The Fine Print: What Do Race Waivers Protect?

You have to complete one before every race. Here’s how triathlon race waivers have fared in court.

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You have to complete one before every race. Here’s how triathlon race waivers have fared in court.

Race waivers “are intended to protect race directors and event sponsors from being sued in the event of accidental injuries, loss of life or even theft of a competitor’s property,” says Robert Garnier, an age-group triathlete and a partner at the law firm of Garnier & Garnier P.C. in Herndon, Va. Athletes are required to sign waivers before participating in any endurance event, including triathlons.

But race waivers are not airtight documents. In fact, the validity of such waivers varies from state to state. “In Virginia, for example, for reasons of public policy, pre-injury liability waivers for a race sponsor’s negligence typically are not enforceable,” Garnier says. Here, we look at three court cases involving triathlon race waivers with different outcomes.

Garnier first refers to a 1992 case of a triathlete who was paralyzed during a triathlon in Northern Virginia after striking his head on a hard object beneath the surface of a lake. Even though the man had signed a form that was meant to release the race organizer from liability for personal injuries, a court ultimately decided that the waiver was invalid—citing a previous case in Virginia which said that public policy doesn’t allow contracts that put people at the mercy of someone else’s misconduct.

A recent case, the drowning death of Derek Valentino in the 2010 Philadelphia Triathlon, put waivers under further scrutiny. Filed by Valentino’s wife, Michele, the lawsuit called into question the matter of whether a family member can sue for damages if a participant dies or is injured during a triathlon. While lower courts initially ruled that Valentino was not completely barred from bringing suit, in November, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that she could not advance her lawsuit against the event organizers. (The decision is now being appealed.)

In her suit, Michele Valentino claimed that the Philadelphia Triathlon race organizers didn’t have enough safety measures, including properly trained lifeguards, in place when her husband slipped beneath the Schuylkill River and disappeared. However, the judge ruled that, upon signing his race waiver, Mr. Valentino “intelligently and willingly assumed the risk of participating in the triathlon.”

Jay Peluso, an attorney and the national race director for Revolution3 Triathlon says that the success of lawsuits like these all come down to one thing: gross negligence. That is, reckless, intentional conduct—say, failing to provide enough aid stations along the course—as opposed to a careless mistake. “The language in all waivers basically states that the participant’s family can’t sue for standard negligence as the assumption of the risk language in the waiver does cover that,” he says. ”But waivers do not protect race directors from gross negligence.”

In a 2002 ruling over the death of Gary Taylor, a triathlete killed after colliding with a car on the bike course in the Greater Blacksburg Triathlon in Virginia, a jury found the race director and the town of Blacksburg negligent in organizing the race after failing to properly police the roads. The jury awarded Taylor’s family $500,000 in damages. (Incidentally, the driver of the car who struck Taylor also received $350,000 upon her own negligence claims that race director failed to warn passing motorists of the ongoing race.)

While the chances of your needing to seek legal action after a triathlon are slim, it’s still good to arm yourself with knowledge of your rights—and those of your family. “While such waivers are written in a way to protect race organizers and discourage participants from suing, it’s not always so cut and dry,” says Garnier. “As a matter of public policy and issues of fairness, a race event’s liability waiver simply may not be effective in some states or under some circumstances.”

What’s in Your Waiver?

Extreme weather? Stolen property? Potholes in the road? Most waivers cover it all—and then some. Here are a few of the less-than-obvious areas some agreements entail.

Don’t Show Up Drunk. USA Triathlon—the governing body of the sport—provides waivers for all of the events it sanctions. Within it is a clause indicating that participants cannot be “under the influence of alcohol or any illicit or prescription drugs which would in any way impair my ability to safely participate in the race, clinics and training.”

Make Sure Your Bike Fits—and Works. Participants registering for the Coris Triathlon in Oak Brook, Illinois must verify they aren’t using an “ill-fitting or defective bicycle.”

Police on Strike? Don’t Expect A Refund. USAT counts strikes and work stoppage among its reasons to cancel, delay or modify an event without recourse. Other factors include terrorism, fire, public disaster and acts of God.

Look out for Sharks. The waiver for the notoriously tough Dolphin Club Escape From Alcatraz triathlon warns participants of hazards including potential run-ins with sharks and other sea life.

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