People who run 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons and marathon races know they have to build up their endurance – both muscular and cardio – in order to run the race safely. Marathon races especially can be grueling, and it’s understood that to some extent, when one chooses to participate, they are accepting an inherent risk of possible physical injury or illness. However, that does not absolve organizers of these races and communities where they are held from ensuring medical help is promptly available to anyone who may have suffered an unexpected health consequence in the course of participation.
Recently, an appellate court in California ruled a San Francisco family will be allowed to pursue legal action against the race organizer of a half marathon for failure to provide a medical doctor, ambulance or emergency medical equipment at the finish line.
According to court records, the 31-year-old participant suffered cardiac arrest after finishing the 13.1-mile park run. Numerous bystanders, including several fellow participants with medical training (three city firefighters) hurried to his aid while awaiting life-saving equipment, stored in a tent nearby. However, some 45 minutes after his collapsed, the runner died.
His wife and their two children have sued a number of organizations connected to the race, including the organizer. Several entities settled prior to those cases moving to trial. However, the race organizer has fought any insinuation of liability, its strongest weapon in court being a waiver of liability, signed by all participants – including decedent – agreeing to accept the inherent dangers and risks of running a race and further to release the race organizer from any and all claims based on injuries suffered as a result of participation.
The trial court judge, however, declined to dismiss the case, saying the release did not cover alleged gross negligence in its failure to provide emergency medical assistance. Gross negligence in Florida is outlined in F.S. 768.72 and is one of the few grounds for right of action that can’t be signed away in a liability waiver – no matter what the language. To prove gross negligence in Florida, one needs to show defendant’s actions or inaction was so reckless and devoid of care it amounted to a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, rights and safety of persons exposed to it.
In this case, the First District Court of Appeal in California ruled the family could take its case to trial.
Plaintiffs in this wrongful death lawsuit alleged that there was no medical aid, and the court in a unanimous ruling held that if this fact were proven at trial, it would show an extreme departure from the reasonable standard of care for running events of this nature.
Justices found that the event organizer, by obtaining a permit from the city for an event that closed nearby streets and involves some 10,000 raisers they had made an express promise to provide medical personnel who were trained and prepared to handle medical emergencies at the finish line. This should have included at least:
- One medical doctor;
- Six EMTS (emergency medial technicians);
- An ambulance;
- An automatic external defibrillator (specifically used when someone suffers a heart attack).
Instead, according to the family, the only medical professionals at the finish line were a chiropractor and a chiropractor student. They weren’t even there when decedent collapsed. Two EMTS arrived some fie minutes later, but the ambulance was somewhere else on the track, with the crew attending to another runner suffering a medical emergency. The defibrillator, meanwhile, was some 200 yards away from the finish line and only made it there more than 10 minutes after decedent had collapsed.