When people participate in sports and are injured, they may have legal rights to sue in some cases even if they signed waivers of liability. In Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, Cal. Ct. App., Case No. A142418, a wrongful death lawsuit, the court found that an express waiver of liability and the primary assumption of the risk doctrine do not bar lawsuits when the conduct amounts to gross negligence.
Peter Hass was a man who participated in the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon. After he crossed the finish line, Hass suffered a heart attack and subsequently died. The organizer of the event, RhodyCo Productions, provided production services and event management for the half-marathon from 2006 to 2011. RhodyCo Productions had to submit an emergency medical services plan to the city in order to get the permits to close the streets. The plan said that medical services would be provided by American Medical Response and the Palmer College of Chiropractic – West. The plan said that PCCW would supply event-trained medical personnel who were students with CPR certifications. It also said that there would be med tents located at several places, including at the finish line and that the head clinician, a chiropractic doctor, would be located in the postrace tent on the day of the race. In other parts of the plan, it stated that there would be one medical doctor and six emergency medical technicians at the finish line along with an automatic external defibrillator.
Hass signed a waiver of liability when he registered for the race. After Hass passed the finish line and collapsed, another participant heard him fall and began administering CPR. The other participant was a doctor. He performed CPR for five to eight minutes before another bystander took over. A third person went to the postrace tent and returned with the AED about 11 minutes after Hass’s cardiac arrest. When the AED was used on Hass, it did not show any heart rhythm. The doctor and the other bystander continued CPR until they were relieved by personnel from the fire department. Despite the efforts, Hass could not be revived and was pronounced dead.
Hass’s widow and two minor children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against RhodyCo Productions on May 4, 2012. The plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that RhodyCo was negligent in its planning and organizing of the half-marathon and that it negligently retained, supervised and controlled the medical and emergency services for the event. In RhodyCo’s answer, it denied the allegations and asserted that Hass had assumed the risk and that its liability would be barred by the express waiver that Hass had signed. In a hearing on RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment, the court initially granted the motion on the basis of an assumption of the risk and express waiver. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial, and the court reversed itself. It ruled that it had erred and that the primary assumption of the risk would not apply. It also gave leave to the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to add gross negligence. RhodyCo filed an appeal, and the Hass family filed a cross-appeal.
Issue: Whether the negligence action was completely barred by the primary assumption of the risk or whether gross negligence presented a material issue of triable fact
RhodyCo argued that the trial court erred when it granted the Hass family’s motion for a new trial. It argued that suffering a heart attack is an inherent risk of long-distance running. Since Hass had electronically signed an express waiver of liability that barred any claims against RhodyCo for negligence, the company argued that the waiver of liability barred claims of ordinary negligence. It also argued that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred claims of ordinary negligence and that its provision of medical services did not rise to the level of gross negligence. The Hass family argued that they should not be required to amend their complaint to add gross negligence since it is not recognized as a separate cause of action. They also argued that they had met their burden to establish that gross negligence presented an issue of triable fact. The Hass family argued that the primary assumption of the risk did not apply in their case and that the waiver of liability did not apply to a wrongful death lawsuit.
Rule: Participants in sports assume the inherent risks of the sport, and express waivers of liability bar ordinary negligence claims.
The doctrine of the assumption of the risk in California shifts the injury liability to the person who voluntarily participates in a recreational activity or sport. However, a claim will not be barred if the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent or when the conduct was far outside of the range of the ordinary expected activity of the sport. This defense is often raised in situations in which people have been injured when they participated in sports or recreational activities and when they have signed express waivers of liability. In California, people can ask others to waive liability for ordinary negligence. However, claims for gross negligence, intentional acts or recklessness cannot be barred by express waivers.
The court first looked at whether the express waiver of liability that was signed by Hass was sufficient to bar his family members from filing a wrongful death claim based on ordinary negligence. In Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc., 226 Cal. App.3d 758 (1990), the court found that while a wrongful death action by the heirs of a decedent is a distinct lawsuit, an express waiver of liability that waives all rights to sue for negligence is a complete defense to a wrongful death action. This meant that the express waiver of liability that Hass signed would serve as a bar to a wrongful death lawsuit based on ordinary negligence.
The court then looked at whether the express waiver of liability would bar claims based on gross negligence. In City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, 41 Cal.4th 747 (2007), the court distinguished between ordinary negligence and gross negligence. While waivers of liability may serve as complete bars to lawsuits based on ordinary negligence, they do not serve as bars to lawsuits that are based on gross negligence. The Hass family argued that RhodyCo’s management of the event and its provision of medical services were grossly negligent. The court found that the Hass family had met its burden for gross negligence as a triable issue of material fact. Finally, the court analyzed whether the case was barred by the primary assumption of the risk by Hass when he participated. RhodyCo argued that heart attacks are inherent risks of participating in long-distance running. However, the court looked at the California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296(1992) in which it found that an organizer has a duty to minimize the risks of a sport without altering its nature. However, the organizer’s duty for inherent risks of a sport is to not do anything to increase the risks. The court then considered whether a cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running or is an extrinsic risk. Both parties had agreed that heart attacks were an inherent risk of the sport. However, the court found that the provision of medical services was an extrinsic risk, meaning that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would not be a bar to the action.
The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that summary judgment was not warranted in this case. It found that a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether or not RhodyCo’s actions amounted to gross negligence and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
If you have been seriously injured or have lost a loved one while playing sports, you might be entitled to relief. If you or your loved one signed a waiver of liability, an experienced personal injury lawyer may review what happened to determine whether or not it amounted to gross negligence. Call the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today to schedule an appointment.