Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Release No Defense in Collapse of Bleachers at Auto Race, C.A. Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A signed release of liability required of patrons granted access to the pit area at an auto race did not absolve the speedway operator of liability for injuries suffered when the bleachers collapsed, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices overturned a Kern Superior Court judgment in favor of Big Time Auto Racing, Inc., operator of the Bakersfield Speedway. The jury’s verdict in the first phase of a bifurcated trial, in which it concluded that George Sweat had released the defendant from liability for his injuries, was wrong as a matter of law, Justice Steven Vartabedian wrote.
The alleged negligence “was not reasonably related to the purpose of the release,” the justice explained.
Sweat was injured on March 11, 2000 while seated in the pit area bleachers. The speedway required him and other pit area spectators to pay a separate admission fee and sign a waiver agreement.
Spectators who do not pay the additional fee watch the race from a general admission area and do not have to sign a waiver. Those patrons, according to the evidence, are permitted to enter the pit area after the race is over.
The form signed by Sweat purported to release the track owner “from all liability...for any claim...while the undersigned is in or upon the restricted area and/or... observing... the event.”
The form further declared that the patron “acknowledges and agrees that the activities of the event are very dangerous and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death and/or property damage” and “expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver, and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the law.”
Vartabedian cited Madison v. Superior Court (1998) 203 Cal.App.3d 589, holding that a release will be enforced only if it is “clear, unambiguous and explicit in expressing the intent of the parties” and there is a reasonable relationship between the injury-producing event and the purpose of the release.
While the release could be read as absolving the defendant from liability for any injury of any kind suffered by the plaintiff at the speedway, the jurist reasoned, that interpretation would be inconsistent with the fact that no waiver is required of those who enter the pit area after the race.
“There is an obvious inference as to why the release is not required of postrace entrants: the risks from which defendant requests release are no longer present,” Vartabedian wrote.
“This inference, when combined with the parties’ express acknowledgment in the agreement that the ‘activities of the event are very dangerous and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death’ clarifies the purpose of the agreement—it is to require the releasee to assume the risk of injury as a result of being in close proximity to the dangerous activity of automobile racing and any further risk that might result from the activity of observing such a race. Obviously, in order for a person to be injured as a result of the race activity or the observation of such activity, the injury-causing event must occur while race activity is still occurring. But if a set of bleachers collapses as a result of defective construction or maintenance, there is no causal relation to the dangers caused by the race or observation activities regardless of whether the collapse occurs during the race.”
The case is Sweat v. Big Time Auto Racing, Inc., 04 S.O.S. 2105.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company