Waiver and Indemnity Agreement Upheld for Ordinary Negligence in Massachusetts Triathlon Case

By Doyice Cotten

5019102115_f74192e1b6_mRichard Angelo died during the swimming portion of a triathlon organized by USA Triathlon (USAT). In spite of Richard having signed a waiver and indemnity agreement, his wife Cheryl filed suit alleging negligence, gross negligence, pain and suffering, and infliction of emotional distress (Angelo v. USA Triathlon, 2014). The waiver read:

  1. I hereby Release, Waive and Covenant Not to Sue, and further agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless the following parties: USAT, the Event Organizers and Promoters, Race Directors, Sponsors, Advertisers, Host Cities, Local Organizing Committees, Venues and Property Owners upon which the Event takes place, Law Enforcement Agencies and other Public Entities providing support for the Event, and each of their respective parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies, officers, directors, partners, shareholders, members, agents, employees and volunteers (Individually and Collectively, the “Released Parties” or “Event Organizers”), with respect to any liability, claim(s), demand(s), cause(s) of action, damage(s), loss or expense (including court costs and reasonable attorneys [sic] fees) of any kind or nature (“Liability”) which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the Event, including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the Released Parties. I further agree that if, despite this Agreement, I, or anyone on my behalf, makes a claim for Liability against any of the Released Parties, I will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.

Massachusetts waiver law provides that “[c]ontracts of indemnity are to be fairly and reasonably construed in order to ascertain the intention of the parties and to effectuate the purpose sought to be accomplished.” Waiver and indemnity contracts protecting one from liability for ordinary negligence are legal. Important in this case is the fact that indemnity contracts “survive a decedent’s death and become an obligation of a decedent’s estate.”

The court stated that the language in this contract was broad. The court held that the language was unambiguous as to 1) who is bound by the agreement; 2) who is released by the agreement; and 3) the scope of the indemnity.  The court did, however, require a close examination to “ascertain the applicability of the provision to the specific claims raised and the sources available to satisfy the indemnity.”

The court held that USAT is entitled to indemnity on losses resulting from the ordinary negligence claim. The decedent lacked authority to bind his surviving family members who did not sign the indemnity agreements; the document, however, did bind his estate.  Accordingly, to satisfy the indemnity obligation, USAT may look to the assets of the decedent’s estate.

The court then addressed the gross negligence claim. The U.S. District Court found no controlling authority from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on this issue, but looked at appellate court decisions and other evidence and decided that the state’s highest court would rule that neither waivers nor indemnity agreements are enforceable to protect one from one’s own gross negligence.

The court granted USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to the plaintiff’s claims of wrongful death as it relates to USAT’s allegedly negligent conduct. The Motion is denied as relating to indemnify liability arising from USAT’s grossly negligent conduct. The court also ruled that USAT was entitled to some of their defense costs.

Conclusion

Some of the concepts to obtain from this case are that 1) waivers and indemnity agreements for ordinary negligence are enforced in Massachusetts; 2) the agreements are not enforced for gross negligence; 3) wrongful death contracts survive a decedent’s death and become an obligation of a decedent’s estate.

Photo Credit: Thanks to Michael Foley at Flickr.