New Maryland Assumption of the Risk Opinion

The Maryland Court of Appeals issued an interesting opinion last week on Maryland’s assumption of the risk doctrine in American Powerlifting Association v. Cotillo.

The Plaintiff, a Prince George’s County police officer, was seriously injured in a power lifting contest at Patuxent High School in Calvert County, Maryland. He brought a negligence claim in Calvert County against the American Powerlifting Association and the Calvert County Board of Education. Essentially, the Plaintiff claimed that his injuries could have been prevented by the two Patuxent High School students who spotted the Plaintiff during his effort to bench press 530 pounds. A Calvert County Circuit Court judge granted the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the Plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed on all counts except the negligence claim grounded in allegations of improper preparatory instruction of the spotter. The court’s reasoning was that the Plaintiff did not know the spotters were improperly trained, and because their improper training presented an enhanced risk not normally incidental to power lifting, Plaintiff could not have assumed the risk.

The Maryland Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the assumption of the risk doctrine barred all of Plaintiff’s claims, because any person of normal intelligence knows or should know that one of the risks inherent in powerlifting is that the bar may fall and injure the participant.
The Plaintiff’s first response was that even if Plaintiff did assume the risks inherent to the sport, that the causation of his injury was created by the spotters’ alleged negligence. The court found that this analysis was misguided, because it focused on the wrong risk. The Maryland Court of Appeals found that the risk analysis hinges on the immediate cause of injury. In this case they found the cause of injury to be his failure to lift the weight successfully. Accordingly, the relevant question was whether the Plaintiff assumed the risk of injury when he tried to lift a 530 pound weight.

The Plaintiff also made an argument that resonated with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals: the spotters’ improper training created an enhanced risk that is not normally incident to powerlifting. The court rejected this argument, because allegations of mere negligence are not enough; under Maryland law, the enhanced risk doctrine does not apply unless the conduct is reckless or intentional.

Our courts, like almost every court around the country, look to put a lid on standard negligence claims in the participant sports context for practical reasons: a flood of suits would follow, many against uninsured defendants. Many jurisdictions have heightened standards for participant sports injuries, at least in contact sports, requiring wanton, reckless or intentional conduct to bring a cause of action. Maryland does not have such a law: we bundle participant sports problems and deliver them at the doorstep of assumption of the risk. The problem this causes is that the assumption of the risk doctrine becomes broader than it should be. Now, this same law will be applied to non-participant sports cases.

You are probably not surprised that I disagree with the notion of an enhanced negligence standard in contact participant sports cases in the first instance. One of the main tenets of this theory is that everything happens so quickly in contact sports – it is so “bang bang” that it is hard to avoid negligence. But imputed into the reasonable man paradigm is that fact that everything does happen so quickly. Would a reasonable prudent person have done the act given the fact that everything happened so quickly? Does it make sense that the Plaintiff cannot recover in this case even if it is found that his injury would not have occurred but for the negligence of someone else? If someone has to bear the loss of these injuries, in this case $30,000 in medical bills according the a Maryland Daily Record, wouldn’t it make more sense for that burden to be assumed the negligent party as opposed to the injury victim? A unanimous Maryland Court of Appeals says no.

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