By Doyice Cotten
Notice of Error: The ruling was erroneously reported in this post. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the waiver was enforceable.
Derek Valentino drowned during the swimming leg of the Philadelphia Triathlon in 2010 (Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC., 2019). A wrongful death suit was filed by his children alleging negligence, gross negligence, outrageous acts, and recklessness. The trial court disallowed all except the claim of ordinary negligence.
The defense claimed protection against negligence based on the waiver and release of liability signed by Derek prior to the race. After numerous appeals, the case eventually reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One factor to be addressed was the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act which provides that a spouse, children, or parents of a decedent can bring suit to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or violence against another person.
The case ultimately came down to which prevails: 1) a contract (the waiver) signed by the decedent releasing the defendant from liability in the event of injury or death caused by the negligence of the defendant, or 2) a state statute (Wrongful Death Act) that allows recovery by a spouse, children, or parent of the deceased for a negligence-caused death.
Under Pennsylvania law, a waiver or release is generally disfavored, strictly construed, and is valid only when it does not contravene public policy, when it involves private affairs, and when it is not adhesionary. The waiver would certainly prohibit Derek from recovering had he only been injured because in signing the waiver, he released his claim; further, it would also have prevented recovery by spouse, children, or parents because their recovery would have been derivative of Derek’s claim.
But the key factor here was the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act. The undisputed purpose of the Act is “to provide a cause of action against one whose tortious conduct caused the death of another.” If the court enforces the waiver against the children, in effect it takes away a right created by the General Assembly for the heirs. So a conundrum is created: there is the precedent of enforcement of legal contracts and there is the statute that provides for remuneration.
The court stated that a waiver of liability that conflicts with a statute is against the public policy of Pennsylvania and is unenforceable. The court held that the waiver is void and unenforceable with respect to the wrongful death claim and is not available as a defense against the defendant. The judgment of the appellate court was reversed and the case was remanded for trial on the wrongful death claim.
Risk Management Take-away
This is a case in which the waiver protected against claims by the signer of the waiver, but did not protect against recovery by spouse, children, or parents of the signer.
Also, it is important to note that wrongful death lawsuits depend upon wrongful death law in the specific state – which may differ greatly from that of Pennsylvania.
Photo Credit: thanks to Andrew Lynch via Flickr.