Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, February 15, 2024


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C.A. Finds ‘Public Interest’ Exception to Enforceability of Releases Inapplicable

Panel Affirms Judgment for City in Suit by Man Who Disclaimed Liability in Advance of Injury; Pothole Caused Mishap


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A man who executed a release from potential liability in connection with a 50-mile training session preparatory to a bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles is barred from recovering from the City of Oakland for a traumatic brain injury he sustained when a pothole caused his bicycle to flip over, the First District Court of Appeal has held, rejecting his contention that the release cannot be applied because the “public interest” is implicated.

The release exempted from liability not only the organizers of the “AIDS/LifeCycle”— the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation—but also “governmental entities” that owned the “course or facilities used.” Plaintiff/appellant Ty Whitehead argued that Oakland cannot be protected by the release he signed, in which he agreed to assume all risks, in light of the unenforceability of a release where the party “seeking exculpation” is engaged in “performing a service of great importance to the public,” as declared by the California Supreme Court in its 1963 decision in Tunkl v. Regents of University of California.

Maintenance of public roads, he contended, is of a high degree of significance to the public.

“This case presents issues of first impression concerning the validity of an agreement exempting a city from future liability for a dangerous condition of one of its roads,” Whitehead said in his appellate brief.

Summary Judgment Affirmed

Justice Carin T. Fujisaki authored the opinion affirming a summary judgment granted by Alameda Superior Court Judge Richard L. Seabolt in favor of the city. The decision was filed Jan. 22 and certified for publication on Tuesday.

 Fujisaki said that Whitehead’s reading of Tunkl “is off the mark and unconvincing.” The focus, she said, should be “on the activity or transaction for which the release was given, i.e., participation in the cycling fundraiser,” not on the city’s role of maintaining streets.

Tunkl itself couched its analysis in terms of determining whether the transaction for which the release was given is one that affects the public interest,” she explained.

The jurist noted that the California Supreme Court observed in its 2007 decision in City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court that “Tunkl’s public interest analysis focuses upon the overall transaction.”

Whitehead contended:

“[T]the City’s formulation would lead to anomalous results. Under it, one who provides a service that does not involve a public interest could require a consumer to exempt from liability another who provides a service that does involve such an interest. For example, under the City’s formulation, a contract for recreational services could validly exempt from liability any hospital to which the consumer might be taken for treatment of an injury sustained while participating in the activity—even though the hospital would be precluded from enforcing a similar exemption in a contract made directly with the consumer….

“By parity of reasoning, the converse would also be true: a provider of a service that did not involve a public interest would be entitled to enforce an exemption from liability in its own contract but would be precluded from enforcing it if it was contained in the contract of a provider of a service that did involve a public interest.”

Fujisaki responded:

“To the extent plaintiff offers anomalous hypothetical situations to support his point, we are unpersuaded.  We look only to the facts before us, bearing in mind that ‘Tunkl’s public interest analysis focuses upon the overall transaction’ .”

1986 Decision

In its 1986 decision in Okura v. United States Cycling Federation, Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal affirmed a summary judgment in favor of Hermosa Beach in an action brought by a bicyclist who had signed a release prior to participating in a race and who was injured, allegedly as the result of the city’s negligence in the preparation and maintenance of the course. The opinion says that “[m]easured against the public interest in hospitals and hospitalization—with which the court in Tunkl dealt, finding a waiver invalid—the bike race was not a matter “of great public importance.”

Fujisaki wrote:

“This case is materially indistinguishable from Okura.  At bottom, plaintiff executed a release in exchange for entry into a recreational cycling activity that was organized for fundraising purposes.  In line with Okura and the other decisions cited by the Supreme Court in City of Santa Barbara…, we conclude the trial court properly found the release valid and enforceable because the cycling event was a nonessential sports activity that did not affect the public interest….”

The case is Whitehead v. City of Oakland, 2024, A164483.



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