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UPDATE: Triathlete Who Died in Schuylkill River Signed Away His Wife’s Right to Sue

In 2017, we blogged about Derek Valentino, a married, 40-year-old father of two, who drowned in the Schuylkill River in 2010 while participating in a triathlon in Philadelphia. Valentino had signed a waiver assuming all risks of participating in the event. But his wife, who did not sign the waiver, tried to sue the triathlon organizers for wrongful death, claiming that they failed to create a safe event course with properly trained staff and equipment.

For years, the case wound its way through the Pennsylvania court system. In 2013, the trial court dismissed the wife’s case. Then, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided in 2015 that the wife was not bound by the release and could proceed with her lawsuit. In 2016, the full Superior Court found the waiver did, in fact, bind the wife and barred her from suing. Then, the wife appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Nine years after Valentino’s death, his wife finally got the final answer as to whether her husband’s signed waiver of liability ― which was required for him to participate in the triathlon ― precludes her from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit. Unfortunately, it was not the answer she had hoped for.

Supreme Court Deadlock

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court settled the issue on June 18, in a deadlocked 3-3 decision.

Justices Kevin M. Dougherty, Christine Donohue, and Sallie Updyke Mundy found that waiver is unenforceable and that the wife could press forward with her lawsuit. Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Max Baer and Debra Todd reached the opposite conclusion. Justice David N. Wecht did not participate in the case.

Because the justices could not reach a consensus, the 2016 Superior Court ruling finding that the husband’s waiver barred his wife from suing will stand.

Conclusion

When we blogged about this case in 2017, we queried whether those “pesky legal forms that no one reads” ― which we sign without thinking with a simple mouse click ― should bind family members, who are not signatories, but who experience the ultimate loss.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court just said yes, they should to a widow and her two children.

We urge our readers to be guided accordingly.