Missouri Supreme Court Provides an Interesting Ruling Regarding a Gross Negligence and Reckless Disregard Claim

By Doyice Cotten
2383961560_6bc31fe500_b-1Cynthia DeCormier signed up for a motorcycle training course, signed a liability waiver, and attended the course. On the day of the course there was rain, drizzle, snow, and mist; there was also ice on the pavement. As a consequence, she and her bike took a spill and she suffered injury. She subsequently sued alleging negligence, gross negligence, and reckless disregard (DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Company Group, Inc., 2014 Mo. LEXIS 215).

The defendants claimed protection based on the affirmative defense of the liability waiver signed by DeCormier.

I hereby RELEASE AND FOREVER DISCHARGE (i) Harley—Davidson Motor Company, Inc., Harley—Davidson, Inc., . . . each of their respective parent, subsidiary, and affiliated companies [*3] . . .; [and] (ii) all authorized dealers of Harley—Davidson Motor Company . . . who are sponsoring or conducting the [New Rider Course] . . . (hereinafter all collectively referred to as “Released Parties”) from ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, RIGHTS, CAUSES OF ACTION AND LOSSES (collectively, “CLAIMS”) OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER THAT I . . . NOW HAVE OR LATER MAY HAVE AGAINST ANY RELEASED PARTY IN ANY WAY RESULTING FROM, OR ARISING OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH, MY PARTICIPATION IN THE [NEW RIDER COURSE] . . ..
I acknowledge and understand that this Release EXTENDS TO AND RELEASES AND DISCHARGES ANY AND ALL CLAIMS I . . . have or may have against the Released Parties arising out of my participation in the [New Rider Course], including without limitation all such Claims resulting from the NEGLIGENCE of any Released Party. . ..

Ms. DeCormier alleged that the instructors had her perform motorcycle exercises while the range was icy and slippery; she claimed they knew or should have known that the icy conditions of the course created an unreasonable risk of bodily harm and knew or should have known that an inexperienced rider on icy or slippery conditions created an unreasonable risk of bodily harm. She argued that the MSF Basic Riders Course Rider Coach Guide “takes the position that training not be conducted during a thunderstorm, snowstorm, windstorm, with ice on the range, or if the [instructors] determine the safety of the students is at risk.” She also provided a certified record of river and climatological observations.

She argued that defendants were not entitled to summary judgment because the release could not, as a matter of law, waive liability for gross negligence or recklessness; she claimed there was a genuine dispute of material fact whether Harley-Davidson’s and Gateway’s negligence rose to the level of recklessness or gross negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment and the appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Missouri.

Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct
The Court cited case law stating:

1) While exculpatory agreements will be strictly construed, this Court will enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence.
2) Claims of gross negligence will not avoid this rule because Missouri courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.

The court then stated that DeCormier’s claim of reckless disregard was insufficient because she failed to meet her burden to show Harley-Davidson and Gateway were reckless. The Court defined reckless disregard as:

[A]ct[s] or fails to do an act which it is [the actor’s] duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of . . . harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to [the other.]

The court said there was no dispute that 1) the training materials stated that training should not be conducted in such conditions; 2) that “there was rain, drizzle, snow, and mist” in the area on the day of the injury; 3) training requires RiderCoaches to continuously observe and evaluate participants. From this, defendants “should have known facts from which a reasonable person would realize that continuing to send out riders to perform motorcycle exercises would create a high degree of probability of substantial harm to the riders.”

In opposition to the summary judgment motion, Ms. DeCormier also stated that the track started to become icy and slippery but that, despite those conditions, the instructors failed to take any action to remedy the slick and dangerous condition and continued to send riders out on the course to perform exercises. She further stated that the instructors directed her to perform motorcycle exercises in icy and slippery conditions and that, while she was doing so, her bike slipped and landed on her leg, causing her severe injuries. The evidentiary support for these facts cited in her response was defendant’s Exhibit A. Harley-Davidson and Gateway’s Exhibit A was Ms. DeCormier’s petition.

The Court, however, stated that the plaintiff did not show that the defendants “intentionally acted or failed to act to cause her injury, which is necessary to show recklessness.” Therefore, Harley-Davidson and Gateway were entitled to judgment on their affirmative defense of release.

The Court concluded by saying

A party is in reckless disregard of others if the party intentionally acts or fails to act while knowing or having reason to know of facts from which a reasonable person would realize such conduct creates an unreasonably high degree of risk of substantial harm.

This Missouri ruling regarding reckless disregard is similar to rulings in many other states. Generally, plaintiff must show “intent” or something close to intent to harm. Missouri, however, is one of very few states that does not differentiate between ordinary negligence and gross negligence.

Photo Credit: Thanks to Nick at Flickr.