The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has written the ending chapter of a bike race accident case stretching back to May of 2015. The finale is a lesson in caution. Municipalities cannot rely on releases alone in hosting, allowing or condoning third party events on municipal property (including roads).
In Degliomini v. City of Philadelphia, a cyclist in a 20-mile charity bike ride through the City was injured after he crashed. The Supreme Court’s recitation attributes the accident to an unmarked and unbarricaded pothole/sinkhole along the course. The depression was 16 square feet and 6 inches deep. The defense disagreed, noting that plaintiff signed a waiver before the event, passed the pace car against instructions, and there was no firm evidence to establish that he in fact hit that pothole.
The defense theories were ultimately rejected, however, with the jury awarding plaintiff more than $3,000,000 after only a few hours of deliberation.
But what about the release?!
Placing the blame primarily with the City (90%), the Trial Court held that the signed release was not effective because the pothole pre-dated the signed release (by several months) and it was not specifically mentioned in it. Instead, the Court held that the City had an obligation to maintain its roads in a safe condition under the City’s Home Rule Charter, which could not be released, and attributed a lion’s share of the blame to it. Municipal official eyebrows collectively raised.
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed that decision. It reinstated the release in holding it valid, analogizing it to any other common law duty of reasonable care (both against municipalities and not). It took the spin that the release was a private agreement between the rider and the various entities (including the City); that he was under no obligation to sign it or participate; and that it was a private event on public roads, placing the City in the same position as any other private landowner. Municipal officials sighed in relief.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed, throwing a wrench into those gears. It reinstated the Trial Court’s earlier ruling and restored the judgment against the City (albeit modified per the statutory cap). While the Supremes observed that pre-injury releases from ordinary negligence are generally not against public policy, it held that such a doctrine is inapplicable in situations where the released party has a “duty of public service.” Here, the Court equated the exceptions under the Tort Claims Act immunity provision for dangerous conditions of a street to an affirmative statutory duty of public service to do so, with the obligation to make them “reasonably safe for their intended purpose.” That includes, per the Court, any activities for which it could reasonably foreseen to be used. That is, a charity bike race that the City approved. The Court also highlighted the City’s Home Rule Charter, which noted its power and duty to repair and maintain the streets.
This decision highlights the need to treat these requests with more than a passing mention. The commendable efforts to raise money for a worthy cause do not cast aside the due diligence in preparing for the events. As with any public event, municipal staff, elected officials and event organizers need to assure themselves that: the roads/facilities are inspected before the event; appropriate repairs or warning signs are installed to suit the event; that the release by participants is appropriately worded to afford maximum municipal protection; that the event organizer indemnifies the municipality; and that adequate plans for the management of the event have been submitted, reviewed and approved. In other words, no longer an easy ride through the park.
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