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Meistrich v. Casino Area Attractions, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence after Plaintiff fell and injured him self while ice-skating on Defendant’s rink. The jury found for Defendant and Plaintiff appealed. The appellate division reversed finding the trial court erred in giving its instruction regarding assumption of the risk. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Defendant’s petition for certification.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The affirmative defense of assumption of risk is directly linked to contributory negligence stated as whether a reasonably prudent man in the exercise of due care would have incurred a known risk, and whether he would have conducted himself in the manner in which plaintiff acted after appreciating such risk.

    Facts.

    While ice-skating on a rink operated by Casino Area Attractions, Inc. (Defendant), Meistrich (Plaintiff) injured himself after he fell. There was evidence that on the day of the incident Defendant had prepared the ice in a manner that made it too hard and too slippery. However, Plaintiff was aware that his skates slipped on turns and yet he remained on the ice and skated until he fell. Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence. After a jury trial, the court instructed the jury that if Plaintiff knew, or reasonably should have known of the risk or falling and becoming injured, then he assumed the risk and could not recover damages. The jury found for Defendant and Plaintiff appealed. The appellate division reversed finding the trial court erred in giving its instruction regarding assumption of the risk. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Defendant’s petition for certification.

    Issue.

    Whether the affirmative defense of assumption of risk is directly linked to contributory negligence.

    Held.

    Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is modified and affirmed. The affirmative defense of assumption of risk is directly linked to contributory negligence stated as whether a reasonably prudent man in the exercise of due care would have incurred a known risk, and whether he would have conducted himself in the manner in which plaintiff acted after appreciating such risk.

    Discussion.

    Assumption of the risk can take on several different meanings. In its “primary” sense, it is a statement that a defendant never owed a plaintiff a duty of care because it was agreed to through contract or otherwise formally waived and thus the plaintiff assumed the risk whether or not he was “at fault.” In its “secondary” sense, assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to an established breach of duty to a plaintiff. In this “secondary” sense, assumption of the risk is merely a form of contributory negligence, the total issue being whether a reasonably prudent man in the exercise of due care would have incurred the known risk and, if so, whether he would have proceeded with the risk in light of the surrounding circumstances. Thus, the case must be analyzed to determine whether 1) Defendant was negligent in preparing the ice for skating and 2) whether Plaintiff contributed to his injuries when he assumed the risk of falling after having knowledge of the ice’s conditions. If the former, then assumption of the risk is only a denial of breach of duty and the burden is on Plaintiff to prove Defendant’s negligence. If, however, assumption of the risk is advanced to defeat Plaintiff’s recovery despite a demonstrated breach of the Defendant’s duty, then it is the affirmative defense of contributory negligence and the burden of proof is on Defendant.


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