dept 2006]; Dubovsky & Sons, Inc. v Honeywell, Inc., 89 AD2d 993, 994, 454 N.Y.S.2d 329 [2d Dept 1982]).
In 1996, the New York Legislature, as a matter of public policy, enacted General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-326, which states:
“[e]very covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with . . . any contract . . . entered into between the owner or operator of any . . . place of [***20] amusement or recreation . . . and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.
Despite plaintiff CONNING’s contention that GOL § 5-326 applies to the instant action, it does not. Plaintiff CONNING did not sign BTC’s waiver of liability to participate in a “place of amusement or recreation” owned or operated by defendant BTC. Clearly, BTC does not own or operate Route 28 and plaintiff paid a fee to defendant BTC for training weekend expenses, not for her use of Route 28. Moreover, GOL § 5-326 does not apply to participants engaged in training events, because they are not recreational. The primary purpose of plaintiff CONNING’s August 2, 2008-ride was triathlon training.
Plaintiff, in Tedesco v Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth. (250 AD2d 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 [2d Dept. 1998]), was injured on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge during [***21] a “five borough bicycle tour.” The Court held, at 758, that the release plaintiff signed was enforceable “since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the plaintiff Tedesco was injured, is not a place of amusement or recreation.'” Similarly, in Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc. (51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]), [*9] plaintiff sustained injuries in the 2004 New York Marathon, while running on a Brooklyn street. Plaintiff, prior to the race, signed defendant’s waiver of liability. The Court held GOL § 5-326 inapplicable to plaintiff because he paid an entry fee to participate in the Marathon, not an admission fee for use of a city-owned street. Further, the Court held, at 842, that “the public roadway in Brooklyn where the plaintiff alleges that he was injured is not a place of amusement or recreation.'” Similarly, in Bufano v. National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n. (272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]), the Court held that a member of an inline roller hockey league assumed the risk of injuries sustained from a fight with another player during a game. The Court held, at 359, that GOL § 5-326 did not “void the release Bufano signed, since the $25 he paid was not paid to the owner or operator of a recreational [***22] facility.” Further, the Court instructed, at 359-360, that “the liability release he signed expressed in clear and unequivocal language the intent to relieve the defendants of all liability for personal injuries to Bufano caused by defendants’ negligence. Thus, the release is enforceable.”
Plaintiff CONNING, in the instant action, paid $40 annual membership dues to BTC and paid BTC a registration fee for the August 2008 triathlon training weekend. She signed BTC’s waiver of liability to train on a “course route,” and did not pay a fee to use a “place of amusement or recreation.” Thus, GOL § 5-326 does not void the BTC waiver of liability signed by CONNING. (See Lago v Krollage at 101; Schwartz v Martin, 82 AD3d 1201, 1203, 919 N.Y.S.2d 217 [2d Dept 2011]; Fazzinga v Westchester Track Club, 48 AD3d 410, 411-412, 851 N.Y.S.2d 278 [2d Dept 2008]; Millan v Brown, 295 AD2d 409, 411, 743 N.Y.S.2d 539 [2d Dept 2002]). Further, the waiver of liability signed by plaintiff CONNING expressly relieves defendant BTC and its “employees, representatives, and any agents,” such as defendant STEWART from liability for injuries she sustained during the triathlon training weekend.
New York State Courts have uniformly found that when a sporting activity is [***23] “instructional” rather than “recreational” a waiver of liability will not be deemed void under GOL § 5-326. The Court in Boateng v Motorcycle Safety School, Inc. (51 AD3d 702, 703, 858 N.Y.S.2d 312 [2d Dept. 2008]), held that the release signed by a student motorcyclist, who fell from a motorcycle during a training session, was enforceable and not voided by GOL § 5-326 because “the defendants submitted evidence that the raceway premises, which the defendant leased to conduct its classes, were used for instructional, not recreational or amusement purposes.” (See Thiele v Oakland Valley, Inc., 72 AD3d 803, 898 N.Y.S.2d 481 [2d Dept 2010]; Baschuk v Diver’s Way Scuba, Inc. 209 AD2d 369, 370, 618 N.Y.S.2d 428 [2d Dept 1994]). Plaintiff CONNING, at the time of her accident was not taking a recreational bicycle ride but engaged in triathlon training supervised by defendant STEWART, an agent of defendant BTC. Plaintiff registered with BTC to participate in a triathlon training weekend to train for upcoming triathlons in which she planned to participate. Defendant BTC advertised the August 2008 training weekend as instructional, for participants to develop triathlon skills. Plaintiff confirmed this in her EBT testimony.
Defendants BTC and STEWART [***24] demonstrated that plaintiff CONNING knowingly and voluntarily executed a valid waiver of liability and assumed the risk of injury by riding her bicycle on a public roadway. Plaintiff CONNING’s arguments, in opposition to the instant motion of defendants BTC and STEWART, that her August 2, 2008-ride was “recreational” are mistaken. Moreover, the risks inherent in plaintiff CONNING’s August 2, 2008-instructional [*10] bicycle ride, that she consented to, were fully comprehended by plaintiff and obvious to her as an experienced cyclist. Therefore, without material issues of fact, the motion of defendants BTC and STEWART for summary judgment and dismissal of the verified complaint against them and all cross-claims against them is granted.
Defendant DIETRICH’s motion for summary judgment
Defendant DIETRICH’S summary judgment motion on liability is denied because of the existence of triable issues of fact. “It is well established that on a motion for summary judgment the court is not to engage in the weighing of evidence. Rather, the court’s function is to determine whether by no rational process could the trier of facts find for the nonmoving party’ (Jastrzebski v North Shore School Dist., 223 AD2d 677, 637 N.Y.S.2d 439 [2d Dept 1996]).” [***25] (Scott v Long Island Power Authority, 294 AD2d 348, 741 N.Y.S.2d 708 [2d Dept 2002]). Moreover, “[s]ummary judgment is a drastic remedy which should only be employed when there is no doubt as to the absence of triable issues.” (Stukas v Streiter, 83 AD3d 18, 23, 918 N.Y.S.2d 176 [2d Dept 2011]). As will be explained, there is no doubt that in the instant action, there are triable issues of fact that must be resolved at trial by the finder of fact. (Sillman v Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. at 404).
Defendant DIETRICH, the owner and operator of the motor vehicle that collided with plaintiff CONNING, admitted in his deposition that he was aware of the presence of plaintiff CONNING and other bicycle riders about 200 feet before the accident occurred [EBT – p. 19]. He also acknowledged that in the seconds before the accident, his wife, the front seat passenger “said I see a line of bikers up there. Slow down. Be careful.’ Then she said one of them might hit a stone or something in the road and fall into the road. [EBT – p. 17, lines 10-14].'” Further, defendant DIETRICH testified [EBT – p. 18] that he clearly saw the bicycle riders that his wife had spoken about and that the section of Route 28 where the subject accident [***26] occurred was straight [EBT – p. 20]. Moreover, defendant DIETRICH lived near the scene of the accident [EBT – p.10], on many prior occasions had observed bicycle riders on Route 28 [EBT – p. 22] and knew that Route 28 was a designated state bike route [EBT – p. 26]. Defendant DIETRICH stated that the speed limit on Route 28 was 55 miles per hour [EDT – p.23] and prior to the accident he was driving at that rate of speed [EBT – p. 24] until he saw the bikers and reduced his speed [EBT – pp. 39-40].
Defendant DIETRICH’s counsel, in P 22 of his affirmation in support of the motion, offers conjecture, without expert opinion, that “the plaintiff was following the bicyclist in front of her too closely which prevented her from properly using her senses to see what was before her. This caused her to lose control of the bicycle and to fall into the side of the defendant’s vehicle.” Plaintiff CONNING and the other cyclists were traveling in a paceline. If counsel for defendant DIETRICH believes that the paceline or the spacing of the bicycles was improper, counsel for defendant DIETRICH was obligated to present expert opinion in evidentiary form. However, counsel for defendant DIETRICH failed [***27] to do so.
Both plaintiff CONNING and defendant DIETRICH were under the same duty to operate their respective bicycle and motor vehicle in a safe manner, keep a safe lookout and avoid collisions. “A person riding a bicycle on a roadway is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle (see Vehicle and Traffic Law [VTL] § 1231). (Thoresz v Vallone, 70 AD3d 1031, 894 N.Y.S.2d 769 [2d Dept 2010]). The Court, in Palma v Sherman (55 AD3d 891, 867 N.Y.S.2d 111 [2d Dept 2009], instructed: [*11]
In general, a motorist is required to keep a reasonably vigilant lookout for bicyclists, to sound the vehicle’s horn when a reasonably prudent person would do so in order to warn a bicyclist of danger, and to operate the vehicle with reasonable care to avoid colliding with anyone on the road. A bicyclist is required to use reasonable care for his or her own safety, to keep a reasonably vigilant lookout for vehicles, and to avoid placing himself or herself in a dangerous position (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1146; Rosenberg v Kotsek, 41 AD3d 573, 837 N.Y.S.2d 343 [2d Dept 2007]; Trzepacz v Jara, 11 AD3d 531, 782 N.Y.S.2d 852 [2d Dept 2004]; Redcross v State of New York, 241 AD2d 787, 660 N.Y.S.2d 211 [3d Dept 1997]; PJI 2:76A). Each is required to obey the statutes governing [***28] traffic and is entitled to assume that the other also will do so (see Rosenberg v Kotsek, 41 AD3d 573, 837 N.Y.S.2d 343 [2d Dept 2007]; Trzepacz v Jara, 11 AD3d 531, 782 N.Y.S.2d 852 [2d Dept 2004]; Redcross v State of New York, 241 AD2d 787, 660 N.Y.S.2d 211 [3d Dept 1997]; PJI 2:76A).
In the instant action there are material issues of fact whether defendant DIETRICH used that level of ordinary care that a reasonably prudent person would have used under the same circumstances and if not, whether the subject accident was foreseeable. (See PJI 2:10; PJI 2:12). “Whether a breach of duty has occurred, of course, depends upon whether the resulting injury was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendants’ conduct.” (Danielenko v Kinney Rent A Car, Inc., 57 NY2d 198, 204, 441 N.E.2d 1073, 455 N.Y.S.2d 555 ). Defendant DIETRICH had a duty of care to keep his vehicle under control and to reduce his speed to a safe level, which is clear from his acknowledgment that he took his foot off the gas pedal prior to the accident. VTL § 1180 (a) states that “[n]o person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing [Emphasis added].” Thus, there is a triable issue [***29] of fact whether defendant DIETRICH’s rate of speed was “reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.” Also, VTL § 1146 requires a driver to “exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist.” It is a triable issue whether defendant DIETRICH could have avoided his collision with plaintiff CONNING.
The Court, by determining that triable issues of fact exist, denies defendant DIETRICH’s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff’s verified complaint and all cross-claims against him.
Accordingly, it is
ORDERED, that the motion of defendants BROOKLYN TRIATHLON CLUB and JOHN STEWART for summary judgment and dismissal of the verified complaint and all cross-claims against them, pursuant to CPLR Rule 3212, is granted; and it is further;
ORDERED, that the motion of defendant ROBERT J. DIETRICH for summary judgment [*12] and dismissal of the verified complaint and all cross-claims against him, pursuant to CPLR Rule 3212, is denied.
This constitutes the Decision and Order of the Court.
HON. ARTHUR M. SCHACK
J. S. C.