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Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC

Superior Court of Delaware

November 29, 2017

SCOTT BARTH, Plaintiff,
v.
BLUE DIAMOND, LLC (d/b/a BLUE DIAMOND MX PARK), a Delaware corporation, THE EAST COAST ENDURO ASSOCIATION, INC., a New Jersey corporation, and DELAWARE ENDURO RIDERS, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

          Submitted: November 17, 2017

         Motions for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Primary Assumption of Risk

          Batholomew J. Dalton, Esq., Laura J. Simon, Esq., Dalton & Associates, Larry E. Coben, Esq. (Argued), Gregory S. Spizer, Esq., Anapol Weiss, Attorneys for Plaintiff Scott Barth

          Michael J. Logullo, Esq. (Argued), Rawle & Henderson LLP Attorney for Defendants The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.

          George T. Lees III, Esq., Logan & Petrone, LLC Attorney for Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC

          OPINION

          The Honorable Mary M. Johnston.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL CONTEXT

         In this Opinion, the Court considers an apparent issue of first impression in Delaware. The question is whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies in certain risky or dangerous sports-related activities in the absence of an express waiver of liability. This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race. Barth alleges that the race's course was owned by Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC ("Blue Diamond"), co-sponsored by Defendant Delaware Enduro Riders ("DER"), and overseen by Defendant East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. ("ECEA"). Barth alleges that the Defendants' negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race's course caused his injuries. Prior to the race, Barth signed a release of liability form.

         DER and ECEA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Barth's allegations of recklessness, which Blue Diamond adopted. DER and ECEA also jointly filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, while Blue Diamond separately filed its own. At the hearing on the motions, this Court denied the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, holding that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding recklessness, particularly as to, among others things, "the adequacy of signage" and "the adequacy of warnings on the course."[1] The Court declined to rule from the bench as to the Motions for Summary Judgment, instead instructing the parties to make additional submissions limited to the issue of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the central grounds for the three defendants' motions.

         DER and ECEA argue they are entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Barth signed a waiver releasing them from liability. Second, Barth assumed the risk inherent in an off-road dirt-bike race. In its separate motion, Blue Diamond makes the same two arguments and adds a third-Barth was a member of the Blue Diamond Riding Club, and Blue Diamond did not owe Barth the same duty it would owe a common law business invitee, MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment is granted only if the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and judgment may be granted as a matter of law.[2] All facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.[3] Summary judgment may not be granted if the record indicates that a material fact is in dispute, or if there is a need to clarify the application of law to the specific circumstances.[4] When the facts permit a reasonable person to draw only one inference, the question becomes one for decision as a matter of law.[5] If the non- moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, yet "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, " then summary judgment may be granted against that party.[6]

         ANALYSIS

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Barth signed a release of liability and, separately, because Barth assumed the risk of participating in the race. Both of these arguments are properly analyzed within the framework of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

         In Delaware, "primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents 'to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'"[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, "the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence."[8]

         The Waiver Form Released the Defendants from Liability for Negligence, not Recklessness

         Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under a theory of express primary assumption of risk. Before participating in the race, Barth signed a release titled, "RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT." It states that Barth:

HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES, AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE . . . racing associations, sanctioning organizations ... track operators, track owners ... herein referred to as "Releasees, " FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED . . . FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

         Barth asserts that the entire waiver agreement is unenforceable as an invalid contract due to lack of consideration. He further contends that even if the agreement is enforceable, it does not release Defendants from liability for recklessness.

         To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability "must be crystal clear and unequivocal" and "unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy."[9] Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.[10]

         Barth instead argues that the form is unenforceable due to lack of consideration. Barth bases his argument on this Court's finding in Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[11] In Devecchio, this Court deemed a waiver of liability unenforceable due to lack of consideration when the form stated that riders agreed to inspect the course, but the defendants admitted that, under the race's sanctioning body's rules, the riders were not allowed to inspect the course before the race. [12]

         As in Devecchio, the release here contains an agreement that the race participants "have or will immediately upon entering any of such RESTRICTED AREAS, and will continuously thereafter, inspect the RESTRICTED AREAS . . ., "[13] Unlike in Devecchio, however, no sanctioning body's rule barred Defendants from performing an inspection of the course.

         Instead, the rule in this case stated: "Participants are allowed to walk or bicycle the course prior to the event-with the club's permission." Barth argues that, despite this distinction, Devecchio should apply because Barth was never given permission or made aware of his responsibility to inspect the course. Notably, however, Barth never asked for permission to inspect the course. That Barth hypothetically may not have received permission to perform the inspection is not dispositive. Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the "failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release."[14] The Court finds that Barth's own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

         Pursuant to Lynam, however, the form exculpates the Defendants' negligence, not recklessness. As in Lynam, the form here provides for a release of liability caused by "THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE 'RELEASEES' OR OTHERWISE." As this Court determined in Lynam, "such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort."[15]

         The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.

         Implied Primary Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar a ...


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