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Monday, March 10, 2008
Chicago Marathon Study

During the recent Sports and Recreation Law Association conference, I presented a paper on the legal and risk management issues involving last year's LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon. The race, run under unusually warm weather in Chicago, resulted in the cancellation of the race after one entrant died and hundreds were taken to hospitals. [To read my prior blog on the race click here; to see videos on YouTube, click here and here]

I became intrigued for personal as well as professional reasons. I have run a number of long distance races (often at the back of the pack) and have long considered whether the preparation done by the organizers are adequate to ensure an efficient and reasonably safe race.

As far as liability is concerned, most litigation is precluded by tort and contract law limitations. Assumption of risk is a venerable tort concept that creates a defense to negligence cases because the participant, by voluntarily entering the event, assumes all reasonable risks of injury which in a marathon include many factors, such as physical difficulty, running surface and the weather. Assumptions of risk can also be created under contract, through a waiver agreement or an agreement to participate. It is a rule of thumb that any athletic event organizer who markets a competition open to the public includes such agreements, which tend to broadly disclaim liability to the organizers, sponsors and municipalities (or facility owners) for negligence. Most states do not recognize a waiver of all liability (meaning for intentional or reckless acts), but uphold assumption of risk clauses against negligence claims.

But what happens when difficulties in the race are partially caused by the event coordination itself? Before answering this question, I wanted to find out more about the recollections of the runners involved in the race. I put together a questionnaire and e-mailed it to running clubs across the United States and to specific runners that I identified through news articles and YouTube videos. The questions included:

Did the weather forecasters predict such a hot and humid day or did the weather exceed their predictions in both temperature and humidity?

When did you find (if you found) water and Gatorade lacking? At what mile? Did the race have (or supposedly have) water stops every mile?

Did you see runners in distress? At what point?

In some of the videos I saw, there seemed to be efforts by others (firefighters, e.g.) to spray water on the runners or have makeshift areas. Did you see anything like that?

Did you see ambulances? How were the paramedics able to take the injured runners out of harms way?

How would you rate how well the organizers handled the situation? If you can, please explain the basis for the rating.

–a. In initial preparations?
–b. Water supplies?
–c. First aid?
–d. Organizational skills to cope with an unexpected event?

When did you hear that the race was canceled? What was your reaction?

Did the people who announced the cancellation tell runners what they should do and not do?

Some interviewees said that runners were taking a large number of cups of water, which contributed to the shortages for the runners toward the rear. Do you think that was true?

If you have run other marathons, what do you think could have been done differently?

Do you know if anyone (e.g. a law firm) contacted you regarding the proposed class action?

Many of the runners I contacted criticized organizers for lack of adequate amount of liquids (although they increased the water supply based on the weather forecast and took other measures like more emergency vehicles and misting stations) and for a perceived breakdown in organization after the race was cancelled. A number of respondents were confused as to what to do and some claimed that promised transportation did not arrive. However, only one of the 40 plus runners I surveyed welcomed the idea of a lawsuit. Most said that the organizers distributed warnings about the heat. A number of respondents suggested that the race should have started earlier and some were incensed by the comments of the race director that seemed to blame runners for taking too much water. And most of the respondents agreed that the race should have been cancelled. The runners who were most affected by the logistical problems were those who tended to be slower or novice runners.

Although there is a paucity of cases involving lawsuits against marathon organizers, I did find one case that concluded that an assumption of risk clause did not preclude a lawsuit against marathon organizers where lack of water and electrolytes occurred during the race. The California appellate court in Saffro v. Elite Racing, 98 Cal. App. 4th 173 119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497 (2002) ruled that the trial court's summary judgment ruling was reversed.

I would be happy to send my presentation to anyone interested. E-mail me at


If your running in a Marathon they should supply you with the proper needs just like any other sporting event. If they don't have enough water supplies they shouldn't be hosting a race.

Anonymous Sports Artist -- 6/11/2008 3:43 PM  

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