Appellate court orders denial of summary judgment in suit over San Francisco marathon runner's death

By Charmaine Little | Aug 17, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO – On Aug. 13, the Court of Appeal of the State of California, 1st Appellate District, Division Four reversed in part and affirmed in part a wrongful death case filed by the family of a man who died shortly after crossing the finish line of the San Francisco Half Marathon.  

The wife and children of Peter Hass filed the lawsuit against race organizer RhodyCo Productions after Hass suffered cardiac arrest, fell and passed away moments after he completed the race in 2011. The Hass family accused RhodyCo of being negligent in overseeing and organizing the race, specifically making sure proper emergency medical services were offered.

The San Francisco Superior Court first granted RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment. It said the lawsuit wasn’t triable because Hass signed a waiver that released RhodyCo from all liability. Still, things changed after the Hass family filed a motion for a new trial. The lower court reversed its own ruling and said the Hass family should’ve been permitted to change their lawsuit to allege gross negligence, which was an action that wasn’t covered in the waiver Hass signed.

RhodyCo filed an appeal and said the lower court should have kept its first summary judgment ruling. The Hass family filed a cross-appeal and said while they agreed with the trial court’s new ruling, the trial court should have determined that RhodyCo’s alleged gross negligence was worth taking to trial initially. 

While the Appeals Court agreed with the lower court that summary judgment was inappropriate, it did say the trial court made the wrong decision when it required the Hass family to amend their complaint and plead gross negligence.

In their appeals, both sides address three issues: the waiver of the wrongful death claim, public policy and gross negligence. When it comes to the waiver of the wrongful death claim, the Appeals Court determined that when Hass signed the release, he intended to take on all risks, including death, that would occur as a result of him running in the race. He also intended to relieve RhodyCo from responsibility of any injuries that would occur. 

The appeals court decided this was enough to block the Hass family from filing a wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. For this issue, the appeals court sided with the trial court that the release was a sufficient defense for any wrongful death lawsuits concerning ordinary negligence.

As for the public policy argument, the Hass family said even if the release is relevant, it should be canceled out concerning public policy. In this case, public policy is related to the emergency medical services provided considering they’re connected to the general public’s interest. 

“Hass was permitted to make the voluntary decision in return for being allowed to participate in the race, to shoulder the risk of RhodyCo’s potential negligence,” the decision states.

It added the courts have the authority to say a contract is irrelevant if it infringes on the public policy. The appeals court decided not to implement this authority in this case.

Concerning the final issue of gross negligence, the appeals court said that while the release is enough to bar an ordinary negligence lawsuit, it’s not enough to block a gross negligence lawsuit related to public policy. It said that the lower court should have taken into consideration the Hass family’s gross negligence claim even though it didn’t plead gross negligence in the initial complaint.

“Regardless of whether gross negligence can be a separate cause of action, and/or the Hass family could have alleged gross negligence in the complaint in anticipation of RhodyCo’s likely defense, they were not required to do so,” the appeals court decided. 

It said the Hass family offered enough evidence, which would make the summary judgment unfitting. It added that there are some questions about the requirements in the EMS Plan, for example, inconsistencies of whether the finish line was included in a post-race section with the intention of aligning with the EMS Plan. While the appeals court didn’t take on every disagreement, it did determine that RhodyCo didn’t fully comply with the EMS Plan.

It also decided that considering it already ruled that gross negligence was in fact a triable issue, the notion behind the primary assumption of risk should not have blocked the lawsuit. Considering this, it agreed with the trial court’s decision to reverse its ruling for this issue.

Ultimately, the appeals court affirmed in part and reversed in part. It instructed the trial court to enter an order that would deny RhodyCo’s request for summary judgment. It also awarded the Hass family appeal expenses.

Judge Timothy Reardon authored the opinion.  

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