Pit Road Penalty – Release Agreements Enforceable But Not to Bar Negligent Bleacher Maintenance Claim (NY)


Stevens v. Payne (NewYork)
(trial court opinion)

The plaintiff was injured while watching his daughter compete as a race care driver at a racetrack in New York.  Plaintiff suffered a heart attack and fell off of bleachers landing six feet below onto the ground, resulting in permanent paralysis of his legs.  He then sued the racetrack (Skyline Raceway) and the sprint car sanctioning entity (Capital Region Sprintcar Agency [“CRSA”]), alleging there was a dangerous condition on the bleachers because they lack side railing.  CRSA file a motion for summary judgment on tow grounds: (1) it did not owe a duty to plaintiff for the condition of the bleachers because it neither owned nor controlled them; and (2) the plaintiff’s cause of action was barred by the two waiver and release agreements signed by the plaintiff (one signed for the CRSA in connection with the race car entry, and one signed for Skyline at the event on the day of the incident).

The trial court concluded that CRSA had met its initial burden by establishing it owed no duty to plaintiff with regard to the bleachers.  CRSA did not own the facility, and the evidence showed that Skyline was solely responsible for maintenance of the bleachers.  The court also highlighted CRSA’s “limited role at Skyline.”  CRSA had not previously been involved in an event at the track.  Additionally, on the day in question, there were seven different divisions of racing participating at the track, and CRSA was only involved with one of the divisions (CRSA ran and officiated the event only involving that single division).  It was “undisputed that Skyline administered all other aspects of the track operations, such as admitting drivers and spectators to the grounds, without the assistance from CRSA.”  The court also pointed out that the plaintiff did not address or opposed CRSA’s argument regarding a lack of duty.  Accordingly, the court granted CRSA’s motion for summary judgment.

Skyline also filed a motion for summary judgment based on the two releases signed by the plaintiff prior to the incident.  Plaintiff asserted that the releases were voided by the operation of New York General Obligations Law Section 5-326, which generally provides that any exculpatory agreement between an amusement/recreation facility and a “user” of that facility pursuant to which the facility receives a fee is deemed void as contrary to public policy and unenforceable.  Skyline argued that although it had received a fee in connection with the plaintiff’s entry into the facility, the plaintiff was not a “user” of the facility.  Citing to several other New York decisions, the court explained:

“A spectator or observer who pays a fee to enter a racetrack is a user entitled to the protection of General Obligations Law § 5–326 ; however, an individual who actually participates in a race-related event is not a user, but rather a participant who is not entitled to protection of the statute.”

It was undisputed that the plaintiff entered the racetrack “as a member of the pit crew for his daughter’s race car.”  Prior to the incident, he had left the bleachers to help his daughter change a flat tire, and thereafter returned to the bleachers.  The court the noted:

“As a member of the pit crew, plaintiff would presumably have continued to provide assistance to his daughter’s race team had he not been injured. The fact that he was merely watching the race when he was injured, and was not then actively engaged in performing any duties as a pit crew member, does not transform his status from that of a participant to that of a user.”

Therefore, the court concluded that the releases were valid and moved on to consider the scope and application of the agreement.  “Agreements intended to absolve a party from liability for its own negligence must be closely scrutinized and strictly construed, and must plainly and precisely define the limitation of liability that the party attempting to avoid responsibility seeks to obtain.”  Reviewing the language of the releases, the court held that “they were intended to apply only to negligence associated with the risks inherent in the activity of automobile racing, and not liability for the injuries plaintiff sustained as a result of using bleachers that were allegedly defectively constructed and maintained.”

Although the court was not aware of “a prior New York case addressing the specific issue of whether a release signed to gain admission to a racetrack bars claims based on negligent maintenance of property,” the court looked at non-binding precedents from Arkansas and California that had addressed the issue.  Agreeing with those other cases, the court found that the releases were “applicable only to risks rationally associated with the dangerous nature of automobile racing,” and that they were inapplicable to the negligence alleged by the injured plaintiff.  Therefore, the court denied Skyline’s motion for summary judgment.

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