By Doyice Cotten
Spectators Tory Baughan and Megan MacNeill were injured while watching a snowmobile “hillclimb” racing event. They were in the designated, but unprotected, spectator area when one of the racers became dismounted from his Polaris snowmobile on his way up the hill. The driverless snowmobile continued to travel back down the hill at a high rate of speed before colliding with plaintiffs. Baughan sued claiming negligence, premises liability, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct (Baughan v. Mid Am. Snow & Terrain Expert Racers, 2018).
The key issue before the court was the appropriate standard of care owed the plaintiff. The trial court stated that the “recklessness” standard of care applied in this case (which would hold the provider liable for recklessness, but not liable for negligence). The appellate court reversed the trial court, holding that the defendant was owed a duty of ordinary care (which would hold the provider liable for negligence).
In Michigan, as in most states, co-participants are held to the “recklessness” standard; hence, one participant is not generally liable for injuries to a co-participant that involves only ordinary negligence. This standard was applied in a Michigan ice skating case (Richie-Gamester v. City of Berkley, 1999). This concept was also applied in a baseball spectator case (Benejam v. Detroit Tigers, Inc., 2001), following the generally accepted stance of not holding baseball stadium operators liable for injuries resulting from foul balls hit into the stands (providing reasonable protected seating was usually available).
The trial court erroneously likened a spectator in a baseball stadium to that of the plaintiff being injured by a riderless snowmobile. Therefore, they applied the recklessness standard. The appellate court, in reversing the decision, reasoned as follows:
The trial court’s reasoning is flawed because it equates the risk of being struck down by a driverless snowmobile at a snowmobile race with that of objects leaving the field at a baseball game. However, the Benejam Court was careful to discuss the “inherent risk”—of which fans are aware—”of objects leaving the playing field” “as a natural result of play.” As a natural consequence of the game of baseball, objects leave the field; balls are struck, and they often leave the boundaries of the field, in an attempt to score runs. Conversely, a rider becoming dismounted from a snowmobile during a snowmobile race is not a natural consequence of the race because riders do not routinely dismount their snowmobiles in an attempt to win. Therefore, the risk of being struck by a driverless, runaway snowmobile is not an “inherent risk” that occurs as a “natural result” of the race.
This court summarized that in this case, plaintiff’s injury (unlike a spectator being struck by a baseball) was not a natural consequence of spectating at a snowmobile race. It explained that a person observing a snowmobile racing event “’does not reasonably expect or anticipate the risk of physical contact, nor is the risk of being struck by a driverless, runaway snowmobile an ‘obvious or necessary danger’ inherent in the competitive operation of snowmobiles.”
The court held that the appropriate standard of care in this case was the standard of ordinary care. They reversed the trial court decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Risk Management Take-away
- The appropriate standard of care for spectators is generally that of ordinary care. It would behoove providers and operators to take care of spectators by 1) erecting barriers for protection and 2) seeing that spectator areas are a safe distance from the action. (It might be noted that in some states the immunity provided baseball operators seems to be crumbling and that much action has been taken in most major league stadiums to add protection by extending screening.)
Photo Credit: Thanks to Andrew_Writer via Flickr.