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.
The plaintiff argued the first release was superseded by the second release, and the second release was ambiguous and vague.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.
The court first looked at the releases to see if one release superseded the prior release.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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