Michigan Waiver Case Examines Ordinary vs. Gross Negligence When the Steering Wheel Comes Off a Racecar

By Doyice Cotten

8493890344_cc2161ccf7_mMichigan courts have consistently ruled that a liability waiver can insulate a defendant against ordinary negligence. Likewise they have on many occasions held that such a release cannot protect a party against gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct. In Gonzalez v. Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (2015 Mich. App. LEXIS 25), the Court of Appeals of Michigan considered the enforceability of two waivers signed by a plaintiff prior to engaging in the Racing Experience. Gonzalez registered, signed two waivers, was trained on how to handle the racecar (including in the car instruction), and crashed during the sixth lap. The crash was precipitated by the car’s steering wheel becoming detached; he lost control and crashed into the wall.

The first waiver released the Racing Experience from all liability and personal injury claims related to the event, “whether caused by the negligence of the Releasees or otherwise.” It stated that it “extends to all acts of negligence of the Releasees, including negligent rescue operations, and is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of the State.” Further, it warned that the event was very dangerous and involved the risk of serious injury. The second waiver had the signer acknowledge that “driving or riding in a racecar and all the related activities are dangerous with many risks that may result in serious injury or even death”; plaintiff agreed to assume the risk of bodily injury.

Gonzalez sued alleging both negligence and gross negligence. The court held that the waiver protected against the negligence claim. It then examined the facts to determine if the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent.

The court stated that gross negligence

 . . .is different than willful and wanton misconduct. A person’s conduct is grossly negligent if the person engages in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” In contrast, “[w]illful and wanton misconduct is not a high degree of negligence; rather, it is in the same class as intentional wrongdoing.” Willful and wanton misconduct has a higher threshold than gross negligence.

 It went on to state that gross negligence is “almost a willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety and a singular disregard for substantial risks.”

Gonzalez claimed that the Racing Experience must not have inspected his steering wheel, however at deposition Gonzalez had testified that the wheel was inspected. Gonzalez also claimed that Dutcher was grossly negligent because she failed to inspect using a “three tugs” system. The court agreed with the defendant that even if true, this would only constitute ordinary negligence.

The appellate court held that because “no reasonable mind could conclude from the facts in this case that Dutcher failed to inspect the wheel, and because the remainder of Gonzalez’s claims do not provide a basis for avoiding his release” the trial court should have granted Racing Experience’s motion for summary disposition. The court reversed the decision and remanded it for entry of summary judgement in favor of the Racing Experience.

Photo Credit: thanks to Axion 23 for the photo.