California Court Of Appeal: A Signed Release May Be Asserted As A Defense To Wrongful Death Claims

The California Court of Appeal recently held that a release signed by a minor equestrian rider effectively extinguished a coach’s duty of ordinary care to the rider, such that the coach could rely on the release as a defense to wrongful death claims. (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708.) The holding makes it clear – a release of future liability or the express assumption of the risk by a decedent may be asserted as a defense to wrongful death claims.

Factual Background

In November 2006, Mia Eriksson, a 17-year-old equestrian, was competing in an equestrian event at Galway Downs in Temecula, California. Mia’s horse struck a hurdle during the cross-country portion of the event, causing Mia to fall from her horse. The horse then fell on Mia, fatally injuring her.

Thereafter, Mia’s parents, Karan and Stan Eriksson (“the Erikssons”), brought a wrongful death suit against Mia’s riding coach, Kristi Nunnink (“the coach”). The Erikssons alleged the coach substantially increased the risk Mia reasonably assumed by, among other actions, allowing Mia to ride a horse that “was unfit to ride because of prior falls and lack of practice.” The trial court granted the coach’s motion for entry of judgment, relying on a release of liability (“the Release”) entered into between the coach and Mia approximately six months prior to Mia’s death. The court specifically explained that the Erikssons’ wrongful death claims “are derivative of Mia’s rights vis-à-vis Nunnink. Mia having expressly released her rights to assert any such claims against Nunnink, the [Erikssons’] claims for wrongful death are barred by the terms of the release.”

The Erikssons appealed, contending the Release is ambiguous and does not apply to their claims.

An Express Release Is Analogous To An Express Assumption Of The Risk

The Court of Appeal characterized a release of future liability as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care. In support of this analogy, the Court cited Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308-309:

[C]ases involving express assumption of risk are concerned with instances in which, as the result of an express agreement, the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from an injury-causing risk… “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.” [Citation.]

The Release

In May 2006, Mia and the coach entered into the Release, in which Mia agreed to release the coach from all liability except for damages caused by the coach’s “direct, willful and wanton negligence.” The Release contained the following relevant terms:

This RELEASE OF LIABILITY is made and entered into… by and between KRISTI NUNNINK, hereinafter designated “Trainer;” and the below signed, hereinafter designated, “Rider.”
In return for the use today, and on all future dates, of the property, facilities and services provided by Trainer, the Rider, their heirs, assigns and legal representatives, her[e]by expressly agree to the following:
3. Rider agrees to hold Trainer… completely harmless and not liable and release [Trainer] from all liability whatsoever, and AGREES NOT TO SUE them on account of or in connection with any claims, causes of action, injuries, damages, costs or expenses arising out of Rider’s use of Trainer’s services or facilities or presence upon any property used, including without limitation, those based on death, bodily injury,… except if the damages are caused by the direct, willful and wanton negligence of the Trainer.
9. When the Trainer, Rider and (if minor) Rider’s parent sign this Release, it will then be irrevocable and binding on all parties, subject to the above terms and conditions.

Throughout the Release, “Rider” makes numerous promises, including assumption of risks.

By signing the release, Mia (as “Rider”) and the coach (as “Trainer”) expressly entered into a release of liability. The release was also signed by Karan Eriksson as “Rider’s Parent.” By signing as Mia’s parent, Karan approved of the terms of the release and understood that her signature made the release “irrevocable and binding.” As such, the release could not be disaffirmed under Family Code section 6700, which provides that, in the case of a minor’s death, contracts entered into by the minor may be disaffirmed by the minor’s heirs or personal representative.

The Court concluded the Release is unambiguous, and that by providing for a release of “all liability whatsoever,” the release plainly encompasses future liability.

Wrongful Death Claim Barred By Signed Release

The California Supreme Court has held that wrongful death claims “are not derivative claims but are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs…” (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 841.) As such, the Court of Appeal did not agree with the trial court’s holding that the Erikssons’ wrongful death claims were derivative of Mia’s rights with respect to the coach and therefore were waived by Mia signing the release.

The Court did, however, conclude the coach can assert Mia’s release and express assumption of risk as a defense to the Erikssons’ wrongful death claims and thereby limit the scope of her potential liability. In support of this conclusion, the Court cited the reasoning espoused in Coates v. Newhall Land & Farming, Inc. (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, 8, a wrongful death case arising out of a dirt bike accident:

Behavior which is authorized is not wrongful and, logically, cannot be the basis of a wrongful death action. “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…”

The Court’s holding in Eriksson provides that, while the wrongful death cause of action is not derived from the decedent’s rights, the pertinent duty of care is the duty of care the defendant owed to the decedent, which can be effectively extinguished by the decedent in a pre-accident release. Accordingly, a defendant can rely upon a signed release as a defense to wrongful death claims.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Morgan Van Buren is an associate at Tyson & Mendes LLP. He specializes in personal injury and high net worth insurance issues. Contact Morgan at 858.263.4107 or mvanburen@tysonmendes.com.

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