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In construing a standardized contract, an appellate court is to effectuate the reasonable expectations of the average member of the public who accepts it.
Norman Haines owned a Stanton sprint car and wished to race it at the St. Charles Speedway of St. Charles, Missouri, on April 26, 1986. Although he hired Mike Thurman to drive the car, Haines desired to enter the infield portion of the Speedway in order to aid in preparing for the race. As he stood in line, waiting with others to enter the infield, Haines was presented with and signed a document entitled "Release and Waiver of Liability and Indemnity Agreement." All those who entered the infield were required to sign this form. Haines, who has a second or third grade reading ability, signed the document without reading it, as he had done many times before. At no point did he ask his wife Barbara, who was an official of the Midwest Racing Association, or anyone else to explain the significance of the release. Some time after gaining access to the infield, Haines asked that his sprint car be started. During this process, which entailed using a separate auto to push-start the racing car, Haines was struck by his own car and injured. Haines sued the St. Charles Speedway, Inc. and Bob Wente, the promoter of the event at which Haines was injured. Haines alleged that they were negligent in permitting an inexperienced driver to operate the push car, in constructing and maintaining the speedway, and in failing to warn him of the dangers presented by the speedway. Norman Haines claimed for damages arising from his injury; his wife Barbara asserted loss of consortium. The district court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, holding that the release signed by Haines exculpated the Speedway and Wente from any liability that they may have incurred as a consequence of their alleged negligence.
Did the document signed by Haines invalidate his claim for liability on the part of defendants?
The district court fully considered the circumstances surrounding the execution of the release. Aware of Haines' claim that he possessed only a second or third grade reading ability, the court stated that, "If Norman Haines is functionally illiterate, it was his duty to procure someone to read or explain the release to him before signing it." In response to Haines' argument that he was "pressured" into signing the release, the district court observed that Haines did not produce any fact establishing that the execution of the release was a product of duress. Indeed, Norman Haines stated in deposition that he has been involved in racing since 1952, and during that time has owned some 13 sprint cars. In 1954, Haines discontinued participating in racing events as a driver when he started to raise a family. He admits to doing so because of the dangerousness of the sport. He also admits to witnessing, in the past, crashed automobiles roll to the infield portions of the tracks. While we are sensitive to the circumstances now facing Norman Haines, he doubtlessly knew that the sport placed risks on both participants and spectators. Although Haines could have withdrawn from his hobby at any time, he did not do so.