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Winterstein v. Wilcom

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiffs, Roland Winterstein (Winterstein) and his wife (Plaintiffs), was injured when his race car hit a cylinder head on the Defendant, Wilcom’s (Defendant) racetrack. Winterstein had signed a release assuming all risks of injury. Plaintiffs sued for negligence.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Releases whereby a party assumes the risk of an activity are generally valid so long as they do not violate public policy.

    Facts. Winterstein was injured when his vehicle hit a 36″ long, hundred pound cylinder head lying on a drag racetrack owned by the Defendant. Winterstein was participating in a race at the time of the accident for which he had paid an entry fee. Additionally, Winterstein had signed a release, assuming all risks of injury and releasing all others involved from liability. Defendant’s employees were stationed in a tower to watch for hazards on the track during the race, but negligently failed to do so. Winterstein brought a claim for personal injuries and his wife brought a claim for loss of consortium. The trial court dismissed both claims and Plaintiffs appealed.

    Issue. Was the trial court correct in determining that Defendant’s release was not void as a matter of public policy?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    * There is no public policy to prevent parties from contracting to cause plaintiff to undertake the responsibility to watch out for himself, so long as the parties bargaining is free and open. An exception to this rule is that it is against public policy to permit exculpatory agreements as to transactions involving the public interest. These include public utilities, common carriers and innkeepers. Exculpatory statements that are otherwise valid are not construed to cover wilful, wanton, reckless, or gross negligence or intentional torts. Also, it must appear that the terms were known to the plaintiff.
    * This Court’s inquiry turns to what transactions are affected with a public interest. These characteristics include businesses of a type suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public that seeks it and the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage in bargaining strength. The contract is generally one of adhesion and the person or property of the purchaser is usually placed under the control of the seller. Also, there is a growing tendency to disallow assumption of the risk when a safety statute for the protection of the public is violated.
    * In the present case, there was no evidence of a disadvantage in bargaining power and the Defendant’s business had none of the characteristics of a business affected with the public interest. Finally, no safety statute of this State was violated.

    Discussion. Court’s generally recognize contractual obligations and will only deem a contract void in exceptional circumstances.


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