Archive for September, 2012

A Racing Incident

September 28, 2012

Ketchum v. Mercer Raceway Park, LLC (Pennsylvania)(Not Published)
(A race team crew member was killed when a race car left the racing surface and struck a guard rail in front of the crew member; his estate sued the speedway for wrongful death.)

The incident occurred in 2007 during a race at the defendant’s speedway.  The decedent and a friend were volunteer members of a pit crew.  They were standing near a guard rail and catch fence barrier of the pit area watching a race when a race car moved across the racing surface and collided with the guard rail and catch fence.  The concrete footing of the fence was ripped from the ground, and a steel pole was separated from the footing, striking the decedent.

According to the evidence presented, sometime prior to the incident, the owner of the racetrack hired the track’s manager to improve the fencing around the track for safety reasons.  The manager designed and installed the barrier “on his own” without instruction, guidance, or formal education or training.  He was learning as he went along and utilized his “best guess” as to how far into the ground to place each pole.  The manager was aware that steel posts could be separated from the footing of a fence and pulled from the ground because he had seen it happen before.

Prior to their entry into the facility and participation on the pit crew, the decedent and his friend paid a pit entrance fee and signed a “Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity Agreement.”  They understood what they were signing and knew that crashes occurred and had seen cars collide with walls/guard rails.  They had participated as pit crew members at numerous prior events and had signed many prior waiver and release agreements.  The evidence also showed that the racetrack posted rules specific to the pit area at its entrance, along with warning signs to both participants and patrons concerning the possible dangers of watching automobile racing.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that the defendant “acted negligently with respect to the construction and installation of the guard rail and fencing.”  The defendant thereafter moved for summary judgment based upon the waiver and release agreements signed by the injured pit crew members.  The plaintiffs made several arguments against the enforceability of the waiver and release documents, but the trial court disagreed, granting the motion.  The plaintiff appealed.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals addressed each of plaintiffs arguments in turn.

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On The Loose

September 28, 2012

White v. Elias (Ohio)
(An individual who was kicked by an escaped horse brought an action against the horse owner and the property owner; the court ruled that there was no strict liability but that an issue of material fact as to the potential negligence of the defendants.)

A horse boarding facility released horses to graze in a pasture unsupervised.  However, because there was no food trough and because the pasture was bare, six-horse then escaped from the pasture and ended up on a neighboring property.  The neighbor saw the horses and called the plaintiff because she was familiar with the horses.  They asked if she could help lead the horses home.  However, when the plaintiff approached the group of horses, one of them kicked back and hit her in the face, causing serious and permanent injuries.

The plaintiff sued the horse owner and the owner of the property where the horse was boarded, alleging claims for strict liability and negligence.  The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.  The plaintiff appealed.

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Rough Neighborhood

September 24, 2012

Landings Association, Inc. v. Williams (Georgia) (The estate of a victim fatally injured during an alligator attack brought an action against the association that owned the property were the attack occurred; the Supreme Court of Georgia ultimately held that the victim assumed the risk of harm or failed to exercise ordinary care.)

The 83-year-old decedent was house sitting for her daughter and son-in-law at a planned residential development with a golf course.  Prior to the construction of the development, the land was largely marsh, where indigenous alligators lives and thrived.  As part of the development, the defendant association installed a lagoon system which allowed enough drainage to create an area suitable for residential development.  Alligators inhabited the area both before and after the development, although no person had ever previously been attacked.  The decedent went for a walk near one of the lagoons one evening in 2007 and was attacked and killed.

Under Georgia’s premises liability law, the estate of the decedent argued that the association failed to take reasonable steps to protect the decedent from being attacked.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied by the trial court.  The defendant filed an interlocutory appeal, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the denial.  The defendant then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of Georgia, which was granted.

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling finding that the decedent “had equal knowledge of the threat of alligators within the community.”  The Court explained that decedent “either knowingly assumed the risks of walking in areas inhabited by wild alligators or failed to exercise ordinary care by doing so.”  According to the Court,

“The record shows that, prior to the attack, [decedent] was aware that the property was inhabited by alligators. [Decedent’s] son-in-law testified that, on at least one occasion, he was driving with [decedent] on property in [the development] when he stopped the car to allow [decedent] to look at an alligator. [Decedent’s] son-in-law also testified that [decedent] was, in fact, aware that there were alligators in the lagoons at [the development] and that he believed that [decedent] had a ‘normal’ respect for wild animals.”

Like the Court of Appeal, the dissent from the Supreme Court questioned the extent of the knowledge of the danger by the decedent arguing that there was “no ‘competent evidence that the decedent knew there were alligators over seven feet in size living in the community or living in the lagoon in which [decedent’s] body was found.’”  However, the majority countered by stating that “A reasonable adult who is not disabled understands that small alligators have large parents and are capable of moving from one lagoon to another, and such an adult, therefore, assumes the risk of an alligator attack when, knowing that wild alligators are present in a community, walks near a lagoon in that community after dark.” The dissent also questioned the published policies of the defendant association and the effectiveness of its patrols, inspections, and security.  The dissent expressed that reasonable minds could differ, and that the issue of negligence, contributory negligence, and lack of care for one’s own safety should have been resolved by trial.

NOTE: Considering the discussion in the dissent, the significance of the claim, and the court’s tendency to allow matters of negligence to be determined by a jury as a matter of fact, this is a pretty bold decision.

Slipping and Sliding Away

September 20, 2012

Close v. Darien Lake Theme Park and Camping Resort, Inc. (New York)
(A guest at an amusement park suffered an injury on a water ride and sued the park; the court held that the park owner was not liable for the injury.)

In this very short opinion, the Court explained, “[B]y engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant 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.”  It also noted that “[a]wareness of the risk is ‘to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff’.'”  The defendant had successfully met its burden by proving that the plaintiff understood and voluntarily assumed the risks.  Despite, plaintiff’s contention to the contrary, the plaintiff was unable to raise a triable issue regarding reckless or intentional conduct or that there was a dangerous concealed condition.

NOTE: The published opinion does not include any factual details of the incident or the facility’s specific role in the incident.

Target Practice

September 20, 2012

Bukowski v. Clarkson University (New York)
(A university baseball pitcher was injured by a line drive while participating in a practice, and he sued the university and his head coach;  the court found that the pitcher had assumed the inherent risk of being hit by the baseball and affirmed the trial court’s directed verdit in favor of the defendants.)

The plaintiff was injured after throwing a fastball to a batter during “live” indoor practice without a protective screen.  The batter struck the ball which hit the plaintiff in the jaw and broker his tooth.  After the lawsuit was filed, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied.  At trial, plaintiff argued “that the risk of being hit by a batted ball was enhanced due to the multicolored pitching backdrop and low lighting at the indoor facility, which made it harder to see the white ball, and the failure to use an L-screen.”

At the close of evidence, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for a directed verdict “on the ground that plaintiff assumed the commonly appreciated risk in baseball of being hit by a line drive.”  Plaintiff appealed.

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Sea Sick

September 18, 2012

Wajnstat v. Oceania Cruises, Inc. (11th Circuit – Florida)
(A passenger on a cruise ship in the Black Sea became ill and sought medical attention from the ship’s doctor; he was evacuated from the ship and received numerous surgeries; he thereafter sued the cruise line alleging negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of the ship’s doctor; the court held granted the passenger’s motion for partial summary judgment at to the cruise line’s limitation-of-liability defense.)

A cruise ship passenger sued a cruise line for negligence in connection with the ship’s doctor.  The cruise line answered the complaint and raised the affirmative defense that its liability was limited by the Athens Convention (a multilateral treaty dealing with carriage of passengers and their luggage) as incorporated by reference into the limitation-of-liability provision in the passenger’s ticket contract.  The case ended up in federal court as a result of a forum-selection clause in the ticket contract.

The cruise line filed for partial summary judgment based on the limitation-of-liability affirmative defense.  The cruise line’s motion was denied, and the passenger’s cross motion fo partial summary judgment was granted.  The cruise line then filed an interlocutory appeal.

At issue at the trial court level was whether the “non-negotiated limitation-of-liability provision was enforceable.”  Applying the “reasonable communicativeness” test, the District Court held that “the provision was not reasonably communicative because it was confusing and because it required the passengers to parse through treaties and the statutes to determine the limit’s of [defendant’s] liability.”

On appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled that the pretrial order determining applicability of the limitation-of-liability provision was not immediately appealable.

NOTE: Although this case may be specific to its facts, one lesson to be learned is the impact of detailed and convoluted limitation-of-liability language in commercial transactions.  It is particularly difficult to enforce language that requires a special understanding or the incorporation of outside documentation and information.

And the Case Rides Off Into the Sunset

September 18, 2012

Eburn v. Capitol Peak Outfitters, Inc. (Colorado)
(An inexperienced rider was injured during a horseback ride and she sued the facility and equipment provider for negligence; the court found that the exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff precluded liability.)

Prior to her participation in a horseback ride, the plaintiff signed two documents, a “Participant Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement” and a “Protective Headgear Refusal.”  The release document addressed both the inherent risks associated with the activity and included a release of liability for the potential negligent conduct of the defendant.  The District Court denied the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment and granted the defendant’s cross motion for partial summary judgment based on the exculpatory document.

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Unfortunate Landing

September 6, 2012

Duchesneau v. Cornell University (Pennsylvania Court – New York Law Applied)
(An amateur gymnast suffered a significant injury while attempting a backflip on a rebounding Tumbl Trak apparatus; he sued the manufacturer of the apparatus for a failure to warn of the dangers associated with its use, and he sought punitive damages; the court denied the manufacturer’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to the jury.)

In its motion, the defendant manufacturer alleged (1) plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) plaintiff assumed the risk of injury when using the apparatus.  In support of its arguments, the manufacturer referred to “general knowledge” that “an individual might land on his head if he attempt[ed] a black flip on a rebounding [apparatus].”  Defendant also referred to plaintiff’s education in basic physics, the fact that he signed a waiver that stated that he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics, the existence of a small warning label on the apparatus that warned of the potential for catastrophic injury (including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck), and plaintiff’s knowledge of the concept of spotting from his prior participation in cheerleading.  Viewing all of that evidence, defendant asserted that “‘common sense’ would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the [apparatus], and, as such, [defendant] had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff.”

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