By Doyice Cotten
In 2016, Jeanne Anderson was injured while participating in a Rugged Races event (Anderson v. Rugged races LLC, 2020). The event at which the injury occurred required the participant “To jump off a platform, strike a gong while in midair, land in the pit of water, climb out of the pit, and continue to the next obstacle.” When Anderson landed in the pit, one of her feet stuck a hard object causing instant pain and injury. The bottom of the pit was supposed to contain only soft sand and water.
Prior to participating, Anderson had signed an exculpatory agreement intended to protect the company from liability for negligence. The court pointed out that Minnesota is one of several states that does not recognize gross negligence as a cause of action. ”…the doctrine that there are three degrees of negligence—slight, ordinary, and gross— does not prevail in this state.”
Minnesota Negligence Law
The court explained negligence law as follows: (citations omitted)
In other words, the common law of Minnesota does not recognize a separate cause of action for gross negligence or for any other type of negligence that exceeds ordinary negligence. Doub v. Life Time Fitness, Inc. (“But a claim for gross negligence is not recognized as a distinct cause of action, separate from a cause of action for ordinary negligence.”). Sometimes, however, the text of a statute or contract will differentiate among degrees of negligence—for example, between ordinary negligence and gross negligence. When a statute or contract does so, then a court must also do so when enforcing that statute or contract. Beehner v. Cragun Corp.
This is such a case. It is undisputed that Anderson signed the Race Participant Agreement, that the agreement is enforceable, and that the agreement included a valid exculpatory clause that bars Anderson from bringing claims against defendants arising out of “ordinary negligence” or the “inherent risks” of the event.; see Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., (noting that exculpatory clauses are enforceable but are “strictly construed against the benefited party”). The exculpatory clause that binds Anderson is comparable … to the exculpatory clause that was enforced by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Beehner, the plaintiff can recover only if she can prove that a defendant acted with greater-than-ordinary negligence.
Rugged Races argues that the exculpatory clause contained in the Race Participant Agreement bars any claim based on any degree of negligence,. But the exculpatory clause in Doub barred “any” negligence claims. (recognizing the differences between the exculpatory clauses in Beehner and Doub). Because the exculpatory clause in Doub barred any claim that sounded in negligence, the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiff could not bring any type of negligence claim, no matter the degree of negligence alleged. Id. at *3-5. But the exculpatory clause in the Race Participant Agreement, unlike the exculpatory clause in Doub, does not bar any type of negligence claim. Instead, like the exculpatory clause in Beehner, it bars only a claim of ordinary negligence.
To defeat defendants’ summary-judgment motion, then, Anderson must point to evidence in the record that would allow a reasonable jury to find that Rugged Races acted with greater-than-ordinary negligence. In Minnesota, “[n]egligence is generally defined as the failure `to exercise such care as persons of ordinary prudence usually exercise under such circumstances.'” Thus, Anderson must prove that the conduct of Rugged Races was more culpable than simply failing to exercise the level of care that would have been exercised under the circumstances by a reasonable operator of extreme obstacle races.
At the same time, Anderson is not required to prove that Rugged Races acted with gross negligence. If ordinary negligence is at one end of the actionable negligence spectrum, gross negligence is at the other end:
Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care.
Clearly, there is room on the spectrum between negligence that is “ordinary” and negligence that is “gross.” For example, negligence that is great (but not “very great”) or somewhat higher (but not “substantially higher”) than ordinary negligence would qualify as greater-than-ordinary negligence, even though it would not reach the level of gross negligence.
Anderson alleged that Rugged Races acted with greater-than-ordinary negligence in three ways:
(1) by failing to respond to reports of a rock in the landing pit of Bang the Gong;
(2) by failing to follow routine practices in constructing and administering the 2016 race; and
(3) by failing to remedy the low water level in the landing pit of Bang the Gong. The Court considers each contention in turn.
While there was ordinary negligence on the part of the defendant, the court ruled that “…no reasonable jury could find, based on the evidence in the record, that Rugged Races acted with greater-than-ordinary negligence in connection with the 2016 race and that Rugged Races’ greater-than-ordinary negligence caused Anderson to injure her foot.”
The Court granted the summary-judgment motion of Rugged Races and dismissed the case.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Presidio of Monterey via Flickr.