Archive for the ‘Wrongful Death’ Category

Speed Wobble – Discovery Regarding Failure to Warn Allowed in Longboarding Death Case (VT)

November 5, 2015

Cernansky v. Lefebvre (Vermont)
(trial court disposition)

A college student was fatally injured while riding a longboard style of skateboard.  His estate brought a lawsuit against the roommate who lent him the board and the skateboard shop that sponsored the roommate as a longboard rider.  The complaint alleged wrongful death and negligent failure to warn the decedent about the dangers associated with the activity (the roommate did not provide the decedent with any safety instructions prior to taking the decedent longboarding).  The roommate filed a motion to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim, and the skateboard shop filed a motion to dismiss the action against it based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.

The United States District Court for the District of Vermont denied both motions.  First, the Court held that the estate’s complaint did state a claim against the roommate under Vermont law for negligent failure to warn.  The Court explained:

“. . . the Complaint alleges [the roommate] should have foreseen the potential for serious injury based upon his knowledge of long boarding. More specifically, [the roommate] allegedly should have foreseen that sending [the decedent], a first-time longboarder, down a hill without a helmet or instruction presented a risk of harm giving rise to a legal duty. Plaintiff claims that [the roommate] breached that duty.  ¶  The fact that the longboard was loaned to [the decedent] does not alter the negligence analysis. In the comparable context of negligent entrustment, the ‘theory requires a showing that the entruster knew or should have known some reason why entrusting the item to another was foolish or negligent.'”

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Failure to Warn – Supreme Court Find Triable Issue Regarding School District’s Breach of Duty to Deceased Youth (WY)

October 21, 2015

Amos v. Lincoln County School District No. 2 (Wyoming)

A five-year-old boy was attending a basketball game at a school that had been converted to a community center.  He was playing with other children on a stage near the basketball court when a lunchroom bench tipped over and fell on top of him, causing a basal skull fracture and killing him instantly.  The lunchroom bench had been removed from the gymnasium wall and had been placed against the wall in a storage room adjacent to the stage.  A year later, the boy’s personal representative filed a wrongful death action against the school district, along with the town and county where the facility was located.

The county filed an “affidavit of noninvolvement” with the trial court in lieu of an answer.  In response, the trial court entered an order dismissing the county from the action without prejudice.  The court explained that it found that “there [were] not enough facts to show that [the county was] responsible but if facts come forward or are discovered that show that [the county was] responsible, either directly or indirectly, [the county] shall be reinstated as a Defendant.”

The school district filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had turned over possession and maintenance of the building to the community group such that it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care and was, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  The trial court denied the school district’s motion, holding: “Viewing these basic facts in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the School District, as the owner, is in the same position as a landlord is to its tenants and their invitees. As such, it owed all persons entering the building as invitees the duty of reasonable and ordinary care under the circumstances.”  Notwithstanding the ruling, the trial court did express concern that the facts may not ultimately establish a breach of the school district’s duty or that the district’s actions were the proximate cause of the incident.

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Blown Engine – Drag Racer Dies During a Track Rental Session; Racetrack Faced with Triable Issues, Possible Punitive Damages (NJ)

August 26, 2015

Cruz v. ATCO Raceway, Inc. (New Jersey)
(trial court disposition)

Jose Cruz was involved a fiery crash that occurred at the drag racing strip owned by the defendant.  The accident was caused by a “catastrophic engine failure,” and Jose was severely burned.  Although he managed to escape the car and walk away from the wreck, he ultimately died at the hospital.  A lawsuit was filed by Jose’s widow on her own behalf and on behalf of Jose’s estate, alleging negligence, negligence per se, wrongful death, and survivorship.  The lawsuit also sought punitive damages.  The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and the New Jersey District Court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part. (more…)

Coach of Youth Equestrian Rider Escapes Liability in Wrongful Death Case (CA)

March 11, 2015

Eriksson v. Nunnink (California)

In 2006, a 17-year old girl was killed while riding a horse in competition in California.  The parents of the decedent sued for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress, alleging that the horse was “unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice.”  After the plaintiffs presented evidence at trial, the trial court granted defendant’s motion for entry of judgment, which the plaintiffs appealed.  The Court of Appeal held that the minor waiver and release agreement signed by the decedent and her mother prior to decedent’s participation in the competition was enforceable as a liability defense to the wrongful death claim.  Although a minor can “disaffirm” a written contract, the terms of the waiver and release agreement became “irrevocable and binding” under California caselaw when the agreement was signed by the minor’s parent. (more…)

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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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.

MMA Competition at Gym Results in Death

September 21, 2010

Report from KSDK.com (Missouri)
(The family of 27-year-old man who died following a kickboxing match has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the gym where the match took place.)

The story from ksdk.com reports that the family is alleging that the decedent should not have been allowed to fight because he had been injured a few days earlier in a practice session. The gym owner contends that he had never seen the decedent practice at his facility. The article did not indicate whether or not the decedent had signed any sort of waiver and release document. Assumption of the risk principles will certainly be in play during the litigation.

NOTE: The allegation that an injured participant was allowed to fight despite an injury could potentially impact some highly publicized elimination competitions where participants advance toward a championship, such as on The Ultimate Fighter.

Insurance Company “Cutz” Barbershop’s Defense

July 6, 2008

Scottsdale Insurance Company v. Cutz, LLC (Florida)
(Insurer Had No Duty to Defend Lessor of Premises in Negligent Security Lawsuit.)

In September 2003, two men were shot to death at a Cutz, LLC (Cutz) barbershop. Personal representatives of the deceased men brought suit against Cutz (the lessee) and G&G Laboratories (the lessor of the premises), seeking damages for wrongful death and negligence based upon a failure to provide security at the barbershop. Cutz was the named insured under an insurance policy issued by Scottsdale Insurance Company (Scottsdale). Both Cutz and G&G Laboratories (G&G) tendered their defense and requested indemnity from Scottsdale. Scottsdale sought a declaration from the Court that it was not responsible for G&G.

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Scuba Diving School Stays Above Water

July 6, 2008

Booth v. Bowen (U.S. Virgin Islands-UNPUBLISHED)
(Federal Court Enforces Waiver in Favor of Scuba Diving School; Denied Claims of Heirs Suing on Behalf of Novice Scuba Diver Who Died While Completing the School’s Introductory Course.)

This case involved an action brought by the heirs of a deceased scuba diver. The decedent participated in a novice diving course in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The deceased had no diving experience. Before participating, he signed a “Questionnaire” which was titled “Liability Release and Assumption of Risk Agreement.” The school argued that the language of the agreement relieved them from negligence liability. The plaintiff-heirs argued that the waiver should be unenforceable on public policy grounds because the agreement improperly barred the claims of heirs and family member of the deceased. The plaintiffs contested the fact that the agreement signed by the decedent precluded an undetermined class of individuals (heirs and family members) from filing suit.

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“Ring of Fear” Results in Death

November 7, 2007

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.

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