Wednesday, May 8, 2002
Marathon Organizer May Be Liable for Not Providing Liquids—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The assumption-of-risk doctrine does not bar a marathon runner’s suit alleging that he suffered serious injuries because race organizers failed to provide enough liquids along the course, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. One concluded that organizers of the 1998 “Suzuki Rock ’N’ Roll Marathon” in San Diego may have unreasonably increased the risk of injury to participants and breached their “duty to produce a reasonably safe event.”
A Chicago man claims that he suffered a grand mal seizure on the flight home and has continuing neurological difficulties because he did not obtain enough water and electrolyte fluids during the race.
The appellate panel reinstated Richard Saffro’s action against Elite Racing, Inc., a San Diego-based firm that produces about a dozen running events each year. In opposition to the company’s summary judgment motion, Saffro presented evidence that he was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia—a condition caused by decreased sodium concentration in the blood—was listed in critical condition, and had to be kept on a ventilator for four days.
Nearly all memory of running the marathon has been wiped out, Saffro claimed.
The plaintiff cited materials sent to participants by Elite, saying there would be 23 water and refreshment stations located throughout the course, all distributing water and several also giving out Race Day, an electrolyte drink.
Saffro’s evidence also showed that distributing liquids is a customary responsibility of race organizers, and that participants expect their entry fees to be used, in part, for that purpose.
The plaintiff also presented deposition testimony from Kelly Magill, an experienced runner who finished the race about 28 minutes behind Saffro. She said it was difficult or impossible to get water at some of the stations, and that she was never able to obtain Race Day, because every time she got to one of the stations that was supposed to have it, the race volunteers said they had run out.
Saffro also produced a letter from Elite, apologizing for the “imperfections” of the race and promising that participants the following year would be able to “drown at our water stations.”
San Diego Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn granted summary judgment on the basis of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine set forth in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296.
But Justice James A. McIntyre, writing yesterday for the Court of Appeal, noted that under Knight and its progeny, the sponsor of an event has a special relationship with participants that requires it to minimize the risks. If the duty is breached, the justice explained, the assumption of risk becomes “secondary” and comparative negligence principles apply.
“This duty,” McIntyre wrote, “includes the obligation to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia by providing adequate water and electrolyte fluids along the 26 mile course—particularly where the race organizer represents to the participants that these will be available at specific locations throughout the race.”
The justice went on to conclude that triable issues exist as to whether Elite breached the duty and whether that breach caused the injury.
While Saffro cannot remember details of the race, the jurist explained, Magill’s testimony and the opinion’s of the plaintiff’s experts constitute circumstantial evidence that Saffro did not and could not get enough liquids and that his inability to do so was the cause of his hyponatremia.
Besides, McIntyre noted, this may be a case where the burden of proof as to causation shifts to the defendant as a matter of public policy. He cited Haft v. Lone Palm Hotel (1970) 3 Cal.3d 756, in which the court held that a hotel operator that violated safety rules could be held liable for drownings in its swimming pool, even though there were no witnesses.
The plaintiff was represented on appeal by John Morris of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack. A. Carl Yaeckel of Royce, Grimm, Vranjes, McCormick & Graham argued for Elite.
The case is Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc., D037591.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company