Risk of injury pervades the modern world, and plaintiffs should not win a lawsuit simply because they took a risk and lost. The law provides, therefore, that when a person knowingly takes a risk, he or she must suffer the consequences.
The assumption of risk doctrine comes up in three ways. The plaintiff may have formally agreed with the defendant before entering a risky situation that he will relieve the defendant of liability should injury occur. (“You can borrow my car if you agree not to sue me if the brakes fail, because they’re worn and I haven’t had a chance to replace them.”) Or the plaintiff may have entered into a relationship with the defendant knowing that the defendant is not in a position to protect him from known risks (the fan who is hit by a line drive in a ballpark). Or the plaintiff may act in the face of a risky situation known in advance to have been created by the defendant’s negligence (failure to leave, while there was an opportunity to do so, such as getting into an automobile when the driver is known to be drunk).
The difficulty in many cases is to determine the dividing line between subjectivity and objectivity. If the plaintiff had no actual knowledge of the risk, he cannot be held to have assumed it. On the other hand, it is easy to claim that you did not appreciate the danger, and the courts will apply an objective standard of community knowledge (a “but you should have known” test) in many situations. When the plaintiff has no real alternative, however, assumption of risk fails as a defense (e.g., a landlord who negligently fails to light the exit to the street cannot claim that his tenants assumed the risk of using it).
At the turn of the century, courts applied assumption of risk in industrial cases to bar relief to workers injured on the job. They were said to assume the risk of dangerous conditions or equipment. This rule has been abolished by workers’ compensation statutes in most states.