Longtime readers of this column know that in most states, a well-written waiver, signed by an adult, can be an effective tool in protecting fitness and recreation providers from ordinary negligence, but what about gross negligence? That issue was at the heart of Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473 (2014).
After signing up for her first kickboxing class at Meridian Sports Club, Tanya Honeycutt signed a one-page waiver that contained an express assumption of the risk assessment. The agreement advised that the use of Meridian's facilities naturally involves risk of injury, which the user understands and voluntarily accepts. The user, per the form, agreed that Meridian would not be liable for any injury resulting from negligence by Meridian and its employees on the premises.
During the class, instructor Hakeem Alexander performed a roundhouse kick — swinging one leg in a semicircular motion while pivoting on the supporting foot. After Honeycutt attempted the same move but performed it incorrectly, Alexander approached Honeycutt to help her correct her form.
Rather than describing the appropriate movement, Alexander attempted to guide her through it, holding Honeycutt's right leg as her left leg was locked and planted on the floor for balance, then instructing her to rotate. When Honeycutt rotated her left knee, she heard a pop and the knee gave out. She suffered a ruptured ACL, which required surgery and four months of rehabilitation.
As a result of her injuries, Honeycutt sued Meridian, alleging gross negligence. In particular, she claimed Alexander was grossly negligent in manipulating her body, causing her knee to snap. The suit also alleged that the proper method for teaching the kick is a verbal instruction and step-by-step demonstration. She also claimed that the print in the release of the liability she had signed was illegible.
Meridian filed a motion for summary judgment. Having concluded that the waiver Honeycutt signed was legally valid, the trial court found in favor of Meridian and dismissed the case. Honeycutt appealed based on two points. First, she claimed that Alexander's act of grabbing her leg increased the inherent risk in kickboxing, which would negate application of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. Second, she claimed that Alexander acted with gross negligence, which would render her signed release of liability ineffective.
In examining Honeycutt's first argument, the Court of Appeals held that under California law, primary assumption of risk precludes liability for injuries arising from those risks deemed inherent in a sport, and that as a matter of law, others have no legal duty to eliminate those risks or otherwise protect a participant from them. Under this duty approach, the court need not ask what risks a particular plaintiff subjectively knew of and chose to encounter, but instead must evaluate the fundamental nature of the sport and the defendants's role in relationship to the sport, in order to determine whether the defendant owes a duty to protect a plaintiff from the particular risk of harm.
Citing Khan v. East Side Union High School Dist., 75 P.3d 30 (2003), the court held that coaches and instructors have a duty not to increase the risks inherent in sports participation. Therefore, Alexander may be found to have breached a duty of care to Honeycutt only if he intentionally injured her or engaged in conduct that was reckless in the sense that it is totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in teaching or coaching the sport. Applying this standard, the court held that since Honeycutt made no argument that Alexander intentionally injured her, the only issue was whether Alexander's conduct was totally outside the range of ordinary activity in the sport.
The court found no evidence that Alexander engaged in conduct of a reckless nature and ruled that Honeycutt had assumed the inherent risks associated with a kickboxing class, including potential injuries to shoulders, hands and knees. These types of injuries are entirely foreseeable, with or without the physical intervention of an instructor. Therefore, the court held that Alexander's conduct did not increase the risks already inherent in the sport, and Honeycutt's injuries fell squarely within the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.
The court next examined whether Alexander acted with gross negligence, which is defined as either a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.
Based on this definition, the court concluded that even if it accepted the declaration from Honeycutt's expert — who stated that an instructor should not touch the student, and should instead demonstrate and verbalize the maneuver and regress to an easier maneuver if the kick is too difficult for the student — it only established a question over whether Honeycutt was properly instructed by Alexander. At best, there was a difference of opinion as to how a student should be instructed.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Although the court found that Honeycutt's injury fell squarely within the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, and that there was no evidence of gross negligence, the court's decision provides readers with two important lessons. First, waivers are valid only against ordinary negligence. Therefore, if an employee or organization acts in a grossly negligent manner, the waiver will be deemed invalid. If, however, an employee or organization's actions are simply ordinary negligence, then the waiver will bar recovery for any injuries suffered.
Second, though the club was protected from legal liability, it is important that activity providers understand the need to separate students into appropriate class levels. Not only are beginner students at greater risk of injury when put into classes designed for intermediate or advanced students, such action also places the club at risk of liability. If the club or instructor fails to properly instruct beginners, or match them up with more experienced students, it is likely that the court will not only find such action negligent, but potentially grossly negligent, as well.
Attorney John T. Wolohan is a professor of sports law in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "No Leg to Stand On"