When a Charity Sports Event Leads to Paralysis: Is the City of Philadelphia Protected by a Liability Waiver?
What can possibly go wrong when you sign away your right to sue for personal injuries sustained from participation in a charity sports event? An awful lot, as one partially paralyzed bicyclist has learned.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Anthony Degliomini, who suffered extensive injuries when he struck a sinkhole during the inaugural Phillies Charities Bike Ride near Citizens Bank Park in May 2015.
The accident happened when Degliomini, who was wearing his helmet, hit a sinkhole that measured 16 square feet and was 6 inches deep as he approached the finish line, according to news reports. He was thrown over his handlebars and landed on his head. In addition to his spinal cord injury, Degliomini was knocked unconscious, lost teeth and sustained multiple fractures. The sinkhole was large enough to be seen on satellite images in October 2014, months before the bike race.
Prior to the race, Degliomini had signed via e-signature a release stating that he assumed any and all risks associated with participating in the race, including “condition of the roads” and agreed not to sue the event’s sponsors and the City of Philadelphia for any personal injuries sustained.
He sued anyway.
Not surprisingly, the City of Philadelphia asserted that the signed release absolved it of liability, and the case proceeded to trial. After a five-day trial during which the trial court refused to allow the admission of evidence regarding the release, a jury returned a verdict of $3.2 million in favor of Degliomini. The City of Philadelphia sought post-trial relief from its share of the verdict based, in part, upon the signed release.
The trial judge wasn’t buying it. The judge, finding that the release would “contravene public policy,” wrote:
When the city attempted to transfer the risks to Mr. Degliomini it had no incentive to ensure safety for the charity bike ride by properly repairing the hole on Pattison Avenue and it abdicated its duty of care.
The City of Philadelphia appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, where, unfortunately for Degliomini, a three-judge panel unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling. The court rejected Degliomini’s public policy argument and agreed with the city that the release was valid and enforceable.
The matter will now be heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Last July, 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.
Valentino’s case wound its way through the court system for years, before finally arriving before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where the justices deadlocked 3-3 on the issue.
Because the justices could not reach a consensus, a 2016 Superior Court ruling finding that Valentino’s waiver barred his wife from suing was allowed to stand.
We said it before, and it bears repeating: Anyone who has participated in a physical activity ― a charity 5K, skiing, snowtubing, bungee jumping, sky diving, and many more ― has surely encountered a waiver form. We’ve all signed waivers of legal liability on the internet, with a simple mouse click, never giving it a second thought. Perhaps we are OK with sucking up a broken bone or other relatively minor injury without suing.
But catastrophic injuries are different, and surely Degliomini never contemplated that he would become partially paralyzed when he gave up his legal rights. We urge our readers to think before they click.
As always, we’ll keep you posted on all developments in this new case.