Court Denies BYU’s Bid to Dismiss Negligence Suit

Apr 11, 2008

A federal judge has denied Brigham Young University’s motion for summary judgment in a case where it was sued for negligence in connection with a student athlete’s weight-lifting accident.
The court found specifically that questions of fact remained regarding the accident and whether the university was insulated from liability
Plaintiff Rachel Mason was a Junior attending BYU as a member of its swim team in 2003 when she injured her back while exercising in the weight room. Since then, Mason has undergone four back surgeries.
On September 29, 2006, she sued, claiming negligence. On October 24, 2006, the school answered, asserting affirmative defenses that Mason’s injuries and damages were caused by third parties and that if there was any liability it must be determined in accordance with Utah comparative fault statutes considering “the conduct of all persons who contributed to such injury.”
BYU subsequently moved for summary judgment on the following basis:
• BYU owed no duty to “exercise ordinary care in protecting from risks inherent in collegiate athletics.”
• There is a lack of evidence that any applicable standard of care was breached.
• Mason “contractually agreed” to limit BYU’s financial responsibility for her injuries.
• Mason’s claims for future medical and insurance expenses are barred under the theory of double recovery because they were covered by an existing BYU insurance policy.
The court addressed each argument individually.
Regarding the first, “The Court finds that Mason has met her burden of identifying specific material facts relating to the duty of care prong of negligence, including, but not limited to, whether Mason’s injury was a risk inherent in collegiate swimming or weight training conditioning. In this regard, the Court finds unpersuasive BYU’s argument that to find any duty of care on the disputed facts viewed in light most favorable to Mason would change the law in a way that would ‘chill’ college athletics.
“On BYU’s second contention, the Court finds that Mason has met her burden of identifying specific facts sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in her favor that the standard of care was breached. Accordingly, BYU’s motion for summary judgment on negligence must be denied.
“BYU next argues that Mason ‘contractually agreed’ to limit BYU’s financial responsibility for her injuries to a three-year limit by a document that BYU is now asserting is a release of claims.”
The Court found the document in question to be “ambiguous,” citing the following reasons:
“The document is not entitled a release but is confusingly entitled ‘Injury and Liability Report;’ it requires, but does not contain, a signature of a BYU representative.
“It contains representations that are not correct as to student athletes such as Mason because BYU now says student athletes have lifetime insurance coverage for injuries sustained during official team activities through a very recently disclosed $20 million dollar policy.”
Furthermore, the plaintiff has produced evidence “regarding the nature and meaning of the ambiguous document: it was submitted to her as merely a document required to obtain an MRI; BYU does not require a release of any claim as a prerequisite for its student athlete’s obtaining access to medical care; and BYU admits that its athletic director on behalf of the school administration committed to Mason that BYU would cover her medical expenses related to her injury with no time limit. Based on this evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Mason, a reasonable jury could find that the document was not a release.”
The plaintiff has also produced the following evidence suggesting that “the document may be void as against public policy: student athletes such as Mason were required to go through BYU to schedule and obtain medical treatment for injuries alleged to have occurred in connection with their athletic programs, and the document was presented to Mason as a prerequisite for having BYU pay for the MRI she was having that day.
“As Mason has met her burden of coming forward with evidence raising material issues of fact on BYU’s position that her claims are barred by a release, summary judgment on that issue must be denied.”
Addressing BYU’s last reason to dismiss the case, that Mason’s claims are barred under the theory of double recovery, the court concluded that there are issues of fact regarding “the effect of the insurance coverage,” given that it was “recently discovered” and that “the individual designated by BYU as the person familiar with the policy did not have full information regarding the policy at the time of his deposition.”
Rachael Ann Mason v. Brigham Young University, a Utah corporation; D. Utah, Case No. 2:06-CV-826 TS, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7771; 2/1/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) J. Wayne Turley, LEAD ATTORNEY, SALEM, UT. (for defendant) Robert S. Clark, LEAD ATTORNEY, Darren K. Nelson, PARR WADDOUPS BROWN GEE, & LOVELESS, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.


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