By Doyice Cotten
Sport, recreation and fitness professionals often encounter the term “negligence” and most have at least a general idea of what negligence entails; but sometimes one comes across the term “willful and wanton act” (sometimes referred to as wanton act) and most don’t really understand what it means. A 2011 Alabama case gives us a good example of what might be considered a willful and wanton act (J.T., Jr. v. Monster Mountain, LLC, 2011).
J.T. (a minor competitive motocross rider) went to Monster Mountain MX Park in Alabama for a day of riding. Anderson, the owner of the track, and an assistant had partially completed grooming the track when J.T. and his party arrived in the morning. Anderson collected fees and had J.T. and his party sign waivers, the gate was open, and J.T. entered the track and began riding around the track.
• Anderson, collecting fees, did not inform the group that the track was not ready yet.
• Harris, an employee driving a tractor on the track, saw the group enter the track; he continued his work on the tractor.
• Harris testified that if riders are allowed on the track when there is equipment there, it is foreseeable that someone could get injured.
• Anderson, when deposed, also stated there had been accidents where riders crashed with tractors at other parks in the past.
J.T. on his first lap to test the track drove aggressively, went over a blind jump, became airborne, and crashed into the tractor driven by Harris. Plaintiffs alleged wantonness by Monster Mountain. The Alabama Supreme Court has held that, “[w]antonness is not merely a higher degree of culpability than negligence. Negligence and wantonness, plainly and simply, are qualitatively different tort concepts of actionable culpability.” The U.S. District Court defined wantonness and explained it as:
“Wantonness” is statutorily defined as “[c]onduct which is carried on with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others. “Wantonness” has been defined by this Court as the conscious doing of some act or the omission of some duty, while knowing of the existing conditions and being conscious that, from doing or omitting to do an act, injury will likely or probably result. To prove wantonness, it is not essential to prove that the defendant entertained a specific design or intent to injure the plaintiff.
Monster Mountain asked for summary judgment on the wantonness claims because J.T. could not show that Anderson had a conscious understanding that he was creating a dangerous condition by leaving the gate open or failing to tell J.T. that the course was closed. They also claimed that the tractor was so obvious that riders could observe the track before riding. The plaintiffs countered that in the past, the open gate meant the track was open; further, they added that Anderson and Harris knew the existing circumstances and conditions that their conduct would likely result in injury.
The court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant (J.T), noted 1) Anderson signaled that the track was open by taking fees and releases, 2) Anderson knew that Harris had track grooming to complete, 3) the gate was open, 4) J.T. was not told the track was not open, 5) Harris saw people and motorcycles on the track, but continued to operate machinery on the track. The court ruled that there was evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer “wantonness;” thus the court denied Summary Judgment and sent the case to trial.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Christopher Schmid on Flickr.
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