Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds use of an express assumption of the risk agreement to bar a claim for wrongful death during a triathlon

The court defined the written agreement, signed electronically, as an assumption of the risk agreement, even though a lower court had called it a liability waiver.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Statute

Defendant Defenses: Express Assumption of the Risk Agreement

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds release to stop claims under PA’s wrongful-death statute. Since the deceased assumed the inherent risks of the sport, that removed the duty of the defendant triathlon therefore, the triathlon could not be negligent. No negligence, no violation of the wrongful-death statute.

Facts

In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon.

The trial court and the appellate court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the deceased. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted the plaintiff’s appeal which resulted in this decision.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The release or wavier used in this agreement is not included in the decision. One small section is quoted, which speaks to the risks the participants in the triathlon must assume. Which makes sense since the court refers to the agreement as an express assumption of the risk agreement rather than a release or waiver.

Pennsylvania follows the Restatement Second of Torts in defining assumption of the risk.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.”

Under Pennsylvania law, “when a plaintiff assumes the risk of an activity it elminates the defendants duty of care”. When the deceased signed the valid agreement and expressly assumed the risks inherent in the triathlon, the decedent extinguished the defendant triathlon’s duty of care.

If there is no duty to the deceased there cannot be any negligence. Existence of a duty and a breach of that duty is the first of four steps to prove negligence.

A negligent act is required to be successful under Pennsylvania’s wrongful-death statute.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive.

There were three dissents in the decision. The dissents argued the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute voided the waiver. Since the right of the plaintiff under the wrongful-death statute was a right of a survivor, and the decedent could not sign away a survivor’s rights, the release, waiver or assumption of the risk agreement was void.

So Now What?

You can breathe a little easier in Pennsylvania when using releases signed electronically. It is important to make sure you include assumption of the risk language in your release to make sure the possible plaintiff assumes those risks if the court throws out the release or finds another way to sue the document to defend you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 209 A.3d 941 (Pa. 2019)

Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in Her Own Right, Appellant

v.

Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, Appellee

No. 17 EAP 2017

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

June 18, 2019

Argued: May 15, 2018

Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on November 15, 2016 at No. 3049 EDA 2013 affirming the Order entered on September 30, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 1417 April Term, 2012. Jacqueline F. Allen, Judge

Craig A. Falcone, Esq., Sacchetta & Falcone, for Appellant Michele Valentino, as Admin. of the Estate of Derek Valentino, etc.

Barbara Axelrod, Esq., The Beasley Firm, L.L.C., for Appellant Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

Heather M. Eichenbaum, Esq., Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., for Appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

ORDER

PER CURIAM

AND NOW, this 18th day of June, 2019, the Court being evenly divided, the Order of the Superior Court is AFFIRMED.

Justice Wecht did not participate in the consideration or decision of this matter.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE

BAER, JUSTICE.

This Court granted allocatur to determine whether an express assumption of the risk agreement executed by triathlon participant Derek Valentino (“Decedent”) serves as a defense to a wrongful death claim commenced against the Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC (“Triathlon”) by Decedent’s heir (“Appellant”), who was not a signatory to the agreement.[1] The Superior Court held that Decedent’s express assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the sporting event eliminated Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious. Absent tortious activity, the Superior Court concluded that the wrongful death claim brought by Decedent’s heir could not succeed as a matter of law because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. For the reasons set forth herein, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court and adopt its astute legal analysis.

Preliminarily and as explained in more detail infra, we respectfully note that the Opinions in Support of Reversal (both hereinafter collectively referred to as “OISR”) ignore the issue for which we granted allocatur and, instead, attempt to reverse the judgment of the Superior Court on grounds not encompassed by this appeal. Specifically, the OISR would sua sponte hold that express assumption of the risk agreements are void and unenforceable in violation of public policy in cases involving claims brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. The OISR reaches this conclusion notwithstanding that no party to this appeal challenges the validity of the agreement on public policy grounds or otherwise. We decline to engage in this judicial overreaching and proceed to address the merits of the issue before us.

We begin with a brief recitation of the facts. In 2010, Triathlon organized a multi-sport-event, comprised of swimming in the Schuylkill River, cycling for more than fifteen miles, and running for more than three miles. To compete in the event, each participant was required to register, pay a fee, and execute electronically a liability waiver agreement that included an assumption of the risk provision (“Agreement”). On January 24, 2010, Decedent complied with these requisites by electronically registering as a participant in the triathlon and executing the Agreement.

The executed Agreement stated that Decedent understood “the physical and mental rigors associated with triathlon,” and “that running, bicycling, [and] swimming

… are inherently dangerous and represent an extreme test of a person’s physical and mental limits.” Appellee’s Motion for Summary Judgment Ex. G, dated Aug. 5, 2013. The Agreement further acknowledged Decedent’s understanding that “participation involves risks and dangers which include, without limitation, the potential for serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and death … and other undefined harm or damage which may not be readily foreseeable[.]” Id. The Agreement provided that Decedent was aware “that these Risks may be caused in whole or in part by [his] own actions or inactions, the actions or inactions of others participating in the Event, or the acts, inaction or negligence of [the Triathlon].” Id.

Germane to this appeal, the Agreement stated that Decedent “expressly assume[d] all such Risks and responsibility for any damages, liabilities, losses or expenses” resulting from his participation in the event. Id. (emphasis added). The Agreement also included a provision stating that Decedent further agreed that if he or anyone on his behalf “makes a claim of Liability against any of the Released Parties, [Decedent] will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.” Id. [2]

The triathlon took place on June 26, 2010. At approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first segment of the race. Tragically, Decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition. Divers retrieved Decedent’s body from the river the next day after he presumably drowned while participating in the triathlon. On April 12, 2012, Decedent’s widow, Michele Valentino, both in her own right and as administratrix of her husband’s estate (referred to as “Appellant” herein), asserted wrongful death and survival claims against various defendants, including Triathlon. Only the wrongful death claim is at issue in this appeal. Appellant subsequently amended her complaint and the defendants filed preliminary objections. On July 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections and struck all references in the complaint that referred to outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages, holding that these averments were legally insufficient as the facts alleged demonstrated only ordinary negligence. The trial court further struck particular paragraphs of the amended complaint on grounds that they lacked specificity.

In December of 2012, following the various defendants’ filing of an answer and new matter, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the Agreement as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that questions of material fact remained regarding the existence of the Agreement. Appellant thereafter stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants except Triathlon. Once discovery was completed, Triathlon again moved for summary judgment. Concluding that the evidence at that point in the proceedings demonstrated that the Agreement was among Decedent’s possessions and was valid and enforceable, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Triathlon.

Prior to the trial court issuing its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion explaining its rationale for granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon, the Superior Court, in an unrelated matter, decided the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), which held that a non-signatory wrongful death claimant was not bound by an arbitration agreement signed by a decedent.[3] Id. at 663. On April 14, 2012, shortly after Pisano was decided, the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion in this matter and urged the Superior Court to vacate its order granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon based on that decision.

Relying upon Pisano, Appellant argued to the Superior Court that Decedent’s Agreement with Triathlon does not apply to her as a non-signatory and, thus, has no preclusive effect upon her wrongful death claims asserted against Triathlon. In response, Triathlon contended that Decedent’s assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the event relieved its duty of care, thereby rendering Triathlon’s conduct non-tortious as a matter of law. The Triathlon maintained that, absent tortious activity, a wrongful death claim could not succeed because the Wrongful Death Act premises recovery upon “the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301.

Initially, on December 30, 2015, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, holding that under Pisano, Decedent’s Agreement was not applicable to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the contract. The Superior Court thereafter granted en banc argument and withdrew its panel decision.

On November 15, 2016, an en banc Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Triathlon summary judgment in a published decision. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016). Preliminarily, the Superior Court acknowledged that because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of a decedent’s cause of action, “a decedent may not compromise or diminish a wrongful death claimant’s right of action without consent.” Id. at 493. Nevertheless, the Superior Court went on to hold that “a third-party wrongful death claimant is subject to substantive defenses supported by the decedent’s actions or agreements where offered to relieve the defendant, either wholly or partially, from liability by showing that the defendant’s actions were not tortious.” Id.

The Superior Court found that the available substantive defense here was Decedent’s contractual assumption of the risks inherent in participation in the triathlon.

The assumption of the risk doctrine, set forth in Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, provides that “[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” Restatement Second of Torts, § 496A. Comment c(1) to Section 496A provides that the express assumption of the risk “means that the plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. at cmt. c(1). Notably, the Comment goes on to state that “[t]he result is that the defendant, who would otherwise be under a duty to exercise such care, is relieved of that responsibility, and is no longer under any duty to protect the plaintiff.” Id.

Pennsylvania case law illustrates that one’s assumption of the risks inherent in a particular activity eliminates the defendant’s duty of care. SeeHughes v. Seven Springs Farm Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000) (explaining that under Section 496A of the Restatement Second of Torts, where the plaintiff assumes the risk of harm, the defendant is under no duty to protect the plaintiff from such risks); Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 125 (1983) (explaining that one’s assumption of the risk of injury is simply another way of expressing the lack of duty on the part of the defendant to protect against such risks); Thompson v. Ginkel, 95 A.3d 900, 906 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted) (acknowledging that the assumption of the risk doctrine is a function of the duty analysis required in all negligence actions).

Relying on this substantive tort law, the Superior Court in the instant case held that by knowingly and voluntarily executing a valid agreement expressly assuming the risks inherent in participating in the sporting event, Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care, thereby rendering its conduct not tortious. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493.[4] As noted, the intermediate appellate court concluded that absent tortious conduct, Appellant’s wrongful death claim could not survive as a matter of law; thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Triathlon. Id.

The Superior Court in the instant case readily distinguished Pisano on the ground that it did not involve an agreement to assume all risks inherent in a particular activity, which would serve to eliminate the duty element of the wrongful death action against the alleged tortfeasor. Acknowledging Pisano’s principle that a third party’s right of action in a wrongful death claim is an independent statutory claim of a decedent’s heirs and is not derivative of a decedent’s right of action, the Superior Court emphasized that “a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 493. The Superior Court cogently explained that Pisano does not undermine the fundamental principle that a statutory claimant in a wrongful death action has the burden of proving that the defendant’s tortious conduct caused the decedent’s death. It opined that this cannot occur where the

decedent assumed all risks inherent in participating in the activity and thereby abrogated any duty the putative tortfeasor may have had. Id.

Similarly, the Superior Court distinguished this Court’s decision in Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), upon which Appellant had relied. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 495. In that case, James Buttermore was injured in an automobile accident and signed a release in settlement of his claim against the tortfeasors for the sum of $25,000, agreeing to release all persons from liability. Buttermore, 561 A.2d at 734. The issue on appeal to this Court was whether Buttermore’s wife, who was not a signatory to the settlement agreement, had an independent right to sue the tortfeasors for loss of consortium. Id. at 735. Acknowledging that the release applied to all tortfeasors, including the defendants, this Court held that one could not bargain away the rights of others who were not a party to the contract. Id. Because Buttermore’s wife was not a party to her husband’s settlement agreement and because she sought to sue in her own right for loss of consortium, we held that she had an independent cause of action, unaffected by her husband’s settlement agreement. Id. at 736.

The Superior Court below distinguished Buttermore, finding that unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement here, the settlement agreement in Buttermore did not extinguish a requisite element of the wife’s loss of consortium claim. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 496. Stated differently, unlike the express assumption of the risk agreement in the instant case, nothing in the settlement agreement in Buttermore precluded the finding that the defendants acted tortiously.

We agree with the Superior Court’s application of well-settled tort law and its conclusion that the assumption of the risk agreement entered into between Decedent and the Triathlon operates much differently than the settlement agreement in Buttermore and the arbitration agreement in Pisano, as the latter agreements do not preclude a finding that the defendant acted tortiously. We further agree with the intermediate appellate court that a decedent’s valid assumption of the risk agreement does not negate his heir’s right to commence a wrongful death lawsuit, but it “can support a defense asserting that the alleged tortfeasor owed no duty to the decedent.” Valentino, 150 A.3d at 494.

Accordingly, once Decedent extinguished Triathlon’s duty of care by expressly assuming all risks in the inherently dangerous sporting event, his heir could not resurrect that duty of care after his death. To do so would afford a decedent’s heirs more rights than those possessed by a decedent while alive. Such a result not only defies logic, but also the statutory requisites for a wrongful death claim. As there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that Triathlon is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the trial court order granting summary judgment in Triathlon’s favor. See Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2 (providing that summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or when a party which will bear the burden of proof has failed to present evidence sufficient to present the issue to the jury).

As noted, regarding the OISR’s sua sponte public policy declaration, our primary objection is that the issue of whether the express assumption of the risk agreement violates public policy is not properly before the Court; thus, the grant of relief on this claim cannot serve as a means to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court.

SeeSteiner v. Markel, 600 Pa. 515, 968 A.2d 1253, 1256 (2009) (holding that an appellate court may not reverse a judgment on a basis that was not properly raised and preserved by the parties).

Additionally, we observe that the OISR declares the express assumption of the risk agreement violative of the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act, i.e., to compensate family members of victims of tortious conduct, without any explanation as to how tortious conduct can exist in the absence of a duty of care. Further, the OISR seeks to invalidate not all express assumption of the risk contracts, but only those relating to wrongful death claims, based upon the public policy set forth in the Wrongful Death Act. Accordingly, under the OISR’s reasoning, express assumption of the risk agreements would generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity, but would be invalid where a participant’s injuries were fatal and his heirs sought recovery for wrongful death. Thus, a participant who suffered grievous non-fatal injury would have no redress, but his family would have redress if the participant succumbed to his injuries.

This result is untenable as there is no evidence to suggest that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to elevate the rights of victims’ heirs over those of the victims themselves or to immunize wrongful death claims from ordinary and readily available defenses. In fact, not only did the General Assembly premise recovery in wrongful death on the precise tortious conduct that caused the decedent’s fatal injuries, but directed expressly that a wrongful death action “may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). There is simply no provision in the Wrongful Death Act that renders an heir’s entitlement to relief absolute. Had the Legislature intended that mandate, it would have so directed.

Moreover, it is not the role of this Court to create the public policy of this Commonwealth. Instead, “public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest.” Burstein v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 570 Pa. 177, 809 A.2d 204, 207 (2002) (quoting Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 551 Pa. 558, 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (1998)). We have held that “only dominant public policy” justifies the invalidation of a contract and in the “absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts contrary to public policy.” Burstein, 809 A.2d at 207. Significantly, we have acknowledged that in such circumstances, “courts must be content to await legislative action.” Id.

The OISR fails to heed this warning. By declaring the public policy of this Commonwealth, untethered to legislative fiat and in a case where the issue is not before us, the OISR comes dangerously close to displacing the legislative process with judicial will. Accordingly, we would affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, which affirmed the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Triathlon. While the facts of this case are most tragic, this Court may not afford relief where the law does not so provide.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Todd join this opinion in support of affirmance.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DOUGHERTY, JUSTICE.

The question before the Court is whether the Superior Court erred when it determined

a pre-injury exculpatory waiver signed by a triathlon participant provides a complete defense to claims brought by the participant’s non-signatory heirs pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. We would find the waiver is unenforceable against the heirs and does not preclude their wrongful death action. We would therefore reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

In 2010, appellee Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, organized the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon Sprint (the Triathlon). The Triathlon consisted of three events: (1) a 0.5 mile swim; (2) a 15.7 mile bicycle race; and (3) a 3.1 mile run. The swim portion of the Triathlon took place in the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a participant in the Triathlon, Decedent, Derek Valentino, registered as a participant for the Triathlon and executed a Waiver and Release of Liability (the Waiver) by affixing his electronic signature to an online registration form.

On race day, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Decedent entered the Schuylkill River for the swim portion of the Triathlon, but he did not complete the swim and, on the following day, his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River. There is no dispute Decedent drowned in the river while participating in the Triathlon. SeeValentino v. Phila. Ins. Co., No. 120401417, 2014 WL 4796614, at *1 (Pa. Com. Pl. Aug. 26, 2014).

Appellant Michele Valentino filed a lawsuit in her individual capacity and as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, against several defendants, including appellee, asserting survival claims on Decedent’s behalf and wrongful death claims on her own behalf and that of her children.[1] See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 26-28, 34-36, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (Survival Act provides “[a]ll causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant …”); Amended Complaint at ¶¶29-33, 37-41, citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a), (b) (Wrongful Death Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”).[2] In response to preliminary objections, the trial court entered orders striking from the complaint all references to outrageous acts, gross negligence and recklessness. The trial court also struck appellant’s claim for punitive damages. Remaining in the case were several allegations of ordinary negligence, specifically, that appellee failed to: make a

reasonable inspection of the premises and event course; remove or take measures to prevent dangerous conditions; follow rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing safety standards; properly train the Triathlon’s agents, servants and employees with respect to safety rules, regulations, policies and procedures; properly supervise the Triathlon’s employees to ensure the Triathlon was conducted in a reasonable and safe manner; properly construct or design a safe event route to avoid dangerous conditions; regulate or control the number of individuals participating in each phase of the race simultaneously; have proper rules, regulations, policies and procedures for the timely recognition and response of event participants in distress and need of rescue; and have adequate safety personnel on hand for each aspect of the event. Seeid. at ¶ 22(b), (d) & (f) – (l).

Thereafter, appellee filed an answer with new matter, claiming Decedent was sufficiently negligent himself to completely bar appellant’s recovery, or alternatively, to reduce appellant’s recovery in accordance with the amount of comparative negligence attributed to Decedent. See Answer with New Matter at ¶43, citing Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. In addition, appellee asserted the complete defense of assumption of risk, claiming it owed no duty to Decedent or his survivors based on Decedent’s execution of the Waiver. Id. at ¶¶44, 46.

a. Summary Judgment

On September 30, 2013, the trial court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of appellant’s remaining claims with prejudice. On appellant’s motion for reconsideration, the court opined summary judgment on the survival action was proper based on the Waiver. Valentino, 2014 WL 4796614, at *2. The court reversed itself regarding appellant’s wrongful death action, and opined that claim should be remanded for further proceedings based on the Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 663 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. 2014) (resident-decedent’s contractual agreement with nursing home to arbitrate all claims was not binding on non-signatory wrongful death claimants). Id. at *3. In recommending the wrongful death action be remanded, the trial court observed “a decedent can contract away his own right to recover in court under a survival action, [but] he cannot similarly alienate the rights of third parties to recover in their own wrongful death actions.” Id.

b. Superior Court

A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court subsequently affirmed summary judgment on all claims. Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 150 A.3d 483 (Pa. Super. 2016).[3] The majority reasoned that, for a decedent’s heirs to recover damages in a wrongful death action, there must be an underlying tortious act by the defendant. See id. at 492-93, quotingKaczorowski v. Kalkosinski, 321 Pa. 438, 184 A. 663, 664 (1936) (“… a right to recover must exist in the party injured when he died in order to entitle[ ] those named in the act to sue…. [W]here the deceased would have been barred by contributory negligence, or by the statute of limitations, the parties suing for his death are likewise barred.”) (internal citations omitted). The majority further held its own decision in Pisano, which allowed non-signatory wrongful death claimants to file a court action despite their decedent’s execution of an arbitration

agreement, is limited to the facts of that case. Id. at 493. The majority opined an heir’s right to recover for her decedent’s wrongful death is dependent upon the existence of a tortious act that caused the death, stating “while a third party’s wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s right of action, a wrongful death claim still requires a tortious injury to succeed.” Id. Underpinning the en banc majority’s analysis was its position that arbitration and settlement agreements “bind[ ] only the parties to the agreement while the [liability waiver] extends to non-signatory third-parties.” Id. at 497 n.9. The en banc majority considered the Waiver to be an express assumption of all risks which eliminated any legal duty otherwise owed to anyone by appellee, creating a complete bar to tort liability.[4] Id.

Appellant filed a petition for allowance of appeal and this Court granted review of two questions:

Whether the Superior Court erred when it determined that a waiver of liability form, executed solely by the decedent, and stating the signer assumes all risks of participation in a triathlon, also binds his heirs, thereby precluding them from bringing a wrongful death action?

Whether the defense of assumption of risk should be abolished except in those situations where it is specifically permitted by the Comparative Negligence Act?[5]

Valentino v. Phila. Triathlon, LLC, 641 Pa. 515, 168 A.3d 1283 (2017) (per curiam ).

Our standard and scope of review on appeal from summary judgment are well-established. “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (2003), citingPappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (2001). In determining whether the lower court erred in granting summary judgment, the standard of review is de novo and the scope of review is plenary. Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (2009), citingLJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 647 (2009). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

Appellant argues the Superior Court erred in determining the Waiver, which

was executed solely by Decedent, barred his heirs’ wrongful death action. Appellant first notes wrongful death actions are statutorily authorized in Pennsylvania:

(a) General rule.–An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(a). Relying on Pennsylvania jurisprudence, appellant argues a wrongful death action is derivative of the victim’s fatal injuries, but is nevertheless meant to compensate a decedent’s survivors “for the pecuniary loss they have sustained by the denial of future contributions decedent would have made in his or her lifetime.” Appellant’s Brief at 13-15, quotingFrey v. Pa. Elec. Comp., 414 Pa.Super. 535, 607 A.2d 796, 798 (1992), and citingTulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992), Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is “derivative” because “it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action”).

Appellant relies on Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989), where the tort-victim husband executed a general release and settlement agreement after a car accident which purported to waive recovery by “any and all other persons associations and/or corporations[.]” Appellant’s Brief at 15-16, quotingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 734. Plaintiff’s wife did not sign the release agreement. The Buttermores filed a suit against medical professionals who treated him after the accident, including a claim brought by wife for loss of consortium. Seeid. at 16. On appeal from summary judgment, this Court ruled husband’s claim was barred by the release he executed, but wife’s claim was not because she herself had not signed it. Id., citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736. Appellant argues the lower courts’ ruling the Waiver in this case, which only Decedent signed, bars his heirs’ wrongful death claims is in direct contravention of Buttermore . Id. at 17-18, citingButtermore, 561 A.2d at 735.

In response, appellee contends summary judgment was properly entered and dismissal of appellant’s wrongful death claims should be affirmed. Appellee argues a wrongful death action is derivative of, and dependent upon, a tortious act that results in decedent’s death. Appellee’s Brief at 13, citingCentofanti v. Pa. R. Co., 244 Pa. 255, 90 A. 558, 561 (1914) (additional citations omitted). Appellee insists the Superior Court correctly determined Decedent’s execution of the Waiver meant appellee’s conduct was rendered non-tortious in all respects because appellee no longer owed Decedent any duty of care. Id. at 16-17, citingMontagazzi v. Crisci, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. 2010) (plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encountering an obvious and dangerous risk relieves those “who may have otherwise had a duty”); Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc., 749 A.2d 522, 526 (Pa. Super. 2000) (en banc ) (“Our [S]upreme [C]ourt appears to have concluded that in a negligence action, the question whether a litigant has assumed the risk is a question of law as part of the court’s duty analysis ….”) (additional citations omitted). Appellee also argues Pisano is not applicable here. Appellee contends Pisano determined only the narrow issue of whether a wrongful death plaintiff is bound by an arbitration agreement which she did not sign, and is not relevant to questions regarding

the exculpatory Waiver signed by Decedent. Seeid. at 24.

III.

The Wrongful Death Act (the Act), provides an independent statutory cause of action that belongs to specific claimants, i.e. the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 (Act provides spouse, children or parents of decedent can bring action “to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another”). SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665 (“By the statute there is given an explicit and independent right of action to recover the damages peculiarly suffered by the parties named therein.”). This statutory claim for wrongful death “is derivative because it has as its basis the same tortious act which would have supported the injured party’s own cause of action. Its derivation, however, is from the tortious act and not from the person of the deceased, so that it comes to the parties named in the statute free from personal disabilities arising from the relationship of the injured party and tort-feasor.” Id. at 664 (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, Pennsylvania courts recognize that while wrongful death actions seek damages for losses to heirs arising from their relative’s wrongful death, the claims are not derivative of — or limited by — the decedent’s own rights. SeePisano, 77 A.3d at 660.

It is clear the General Assembly intended the Act to compensate the decedent’s surviving heirs, not the decedent himself, whose own losses are encompassed in a survival action. Compare 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301(wrongful death) with 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 (survival); see alsoAmato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607, 625 (Pa. Super. 2015), quotingHatwood v. Hosp. of the Univ. of Pa., 55 A.3d 1229, 1235 (Pa. Super. 2012) (“The purpose of the Wrongful Death Statute … is to compensate the decedent’s survivors for the pecuniary losses they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death…. A wrongful death action does not compensate the decedent; it compensates the survivors for damages which they have sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.”) (additional citations omitted). The Act is thus designed to assure a decedent’s heirs may seek compensation “for the loss of pecuniary benefits which [they] would have received from the deceased had death not intervened.” Kaczorowski, 184 A. at 665. Also, the Act is a remedial statute, and as such it must be liberally interpreted to effect its purpose and promote justice. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(c); Amadio v. Levin, 509 Pa. 199, 501 A.2d 1085, 1087 (1985) (wrongful death statute is “remedial in nature and purpose, and as such should be liberally construed to accomplish the objective of the act”); see alsoO’Rourke v. Commonwealth, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1203 (2001) (noting remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to effect objectives).

With these principles and the legislative purpose of the Act in mind, we must determine whether the Waiver provides a complete defense to a wrongful death claim brought by non-signatory heirs. A liability waiver is, at its core, a contract, and must be construed and interpreted in the same manner as other contracts — such as arbitration clauses or settlement agreements and releases — when determining whether it is effective against a non-signatory third party. The Waiver purports to be an exculpatory contract, and such contracts are generally disfavored by the law. SeeEmployers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since

they are not favorites of the law”); see alsoSoxman v. Goodge, 372 Pa.Super. 343, 539 A.2d 826, 828 (1988) (“the law … recognized that lying behind [exculpatory] contracts is a residuum of public policy which is antagonistic to carte blanche exculpation from liability and thus developed the rule that these provisions would be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection”), quotingPhillips Home Furnishings Inc. v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa.Super. 174, 331 A.2d 840, 843 (1974). Accordingly, a pre-injury exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy, is between parties relating entirely to their private affairs, and where each party is a free bargaining agent so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1177 (2010), citingTopp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993). This Court has consistently recognized the exculpatory contract is an agreement that is “intended to diminish legal rights which normally accrue as a result of a given legal relationship or transaction … [which must be] construed strictly against the party seeking [its] protection.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963), quotingMorton v. Ambridge Borough, 375 Pa. 630, 101 A.2d 661, 663 (1954).

Thus, in determining whether the Waiver provides a defense to appellant’s wrongful death action, we must liberally apply the remedial Act while we simultaneously construe the Waiver strictly against appellee as the party seeking protection from the contract. We would hold the Superior Court did the opposite in its decision below: the court erroneously gave the Waiver the broadest application possible while disregarding the remedial nature of the Act and the public policy considerations underpinning it.[6]

First, we note the Waiver is a contract between Decedent and appellee involving their own private affairs. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. The Waiver includes broad language barring Triathlon participants from filing suit to recover damages for injuries or death “which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the [Triathlon], including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of” appellees. See Waiver attached as Exhibit A to appellee’s Answer and New Matter. However, the Waiver is plainly not an agreement between Triathlon participants’ wrongful death heirs and appellee. We emphasize a wrongful death action belongs solely to a decedent’s heirs, is intended to compensate them, and does not accrue to the decedent. SeeHatwood, 55 A.3d at 1235, quotingMachado v. Kunkel, 804 A.2d 1238, 1246 (Pa. Super. 2002) (“Under the wrongful death act the widow or family is entitled, in addition to costs, to compensation for the loss of the contributions decedent would have made …”). Thus, while a pre-injury exculpatory

waiver might indeed be effective to bar a survival claim by a decedent’s estate, it is quite another thing to conclude the decedent’s agreement acts as a complete defense to statutory claims that are specifically available to his non-signatory heirs. Appellee argues the Waiver provides a complete defense to appellant’s wrongful death claim, but in our considered view, allowing the Waiver to have this effect would require us to ignore the purpose of the Act and the public policy concerns it was specifically enacted to protect.[7]

Our conclusion is consistent with prior Pennsylvania case law arising from wrongful death actions. As this Court has stated, such lawsuits are meant to compensate the statutory beneficiaries, i.e. the spouse, children or parents of the decedent for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of their relative’s death. SeeTulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431. Accordingly, our courts have recognized the distinct nature of these claims and have declined to enforce a decedent’s own agreements and obligations against his heirs. SeeButtermore, 561 A.2d at 736 (release signed by husband barred his own action against hospital but not the independent action of wife, who did not sign release); Pisano, 77 A.3d at 660, citingKaczorowski, 184 A. at 664 (wrongful death claim is derived from injury to decedent but it is independent and distinct cause of action; decedent’s agreement to arbitrate not binding on non-signatory heirs); see alsoRickard v. Am. Nat’l Prop. & Cas. Co., 173 A.3d 299 (Pa. Super. 2017) (decedent’s agreement to accept insurance benefits in exchange for allowing subrogation by insurer not binding on non-signatory heirs who recovered damages in subsequent wrongful death action against tortfeasor). The Waiver in this regard is analogous to the settlement and release agreement at issue in Buttermore, or the arbitration agreement in Pisano .

We observe that the undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” Amadio, 501 A.2d at 1087. And, as we have stated, exculpatory contracts must be read narrowly. SeeDilks, 192 A.2d at 687; see alsoTayar v. Camelback Ski Corp. Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (for exculpatory clause to be enforceable “contract language must be construed strictly”), quotingTopp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. Allowing the Waiver to have a broad exculpatory effect with respect to non-signatory wrongful death claimants would essentially make the right the General Assembly created for certain heirs through the Act an illusory one. Abrogation of an express statutory right to recovery in this way violates public policy, and a pre-injury exculpatory waiver that contravenes public policy is invalid and unenforceable. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). Moreover, our recognition of relevant public policy concerns in this regard does not constitute “creation” of public policy. See OISA at 947. Our law is clear that determination of whether contract terms may be avoided on public policy grounds “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents [or] governmental practice ….” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. The public policy

we recognize here is well-established in both judicial precedents and statutory enactment. This Court has declined to enforce exculpatory contracts “[w]here the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, [because] that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953) (exculpatory waiver of liability unenforceable on public policy grounds due to conflict with statute). Precluding the use of the Waiver as a carte blanche automatic defense to wrongful death actions comports with the remedial purpose and protection expressed in the Act. A contrary holding elevates a private contract above public policy embodied in a statutory enactment, and overrides our jurisprudence directing a narrow and strict construction of exculpatory waivers.

Accordingly, we would hold the Waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to appellant’s wrongful death claims and, as such, the Waiver should not be available to appellee as a defense in the underlying wrongful death litigation.[8] We would hold the Superior Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of appellee on that basis, and reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings on appellant’s wrongful death claim.

Justice Donohue and Justice Mundy join this opinion in support of reversal.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

DONOHUE, JUSTICE.

I join Justice Dougherty’s Opinion in Support of Reversal (“OISR”) in full. I too disagree with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the Decedent’s exculpatory agreement may serve as a complete defense to the wrongful death heir’s claim against the Triathlon. I write separately to express my view that, in light of the derivative nature of wrongful death actions, the Superior Court was technically correct in its analysis of the mechanical operation of the liability waiver in reaching its conclusion. However, when the mechanical operation of the law works to defeat the purpose of a remedial statute like the Wrongful Death Act, by way of the broad enforcement of a legally disfavored exculpatory agreement, the mechanical operation must yield.

As Justice Dougherty explains, this Court has repeatedly affirmed a requirement that exculpatory agreements must be narrowly and strictly construed because exculpatory language, which purports to relieve a person of liability even when he has negligently caused injury to another, is not favored in the law. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954-55 (citing Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010); Topp Copy Prods. Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993);

Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (1963)). Here, Appellant does not challenge the validity or the enforceability of the contractual assumption of risk in the survival action she brought (as administratrix) on behalf of Decedent’s estate. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, the liability waiver is valid and enforceable as a complete defense to the survival action. As between the Triathlon and Decedent, there is a knowing and voluntary agreement to extinguish Decedent’s ability to recover for claims of ordinary negligence.

I believe that we must, however, decline to allow the liability waiver to defeat a wrongful death action brought by heirs who never agreed, expressly or otherwise, to eliminate their statutory right to recover for their pecuniary loss resulting from the death of their loved one that, as alleged, was tortious but for the liability waiver. Allowing the liability waiver to defeat the wrongful death action, as the Superior Court did, gives the waiver the broadest possible reading, contrary to our mandate to narrowly construe such provisions. The tenet of strict construction requires that we limit this liability waiver to its narrowest effect: a bar to recovery under the survival action.

Moreover, as noted by Justice Dougherty, for an exculpatory waiver to be valid, it must meet three conditions: it must not contravene public policy, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs, and each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53 (citing Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177). As to these first two prongs, this Court’s decision in Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44 (1953), is instructive. In Boyd, an agreement between a property owner and a tenant relieved the property owner from liability for any injury occasioned by the property owner’s negligence in the maintenance of the leased building. Boyd, 94 A.2d at 45. However, pursuant to statute, “no building … shall be used for human habitation unless it is equipped with a fire escape or fire escapes as required by law.” Id. (quoting 53 P.S. § 3962). The property in question was not equipped with fire escapes. The building caught fire and, unable to escape the building by fire escape, the tenant sustained serious injuries and sued. The property owner attempted to rely on the exculpatory agreement in the lease to avoid liability.

We declined to find the waiver enforceable, explaining:

Such a protective clause is undoubtedly valid and enforceable if it does not contravene any policy of the law, that is, if it is not a matter of interest to the public or the state but merely an agreement between persons relating entirely to their private affairs. The situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.

Id. at 46. We further held, “where the legislature has, by definite and unequivocal language, determined the public policy of this Commonwealth with regard to a particular subject, that pronouncement cannot be set aside and rendered unenforceable by a contract between individuals.” Id.

We are tasked here with determining the legal effect of a liability waiver upon a third party, not the signatory – a far more extreme reach of the waiver of liability than in Boyd . However, as in Boyd, the fullest enforcement of the liability waiver would contravene an unequivocal policy determination by the General Assembly,

namely that wrongful death heirs are entitled to recover pecuniary losses from the party responsible for their provider’s death. See OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 952-53, 954.

The Wrongful Death Act, which is remedial in nature and must be construed liberally, assures that surviving heirs do not need to go without financial support nor look to public welfare agencies to shoulder the economic burden of the loss of a provider. SeeKaczorowski, 184 A. at 665; see alsoGershon v. Regency Diving Center, 368 N.J.Super. 237, 845 A.2d 720, 728 (2004) (observing that, “in many wrongful death cases the decedent was the ‘breadwinner’ and the heirs are children, incompetents or those otherwise economically dependent on the decedent”). Notably, in the case at bar, Decedent was a forty-year-old husband and father of two who worked full-time for United Parcel Service and part-time as a licensed realtor. See Appellant’s Response to Triathlon’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 2.

Allowing the Triathlon to use Decedent’s waiver of liability to defeat a wrongful death claim would require us to ignore clear public policy embedded in the wrongful death statute and our laws governing decedents more generally. Analogously, the General Assembly has for centuries prohibited spousal disinheritance by will in order to ensure the surviving spouse’s financial security after the decedent’s death. SeeIn re Houston’s Estate, 371 Pa. 396, 89 A.2d 525, 526 (1952); see also 20 Pa.C.S. § 2203 (authorizing a surviving spouse to take against the will an elective share of one-third of the deceased’s property, subject to certain exceptions, thereby ensuring the surviving spouse’s right to some inheritance). Thus, a married individual cannot eliminate his spouse’s statutory entitlement, even through an attempted disinheritance in a last will and testament. In my view, it is impossible to reconcile allowing a sporting event participant to eradicate a statutory claim for wrongful death damages when he could not accomplish a disinheritance by virtue of a will. For this reason, and because liability waivers are disfavored, I join Justice Dougherty in narrowly construing the liability waiver so that it is enforceable only in the survival action brought on behalf of Decedent’s estate, where it was not challenged. Cf.Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (curtailing purported effect of waiver on public policy grounds). So construed, it has no effect on the wrongful death action. Like Justice Dougherty, I would decline to give any effect to the Decedent’s contractual waiver of the Triathlon’s duty of care in the wrongful death action because doing so would implicate public, not merely private, affairs and would contravene the policy set forth by our legislature in the Wrongful Death Act which we must liberally construe. OISR (Dougherty, J.) at 954-55; see alsoChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189; Boyd, 94 A.2d at 46.

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Notes:

[1] We also granted allowance of appeal to determine whether to abolish the assumption of the risk doctrine under circumstances where the Comparative Negligence Act does not expressly permit its application. Appellant, however, waived this issue by not challenging the overall viability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in the lower tribunals. See Pa.R.A.P. 302(a) (providing that “[i]ssues not raised in the lower court are waived and cannot be raised for the first time on appeal”).

[2] In block capital lettering above the signature line, the Agreement stated that Decedent’s acceptance of the Agreement confirmed that he read and understood its terms, that he understood that he would surrender substantial rights, including the right to sue, and that Decedent signed the agreement freely and voluntarily. Id. This final paragraph went on to state that acceptance of the Agreement constituted “a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law.” Id.

[3] In Pisano, the decedent had executed an agreement at the time of his admission to a long-term care nursing facility (“Extendicare”), providing that any dispute arising from the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Id. at 653. The decedent’s son subsequently commenced a wrongful death action against Extendicare in the trial court. Extendicare filed preliminary objections, seeking to have the case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court overruled Extendicare’s preliminary objections, holding that a wrongful death action is a creature of statute and is independent of the right of action of the decedent’s estate. Id. at 654. Thus, the trial court concluded, the decedent’s agreement to arbitrate disputes did not preclude the wrongful death claim brought by the decedent’s son. Id.

The Superior Court affirmed. The court reasoned that pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, a wrongful death action is not derivative of the decedent’s claim, but is a separate and distinct right of action belonging to statutory claimants to compensate them for damages they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death. Id. at 656-8. The Pisano court concluded that the arbitration agreement was not binding on the decedent’s son because he was not a party to that agreement; thus, the trial court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.

[4] Notably, the Superior Court presumed the validity of the Agreement as Appellant presented no claim to the contrary. See id. at 492 n.6 (explaining that Appellant “does not challenge the substantive validity of the liability waiver as a bar to her claims of ordinary negligence. Consequently, we need not address the validity of the exculpatory provisions in the context of this case.”). By declaring the Agreement void as against public policy, the OISR ignores this clear waiver of any challenge to the Agreement on those grounds.

[1] Appellant stipulated to the dismissal of all defendants other than appellee on January 29, 2013, and they are not involved in this appeal. See Stipulation of Dismissal Without Prejudice.

[2] In Pennsylvania, wrongful death claims are separate and distinct from survival claims, although both involve allegations of negligence against the defendant. SeeDubose v. Quinlan, 643 Pa. 244, 173 A.3d 634, 637 (2017); Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 648 A.2d 1, 4 (1994) (discussing differences between survival and wrongful death claims); Tulewicz v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 529 Pa. 588, 606 A.2d 427, 431 (1992); (“the two actions are designed to compensate two different categories of claimants”); Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651, 654 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 624 Pa. 683, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa . 2014) (“Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly distinguished wrongful death claims from survival claims”). The survival claim is the “continuation of a cause of action that accrued to the plaintiff’s decedent while the decedent was alive …. On the other hand, a wrongful death action accrues to the decedent’s heirs when the decedent dies of such an injury ….” Dubose, 173 A.3d at 637. As explained more fully infra, a wrongful death claim is an independent action which belongs to the decedent’s heirs for damages aimed to compensate members of a decedent’s family for their loss. Tulewicz, 606 A.2d at 431.

[3] Judge Olson authored the majority opinion joined by P.J. Gantman, P.J.E. Bender, and Judges Bowes, Shogun and Ott.

[4] In a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Judges Panella and Lazarus, P.J.E. Ford Elliott determined Buttermore v. Aliquippa Hospital, 522 Pa. 325, 561 A.2d 733 (1989) was instructive on the analysis of the Waiver, despite the majority’s effort to distinguish it. Valentino, 150 A.3d at 501-02 (Ford Elliott, P.J.E., concurring and dissenting). Judge Ford Elliott noted the Waiver is similar to the release in Buttermore, and the non-signatory heir in that case had an independent right to sue for the injury she suffered as a result of her decedent’s death. Id. Judge Ford Elliott stated the majority’s holding the Decedent’s own assumption of risk created a complete defense to his heirs’ wrongful death action would “eviscerate the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute which creates an independent and distinct cause of action, not derivative of the decedent’s rights at time of death.” Id. at 502. Judge Ford Elliott would also have relied on Pisano to reverse summary judgment. Id. at 504.

[5] This Court granted review of this second issue and ordered supplemental briefing via a per curiam order dated January 26, 2018. As acknowledged by the Opinion in Support of Affirmance (OISA), although appellant challenged the effectiveness of the Waiver as it applied to Decedent, she never questioned the overall viability of the doctrine of assumption of the risk below, and the issue is therefore waived. See OISA at 942, n.1.

[6] The OISA suggests our view of the case ignores the question before the Court. See OISA at 942-43. Respectfully, the OISA’s position reveals an overly narrow reading of the issue on appeal, i.e., whether an exculpatory contract can be enforced against non-signatory heirs in a claim made pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act. Seesupra at 950-51. In answering that question, we examine the terms of the Waiver within the context in which it is to be enforced. We cannot disregard the nature of the underlying suit and our jurisprudence guiding our interpretation of exculpatory contracts, which specifically includes a consideration of public policy. SeeChepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1177 (exculpatory agreement is valid only when “it does not contravene public policy …”). Although the question granted on appeal did not include the term “public policy,” we must surely consider public policy when determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid and enforceable under the given circumstances.

[7] The OISA accurately observes an exculpatory agreement would “generally be valid to preclude a participant’s ordinary negligence claims against the purveyor of an inherently dangerous sport or activity,” but nevertheless rejects our view that the same waiver could be ineffective as a defense in a wrongful death claim while providing a viable defense in a survival action. See OISA at 947. We consider the disparate treatment of the Waiver in the two causes of action to be the direct result of the different goals and purposes served by the relevant statutes. Seesupra at 942, n.2.

[8] Importantly, our holding would not render appellee defenseless in that litigation, despite the OISA statement our reading means appellant’s right to relief is “absolute”. See OISA at 947. We recognize a wrongful death action is a tort claim arising from the alleged “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Appellant must still prove the elements of her case, including causation, before any recovery would be assured. See, e.g.,Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008 (2003) (to maintain negligence action, plaintiff must show defendant had duty to conform to standard of conduct, breach of duty, the breach caused the injury, and the injury resulted in damages).

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One box was unchecked in the release which was signed online, and the court would not grant the motion for summary judgment of the defendant because whether or not the release was valid was a decision for the jury.

This judge was either not going to make a decision or only allow the plaintiff to win. However, the defendants set themselves up to lose by having a check box in the release.

Moore v. North America Sports, Inc., et al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134557

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Panama City Division

Plaintiff: Brian Moore

Defendant: North America Sports, Inc., USA Triathlon

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk, Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Having a box unchecked on a release sent the case to trial because the judge would not decide if that made the release valid. Having no jurisdiction and venue clause also created an opening, left unresolved on whether Florida or Montana’s law would apply. If Montana’s law, the releases would be void.

Overall, a poorly prepared or thought-out motion and supporting documents that helped the plaintiff more than the defendant left the defendant in a worse position than before they filed the motion.

Facts

The deceased lived in Montana and signed up in Montana to enter a triathlon in Panama City Beach Florida. In the process of signing up, he signed two releases. One for the website and one for the triathlon. The defendant also stated that the deceased signed two more releases upon registering for the event in Florida. The release signed for the website was not a factor in this decision.

During the swim portion of the triathlon the deceased experienced distress and died three days later.

His survivors filed this lawsuit.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The first issue reviewed by the court was the defense of assumption of the risk. The court resolved this issue in favor of the plaintiff in a short paragraph. Whether or not the deceased assumed the risk of his injury is a question for the jury. It cannot be resolved in a Motion for Summary Judgment.

When a participant volunteers to take certain chances, he waives his right to be free from those bodily contacts inherent in the chances taken.” However, it is the jury’s function to determine whether a participant should have anticipated the particular risk, and whether the defendant made the activity as safe as possible.

The second argument made by the plaintiff was whether or not the USA Triathlon was liable as a sanctioning body. “In order for a sanctioning organization, or sponsoring organization, to be liable, it must have some control over the event.” USA Triathlon argued they did not control the event and should be dismissed.

Again, the court stated whether or not USA Triathlon had any control over the event was a question of fact for the jury.

The next issues were the releases. The first issue was what law applied to the releases. There was obviously no jurisdiction and venue clause in the release or because there was an issue of the validity of the release, the court took it upon itself to determine what law applied.

The plaintiff’s argued that Montana’s law should apply. Montana does not allow the use of a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, for willful injury to the person or property of another, or for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.” Mont. Code Ann. § 28-2-702 (2007). However, Plaintiff fails to take into account that first the applicable choice-of-law must be determined, and then the contract is interpreted according to that state’s substantive law.

Since this decision, the statute has been amended to allow the use of releases for sport or recreational opportunities. See Montana Recreation Responsibility Act.

However, the court never made a definitive statement as to whose law would be applied to the releases in this situation.

The next issue was a review of the releases signed on-line when the deceased registered for the event. The on-line release required a box to be checked. In the discovery process, the defendant provided a copy of the release signed by the deceased that had a box that was unchecked.

Defendants provide a printout showing an electronic signature. However, in order to properly exe-cute the waiver, the waivers state that the participant must check the box. Defendants fail to pro-vide any evidence to show a connection between checking the box and an electronic signature appearing in the printout. This lack of evidence leaves us just short of the finish line. Had a proper showing been made, summary judgment for the Defendants might have been warranted. Whether the online wavier was properly executed is a material fact for the jury to decide.

Again, the court saved this issue for the jury. Somehow the deceased was able to register for the event and leave a box unchecked; consequently, the court found one unchecked box was enough to deny a motion for summary judgment as to the validity of the release.

The defendant then argued that there were two additional releases signed by the deceased that would have stopped the plaintiff’s claims. However, the copies the defendant provided did not have signatures on them.

Defendants claim that Rice would have been required to sign two additional waivers in order to complete the onsite registration and be allowed to participate. Defendants do not provide signed copies of these waivers, only blank copies. Plaintiff denies that Rice signed any waiver on the day of the race. The fact that Defendants cannot provide a signed waiver does not exclude testimony on this matter; it merely goes to the weight of the evidence for the jury to consider.

This allowed the plaintiff to plead the deceased never signed the documents and the court again through the decision to the jury.

So Now What?

Remember this decision was decided nine years ago. At that time, the law concerning assumption of the risk has changed, and more courts are determining that the risk the plaintiff suffered was inherent in the sport. Therefore, the plaintiff assumed the risk. Whether or not that evolution in the law has occurred in Florida. I have not researched.

I suspect that USA Triathlon now has written agreements with all races it sanctions setting forth the legal requirements of the relationship. Absent an agreement, an industry practice can easily be proven, but not in a motion for summary judgement. A contract outlining the legal responsibilities between the parties can be used in a motion for summary judgment.

Check Boxes in a Release are landmines waiting to explode.

Why do you have boxes to be checked in a release? They do not support a contract, they only support the theory that the unchecked section is not valid or as in this case the entire release is not valid.

It was just stupid not to have your ducks in a row as a defendant when filing or defending motions for summary judgment. Here the defendants looked bad. Their arguments were strong, but they had no proof to support their arguments. For more on how check boxes can void your release see Trifecta of stupidity sinks this dive operation. Too many releases, operation standards and dive industry standards, along with an employee failing to get releases signed, sunk this ship on appeal.

You can prove the deceased signed a release if you don’t have a copy of the signature on the release, however, to do so you have to be able to prove that your system would not have allowed the deceased to race unless he signed. Nothing like that was introduced for all three of the releases the defense argued the decedent signed.

That does not even take into account novation. The second and third release might have been void because they were not signed for consideration. Only the first release had consideration, a benefit flowing to the decedent, entrance into the race. The decedent was in the race when he signed the second and third release, so there was no new consideration. See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.

Two many releases, no contracts between the defendants and this order made the defendants look bad and guaranteed a trial.

Honestly, the decision reads like either a judge, who does not want to make a decision or one that was heavily leaning towards the Plaintiff. At the same time, the defendants made easy for the judge to rule this way. However, there is not much choice, you have to play with the cards the court clerk gives you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al., 244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

Robert David Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Community Association, Inc., et al.

Record No. 911395

Supreme Court of Virginia

244 Va. 191; 418 S.E.2d 894; 1992 Va. LEXIS 69; 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381

June 5, 1992

COUNSEL: Bernard S. Cohen (Sandra M. Rohrstaff; Cohen, Dunn & Sinclair, on brief), for appellant.

Joseph D. Roberts (Slenker, Brandt, Jennings & Johnson, on brief), for appellees.

JUDGES: Justice Keenan delivered the opinion of the Court.

OPINION BY: KEENAN

OPINION

[*192]   [**894]  The primary issue in this appeal is whether a pre-injury release from liability for negligence is void as being against public policy.

Robert D. Hiett sustained an injury which rendered him a quadriplegic while participating in the “Teflon Man Triathlon” (the triathlon) sponsored by the Lake Barcroft  [**895]  Community Association, Inc. (LABARCA).  The injury occurred at the start of the swimming event when Hiett waded into Lake Barcroft to a point where the water reachedhis [***2]  thighs, dove into the water, and struck his head on either the lake bottom or an object beneath the water surface.

Thomas M. Penland, Jr., a resident of Lake Barcroft, organized and directed the triathlon. He drafted the entry form which all participants were required to sign.  The first sentence of the form provided:

In consideration of this entry being accept[ed] to participate in the Lake Barcroft Teflon Man Triathlon I hereby, for myself, my heirs, and executors waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or  [*193]  m[a]y hereafter accrue to me against the organizers and sponsors and their representatives, successors, and assigns, for any and all injuries suffered by me in said event.

Evelyn Novins, a homeowner in the Lake Barcroft subdivision, asked Hiett to participate in the swimming portion of the triathlon. She and Hiett were both teachers at a school for learning-disabled children.  Novins invited Hiett to participate as a member of one of two teams of fellow teachers she was organizing.  During a break between classes, Novins presented Hiett with the entry form and he signed it.

Hiett alleged inhis [***3]  third amended motion for judgment that LABARCA, Penland, and Novins had failed to ensure that the lake was reasonably safe, properly supervise the swimming event, advise the participants of the risk of injury, and train them how to avoid such injuries.  Hiett also alleged that Penland and Novins were agents of LABARCA and that Novins’s failure to direct his attention to the release clause in the entry form constituted constructive fraud and misrepresentation.

In a preliminary ruling, the trial court held that, absent fraud, misrepresentation, duress, illiteracy, or the denial of an opportunity to read the form, the entry form was a valid contract and that the pre-injury release language in the contract released the defendants from liability for negligence.  The trial court also ruled that such a release was prohibited as a matter of public policy only when it was included: (1) in a common carrier’s contract of carriage; (2) in the contract of a public utility under a duty to furnish telephone service; or (3) as a condition of employment set forth in an employment contract.

Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing in whichit determined [***4]  that there was sufficient evidence to present to a jury on the issue of constructive fraud and misrepresentation. Additionally, the trial court ruled that as a matter of law Novins was not an agent of LABARCA, and it dismissed her from the case.

The remaining parties proceeded to trial solely on the issue whether there was constructive fraud and misrepresentation by the defendants such as would invalidate the waiver-release language in the entry form.  After Hiett had rested his case, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the evidence.  This appeal followed.

[*194]  Hiett first argues that the trial court erred in ruling that the pre-injury release provision in the entry form did not violate public policy. He contends that since the decision of this Court in Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890), the law in Virginia has been settled that an agreement entered into prior to any injury, releasing a tortfeasor from liability for negligence resulting in personal injury, is void because it violates public policy. Hiett asserts that the later cases of this Court have addressed only therelease of liability [***5]  from property damage or indemnification against liability to third parties. Thus, he contends that the holding in Johnson remains unchanged.  In response, LABARCA and Novins argue that the decisions of this Court since Johnson have established  [**896]  that pre-injury release agreements such as the one before us do not violate public policy. We disagree with LABARCA and Novins.

The case law in this Commonwealth over the past one hundred years has not altered the holding in Johnson.  In Johnson, this Court addressed the validity of a pre-injury release of liability for future negligent acts.  There, the decedent was a member of a firm of quarry workers which had entered into an agreement with a railroad company to remove a granite bluff located on the company’s right of way.  The agreement specified that the railroad would not be liable for any injuries or death sustained by any members of the firm, or its employees, occurring from any cause whatsoever.

The decedent was killed while attempting to warn one of his employees of a fast-approaching train. The evidence showed that the train was moving at a speed of not less than 25 miles per hour, notwithstanding the [***6]  railroad company’s agreement that all trains would pass by the work site at speeds not exceeding six miles per hour.

[1] In holding that the release language was invalid because it violated public policy, this Court stated:

[T]o hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails.  Public policy forbids it, and contracts against public policy are void.

 [*195]  86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829. This Court emphasized that its holding was not based on the fact that the railroad company was a common carrier.  Rather, this Court found that such  [HN1] provisions for release from liability for personal injury which may be caused by future acts of negligence are prohibited “universally.” 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 830.

[2] As noted by Hiett, the cases following Johnson have not eroded this principle.  Instead, this Court’s decisions after Johnson have been limited to upholding theright to contract for the release of liability for property damage, as well as indemnification from liability to [***7]  third parties for such damage.

[3] In C. & O. Ry. Co. v. Telephone Co., 216 Va. 858, 224 S.E.2d 317 (1976), this Court upheld a provision in an agreement entered into by the parties to allow the telephone company to place underground cables under a certain railway overpass.  In the agreement, the telephone company agreed to release the C & O Railway Company from any damage to the wire line crossing and appurtenances.  In upholding this property damage stipulation, this Court found that public policy considerations were not implicated.  216 Va. at 865-66, 224 S.E. at 322.

This Court upheld another property damage release provision in Nido v. Ocean Owners’ Council, 237 Va. 664, 378 S.E.2d 837 (1989). There, a condominium unit owner filed suit against the owners’ council of the condominium for property damage to his unit resulting from a defect in the common area of the condominium. This Court held that, under the applicable condominium by-laws, each unit owner had voluntarily waived his right to bring an action againstthe owners’ council for such property damage. 237 Va. at 667, 378 S.E.2d at 838. 1

1 Although the by-law at issue attempted to release the owners’ council for injury to both persons and property, the issue before the Court involved only the property damage portion of the clause.

 [***8]  [4] Other cases decided by this Court since Johnson have upheld provisions for indemnification against future property damage claims.  In none of these cases, however, did the Court address the issue whether an indemnification provision would be valid against a claim for personal injury.

In Richardson – Wayland v. VEPCO, 219 Va. 198, 247 S.E.2d 465 (1978), the disputed claim involved property damage only, although  [**897]  the contract provided that VEPCO would be indemnified against both property damage and personal injury claims.  This  [*196]  Court held that the provision for indemnification against property damage did not violate public policy. In so holding, this Court emphasizedthe fact that the contract was not between VEPCO and a consumer but, rather, that it was a contract made by VEPCO with a private company for certain repairs to its premises.  219 Va. at 202-03, 247 S.E.2d at 468.

This Court also addressed an indemnification clause covering liability for both personal injury and property damage in Appalachian Power Co. v. Sanders, 232 Va. 189, 349 S.E.2d 101 (1986). However, this Court was not required [***9]  to rule on the validity of the clause with respect to a claim for personal injury, based on its holding that the party asserting indemnification was not guilty of actionable negligence.  232 Va. at 196, 349 S.E. at 106.

Finally, in Kitchin v. Gary Steel Corp., 196 Va. 259, 83 S.E.2d 348 (1954), this Court found that an indemnification agreement between a prime contractor and its subcontractor was not predicated on negligence.  For this reason, this Court held that there was no merit in the subcontractor’s claim that the agreement violated public policy as set forth in Johnson.  196 Va. at 265, 83 S.E.2d at 351.

[5] We agree with Hiett that the above cases have notmodified or altered the holding in Johnson.  Therefore, we conclude here, based on Johnson, that the pre-injury release provision signed by Hiett is prohibited by public policy and, thus, it is void. Johnson, 86 Va. at 978, 11 S.E. at 829.

[6] Since we have held that the pre-injury release agreement signed by Hiett is void, the issue whether Novins acted as LABARCA’s agent in procuring Hiett’s signature will not be before the trial court in [***10]  the retrial of this case.  Nevertheless, Hiett argues that, irrespective of any agency relationship, Novins had a common law duty to warn Hiett of the dangerous condition of the uneven lake bottom. We disagree.

[7] The record before us shows that Lake Barcroft is owned by Barcroft Beach, Incorporated, and it is operated and controlled by Barcroft Lake Management Association, Incorporated.  Further, it is undisputed that the individual landowners in the Lake Barcroft subdivision have no ownership interest in the Lake. Since Novins had no ownership interest in or control over the operation of Lake Barcroft, she had no duty to warn Hiett of any dangerous condition therein.  See Busch v. Gaglio, 207 Va. 343, 348, 150 S.E.2d 110, 114 (1966).Therefore, Hiett’s assertion that Novins had a duty to warn him of the condition of the lake bottom, fails as a matter of  [*197]  law, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Novins from the case.

Accordingly, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court, and we will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with the principles expressed in this opinion. 2

2 Based on our decision here, we do not reach the questions raised by the remaining assignments of error.

[***11]  Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

 


Hines v. City of New York, Korff Enterprises, Inc., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1015; 2016 NY Slip Op 30504(U)

Hines v. City of New York, Korff Enterprises, Inc., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1015; 2016 NY Slip Op 30504(U)

[**1] Helene Hines and George Hines, Plaintiffs, -against- City of New York, Korff Enterprises, Inc., and Central Park Conservancy, Defendants. Index No. 151542-2012

151542-2012

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1015; 2016 NY Slip Op 30504(U)

March 24, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: triathlon, cones, marshal, issues of fact, non-participant, collision, summary judgment, participating, placement, signature, triable, expert’s opinion, prima facie, enforceable, admissible, proponent, sport, feet, matter of law, personal injuries, party opposing, causes of action, grossly negligent, intentional wrongdoing, inherent risk, unanticipated, collectively, para-athlete, experienced, entitlement

JUDGES: [*1] HON. GEORGE J. SILVER, J.S.C.

OPINION

DECISION/ORDER

HON. GEORGE J. SILVER, J.S.C.

In this action to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained by plaintiff Helene Hines (Hines) in the 2011 Nautical New York City Triathlon (triathlon) defendants City of New York, Korpff Enterprises, Inc. and Central Park Conservancy (collectively defendants) move pursuant to CPLR § 3212 for an order granting them summary judgment dismissing the complaint. Hines and her husband, plaintiff George Hines (collectively plaintiffs), who asserts a derivative claim, oppose the motion.

Hines, an experienced para-athlete, claims she was injured during the running portion of the triathlon when she was operating a push-rim racer and was struck by an alleged non-participant jogger. The accident occurred in Central Park at or around West 100th Street and West Drive. The bill of particulars alleges that the defendants were negligent in the ownership, operation, management, maintenance, control and supervision of the incident location in that defendants negligently permitted and/or allowed a non-participant jogger to enter upon the race course and violently collide with Hines. Prior to the triathlon, all participants were required [*2] to sign a liability waiver in person before receiving their race packet and race bibs. Defendants argue that Hines signed the waiver and by doing so expressly assumed the risk of a collision. The waiver, entitled “Event Registration, Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement”, states:

[**2] I HEREBY ACKNOWLEDGE AND ASSUME ALL OF THE RISKS OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS EVENT. . . . I also assume any and all other risks associated with participating in this Event, including but not limited to the following: falls, dangers of collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, other participants and fixed objects; the dangers arising from surface hazards, tides, equipment failure, inadequate safety equipment; and hazard that may be posed by spectators or volunteers; and weather conditions. I further acknowledge that these risks include risks that may be the result of ordinary negligent acts, omissions, and/or carelessness of the Released Parties, as defined herein. I understand that I will be participating in the Event at my own risk, that I am responsible for the risk of participation in the Event.

The waiver further states:

I WAIVE, RELEASE AND FOREVER DISCHARGE Event Producer, [*3] World Triathlon Corporation, the Race Director, USA Triathlon . . . the City of New York, Event sponsors, Event Organizers, Event promoters, Event producers, race directors . . . all other persons or entities involved with the Event, and all state, city, town, county, and other governmental bodies, and/or municipal agencies whose property and/or personnel are used and/or in any way assist in locations in which the Event or segments of the Event take place . . . from any and all claims, liabilities of every kind, demands, damages . . . , losses . . . and causes of action, of any kind or any nature, which I have or may have in future . . . that may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the Event . . . including my death, personal injury, partial or permanent disability, negligence, property damage and damages of any kind, . . . even if any of such claims Claims are caused by the ordinary negligent acts, omissions, or the carelessness of the Released Parties.

Hines denies signing the waiver and argues in the alternative that the waiver violates General Obligations Law § 5-326 because she paid a fee to participate in the triathlon. Hines also contends that defendants created and enhanced an unanticipated [*4] risk within the running portion of the triathlon by inappropriately situating cones and improperly stationing marshals in the area of her accident. Hines argues that she expected, based upon her past triathlon experience, that cones would be separated 20 feet apart and that marshals would be readily apparent within the areas between the cones. Instead, plaintiff claims the cones were separated 70 feet apart and there were no marshals present in the area where her accident occurred. Hines contends that defendants, through there setup of the race course, heightened the risk of non-participants interfering with the race and that she did not assume such heightened risks when she entered the triathlon. According to Hines’ athletic administration and safety management expert, [**3] the placement of cones 70 feet apart limited the sight lines of bystanders walking toward the race and increased the probability of confusion and misapprehension. Hines’ expert also contends that on a race course that traverses a highly populated area marshals must be easily seen and heard on the course. According to Hines’ expert, defendants’ failure to properly delineate the race course with appropriately spaced [*5] cones and to properly position marshals between the cones were deviations from accepted sports safety practices which proximately caused Hines’ accident.

To obtain summary judgment, the movant must establish its cause of action or defense sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law in directing judgment in its favor (CPLR § 3212 [b]; Bendik v Dybowski, 227 AD2d 228, 642 N.Y.S.2d 284 [1st Dept 1996]). This standard requires that the proponent of a motion for summary judgment make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by advancing sufficient “evidentiary proof in admissible form” to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact (Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 NE2d 642, 487 NYS2d 316 [1985]; Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562, 404 NE2d 718, 427 NYS2d 595 [1980]; Silverman v Perlbinder, 307 AD2d 230, 762 N.Y.S.2d 386 [1st Dept 2003]; Thomas v Holzberg, 300 AD2d 10, 11, 751 N.Y.S.2d 433 [1st Dept 2002]). Thus, the motion must be supported “by affidavit [from a person having knowledge of the facts], by a copy of the pleadings and by other available proof, such as depositions” (CPLR § 3212 [b]).

To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must show facts sufficient to require a trial of any issue of fact (CPLR § 3212 [b]). Thus, where the proponent of the motion makes a prima facie showing of entitlement to summary judgment, the burden shifts to the party opposing the motion to demonstrate by admissible evidence the existence of a factual issue requiring a trial of the action, or to tender an acceptable [*6] excuse for his or her failure to do so (Vermette v Kenworth Truck Co., 68 NY2d 714, 717, 497 NE2d 680, 506 NYS2d 313 [1986]; Zuckerman, 49 NY2d at 560, 562; Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blind, 309 AD2d 546, 765 N.Y.S.2d 326 [1st Dept 2003]). Like the proponent of the motion, the party opposing the motion must set forth evidentiary proof in admissible form in support of his or her claim that material triable issues of fact exist (Zuckerman, 49 NY2d at 562). The opponent “must assemble and lay bare [its] affirmative proof to demonstrate that genuine issues of fact exist” and “the issue must be shown to be real, not feigned, since a sham or frivolous issue will not preclude summary relief” (Kornfeld v NRX Technologies, Inc., 93 AD2d 772, 461 N.Y.S.2d 342 [1st Dept 1983], affd, 62 NY2d 686, 465 NE2d 30, 476 NYS2d 523 [1984]). Mere conclusions, expressions of hope or unsubstantiated allegations or assertions are insufficient (Alvord and Swift v Stewart M Muller Constr. Co., 46 NY2d 276, 281-82, 385 NE2d 1238, 413 NYS2d 309 [1978]; Fried v Bower & Gardner, 46 NY2d 765, 767, 386 NE2d 258, 413 NYS2d 650 [1978]; Plantamura v Penske Truck Leasing, Inc., 246 AD2d 347, 668 N.Y.S.2d 157 [1st Dept 1998]). Summary judgment is a drastic remedy that should only be employed where no doubt exists as to the absence of triable issues (Leighton v Leighton, 46 AD3d 264, 847 N.Y.S.2d 64 [1st Dept 2007]). The key to such procedure is issue-finding, rather than issue-determination (id.).

Contractual agreements to waive liability for a party’s negligence, although frowned upon, are generally enforceable where not expressly prohibited by law (Gross v Sweet, 49 NY2d 102, 105, 400 NE2d 306, 424 NYS2d 365 [1979]). Language relieving one from liability must be unmistakable and easily understood. (id. at 107). The waiver at issue here clearly and [**4] unequivocally expresses the intention of the parties to relieve defendants of liability for their own negligence (Schwartz v Martin, 82 AD3d 1201, 919 N.Y.S.2d 217 [2d Dept 2011]) and [*7] because the entry fee paid by Hines was for her participation in the triathlon, not an admission fee allowing her to use the public park and roadway where her accident allegedly occurred, the waiver does not violate General Obligations Law § 5-326 (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]).

With respect to the signature on the waiver, while the opinion of defendants’ forensic expert is inadmissible, an expert’s opinion is not required to establish that the signature on the waiver is Hines’ (see John Deere Ins. Co. v GBE/Alasia Corp., 57 AD3d 620, 869 N.Y.S.2d 198 [2d Dept 2008] [defendant failed to submit an affidavit of a handwriting expert or of a lay witness familiar with defendant’s handwriting to establish that the signature on the agreement was not hers]). George Hines, who as a party to the action is an interested witness, testified that he believed the signature on the waiver was Hines’. Moreover, as defendants point out, athletes could not participate in the triathlon without signing the waiver in person and presenting photographic identification at a pre-race expo and Hines was seen by non-party witness Kathleen Bateman of Achilles International, Inc. at the expo waiting in line with her handlers to pick up her race bib. In opposition to defendants’ prima facie showing that Hines signed the enforceable waiver, Hines’ bald, [*8] self-serving claim that she did not sign it, which is not supported by an expert’s opinion, does not raise a triable issue of fact (see Abrons v 149 Fifth Ave. Corp., 45 AD3d 384, 845 N.Y.S.2d 299 [1st Dept 2007]; Peyton v State of Newburgh, Inc., 14 AD3d 51, 786 N.Y.S.2d 458 [Pt Dept 2004]).

Although an enforceable release will not insulate a party from grossly negligent conduct, the alleged acts of defendants with respect to the placement of cones and the stationing of marshals in the area where Hines’ accident occurred do not rise to the level of intentional wrongdoing or evince a reckless indifference to the rights of others (Schwartz, 82 AD3d at 1202 [alleged acts of negligence did not rise to the level of intentional wrongdoing where a marshal at a bicycle race was injured by a non-participant bicyclist]). Hines’ expert expressly states that defendants’ actions with respect to the placement of cones and marshals were deviations from accepted sports safety practices. Thus, Hines’ expert’s opinion is that defendants were merely negligent, not grossly negligent.

Hines has also failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the placement of cones and marshals by defendants improperly enhanced an unanticipated risk of collision. Hines’ expert’s affidavit fails to establish the foundation or source of the standards underlying the expert’s conclusion that [*9] the placement and positioning of cones and marshals along the running portion of the triathlon was negligent and, as such, the affidavit lacks probative value (see David v County of Suffolk, 1 NY3d 525, 526, 807 NE2d 278, 775 NYS2d 229 [2003]). Moreover, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine provides that a voluntary participant in a sporting or recreational activity “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 of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 NE2d 202, 662 NYS2d 421 [1997]) and it is “not necessary to the application of [the doctrine] that the injured plaintiff have foreseen the exact manner in which his or her injury occurred, so long as the he or she is aware of the potential for injury of the mechanism from which the injury results” (Maddox, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 NE2d 553, 496 NYS2d 726 [1985]). Awareness of risk, including risks created by less than optimal conditions [**5] (Latimer v City of New York, 118 AD3d 420, 987 N.Y.S.2d 58 [1st Dept 2014]), “is not to be determined in a vacuum” (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 486) but, rather, “against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (id.). Hines is a highly decorated and highly experienced para-athlete who participated in dozens races over her career, many of which took place in Central Park. Hines’ testimony that other race courses in Central Park were set up differently and delineated with [*10] cones and marshals differently than the way in which defendants allegedly set up the triathlon course establishes that Hines was aware that collisions with non-participants were an inherent risk in participating in a triathlon in Central Park. Hines also testified that she was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, further proof that she was aware that collisions of some type, whether with participants, non-participants or objects, were an inherent risk of participating in the race. “Inherency is the sine qua non” (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 484-486) and regardless of how defendants situated cones and marshals along the race course, Hines was fully aware of and fully appreciated the inherent risk of injury resulting from a collision during the triathlon. Defendants, therefore, are entitled to summary dismissal of the complaint.

Accordingly, it is hereby

ORDERED that defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted and the complaint is dismissed in its entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly; and it is further

ORDERED that movants are to serve a copy of this order, with notice of entry, upon plaintiffs within 20 days of entry.

Dated: 3/24/16

New York County

/s/ [*11] George J. Silver

George J. Silver, J.S.C.


Chapple, Et Al., v. Ultrafit Usa, Inc., Et Al., 2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

Chapple, Et Al., v. Ultrafit USA, Inc., Et Al., 2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

Roger Chapple, Et Al., Plaintiffs-Appellants -vs- Ultrafit Usa, Inc., Et Al., Defendants-Appellees

Case No. 01-CAE-08037

COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO, FIFTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, DELAWARE COUNTY

2002 Ohio 1292; 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 1366

March 18, 2002, Date of Judgment Entry

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] CHARACTER OF PROCEEDING: Appeal from the Delaware County, Common Pleas Court, Case No. 00-CVC-06-270.

DISPOSITION: Trial court’s grant of defendants-appellees’ motion for summary judgment was affirmed.

COUNSEL: For Plaintiffs-Appellants: JOHN A. YAKLEVICH, Columbus, Ohio.

For Defendants-Appellees: MARK PETRUCCI, Columbus, Ohio.

JUDGES: Hon. Sheila G. Farmer, P.J., Hon. Julie A. Edwards, J., Hon. John F. Boggins, J. Boggins, J., Farmer, P.J., and Edwards, J. concur.

OPINION BY: John F. Boggins

OPINION

Boggins, J.

This is an appeal from a Summary Judgment ruling of the Delaware County, Court of Common Pleas.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS AND CASE

The facts underlying this case are that appellant Roger Chapple was an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation (O.D.N.R.). Appellee Ultrafit, Inc. through its president, appellee Jeffrey Sheard is engaged in organizing and promoting events such as triathlons. One of these contests was set for June 28, 1998 at Alum Creek State Park. Appellees had made application to the O.D.N.R. to use the facilities, including employees of O.D.N.R. on June 28, 1998 to conduct a triathlon. Appellant signed up per O.D.N.R. procedure to work the event. John Williamson, crew leader for O.D.N.R. set the work schedule which [*2] included appellant’s duties. (Appellant’s deposition at p.14). Appellant had no contact with appellees on 6/28/98 prior to his injury. Due to severe weather, the triathlon’s starting time was delayed until about 9:30a.m. when the weather had improved. Due to the late start, the race was shortened. Near the end of the shortened event, appellant Roger Chapple was rolling a hose on an abandoned leg of the race and was struck by lightning and injured. Appellant, Joyce Chapple, spouse of Roger Chapple is joined on a loss of consortium basis. The issues are whether appellees owed a duty to Roger Chapple, was he an employee of O.D.N.R. or other status, and if a duty of care existed, did it require a postponement or cancellation of the event. Appellees filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on April 11, 2000 which was set for a non-oral hearing with appellants memorandum in opposition filed May 8, 2000, and a reply subsequently filed. After careful consideration of all materials available to the trial court, it sustained appellee’s motion.

ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR

The sole Assignment of Error is:

I.

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN RENDERING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF THE DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES WHERE [*3] THE DEFENDANT-APPELLEES OWED A DUTY OF CARE TO PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS AND GENUINE ISSUES OF FACT EXISTED CONCERNING DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES’ BREACH OF THAT DUTY.

SUMMARY JUDGMENTS

Civ.R. 56(C) states, in pertinent part:

[HN1] Summary Judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts of evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any, timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law…. A summary judgment shall not be rendered unless it appears from such evidence or stipulation and only therefrom, that reasonable minds can come to but one conclusion and that conclusion is adverse to the party against whom the motion for summary judgment is made, such party being entitled to have the evidence or stipulation construed most strongly in his favor.

[HN2] Pursuant to the above rule, a trial court may not enter a summary judgment if it appears a material fact is genuinely disputed. [HN3] In order to survive a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence on any issue [*4] to which that party bears the burden of production at trial. Wing v. Anchor Media Ltd. of Texas (1991), 59 Ohio St. 3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095, citing Celotex v. Catrett (1986), 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548. [HN4] Summary judgment proceedings present the appellate court with the unique opportunity of reviewing the evidence in the same manner as the trial court. Smiddy v. The Wedding Party, Inc. (1987), 30 Ohio St. 3d 35, 36, 506 N.E.2d 212. I. As to the Assignment of Error, even though appellants’ Complaint asserts negligence, gross negligence and wanton and wilful misconduct but his Brief relies solely on negligence. (Appellant’s brief at p. 8). Appellant acknowledges that no Ohio case strictly fits the fact pattern in the case sub judice. Other than the cases citing basic propositions of negligence law, none of the cases cited by either party to this appeal are particularly in point, therefore we must, as the trial court did, review the facts which would support or refute the decision from which the appeal is taken. The deposition of appellant, Roger Chapple, indicates that the weather had cleared by the delayed starting time and that [*5] lightning flashes were to the north of the park. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 26). In the reply brief appellant’s counsel attempts to blame a memory loss for the inability of Roger Chapple to remember that lightning was flashing in his vicinity prior to being struck. (Appellant’s reply brief at p. 2). This conclusion is not supported by appellant’s deposition which demonstrates a clear memory except for short term loss. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 46). The essential issue is whether alleged facts were presented to the trial court indicating a breach of duty of appellees to appellants. [HN5] The existence of a duty is an essential element of negligence action. Grover v. Eli Lilly and Company (1992), 63 Ohio St. 3d 756, 591 N.E.2d 696. [HN6] The foreseeability of injury is obviously a factor to consider under appropriate circumstances. An injury is foreseeable if a reasonably prudent person, under like or similar circumstance knew or should have known that an act or nonperformance of an act was likely to result in harm. Simmers v. Bentley Construction Co. (1992), 64 Ohio St. 3d 642, 597 N.E.2d 504. Here, appellants assert that, because appellee had authority to postpone [*6] or cancel the race, that a duty to appellant existed. The defect in this argument is that the weather had cleared considerably at starting time. Lightning flashes were to the north. Appellant did not believe that danger was present. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 47). Also, if such became a concern, he believed policy dictated that he go to a vehicle. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 40-41). Appellant argues that severe electrical storm activity was present, but his deposition does not support this conclusion. Appellee has reviewed certain theories and applicable cases such as injury to subcontractors, and inherently dangerous activity. These are not applicable under the facts and the appellant being a subcontractor has not been argued. The only aspect of appellant’s position which is close to the decisions in this line of cited cases is one of control by appellee. The control asserted is that appellant was included with the use of the facilities and appellees retained the exclusive ability to cancel or postpone the triathlon. However, no direction occurred. It can only be argued that appellee possessed a general authority to cancel or postpone. In this narrow regard the language of Wellman v. East Ohio Gas Co. (1953), 160 Ohio St. 103, 113 N.E.2d 629 [*7] is pertinent even though, it is a subcontractor case. It holds that active participation by the contractor as opposed to a general supervisory role is required. The facts in the case sub judice indicate that Roger Chapple chose to work outside and felt that no danger existed. (Appellant’s deposition at p. 41-42). Roger Chapple believed that park rules provided that he wait in a vehicle if a weather danger existed, (Appellant’s deposition at p. 40-41) even though Mr. Hart disputes the existence of such a policy in his deposition. As stated before, Roger Chapple had no contact with appellees and nothing in any deposition supports direction by appellees. It is asserted that lightning was present during the race and the affidavit of Mr. Williamson is relied on for this assertion. However, such affidavit also places the lightning to the north of the race event. It is also stated that appellees had no access to weather information. However, Mr. Sheard’s deposition indicated that amateur radio operators were at the race and would provide such data if such need arose. (Sheard deposition at p. 38). The facts which the trial court had available is that Mr. Chapple was employed by and paid by [*8] O.D.N.R. His worker’s compensation claim was filed as such rather than as a loaned employee to appellees. It is accurate, however, that [HN7] an employee may institute a third-party negligence action even though a worker’s compensation claim has been filed. George v. City of Youngstown (1942), 139 Ohio St. 591. The essence of appellant’s claim is that appellee had the authority to postpone or cancel the race and that the race was commenced under dangerous weather conditions. We must disagree with the Assignment of Error and conclude, as the trial court did, that there is insufficient support for the existence of a duty, control of the activities of appellant, nor negligence of appellee.

We therefore affirm the decision of the trial court.

By: Boggins, J. Farmer, P.J. and Edwards, J. concur.


Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release

If the industry says you should and calls it a standard you better

Lautieri v. Bae, 17 Mass. L. Rep. 4; 2003 Mass. Super. LEXIS 290 (Mass. Sup 2003)

Plaintiff: Derek A. Lautieri

Defendant: Jorun G. Bae

Third Party Defendants: defendants USA Triathlon, Inc., William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and court added gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Holding release released defendants who could not be held to gross negligence.

This decision is from a trial court in Massachusetts. It has limited value in Massachusetts and other states.

If you have read many of these articles, you understand that releases do not bar claims for gross negligence. In this case, the release did not bar the claim for gross negligence, even when the plaintiff did not plead gross negligence.

This is a car/bike accident case during a triathlon. The plaintiff was cycling in a triathlon with several other cyclists. The defendant Bae, driver pulled out in front of the cyclists resulting in a collision. The course was not closed to traffic.

The defendant car driver brought in as third party defendants the race organizer, William Fiske d/b/a Fiske Independent Race Management (Fiske), the race charity Boys and Girls Clubs of Metrowest, Inc. (BGC) and the triathlon association sanctioning body USA Triathlon, Inc., (USTA).

The third party defendants were brought in for “contribution.” Contribution is defined in Massachusetts as:

Where two or more persons become jointly liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, there shall be a right of contribution among them.” The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has consistently interpreted the language of this statute to mean that an “action for contribution is not barred if, at the time the accident occurred, the party for whom contribution is sought could have been held liable in tort.”

For the defendant, Bae to enable to enforce contribution against the third party defendants she must show that the third party defendants could be held liable at trial in tort. Any defenses available to the third party defendants against the original plaintiff will also be a defense to the contribution claim of the defendant Bae.

Therefore, in order for Bae to be able to enforce a right of contribution against any of the third-party defendants, she must be able to show that the particular third-party defendant could have been found tortiously liable to the plaintiff at the time the accident occurred.

Fiske was the person who put the triathlon together. Even though Fiske was operating as Fiske Independent Race Management, the court indicated that Fiske was not a corporation or company (LLC). USTA sanctioned the race, including providing liability insurance and standards, according to the court, on how the race should be run.

The defendant Bae argued that the third party defendants should be liable for failing to “a safe layout for the race course, failure to provide warning signs and directions, and failure to place volunteers and/or police personnel at the intersection where the incident occurred.”

The court determined that USTA was:

…the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

USTA is the governing body of triathlon races and promulgates safety requirements for use by organizers of sanctioned triathlon races.

In that position, USTA created regulations for running triathlons which the court quoted:

2. It is highly recommended to close the [bike race] road to traffic. If not possible, cone bike lanes with a minimum width of six feet from vehicles . . . 9. Control stoplights/stop sign intersections, traffic hazards and turnarounds with police and an ample amount of volunteers . . . 12. Use ‘Race in Progress’ or ‘Watch for Cyclists’ signs placed along the course to help warn motorists about conditions . . . 23. All turns, turn-arounds, traffic hazards and intersections must be monitored and marked with signs and volunteers. Any intersections with stop signs or stop lights must be controlled by police or professional traffic personnel.

Fiske did not follow any of the guidelines offered by the USTA.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

Summary of the case

The defense raised by the third party defendants was “release.” The plaintiff signed a release to join the USTA and receive a license. The plaintiff also signed an application which contained language similar to that of a release when she entered the race.

Under Massachusetts law, the enforceability of a release is a question (issue) of law to be decided by the court. “Massachusetts law favors the enforcement of releases.”

There can be no doubt . . . that under the law of Massachusetts . . . in the absence of fraud a person may make a valid contract exempting himself from any liability to another which he may in the future incur as a result of his negligence or that of his agents or employees acting on his behalf.” While any doubts about the interpretation of a release must be resolved in the favor of the plaintiff, an unambiguous and comprehensive release will be enforced as drafted.

Nor does the word negligence have to be found in the release. Releases, like all other states, do not bar claims of gross negligence. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant complained of any gross negligence. The court, however, stated that even though not pled, gross negligence could be found later against Fiske. If that was the case, then the releases signed by the plaintiff did not bar the claim against Fiske. “While these waivers are sufficient to release Fiske from all liability for harm caused by his own negligence, they do not release him from his own gross negligence.” The court found that the actions of Fiske could rise to the level of gross negligence.

The basis of that finding was Fiske did not follow the guidelines or regulations of the governing body, the USTA in running the race. “As this definition is necessarily vague, it is important to note that courts have found that “industry standards may be some evidence of negligence.”

To some extent, the court must have thought that Fiske’s failure to follow the standards of the USTA was very egregious to raise the issue of gross negligence in the case.

The court quoted the regulations cited above as evidence that what Fiske did when ignoring the industry standards was sufficient to void the release because it raised the possibility that Fiske was grossly negligent.

…it does not appear that Fiske, as Race Director, heeded any of the guidelines described above for the triathlon at issue; rather, he left the intersection at which Lautieri collided with Bae open to traffic, uncontrolled by police or volunteers, unmarked with warnings, and unmonitored.

The court further defined negligence and gross negligence under Massachusetts law.

Negligence, without qualification and in its ordinary sense, is the failure of a responsible person, either by omission or by action, to exercise that degree of care, vigilance and forethought which, in the discharge of the duty then resting on him, the person of ordinary caution and prudence ought to exercise under the particular circumstances. It is a want of diligence commensurate with the requirement of the duty at the moment imposed by the law.

Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others. The element of culpability which characterizes all negligence is in gross negligence magnified to a high degree as compared with that present in ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is a manifestly smaller amount of watchfulness and circumspection than the circumstances require of a person of ordinary prudence . . . It falls short of being such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a wilful and intentional wrong. Ordinary and gross negligence differ in degree of inattention, while both differ in kind from wilful and intentional conduct which is or ought to be known to have a tendency to injure.”

The court’s justification for not letting Fiske out of the case and for allowing the possibility of a claim for gross negligence was interesting.

While Bae has specifically pled negligence, and not gross negligence, this Court has considered the summary judgment motion as if a claim for gross negligence against the third-party defendants has been made.

Accordingly, because gross negligence may be considered an alternative theory of a standard negligence claim, Bae should be permitted to proceed with her claim of gross negligence against the third-party defendants.

The court then looked at the allegations against the USTA.

In order for Lautieri to establish that USTA owed him a duty of care at the time the accident occurred, Lautieri would have to establish that such a duty has a “source existing in social values and customs,” or that USTA voluntarily, or for consideration, assumed a duty of care to Lautieri. This is a burden that Lautieri–or, more appropriately, Bae, standing in Lautieri’s shoes–cannot meet.

There was no evidence that showed USTA participated or was supposed to participate in the planning, operation, supervision or running of the race. USTA did not even have a representative of USTA attend the race. Consequently, because there was no duty and USTA created no duty to the plaintiff the release barred the claims of the third party defendant.

The court’s discussion of the Boys and Girls Club was shorter.

A similar finding regarding the B&G Clubs is mandated. While there is evidence that the B&G Clubs provided volunteers for the triathlon, there is no evidence to support a claim of gross negligence against the B&G Clubs or any of its members.

USTA and the Boys and Girls Club were dismissed from the lawsuit.

So Now What?

The “release” or as identified by the court, application, was extremely weak. If the release had identified the course as being an open course, not closed to cars, this might have changed the outcome of the case for Fiske. No matter, the document was too weak not to create problems rather than resolve them in this case.

However, even if the release was stronger, it might not have gotten Fiske out of the case because of the court raised allegations of gross negligence. The USTA created regulations for running a race. By requesting and receiving sanctioning for the race, Fiske knowingly or unknowingly, became burdened or bound by those regulations. The court called them standards, regulations and guidelines throughout the decision, but the simple fact is they were a noose around the third party defendant’s neck.

You cannot look at your industry and not understand the standard of care in the industry or not find and follow the guidelines the industry is creating.

These “regulations” are fairly simple and appear to be commons sense. However, they substantially increase the cost of running an event. Closing a street requires government paperwork, government employees and usually help from law enforcement. All significantly increase the cost of running the event.

However, the regulations more importantly are proof that if an industry association creates regulations, standards, guidelines or rules, they are the standard of care against which members of the same industry will be judged in court.

For more articles on how standards created by an association are used to harm association members see:

ACA Standards are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Expert Witness Report: ACA “Standards” are used by Expert for the Plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Camp

Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 million

Trade Association Standards sink a Summer Camp when plaintiff uses them to prove Camp was negligent

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