C-P-Rn’t You Glad You Didn’t Enroll in this Course?

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Schoenlank v. Yonkers YMCA  (New York)
(A CPR student was injured by an instructor who applied “’forceful’ and excessive pressure and torque to the student’s head and neck for a period of approximately 20 seconds”; Court denied summary judgment for the instructor in finding that a triable issue of fact remained as to whether the instructor had negligently or recklessly enhanced the risk of injury associated with this demonstration.)

The plaintiff was an experienced lifeguard. While taking a CPR re-certification course, the plaintiff decided to volunteer to be part of a demonstration where the instructor showed the class how to “properly” perform a cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) technique known as a “head-tilt, chin-lift.” This technique is a method of clearing the airway of an unconscious person in an emergency situation. During the demonstration, the plaintiff suffered injuries from what he described as an, “application of ‘forceful’ and excessive pressure and torque to [his] head for a period of approximately 20 seconds.” The lower court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in holding that plaintiff was barred from recovery because he had primarily assumed the risk of injury by volunteering to participate in the demonstration. That court found this risk as being inherent in this sports/recreational activity.

However, the New York Appeals Court reversed the lower court. This Court held that a triable issue of fact still remained as to whether the defendant had negligently enhanced the risk of injury to the plaintiff by performing the “head-tilt, chin-lift” technique in a negligent or reckless fashion. The Appeals Court did not deny that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk could potentially bar the plaintiff’s recovery if the injury had resulted from a regular risk that was inherent in performing demonstration. However, the Court simply was not convinced that the given facts led to the conclusion that the defendant had performed the technique in such a way that it was an inherent risk associated with the activity. In the end, the Court allowed the case to go to trial to determine whether the defendant had unreasonably increased the risks such that he (or the school for which he worked) could be held liable for damages.

NOTE: This case gives an important lesson to those involved in ancillary activities which involve risky behavior, but which are not technically sports or recreational activities. Determining the risks inherent in these types of activities tend to be unclear. It is important for instructional schools like this to strongly consider this case. The bottom line is that these schools cannot simply assume that since their line of business involves danger and risk and is akin to a sports and recreation activity, they will be adequately protected under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. Strongly worded and clear waivers are recommended.

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