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Law School Case Brief

Morgan v. State - 90 N.Y.2d 471, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421, 1997 N.Y. LEXIS 1400

Rule:

Assumption of risk is no longer treated as a defense to the abandoned contributory negligence equation. It still helps and serves to define the standard of care under which a defendant's duty is defined and circumscribed because assumption of risk in this form is really a principle of no duty, or no negligence and so denies the existence of any underlying cause of action. Without a breach of duty by the defendant, there is thus logically nothing to compare with any misconduct of the plaintiff. The analysis of care owed to plaintiff in the sporting event by a coparticipant and by the proprietor of the facility in which it takes place must be evaluated by considering the risks plaintiff assumed when he elected to participate in the event and how those assumed risks qualified defendants' duty to him. Another important counterweight to an undue interposition of the assumption of risk doctrine is that participants will not be deemed to have assumed the risks of reckless or intentional conduct or concealed or unreasonably increased risks.

Facts:

These were separate, consolidated cases filed relating to sports activities. Morgan was a bobsledder. Beck was a karate student. Chimerine was a tae kwon do student. Siegel was a tennis player. They all filed cases due to accidents experienced while engaged in their respective sports.

Morgan sustained severe physical injuries from an accident which occurred as he was driving a two-person bobsled during a national championship race. At the start of the second run, the bobsled tipped over due to a steering error by Morgan, which caused his teammate to fall out, the sled to become unstable and ride up onto the left wall of the exit run, and to crash into a concrete abutment. Morgan sued in the Court of Claims, claiming that the negligent design of the opening in the exit ramp was the proximate cause of his injuries. Defendant State of New York owns and operates the bobsled run through its Department of Environmental Conservation and the Olympic Regional Development Authority. The State asserted that Morgan had assumed the risks inherent in the dangerous bobsledding sport activity and was himself the proximate cause of the accident by his mishandling of the sled. The Court of Claims, after trial, held that the State was liable for Morgan's injuries and ordered a trial on damages. The Appellate Division modified on the law and facts and dismissed the claim.

Beck was injured while participating in a class at defendant's karate school. Beck was injured attempting to perform a "jump roll" tumbling technique over an obstacle. He had executed the tumble on prior occasions, but the obstacles had been set at a lower height than at the time of the accident and injury. He attempted a "jump roll," he landed awkwardly and suffered a spinal injury. Defendant instructor-owner moved for summary judgment to dismiss the ensuing action. Supreme Court granted the motion and the Appellate Division affirmed.

Chimerine injured her knee while attempting what is described as a "jumping" or "hopping" kick maneuver. The injury occurred during her fourth class at defendants' martial arts training school. She sued. Supreme Court granted defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

Siegel was 60-year-old plaintiff was injured when he tripped playing tennis at defendant Paerdegat Racquet Club. During a game, Siegel snagged his foot in a torn vinyl hem at the bottom of a net dividing the indoor tennis courts. The State moved for summary judgment. Supreme Court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint. The court held that by electing to play tennis on a court inescapably known for a long time to have a torn net, Siegel assumed a known risk that rendered his lawsuit susceptible to a defense motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Division affirmed.

Issue:

  1. Was the cause of Morgan’s accident inherent in bobsledding?
  2. Was the cause of Beck’s accident inherent in Karate?
  3. Was the cause of Chimerine’s accident inherent in Tae Kwon Do?
  4. Was the cause of Siegel’s accident inherent in tennis?

Answer:

1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Yes. 4. No.

Conclusion:

The Court ruled against the athletes except Siegel, reiterating that one who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of a thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contact with the ball. A different case would be here if the dangers inherent in the sport were obscure or unobserved, or so serious as to justify the belief that precautions of some kind must have been taken to avert them. The court held that with regard to sports activities, in assessing whether defendant violated a duty of care, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by defendants' negligence were unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers inherent in the sport.

Without a breach of duty by the defendant, there is thus logically nothing to compare with any misconduct of the plaintiff. Accordingly, the analysis of care owed to plaintiff in the sporting event by a coparticipant and by the proprietor of the facility in which it takes place must be evaluated by considering the risks plaintiff assumed when he elected to participate in the event and how those assumed risks qualified defendants' duty to him. This was particularly pertinent in the Beck, Chimerine and Morgan cases, but an important nuance distinguished the case of Siegel. The application of the assumption of risk doctrine in assessing the duty of care owed by a sporting facility required that plaintiffs have not only knowledge of the injury-causing defect but also appreciation of the resultant risk. Applying these standards, it held that Morgan’s accident was solely the result of factors inherent in a highly dangerous sport. It held that both Beck and Chimerine had assumed the risk when they performed certain maneuvers. It held, however, that summary judgment in the case of the tennis player was inappropriate, noting that he had been injured when he caught his foot in a torn net. A torn net, it concluded, was not automatically an inherent risk of sport as a matter of law, creating an issue as to whether the facility had a duty to keep it in good repair.

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