Your risk as a trip leader

• By Chris Bell

There have been times that trip leaders have expressed concern about potential liability if someone is hurt on an excursion. As a practical matter, the trip leader need not be concerned. However, there are always risks for the leader and this article is intended to acquaint you with those risks.

Mountain and rock climbing are inherently dangerous activities. Fortunately, the danger to the participant is so obvious that the Washington appellate courts have held that a person engaging in these activities assumes the risk of being injured. In other words, a person who is hurt has only herself or himself to look to for responsibility.

There may be exceptions to this general rule of non-liability for injury. If a trip leader purports to have expertise in the activity, provides the equipment, or represents to the participants a responsibility for their care and safety, then a special relationship has developed which may include a legal duty to provide for the safety of the participants. In this situation, if the leader fails to exercise the care reasonably expected of an experienced and knowledgeable mountaineer or rock climber, then the leader very well could be liable for injuries suffered by a participant. Also, anyone engaged in the activity who uses equipment known to be defective, or otherwise causes harm to another because of his or her negligent conduct while engaged in a dangerous activity, may be liable for the resulting harm.

It is my expectation that not just trip leaders, but anyone engaging in a dangerous activity, faces a potential risk of liability for injury to a companion as a result of the use of known defective equipment or the exercise of carelessness while engaging in the activity. If, for example, a belay person was eating a sandwich instead of holding the brake end of the rope and there was an unprotected fall, I anticipate that the belayer would be hard pressed to claim that he was not negligent and at fault for a resulting injury. However, this is simple common sense.

As a practical matter, there is probably little risk of liability to the organizer of a trip for injury to a person participating in the activity. In the PWC, a trip sponsor is simply providing participants the opportunity to join in the activity. Seattle Mountaineers take a very different approach for at least two obvious reasons. The Mountaineers have financial assets at risk, so that a lawsuit for damages could significantly affect the economic viability of that organization. Furthermore, the Mountaineers is a very large organization purporting to provide mountaineering expertise. That is why the Mountaineers have training programs before members are allowed to participate in certain of their activities. That is also why a release of liability is required to be signed by the participants in the more dangerous club activities.

The purpose of the release is not to alarm or cause concern to club members. Rather, it is intended to encourage people to continue being involved in organizing outdoor activities without fear of being a defendant in a lawsuit. It might also be of some interest to members of the club that homeowner’s insurance often covers liability for claims that could arise from mountaineering activities. Many insurance companies will provide coverage for the belayer who is sued because he or she was eating a sandwich while the climber is falling down the rock. Your insurance agent will be able to explain what is covered under a homeowner’s general liability policy. Most importantly, the PWC is a voluntary organization, which succeeds because members are willing to organize and lead trips. The continued willingness of members to organize these trips depends upon everyone’s accepting responsibility, and not relying upon someone else for their safety.