Racing is dangerous. We all know. In all sports (other than track and field), racing is just plain dangerous.
In one case, a teenager suffered serious injuries and pursued a personal injury case against the track. A teen appealed a trial court’s grant of summary judgement in favor of a raceway, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that he assumed the risk of his injuries.
The Raceway operated an oval short racetrack with a clay surface. The injuries in the case resulted from a “waterless boat race” at the Raceway. In a waterless boat race, participants drive around the track while pulling a boat attached to the rear of their vehicle. The drivers try to dislodge the boats of their competitors — primarily through ramming the boats — and the last driver with a boat still attached is the winner. Only a very small part of the boat needs to remain attached for a driver to win. Once a driver’s boat is dislodged, the driver is supposed to exit the race. Other rules for the race included wearing a seat belt and helmet, no purposeful T-boning — that is, hitting another vehicle in the door — and not getting out of the car on the racetrack.
In August 2018, the teen and his friend went to the Raceway. The teen was almost 17 at the time. The friend testified that they bought tickets and wristbands that would let them go into the pit at the Raceway.
Typically, the Raceway required fans to sign a waiver before purchasing the ticket that allowed access to the pit. The Raceway staffed the entrances to the pit to ensure that only people with the proper wristband could enter. While one Raceway employee testified that it wasn’t possible to circumvent the manned gates to enter the pit, another employee testified it could be hard for Raceway employees to check every wristband if a spectator entered with a big group.
The teen didn’t sign a waiver when he bought his ticket. He testified that he was talking to a driver through a fence when the driver invited him to join the race. The teen didn’t previously know the driver, but he agreed. The driver opened a gate in the fence. The teen and his friends watched the day’s races from the pit area. When the teen left the pit to visit the concession stand, the driver would wait at the gate and reopen it so he could come back through. When it was time for the race to start — the last race of the day — the teen got into the driver’s vehicle.
Prior to the race, a Raceway employee went over the rules with the drivers and passengers. According to the teen, those rules were to only hit the boats, to leave the raceway after the boat was knocked off, and to wear a helmet. As the race began, the driver drove around the track with the teen as his passenger. Drivers tried to knock the boats off of other vehicles, and the teen saw cars hitting other cars. After witnessing the car-to-car contact, he didn’t feel at risk enough to ask the driver to leave the race.
During the race, another boat-less driver continued to race around the track and struck the passenger side of the driver’s vehicle, where the teen was sitting. The teen contended in his lawsuit that the Raceway should have stopped the race once his vehicle stalled, and the Raceway should have removed the other driver from the race after he lost his boat.
The teen was taken to a hospital via an air ambulance. He suffered injuries as a result of the collision, including injuries to his head, neck, shoulder, and lower back. He also developed anxiety and as a result dropped out of high school.
The teen filed a complaint against the Raceway and other parties, asserting claims of premises liability, negligence, vicarious liability, negligent training and supervision, and attractive nuisance. The Raceway filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The teen appealed.
The Opinion of the Court of Appeals
The teen argued on appeal that the trial court erred in finding that he assumed the risk for his injuries. He said that he entered the race for fun and didn’t consider any risk. He also argued that he couldn’t have anticipated the lack of rule enforcement on the part of the Raceway.
A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff:
- had knowledge of the danger;
- understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and
- voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.
The knowledge requirement doesn’t refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks, but instead the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.
Judge Jeffrey A. Watkins opined that while assumption of risk is usually a question for the jury, the trial court may grant summary judgment on this issue if “the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.”
Judge Watkins and the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the teen assumed the risk for his injuries. The waterless boat race involved racing around a track while attempting to ram boats attached to other vehicles. “One who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary,” the judge wrote, quoting a 1966 decision. The danger of a car striking another vehicle rather than the attached boat, due to poor aim or otherwise, was “an inherent and obvious danger of the race,” the judge held.
Moreover, the judge said that the record showed that the teen was aware of such a danger. He’d previously watched auto races on TV where collisions had occurred. He also understood the goal of the race was to knock off the other racers’ boats. The teen knew that he needed a helmet to join the race, and originally wasn’t going to participate because he didn’t have one, but decided to join once he got one from the driver. During the race itself, he saw cars hitting other vehicles, and he didn’t tell the driver to pull out of the race. Accordingly, the trial court didn’t err in granting summary judgment to the Raceway on assumption of risk. The judgment was affirmed. Knight v. Senoia Raceway Management, Inc., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 533 (Ga. App. November 1, 2023).
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