Case explains in detail “Public Policy” or “Public Interest” and whether a release is void because of a public policy or interest.
Plaintiff: Kevin Okura
Defendants: the South Bay Wheelmen, United States Cycling Federation and the City of Hermosa Beach
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence in the preparation and maintenance of the course.
Defendant Defenses: release
Holding: for the defendants
This case covers one of the first lawsuits over a bicycle race in the US. The race was organized by the South Bay Wheelmen, Inc. South Bay Wheelmen, Inc. was a nonprofit affiliate of another defendant, United States Cycling Federation. The final defendant was the city where the race was held, Hermosa Beach, California.
The plaintiff entered a race and fell when his bike hit debris as he was crossing railroad tracks. He slid into a guard rail suffering injuries upon impact.
To enter the race the plaintiff signed a release which was in the Southern California Cycling Federation Standard Athelete’s Entry Blank and Release Form. The form was 3.5 inches by 8 inches. The release language was fairly well-written and quoted; I believe in whole, in the court’s opinion.
The plaintiff argued that he had no chance to inspect the course and that the release was a contract of adhesion and was not sufficient “to put a participant on notice that he is actually signing a release.” The plaintiff did admit he signed release.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and this appeal followed.
Summary of the case
The court looked at the general state of releases in California (at that time). Releases that do not involve or affect the “public interest” are valid. Under California law, whether a release affects the public interest is controlled by six issues.
In placing particular contracts within or without the category of those affected with a public interest, the courts have revealed a rough outline of that type of transaction in which exculpatory provisions will be held invalid. Thus the attempted but invalid exemption involves a transaction which exhibits some or all of the following characteristics.
 It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.
 The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.
 The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.
 As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.
 In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.
 Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.”
The court then went through and further defined each of the six areas that can create a public interest and void a release under California law. The release in question did not meet any of those issues. “This situation does not present a transaction affecting the public interest. Therefore, there is no proscription for the release contained in the entry and release form herein.”
The final issue was whether the release at question was clear, legible and released the defendants from the type of risk, which caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
As previously indicated, the entire form is only three and one-half inches by eight inches and the only printing on the form other than the incidental information relating to the competitor is the release language. It is not buried in a lengthy document or hidden among other verbiage. The type is clear and legible and in light of the fact it has no other language to compete with, its size is appropriate. The language is clear and unambiguous, and the first paragraph concludes with “even though that liability may arise out of negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities mentioned above.
Finally, the court found the release protected all three defendants.
So Now What?
This case provides great information to make sure your activity can use a release under California law or does not violate public policy or a public interest. The list of types of activities or actions that are of a public interest are there and easy to understand. If your business, activity or program does not meet the list, then a release should work to protect you from losing litigation.
This release was small, but contained the necessary language. The release language was not “buried in a lengthy document or hidden among other verbiage.” However, a stronger list of the risks of bicycle racing and a list of any specific issues of this race and/or this course are always valuable. A long list of the risk and possible injuries is always daunting and perhaps a waste of paper. However, in many cases, if the release does fail for some reason, the document can still be used to prove assumption of the risk.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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