When a Release May Not Be a Release
A professional race car driver named Charles Phelps signed both a “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” and a “Release and Waiver of Liability Assumption of the Risk and Indemnity Agreement” before entering a race at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Arizona. During the race, Phelps’ vehicle crashed and erupted into flames. He suffered serious burns and sued the Raceway alleging that their employees were negligent because they removed him from his vehicle too slowly and provided inadequate medical care.
In his suit against Firebird Raceway, Phelps argued that the Arizona Constitution requires a jury to decide the question of whether he assumed the risk by signing the waivers. He claimed, therefore, that his case should go to the jury to decide whether the Release he signed covered the alleged negligent acts of the Raceway. The Raceway’s position was that the provision of the Constitution only applied to an implied assumption of risk. The Raceway argued that the Release entitled them to judgment as a matter of law, no matter what negligence was claimed.
The trial court granted the Raceway’s motion for summary judgment and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the Release entitled the Raceway to judgment as a matter of law. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court concluded that the expansive language in the Constitution such as “in all cases whatsoever” and “at all times” indicates that the drafters intended to include all types of assumption of risk in its meanings.
This decision has important implications for companies who solicit releases or waivers of future liability. Summary Judgment cannot be granted solely on the existence of a waiver of liability signed by the plaintiff. Instead, when a release form is presented as a defense, the plaintiffs will always be able to submit their case to a jury to evaluate whether the conduct or condition that caused injury was part of the risk assumed by the plaintiff.
Thank you to Katie Adamson, Mesch Clark & Rothschild Law Clerk, for her assistance with this article.