A Wisconsin state appeals court has upheld a trial court’s ruling effectively dismissing the claims of a plaintiff, who sued the National Tractor Pullers Association and others after he was injured during a tractor pulling event in Ohio.
Key to the court’s ruling was its determination that, under Ohio law, the exculpatory and indemnification agreements that the plaintiff signed effectively barred his claims against the defendants.
The incident occurred when Walsh was competing in a tractor pulling competition in Fort Recovery, Ohio. Tractor pulling is a form of competition in which tractor operators test the pulling strength of their machines. Tractors are hitched to weighted sleds, and the tractor drivers attempt to pull the sleds a certain distance along a designated track. As the tractor hauls the sled down the track, the weight on the sled moves forward, creating more friction and making it harder for the tractor to pull the sled. Eventually, this process forces the tractor to a halt. The distance from the starting point to the point at which the front of the sled eventually rests is measured to determine a winner.
Walsh was operating his tractor, which had a sled that was owned by James Luedtke. During Walsh’s pull, the weight transfer system on Luedtke’s sled failed to properly move the required weight forward to increase friction and slow or stop the tractor’s forward movement, causing the tractor to lurch forward and crash into a cement barrier.
Prior to the event, Walsh had signed an annual NTPA vehicle registration and competition license application form that included a broadly worded “agreement of release.” By its terms, Walsh released the NTPA and other entities and individuals participating in sanctioned events from liability to him for personal injuries or property damage he might sustain “which in any way grows out of or results from any NTPA event activity or part thereof.” The agreement also included an indemnification and hold harmless provision regarding any loss or liability the releasees might incur as a result of Walsh’s participation in an NTPA event.
Just prior to the event, Walsh also signed a “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” Walsh testified that releases like this one are signed prior to entering specific events and that he read and understood its contents before signing the document. The court noted that, under its terms, any person signing the document agreed to:
“… RELEASE, WAIVE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE [all persons and entities associated with this event]… FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED… FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE, AND ANY CLAIM OR DEMANDS THEREFOR ON ACCOUNT OF INJURY TO THE PERSON OR PROPERTY… OF THE UNDERSIGNED ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.
“ … ASSUME FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY RISK OF BODILY INJURY, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE arising out of or related to the EVENT(S) whether caused by the NEGLIGENCE OF RELEASEES or otherwise.
“ … acknowledge that THE ACTIVITIES OF THE EVENT(S) ARE VERY DANGEROUS and involve the risk of serious injury and/or death and/or property damage.”
In addition, the agreement also contained an indemnity clause:
“[I] HEREBY AGREE TO INDEMNIFY AND SAVE AND HOLD HARMLESS the Releasees and each of them FROM ANY LOSS, LIABILITY, DAMAGE, OR COST they may incur arising out of or related to the EVENT(S) WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.”
Nevertheless, Walsh sued Luedtke, the NTPA, and others, citing negligence and reckless misconduct. He also alleged that all of the defendants “made untrue representations regarding compliance with safety rules and the performance of inspections, upon which he relied, and absent which he would not have participated in the tractor pull.”
The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the releases and indemnification agreements that the plaintiff had signed barred his claims. The defendants also argued that Walsh had assumed all the risks incident to the tractor pull, which, under Ohio law, barred his claims.
Wlash claimed specifically that the releases he signed do not bar him from pursuing claims against Luedtke because his actions rise to the level of willful or wanton misconduct. Specifically, he alleged that Luedtke entered his weight sled in the tractor pulling event knowing that its wheel brakes were not operating correctly.
The appeals court would have none of the argument, noting that, a month prior, Luedtke’s sled had passed an annual safety inspection mandated by the North American Sled Operators Association, which was required for an operator to receive a license to operate at NTPA events. The record further shows that Luedtke’s weight sled underwent a pre-event inspection.
Thus, the court disposed of the plaintiff’s argument: “There is no dispute of material fact that Luedtke did not engage in willful or wanton misconduct that would allow the Walshes to avoid the effect of the agreements under Ohio Law. Luedtke may well have been negligent in his operation or maintenance of the sled, as perhaps were Menn or other NTPA agents in failing to discover the allegedly defective wheel brakes prior to the Fort Recovery event. By executing the releases prior to the event, however, David Walsh expressly waived his right to press claims for injuries or damages incurred as a result of the defendants’ negligence.”
The court also found “no evidence that the defendants made intentional misrepresentations that induced Walsh into signing the exculpatory agreements.”
David Walsh et al. v. James A. Luedtke et al.; Ct. App. Wisc. Dist. 4; Appeal No. 2003AP2876; 8/25/05