“Ring of Fear” Results in Death

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Davis v. 3 Bar F Rodeo (Kentucky)
(Man Killed by Aggravated Bull at Rodeo; Release Signed by Decedent Precluded Negligence Liability Despite Failure to Post Proper Warnings Under Kentucky’s Farm Animals Activities Act; Triable Issues Existed as to Release and as to Whether Aggravating the Bull Amounted to “Gross Negligence”)

The decedent attended a rodeo, and he volunteered to participate in a game called the “Ring of Fear.” The game called for audience members to enter the rodeo ring and stand in marked circles on the ground. A bull was released into the ring, and the winner of the game was the last person standing inside his or her circle in the ring. The winner of the game won $50. The decedent entered the ring to try his luck at the game. It was alleged that before it was released, the bull was angered by someone jabbing him with a wooden object and beating sticks against his cage. After the bull was released, he charged and drove his head into the decedent’s abdomen, lifting him off the ground. After the game, the decedent made his way back into the stands, not knowing that his liver had burst as a result of the incident and that he was bleeding internally. The decedent faded into temporary unconsciousness and died the next morning.

Decedent’s wife brought a wrongful death action against the rodeo operators, alleging negligence. The defendants moved for summary judgment based upon a release the decedent had signed prior to participating. The decedent’s wife filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, asserting that the defendants failed to properly warn her husband of the dangers of the “Ring of Fear” as required by Kentucky statutes as part of the Farm Animals Activities Act (“FAAA”). The trial court granted defendants’ summary judgment, finding that the release was sufficient to exempt them from liability, and the trial court denied plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff thereafter appealed.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that defendants owed a duty to post warnings warn pursuant to the FAAA (Kentucky Revised Statutes Sections 247.401 through 247.4029), a statutory plan designed to outline the duties and responsibilities of both participants and sponsors conducting animal activities. The court agreed that the FAAA was applicable to the case, but the court noted that the statutory scheme allowed for a waiver of liability if the participant signs a release waiving his right to bring an action against the farm animal event sponsor. Of course, the release needed to satisfy the requirements of a legal binding agreement under Kentucky law.

The trial court had deemed the release enforceable and valid, but the Court of Appeal disagreed. The release used the word “negligence,” and it specifically and explicitly release the defendants from liability for “any and all claims and liability arising out of strict liability or ordinary negligence of Releases [defendants] … which causes the undersigned injury … [or] death….” It also specifically warned that rodeo events contained danger and risks of injury or death; that the conditions of the rodeo arena change and may become more hazardous; that rodeo animals are dangerous and unpredictable; and finally that anyone choosing to participate voluntarily assumes the inherent danger that exists in rodeo events. However, the releases did not include language that released defendants from conduct that would constitute “gross negligence.”

Plaintiff contended that the defendants provoked the bull by prodding him and beating on his cage prior to his release into the ring. Plaintiff argued, and the court agreed, that this alleged intentional provocation of the bull to attack the participants was not contemplated by the release. Defendants disputed the allegations of intentionally mistreating the bull, but the court stated that if the allegations were true, they would at the very least constitute “gross negligence.” The release contemplated getting into the ring with a bull and even mentioned that rodeo animals are unpredictable. However, it did not contemplate a bull that has been infuriated by the defendants prior to its release into the ring. According to the court, such conduct could be construed as “willful or wanton” for which a party may not contract away any liability through a release.

The court ultimately concluded that if the jury determined that the defendants’ conduct was “grossly negligent,” the release would be unenforceable as to this conduct. Citing to testimony of another participant that said he did not read the release, the plaintiff had also argued that the decedent did not have an opportunity to read the release prior to signing it. The court further concluded that a triable issue of material fact existed in that regard as well. Judgment in favor of the defendants was reversed, and the case was remanded for trial.

NOTE: This ruling seems questionable. It is hard to believe that someone who elects to participate in a game that involves the danger of being attacked by a bull would be surprised to find out that the bull is angered and riled up. Inevitably, bulls are aggravated when placed in a rodeo scenario. It seems a stretch to conclude that a person signing the release would not contemplate such conditions. This result is perhaps the byproduct of the serious nature of the injury and the seemingly idiotic nature of the activity. There were very little facts about how the release was presented. Plaintiff contends that the decedent was not given enough time to read the release. This is always a potential problem when you are dealing with a scenario when someone is placed on the spot to participate in an activity on short notice. Event operators should pay particular attention to ensure that there is ample time prior to an activity to allow the participants to review and sign necessary documents. It is also interesting to note that the court did not seem to have an issue with the release seeking to exculpate the defendants from strict liability. this is generally deemed to be contrary to public policy in most jurisdictions. The court also interestingly seemed to imply that although a release cannot protect against “willful and wanton” conduct, it could protect against “gross negligence” if it was drafted to encompass such liability.

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