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Combs v. West Siloam Speedway Corp.

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division IV

April 25, 2017

CLINTON COMBS, Plaintiff/Appellant,

          Mandate Issued: 11/28/2016


          Shawn Daniels, HARE, WYNN, NEWELL & NEWTON, LLP, Fayetteville, Arkansas, for Plaintiff/Appellant

          Grant A. Fitz, Ryan D. Ensley, Alexandria N. Temple, RODOLF & TODD, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendants/Appellees


         ¶1 This case arises from injuries sustained by Plaintiff/Appellant Clinton Combs (Combs) while in the infield area of an automobile racetrack. [1] Combs asserts in his petition that one of the race car drivers "lost control" of his vehicle which then "came into the infield area where [Combs] was located, " causing him injury. Combs appeals from the trial court's "Journal Entry of Judgment" granting the motion for summary judgment of Defendants/Appellees West Siloam Speedway Corporation, Rick Magnuson, Julie Magnuson, Joey Vaughn, and Ed Nunn (collectively, Defendants). Combs asserts in the Petition-in-Error on appeal that, among other things, the exculpatory agreement he signed upon entering the infield area of the racetrack, which he describes as a mere sign-in sheet, is not valid or enforceable as a release of liability. Based on our review of the record, we affirm.


         ¶2 In his petition, Combs alleges that on September 11, 2010, he was struck by a race car while in the infield area of the West Siloam Speedway (hereafter, the entire racetrack facility will be referred to as "the Speedway"). He alleges Defendant Nunn, who was driving the race car, was negligent "in failing to maintain control of his vehicle after it left the speedway track." He further alleges that Defendant West Siloam Speedway Corporation "was negligent in the design, and setup of the track, including without limitation, [failing] to have barriers put up that would prevent vehicles from entering the infield causing injury to unsuspecting parties." Similarly, Combs alleges that Defendants Julie and Rick Magnuson and Joey Vaughn "were negligent, including without limitation, in failing to have barriers set up to prevent out of control vehicles from entering the infield, and for allowing personnel to work in the infield area." Combs also asserts that he was injured as a result of the "recklessness" of Defendants and that Defendants' "actions and/or omissions... were of such a nature so as to constitute conduct evidencing reckless disregard for the rights of others, and in particular [Combs][.]"

         ¶3 Defendants admit that Combs, while in the infield area of the Speedway, was struck by the race car operated by Defendant Nunn. However, Defendants deny any liability for the accident. Indeed, in April 2015, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asserting they "are entitled to summary judgment on the basis that [Combs] not only signed a release barring any and all negligence claims against Defendants, but also because [Combs] assumed the risk by voluntarily participating in the speedway activities."

         ¶4 Combs, in his response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, admits that on September 11, 2010, he "volunteered to help in the infield area of [the Speedway] in exchange for a waiver of his admission fee, " but he asserts he was really "there [in the infield area] just to watch the races" with his five-year old son. Combs further admits he signed what Defendants describe as "the Release" prior to entering the infield area on September 11, 2010, but he asserts this document merely constituted, and was entitled, a "Staff Sign in" sheet, and he asserts the document "does not specifically release" any of the Defendants.

         ¶5 As stated above, the trial court granted summary judgment to Defendants. Combs appeals.


         ¶6 The review standard for the grant of summary judgment is de novo. Wood v. Mercedes-Benz of Okla. City, 2014 OK 68, ¶ 4, 336 P.3d 457. "Although a trial court in making a decision on whether summary judgment is appropriate considers factual matters, the ultimate decision turns on purely legal determinations, i.e. whether one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there are no material disputed factual questions." Carmichael v. Beller, 1996 OK 48, ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051. "[T]he mere contention that facts exist or might exist is not sufficient to withstand summary judgment. The party responding to a motion for summary judgment has an obligation to present something which shows that when the date of trial arrives, he will have some proof to support his allegations." Davis v. Leitner, 1989 OK 146, ¶ 12, 782 P.2d 924 (footnotes omitted).


          I. Release of Liability for Ordinary Negligence

         ¶7 "The Oklahoma Supreme Court has long recognized that exculpatory contracts, i.e., a contract to avoid liability for damages also known as a 'waiver' or 'release, ' may be valid and enforceable." Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, ¶ 6, 956 P.2d 156 (citations omitted). The Manning Court stated:

so long as (1) the intent to excuse one party from the consequences of his or her own negligence is expressed in clear, definite and unambiguous language, (2) the agreement was made at arm's length with no vast disparity of bargaining power between the parties, and (3) the exculpation is not contrary to statute or public policy, such a waiver or release from liability is valid and enforceable.

Id. (citations omitted).

         ¶8 In setting forth these precepts, the Manning Court relied primarily on Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, 912 P.2d 871. It is useful to set forth the Oklahoma Supreme Court's precise language in Schmidt pertaining to this issue:

While these exculpatory promise-based obligations are generally enforceable, they are distasteful to the law. For a validity test the exculpatory clause must pass a gauntlet of judicially-crafted hurdles: (1) their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages; (2) at the time the contract (containing the clause) was executed there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between the parties; and (3) enforcement of these clauses must never (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual rights vis-à-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy.

Schmidt, ¶ 8 (footnotes omitted). The Supreme Court further stated that such a clause "will never avail to relieve a party from liability for intentional, willful or fraudulent acts or gross, wanton negligence." Id. ¶ 9 (footnote omitted).

         ¶9 As to the first hurdle, the Supreme Court explained that

both the identity of the tortfeasor to be released and the nature of the wrongful act -- for which liability is sought to be imposed -- must have been foreseen by, and fall fairly within the contemplation of, the parties. The clause must also identify the type and extent of damages covered -- including those to occur in futuro.

Id. ¶ 10 (footnotes omitted). As to this first hurdle, we find instructive and in harmony with Schmidt the explanation given by the Supreme Court ...

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