Wednesday, October 10, 2001
Court of Appeal Burns Firewalker in Bid for Damages
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A psychologist who signed an express waiver of liability before participating in a firewalking session cannot sue the sponsor, even if it did not advise her of the precise risks that she was assuming by signing the release, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Seven last week affirmed a judgment in favor of The Holman Group, sponsor of a seminar that culminated in an opportunity for participants to walk barefoot across a pit of burning coals.
A copy of the unpublished opinion by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Boland, sitting on assignment, was obtained yesterday by the MetNews.
The plaintiffs were Anita Banker-Riskin a psychotherapist who participated in the 1997 walk, and her husband. Michael Riskin did not participate in the walk but was present as an observer, and sued for loss of consortium and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Both Riskins signed the waiver form, which provided:
“I understand that my participation in the FIREWALKING SEMINAR is completely voluntary and at my own risk. I also understand that no assurance guaranteeing my safety is being made and I agree to hold…The Holman Group…completely harmless of all liability if I sustain any injuries. By signing this waiver, I agree to assume full responsibility for any injury or injuries, both physical and mental that I may sustain by participating in the FIREWALKING SEMINAR. I acknowledge that I have had the risks involved explained to me and I understand them and that there is a possibility I could receive burns or other injuries requiring medical attention and I release all others from any damages whatsoever.”
In opposition to The Holman Group’s summary judgment motion, Banker-Riskin declared that she was told the event was safe and that the only injuries that had ever occurred at the walks were minor blisters. She also said she felt pressured to participate because she received client referrals from The Holman Group, which she said was known to give preference in referrals to those who participated in its fire walks and other programs.
The plaintiffs also cited the deposition of Judith Cassis, who actually oversaw the walk. Cassis, who is certified by a group called the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education or F.I.R.E., said that among the 400 walkers she had previously seen, none had suffered major injuries.
But at the walk the Riskins attended, she said, something was “not right” and six of seven walkers suffered serious burns.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that the injuries claimed by the plaintiffs fell clearly within the scope of the release.
Mohr said Banker-Riskin understood the “inherent risk . . . [of] fire to flesh,” and understood she was “going to get burned” by “walk[ing] barefooted across a burning pit of fire,” and that this risk was “precisely what the release [was] intended to cover.”
Boland, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed. The release, he said, contained sufficient detail to inform the plaintiffs of the broad nature of the potential risks that they were assuming.
“We conclude that the release and its assumption of risk provisions are clear, explicit and comprehensible, and were clearly intended to release all claims, including those based on the negligence of defendants,” the jurist said.
Attorneys on the appeal were Robert J. Allan and Narine Sulahian of Robert J. Allan & Associates for the plaintiffs and Daniel R. Friedenthal and Mark H. Herskovitz of Friedenthal, Cox & Herskovitz for The Holman Group and its principals.
The case is Banker-Riskin v. Holman, B143685.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company