Client Alert: Release of Liability Agreement Extinguishes Duty of Ordinary Care

On January 27, 2015, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, in Eriksson v. Nunnink (Case No. E057158), held a release of liability between Decedent and Defendant was enforceable as a defense to the Decedent’s Parents’ wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”) claims. In Eriksson, the Court concluded that on the basis of the signed release agreement, Defendant did not owe a duty of care to Decedent and thus could only be liable for Decedent’s death if caused by the Defendant’s gross negligence. The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to establish gross negligence and affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

In 2006, Plaintiffs’ daughter, a 17-year old equestrian competitor, fell off her horse which, then landed on her, during an event, killing her. Plaintiffs sued their daughter’s riding coach for wrongful death and NIED. Plaintiffs alleged the coach substantially increased the risk of harm that their daughter had assumed by, among other actions, allowing their daughter to ride an unfit horse that had a history of falls which Defendant concealed from Plaintiff, and allowing the Decedent to ride without adequate practice.

The case proceeded to trial. After presentation of Plaintiffs’ case-in-chief, the trial court granted Defendant’s Motion for Entry of Judgment. The court relied, in part, on a release of liability entered into between Defendant and the Decedent about six months prior to her death. Plaintiffs appealed.

Through the release of liability, Decedent agreed to release Defendant from all liability except for damages caused by Defendant’s “direct, willful and wanton negligence.” The release was also signed by Plaintiff-Decedent’s mother as an acknowledgment of those terms contained in the release.

Plaintiffs’ primary contention on appeal was that the release was ambiguous and did not apply to their claims. Plaintiffs argued that Defendant’s reference to herself as “trainer,” instead of coach, meant the term applied only to her training of the horses, not to her coaching of their daughter. The Court disagreed. Because the release defined trainer as Defendant, the term trainer throughout the release was effectively only a placeholder for Defendant’s name.

In analyzing Plaintiffs’ claims, the Court observed, “[w]hile often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case…In its most basic sense, assumption of risk means that the plaintiff, in advance, has given his express consent 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…The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.” The Court further held that the existence of a duty is a question of law. Similarly, interpretation of a written instrument, where interpretation does not depend on credibility of extrinsic evidence, is also a question of law. Thus, the Court held it must independently determine whether the release negated the duty element of Plaintiffs’ causes of action.

As for the wrongful death claim, while the Court upheld the trial court’s decision, they did so for slightly different reasons. Whereas the trial court found Plaintiffs’ right to assert a claim for wrongful death was barred by the Decedent’s execution of the release, the Court of Appeal found that an agreement by a decedent to release or waive liability for her death did not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action by her heirs. Instead, the Court held that the terms of the release effectively extinguished Defendant’s duty of ordinary care to the Decedent. This also meant that Defendant’s duty to Plaintiffs could be no greater and Defendant could therefore rely upon the release as a defense to Plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action for wrongful death. The Court applied the same rationale for the NIED claims: because the Decedent signed the release, negating Defendant’s duty of ordinary care toward her, Defendant did not owe a duty to protect Plaintiffs from the risk of emotional distress they claim to have suffered. On this rationale, Defendant could interpose the defense of express assumption of the risk to the Plaintiffs’ wrongful death suit as with their NIED claims.

Finally, in reviewing the more specific facts of the case, the Court agreed with the trial court that Defendant could not have been grossly negligent for the Decedent’s death or for Plaintiffs’ NIED claims. As such, the Court affirmed the lower court’s granting of Defendant’s Motion for Entry of Judgment.

This document is intended to provide you with information about general liability law related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

February 5, 2015