Supreme Court Defines Primary Assumption Of Risk

In 1992, the California Supreme Court solved the ambiguity in the aftermath of Li v. Yellow Cab (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804 when it issued two decisions in the companion cases of Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal. 4th 296, and Ford v. Gouin (1992) 3 Cal. 4th 339. In those cases, the Court confirmed that the doctrine of implied assumption of risk was, indeed, still alive and well following the Li v. Yellow Cab decision, and announced the rule that: "In cases involving 'primary assumption of risk'--where, by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties' relationship to the activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury--the doctrine continues to operate as a complete bar to the plaintiff's recovery."

The so called, "sixty-four thousand dollar" question is what activities are subject to this doctrine - just what activities involve primary assumption of risk. Well, in Knight v. Jewett, the court held that the nature of a defendant's duty in a sports context depends heavily on the nature of the sport itself and the scope of duty owed by a particular defendant depends on that defendant's role in, or relationship to, the sport.

In Knight v. Jewett, the defendant was a participant in an active sport (a touch football game), so the question there was under what circumstances a participant can be held liable for an injury sustained by another participant. The rule announced by the court was that in the context of co participants in active sporting events, there is no liability by one participant to another unless he intentionally injures another player or engages in reckless conduct that is totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.

There, the court found that the declarations submitted on summary judgment motion as to the details of the touch football game which turned rough, showed conduct that, although negligent, did not amount to conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in a touch football game.

In the companion case, Ford v. Gouin, the court applied the same doctrine to hold the driver of a ski boat was not liable for injuries to a skier he was towing when the boat got too close to the shore and the skier was taken out by an overhanging tree limb. The court clarified that these same rules applied whether the sport was competitive (as in touch football) or cooperative (as in waterskiing), and since the driver did not intentionally injure the skier and his driving was not so reckless as to be outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport, there was no duty of care and the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied to bar any liability.

What the Supreme Court left open for another day was whether this same analysis applied to less active sports, such as golf and archery, and what the analysis would be with respect to defendants who were not co-participants.