Collision Course

by

Milne v. USA Cycling, Inc. (Utah)
(Mountain Bike Racer Collides with Truck During “Open Course” Race; Waiver and Release Precludes Liability for Ordinary Negligence; Gross Negligence Not Proven)

A participant in a mountain bike race suffered fatal injuries as a result of a collision with a truck. The defendants organized, promoted, and conducted the “open course” race in which the participants shared the race course with regular vehicle traffic. Decedent’s heirs filed suit claiming both ordinary negligence and gross negligence.

Prior to his participation in the event, the decedent signed a waiver and release agreement, wherein he agreed to waive any and all claims, including those arising from defendants’ own negligence, and release defendants from all liability for injuries or death suffered while competing in the race. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that the release barred their liability for negligence. Additionally, defendant argued that the release precluded liability for any alleged gross negligence. Alternatively, the defendants argued that they could no be liable because plaintiffs could not present any evidence of gross negligence.

The Federal District Court stated that under Utah law, a party may obtain contractual releases from liability for negligent action where a party agrees to release the other from liability for future injuries. The court concluded that the release was clear and unequivocal expression of an intent to release the defendants. Thus, the court held that liability for ordinary negligence had been waived and released. With regard to the gross negligence claims, the court noted that the Utah Supreme Court had repeatedly (in dicta) stated that releases are invalid against claims of gross negligence.

The parties disputed whether the court could determine the issue of gross negligence as a matter of law, or whether the determination was properly one for the jury. The court explained that gross negligence could be characterized as “a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise in the given circumstances.” It was “the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” As such, the plaintiffs were required to not only demonstrates “an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another,” but also that “such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.”

Even accepting the plaintiffs’ version of the events, the court concluded that undisputed facts were not indicative of a risk substantially greater ordinary neglgence. The defendants had placed a sign on the course before the race to advise passersby of the event. They had notified at least three potential motorists in the area of the race, and they conducted minimal traffic control, even if the manner in which the controls were implemented could be characterized as deficient. Defendants had also warned the race participants both orally and in writing of the dangers posed by vehicle traffic on the course. In light of those facts, the court determined as a matter of law that the defendants could not be liable for gross negligence.

Finally, in ruling that the wrongful death claim was precluded by the waiver and release, the court explained that such a claim is subject to defenses which could have been asserted against the decedent had he lived and prosecuted the suit.

The District Court granted the defendants’ motion and entered judgment in favor of the defendants.

NOTE: There is very little Utah case law directly addressing waiver and release and express assumption of risk agreements in the context of hazardous recreational activities. We have previously categorized Utah as somewhat “undecided” in this area of the law. This is certainly a positive result that bodes well for the future, particularly with regard to weeding out bogus allegations of gorss negligence that seek to circumvent the release agreements.

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