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Wright v. Sony Pictures Entertainment

February 24, 2005

WILL WRIGHT PLAINTIFF,
v.
SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Will Wright ("plaintiff" or"Wright") brings this action against defendant Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. ("defendant" or"Sony") for injuries allegedly suffered by plaintiff while participating as a contestant in the game show"Wheel of Fortune." Presently before the Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment on the ground that under District of Columbia law plaintiff waived any and all claims for personal injury against defendant when he executed the"Contestant Release Form" prior to his participation in the game show. Plaintiff responds that under Virginia law, if it applies to this action, there is a public policy forbidding waivers of personal injury claims. For the reasons that follow, this Court will grant in part and deny in part defendant's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND*fn1

The instant action is based on events that occurred at the October 14, 2000, taping of the game show"Wheel of Fortune" at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Compl. at 1. The show is not normally taped in the D.C. metropolitan area, but was on a tour of United States cities at the time of the events at issue. Pl. Dep. at 19. As part of that tour, the show recruited local residents from the area to participate as contestants, using radio advertisements. Id.

Plaintiff, in response to a"Wheel of Fortune" radio advertisement, attended an audition at Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C. Id. The first audition involved a few questions to the participants and a small stage simulating the show's set. Pl. Dep. at 19. After the audition (or at it), plaintiff was asked to return for a second audition to be held at a hotel in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 2000. Pl. Dep. at 19-22. After the second audition, plaintiff received a call on Thursday, October 12, 2000, at his home in Virginia from an individual with the"Wheel of Fortune" letting him know that he had been selected to be a contestant on the show. Pl. Dep. at 27. Plaintiff was told the taping of the show would occur in two days, on October 14, 2000, at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Pl. Dep. at 27.

On the morning of the show, plaintiff arrived at Constitutional Hall, along with other contestants. Pl. Dep. at 27-28. Prior to the show, plaintiff met with several individuals associated with production. These individuals, whose names and positions are not provided in the record, gave plaintiff some documents to review and sign. Pl. Dep. at 25-26, 31, 34. Among those documents were the "Certificate of Wheel of Fortune Contestant," Pl. Dep. at 24, and the"Contestant Release Form: Wheel of Fortune," which plaintiff has stated he read and signed prior to participating as a contestant. Pl. Dep. at 25-26.

The Contestant Release Form is an eight-page, single-spaced document that covered a variety of topics, from whether the contestant was affiliated with any of the organizations producing the show to whether plaintiff was a candidate for federal office. Pl. Dep., Ex. 3. Paragraph 31 of the form, on page 7, was one of four paragraphs printed in all capital letters. Id. Paragraph 31 advised the contestants that they were waiving their rights to bring any claims against defendant for damages arising out of"participation on the program or from use of any prize." Id. This section of the form continued that"Wheel of Fortune" would not be responsible for any personal articles lost by contestants during the show. Id. Next, the paragraph contains the operative section for defendant's motion for summary judgment:

I AGREE THAT I WILL NOT BRING OR BE A PARTY TO ANY LEGAL ACTION OR CLAIM AGAINST THE RELEASED PARTIES, BASED UPON OR ARISING OUT OF MY PARTICIPATION ON THE PROGRAM OR IN ANY WAY RELATED TO THE PROGRAM, OR ANY EXPLOITATION OF THE PROGRAM, ON ANY LEGAL THEORY (INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, PERSONAL INJURY....)

Pl. Dep. Ex. 3, at 7.

During the show, plaintiff was the winning contestant. Pl. Dep. at 39-40. After plaintiff won, the show's host, Pat Sajak, approached plaintiff, at which time plaintiff believed that Sajak was coming over to give him a congratulatory handshake. Id. at 40. Plaintiff put out his hand to shake Sajak's hand, but instead of extending his arm, Sajak"jumped up on [plaintiff]." Id. at 41. Sajak then proceeded to wrap his arms around plaintiff's chest and his legs around plaintiff's waist and then"kind of like bounced." Pl. Dep. at 40-41.

Shortly after the show ended, while plaintiff was walking with his family, he perceived a sharp pain in his lower back. Id. at 41-43. As a result of this injury, which plaintiff attributes to the actions of Sajak, plaintiff suffered medical expenses, id. at 63, and mental anguish, Compl. at 2-3.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that"there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by"informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)).

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the"mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322."If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at ...


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