Dare v. Freefall Adventures, Inc., 349 N.J. Super. 205; 793 A.2d 125; 2002 N.J. Super. LEXIS 155

Dare v. Freefall Adventures, Inc., 349 N.J. Super. 205; 793 A.2d 125; 2002 N.J. Super. LEXIS 155

Joseph Dare and Patricia Dare, his Wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Freefall Adventures, Inc., John Ed-Dowes, Warren Acron and Eric Keith Johnson, Defendants-Respondents. Joseph Dare and Patricia Dare, his Wife, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Freefall Adventures, Inc., and John Eddowes, Defendants-Appellants, Warren Acorn and eric Keith Johnson, Defendants.

A-2629-00T1, A-2789-00T1

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY, APPELLATE DIVISION

349 N.J. Super. 205; 793 A.2d 125; 2002 N.J. Super. LEXIS 155

February 4, 2002, Argued

March 21, 2002, Decided

COUNSEL: Stephen Cristal, argued the cause for Joseph and Patricia Dare, appellants in A-2629-00T1 and respondents in A-2789-00T1 (Mark J. Molz, attorney; Mr. Cristal, on the brief).

Kelly Johnson, argued the cause for Freefall Adventures, Inc. and John Eddowes, respondents in A-2629-00T1 and appellants in A-2789-00T1 (Ms. Johnson, on the brief).

Vincent J. Pancari, argued the cause for respondent Eric K. Johnson in A-2629-00T1 (Kavesh, Pancari, Tedesco & Pancari, attorneys; Robert Pancari, on the brief).

JUDGES: Before Judges HAVEY, COBURN and WEISSBARD. The opinion of the court was delivered by HAVEY, P.J.A.D.

OPINION BY: HAVEY

OPINION

[**127] [*209] The opinion of the court was delivered by

[**128] HAVEY, P.J.A.D.

Plaintiff Joseph Dare was injured in a skydiving accident when he attempted to avoid colliding with defendant Eric Keith Johnson, a co-participant in the jump. 1 Prior to the jump, plaintiff signed a release/waiver agreement with the operator of the skydiving facility, defendant Freefall Adventures, Inc. (Freefall), under [*210] hich plaintiff released [***2] Freefall from any claims for injuries arising from Freefall’s negligence. The agreement further provided that, in the event plaintiff instituted a suit against Freefall, plaintiff agreed to pay Freefall’s counsel fees incurred in defending the suit. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants dismissing plaintiffs’ personal injury action. The court concluded that plaintiffs failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence. 2 It also dismissed Freefall’s counterclaim in which it demanded counsel fees in accordance with the release/waiver agreement, as well as the Frivolous Claims Statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1, and Rule 1:4-8.

1 Two appeals, A-2629-00T1, filed by plaintiffs, and A-2789-00T1, filed by defendants Freefall and John Eddowes, have been consolidated for purpose of this opinion.

2 Plaintiff Patricia Dare, Joseph’s wife, filed a per quod claim.

We conclude that the recklessness standard applied to Johnson and the ordinary negligence standard [***3] applied to Freefall, and, based on the evidentiary material submitted, see Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 666 A.2d 146 (1995), summary judgment was properly granted to all defendants. We further hold that the fee-shifting provision under the release/waiver agreement signed by plaintiff is void as against public policy, and that Freefall is not entitled to counsel fees under the Frivolous Claims Statute. We therefore affirm dismissal of Freefall’s counterclaim.

Considering the evidentiary material in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, id. at 523, 666 A.2d 146, these are the facts. On July 9, 1995, plaintiff Joseph Dare, a licensed and experienced skydiver, having jumped on 137 prior occasions, utilized the skydiving facilities operated by Freefall 3 in Williamstown, Gloucester County. Plaintiff had been using the Freefall facility for over two years and nearly every week for the six months preceding his accident.

3 Freefall refers also to defendant John Eddowes, part owner of Freefall, and defendant Warren Acorn who, according to plaintiffs’ complaint, was a Freefall employee.

[***4] Prior to his jump on July 9, 1995, plaintiff executed a five-page “Waiver of Rights, Release and Indemnity Agreement” which [*211] defined the risks of injury or death associated with skydiving.

Page 3 of the waiver provided:

1. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE . . . FREEFALL . . . from any and all liability, claims, demands or causes of action that I may hereinafter have for injuries and damages arising out of my participation in parachuting activities.

2. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR MAKE CLAIM against [Freefall] for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in parachuting activities. . . . I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD [Freefall] HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in connection with any action brought as a result of my participation in parachuting activities. . . .

Page 4 provided:

2. EXEMPTION FROM LIABILITY. [Plaintiff] . . . releases [Freefall] [**129] . . . from any and all liability . . . arising out of any . . . injury to [plaintiff] . . . while participating in any of the activities contemplated by this AGREEMENT . . . whether such . . . injury results [***5] from the negligence of [Freefall] . . . .

3. COVENANT NOT TO SUE. [Plaintiff] agrees never to institute any suit or action at law or otherwise against [Freefall], its owners, officers, agents, employees, servants, or lessors . . . by reason of injury to [plaintiff] . . . arising from the activities contemplated by this AGREEMENT. . . .

[Emphasis added.]

A second “Agreement and Release,” signed by plaintiff, in favor of Cross Keys Airport, Inc. and Freefall stated:

5. REIMBURSEMENT FOR LEGAL FEES AND EXPENSES. The [plaintiff] expressly agrees and covenants to fully reimburse [Freefall] for all legal costs and reasonable counsel fees . . . paid by [Freefall], for the . . . defense of any and all actions or cause of action or claim or demand for damages whatsoever, which may hereafter arise or be instituted or recovered against [Freefall], by the [plaintiff] . . . regardless of any negligence on the part of [Freefall] . . . .

[Emphasis added.]

On the day of the jump, plaintiff was accompanied by defendant Eric Johnson, another licensed and experienced skydiver, in the airplane transporting the divers to the drop [***6] zone. Johnson jumped first, followed by plaintiff. Plaintiff claims that he was injured because he was required to make an emergency turn during his descent in order to avoid colliding with Johnson. In his certification, plaintiff states:

Defendant Johnson [was] skydiving in a reckless manner; he was far outside the [landing] pattern, he was too low to the ground over the airplane runway. It was reckless of him to be that close to the runway at that altitude. It is one of the [*212] most basic rules of skydiving that you cannot land on or near a runway. Defendant Johnson was essentially being a “hot-dog,” which is inappropriate.

Because Defendant Johnson was so far outside the [landing] pattern, he had to recklessly cut across wind back toward the drop zone, and in doing so was heading right into [plaintiff’s] path of travel. Had [plaintiff] not maneuvered, [they] would have collided. In trying to avoid the collision, [plaintiff] maneuvered quickly, which caused [plaintiff] to fall down to the ground.

In his deposition plaintiff stated that during his descent the closest he came to Johnson was between 150 and 175 feet. He further acknowledged that since Johnson jumped first, [***7] Johnson had the right of way. 4 Plaintiff also admitted that prior to the jump he had arranged with his wife to have her photograph him during his jump. According to defendants, this plan required plaintiff to steer his flight toward a concession trailer operated by his wife, which was surrounded by buildings and other dangerous obstacles. Defendants argue that plaintiff’s sudden diversion from this path was necessary to avoid striking the buildings near his wife’s trailer.

4 [HN1] The United States Parachute Association, Skydiver’s Information Manual § 4.19F (1995), provides:

Right-of-way: The lower person has the right of way, both in freefall and under canopy. The higher person should always yield to anyone below. It is important to avoid collisions at all costs.

[**130] [HN2] The New Jersey Department of Transportation regulates parachuting centers in order “to foster, control, supervise and regulate sport parachuting. . . .” N.J.A.C. 16:58-1.2. The pertinent rules require participants to meet various training and licensing [***8] standards before parachuting, and define the manner and place where a jumper should exit the aircraft. However, the regulations do not impose any express duties upon the operator of the skydiving facility or define the standard controlling a skydiver’s conduct during his descent. See N.J.A.C. 16:58-1.1 to -3.1. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has appointed the United States Parachuting Association (USPA) to oversee the sport of parachuting. The USPA promulgates rules which: (1) require licensing; (2) prohibit jumps into hazardous areas and the use of [*213] alcoholic beverages and drugs; and (3) establish standards regarding canopy control, maneuvering and landing. See Skydiver’s Information Manual, supra, at § 4.06C(1); § 4.19; § 4.20D and § 4.23. Otherwise, skydiving is a self-regulated industry.

I

In granting summary judgment in favor of Johnson, the trial court concluded that even under the negligence, rather than the recklessness, standard, see Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494, 643 A.2d 600 (1994), plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a prima facie case. The court stated:

The facts basically are that this defendant, Johnson, exited the [***9] airplane prior to [plaintiff] exiting the airplane. At the time . . . just before the accident, the plaintiff indicates that the closest he got to Mr. Johnson was between 150 and 175 feet which is half a football field away. Everyone concedes that the person lowest–closest to the ground has the right-of-way. Clearly, [plaintiff] was altering his drop pattern to some extent. His observation was that he thought Johnson was closer to the runway than he should have been, but that does not appear to me to be any proximate cause at all.

I frankly don’t see how reasonable men could differ on this even giving all of the necessary inferences to the plaintiff for this particular motion. I think I am compelled to grant the summary judgment in favor of this defendant. Given the fact that there is no expert to give us any guidance with respect to any other standard of care, even applying a basic standard of care in a negligence matter, I just can’t see how [Johnson] could have contributed to this accident at all.

We are satisfied that plaintiffs had the burden of proving that Johnson’s conduct was reckless, rather than negligent. In Crawn, a case involving an injury during an informal [***10] softball game, the Court held that [HN3] “the duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.” Id. at 497, 643 A.2d 600. The Court’s determination was grounded on two policy considerations; the promotion of vigorous participation in athletic activities, and the avoidance of a flood of litigation generated by voluntary participation in games and sports. Id. at 501, 643 A.2d 600. The Court added:

[HN4] Our conclusion that a recklessness standard is the appropriate one to apply in the sports context is founded on more than a concern for a court’s ability to discern [*214] adequately what constitutes reasonable conduct under the highly varied circumstances of informal sports activity. The heightened standard will more likely result in affixing liability for conduct that is clearly unreasonable and [**131] unacceptable from the perspective of those engaged in the sport yet leaving free from the supervision of the law the risk-laden conduct that is inherent in sports and more often than not assumed to be “part of the game.”

[Id. at 508, 643 A.2d 600 (emphasis added).]

Since Crawn, the recklessness [***11] standard of care has been applied to other informal sports activities. See, e.g., Obert v. Baratta, 321 N.J. Super. 356, 729 A.2d 50 (App.Div.1999) (applying recklessness standard when softball player sued teammate for injuries sustained as a result of teammate’s pursuit of fly ball during informal intra-office game); Calhanas v. South Amboy Roller Rink, 292 N.J. Super. 513, 679 A.2d 185 (App.Div.1996) (applying recklessness standard where roller skater suffered broken leg from collision with another skater). In Schick v. Ferolito, 167 N.J. 7, 767 A.2d 962 (2001), where a golfer was struck by an errant tee-shot, the Court expanded the Crawn holding to “all recreational sports,” whether perceived as “contact” or “noncontact” activities. Id. at 18, 767 A.2d 962. The Court observed that:

The applicability of the heightened standard of care for causes of action for personal injuries occurring in recreational sports should not depend on which sport is involved and whether it is commonly perceived as a “contact” or “noncontact” sport. The recklessness or intentional conduct standard of care articulated in Crawn was [***12] not meant to be applied in a crabbed fashion. That standard represented the enunciation of a more modern approach to our common law in actions for personal injuries that generally occur during recreational sporting activities.

[Id. at 18-19, 767 A.2d 962]

[HN5] Skydiving is a popular, “risk-laden” recreational sport. Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 508, 643 A.2d 600. Therefore, there is no basis in fact or law to conclude that the recklessness standard under Crawn is inapplicable. Moreover, Crawn’s policy underpinnings clearly apply. As in recreational softball games or golf, it would hardly promote “vigorous participation” in the activity if skydivers were exposed to lawsuits when their mere negligence during descent caused an injury to a co-participant. Further, application of the simple negligence standard may invite a floodgate of [*215] litigation generated by voluntary participation in the activity. Id.136 N.J. at 501, 643 A.2d 600.

Even considering plaintiffs’ proofs most indulgently, we conclude that plaintiffs fail to meet the recklessness standard. [HN6] Reckless behavior entails highly unreasonable conduct, involving “an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger [***13] is apparent.” Schick, supra, 167 N.J. at 19, 767 A.2d 962 (citing Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 34, at 214 (5th Ed.1984)). “The standard is objective and may be proven by showing that a defendant ‘proceeded in disregard of a high and excessive degree of danger either known to him [or her] or apparent to a reasonable person in his [or her] position.'” Ibid. “Recklessness, unlike negligence, requires a conscious choice of a course of action, with knowledge or a reason to know that it will create serious danger to others.” Schick, supra, 167 N.J. at 20, 767 A.2d 962.

It is undisputed that Johnson, who jumped first, had the right-of-way during the descent and, according to skydiving standards, plaintiff had a duty to yield if, as plaintiff claims, Johnson altered his course. In addition, plaintiff was never closer than 150 to 175 feet to Johnson during the descent. Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate how, considering such a distance, Johnson “‘proceeded in disregard of a [**132] high and excessive degree of danger'” to plaintiff. Id. 167 N.J. at 19, 767 A.2d 962.

Moreover, unlike the applicable standard of care governing an informal softball game, where expert testimony is not required, [***14] Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 508-09, 643 A.2d 600, skydiving requires the training and licensing of participants. According to the record, it involves knowledge and conduct peculiar to the activity, including an understanding of wind direction and velocity, proper diver spacing, control of descent, and avoidance of ground hazards. The trial court correctly determined that because of the complexities and variables involved in applying pertinent skydiving guidelines, expert testimony was necessary to establish what standard of care applied to Johnson, and how he deviated from that [*216] standard. See Butler v. Acme Markets, Inc., 89 N.J. 270, 283, 445 A.2d 1141 (1982) [HN7] (expert testimony is necessary when the subject matter “is so esoteric that jurors . . . cannot form a valid judgment as to whether the conduct of the party was reasonable”); see also Giantonnio v. Taccard, 291 N.J. Super. 31, 43-44, 676 A.2d 1110 (App.Div.1996) (holding that expert testimony was required to establish the standard of care in the safe conduct of a funeral procession). Plaintiffs presented no such expert testimony, despite the opportunity to do so. In the circumstances, summary judgment was properly granted in [***15] favor of Johnson.

II

Plaintiffs next argue that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Freefall, contending that fact issues exist as to whether Freefall maintained and operated a reasonably safe skydiving facility. Freefall contends that Crawn’s recklessness standard applies.

Plaintiffs submitted certifications stating that Freefall: (1) exercised no control over the “reckless” behavior of skydivers using the facility; (2) permitted the consumption of drugs and alcohol by skydivers; (3) did not conform to applicable skydiving standards of care; and (4) established a drop zone that was not in conformance with industry standards.

We first reject Freefall’s argument that the recklessness standard applies. The Crawn/Schick recklessness standard was imposed in the context of claims arising out of injuries caused by a co-participant in the sports activity. Here, the question is what duty of care is owed by the operator of a facility where the injury occurred. Since Crawn, we have addressed this distinction.

For example, in Underwood v. Atlantic City Racing Ass’n, 295 N.J. Super. 335, 685 A.2d 40 (App.Div.1996), certif. denied, [***16] 149 N.J. 140, 693 A.2d 110 (1997), we held that the Crawn standard did not apply where a jockey was injured during a race because plaintiff’s theory was that the accident occurred as a result of the [*217] negligent installation of lighting by the racetrack, a condition that was not “inherent in sports and . . . not assumed to be ‘part of the game.'” Id. at 343, 685 A.2d 40 (quoting Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 508, 643 A.2d 600).

Similarly, in Rosania v. Carmona, 308 N.J. Super. 365, 367, 706 A.2d 191 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 609, 713 A.2d 500 (1998), we concluded that the recklessness standard did not apply where a karate (dojo) student was injured by an instructor, holding that:

in this commercial setting, the jury should have been charged that defendants owed a duty to patrons of the dojo not to increase the risks inherent in the sport of karate under the rules a reasonable student would have expected to be in effect at that dojo . . . . the jury [**133] should have been charged that the correct scope of duty owed by the expert instructor and the academy was one of due care . . . .

[Id. at 368, 706 A.2d 191 (emphasis added).]

Thus, the [***17] question for the jury was whether the risks inherent in the karate match between plaintiff and his instructor “were materially increased beyond those reasonably anticipated,” applying “the ordinary duty owed to business invitees. . . .” Id. at 374, 706 A.2d 191.

Finally, in Schneider v. Am. Hockey & Ice Skating Ctr., Inc., 342 N.J. Super. 527, 777 A.2d 380 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 387, 788 A.2d 722 (2001), we held that the owner of a sports facility owed a “limited” duty to protect spectators from flying hockey pucks by providing secure seats for those spectators who request them, and also to screen any seats “that pose an unduly high risk of injury. . . .” Id. 342 N.J. Super. at 534, 777 A.2d 380. We concluded that imposition of this limited duty was “indirectly” supported by Crawn’s observation that [HN8] “‘the risk of injury is a common and inherent aspect of informal sports activity'” and “‘participants . . . assume the ordinary risks of those activities.'” Id. at 535, 777 A.2d 380 (quoting Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 500-01, 643 A.2d 600). We added:

[HN9] Although the operator of a sports facility is subject to a standard of care based on negligence rather than the recklessness [***18] standard applicable to participants in recreational sporting activities, McLaughlin [v. Rova Farms, Inc.], supra, 56 N.J. [288] at 303-04, 266 A.2d 284, it is appropriate in defining a sports facility [*218] operator’s duty of care to consider that any spectators choose to “assume the ordinary risks” of being struck by a flying ball or puck in order to obtain an unobstructed view of the playing field and that these are “common and inherent” risks of attending a baseball or hockey game. Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 500-01, 643 A.2d 600.

[Schneider, supra, 342 N.J. Super. at 535, 777 A.2d 380 (emphasis added).]

Consequently, the question here was whether, under the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, considering the nature of the risks associated with skydiving and the foreseeability of injury, Kuzmicz v. Ivy Hill Park Apartments, Inc., 147 N.J. 510, 515, 688 A.2d 1018 (1997), plaintiff’s risk of injury was materially increased beyond those reasonably anticipated by skydiving participants as a result of the manner by which Freefall operated its facility. Rosania, supra, 308 N.J. Super. at 374, 706 A.2d 191. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate such a material increase [***19] in risk.

There was absolutely no evidence presented that Freefall failed to supervise the divers on the day of plaintiff’s accident. The record established that the loading of the aircraft, its operation, and the jumps themselves, were uneventful. Nothing suggests that Freefall personnel knew or should have known that plaintiff, or any other diver, was in peril because of the conduct of other participants. Moreover, Freefall had no way of controlling plaintiff’s, Johnson’s, or any other jumper’s maneuvering of their parachute canopies during the descent. Both plaintiff and Johnson were trained and licensed skydivers. It is undisputed that [HN10] once airborne, it was their duty alone to proceed with due care.

Further, no competent proof of drug abuse was presented; plaintiff conceded that he knew of no incident of drug use on the day in question. Also, John Eddowes, owner of Freefall, testified that his facility adhered to the industry’s “eight hour rule,” prohibiting consumption of alcohol within eight hours of a jump. Johnson [**134] testified that he complied with this rule, and there was no other evidence presented that Freefall personnel knew or should have known that Johnson or other jumpers [***20] had not complied with it. Although plaintiff stated that he smelled alcohol while on the aircraft, he was unable to say from whom the odor emanated. [*219] Moreover, there was no showing of how, even if alcohol had been consumed, that fact contributed to plaintiff’s accident. Tellingly, plaintiff opted to jump notwithstanding his alleged awareness of alcohol consumption.

Finally, plaintiffs claimed that Freefall’s drop zone was not in accordance with regulatory minimum size requirements. But no evidence, expert or otherwise, was presented to establish: (1) how, and to what degree, Freefall’s drop zone was not in compliance with industry standards; and (2) if the drop zone was substandard, how this deficiency was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. Indeed, it is undisputed that Freefall’s facility was licensed and inspected by the Department of Transportation, and the facility was never cited for the size or condition of the drop zone. We conclude that summary judgment was properly granted in Freefall’s favor.

III

In its separate appeal, Freefall argues that the trial court erred in dismissing its counterclaim demanding counsel fees due it under the release/waiver signed by plaintiff. [***21] Alternatively, Freefall claims that counsel fees should have been awarded to it pursuant to the Frivolous Claims Statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1, and the court rule governing frivolous actions. R. 1:4-8.

As noted, prior to his jump plaintiff signed an agreement releasing Freefall from any liability in the event plaintiff is injured, even if the injury was a result of Freefall’s own negligence. Moreover, the agreement had a fee-shifting provision, requiring plaintiff to pay Freefall’s counsel fees in the event plaintiff instituted suit seeking damages. The trial court found it unnecessary to address the enforceability of the release/waiver agreement, since, as it observed during Freefall’s motion for reconsideration, the sole “issue was whether or not [plaintiffs’] claim was frivolous.” In concluding that Freefall failed to make a viable claim under the Frivolous Claims Statute, the court underscored [*220] New Jersey’s public policy “to afford litigants an opportunity to have access to the courts.”

[HN11] In New Jersey, disclaimers or limitations of liability are not favored. Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 373, 161 A.2d 69 (1960). [***22] Nevertheless, courts in other jurisdictions have upheld exculpatory contracts signed by participants in skydiving or parachuting. See e.g., Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc., 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 59 Cal. Rptr.2d 813 (Cal.App.1996); Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court, 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 29 Cal. Rptr.2d 177 (Cal.App.1993); Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Ctr., 168 Cal. App. 3d 333, 214 Cal. Rptr. 194 (Cal.App.1985); Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781 (Colo.1989); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo.1981). Other cases hold that such releases are void as to a claim of gross negligence or willful or wanton conduct. See e.g., In re Pacific Adventures, Inc., 27 F. Supp. 2d 1223 (D.Haw.1998); Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 730 (D.Haw.1993); Falkner v. Hinckley Parachute Ctr., Inc., 178 Ill. App. 3d 597, 533 N.E.2d 941, 127 Ill. Dec. 859 (1989).

Although New Jersey courts have not addressed release/waiver agreements in the context of skydiving, we have considered the effect of such agreements in other sporting activities. For example, we have observed [***23] that a release from liability for injuries arising from ski injuries in an application to become a member of a condominium [**135] association, may be void as against public policy because of its adhesive nature, and further because the release cannot relieve the owner of the ski resort from its statutory duty of care under N.J.S.A. 5:13-3a. Brough v. Hidden Valley, Inc., 312 N.J. Super. 139, 155, 711 A.2d 382 (App.Div.1998). But see McBride v. Minstar Inc., 283 N.J. Super. 471, 486, 662 A.2d 592 (LawDiv.1994), aff’d 283 N.J. Super. 422, 662 A.2d 567 (App.Div.) , certif. denied, 143 N.J. 319, 670 A.2d 1061 (1995) (upholding an exculpatory clause as part of an agreement to purchase ski equipment, because, in part, the release does not undermine a statutory duty of care or contravene public policy).

[*221] In McCarthy v. Nat. Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 87 N.J. Super. 442, 449-50, 209 A.2d 668 (LawDiv.1965), aff’d, 90 N.J. Super. 574, 218 A.2d 871 (App.Div.) , certif. granted, 47 N.J. 421, 221 A.2d 221 (1966), aff’d, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967), the Law Division determined that [***24] a release in NASCAR’s favor was void because NASCAR’s obligation to inspect plaintiff’s vehicle was a “positive duty” imposed by New Jersey’s statutory law. See also Chemical Bank of New Jersey Nat. Ass’n v. Bailey, 296 N.J. Super. 515, 527, 687 A.2d 316 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 150 N.J. 28, 695 A.2d 671 (1997) (holding that while an exculpatory clause in a private contract may limit liability, courts will not enforce such a clause “if the party benefitting from exculpation is subject to a positive duty imposed by law or . . . if exculpation of the party would adversely affect the public interest”).

In this case, we need not decide whether, under the agreement signed by plaintiff, he waived his right to sue Freefall, since we have affirmed the summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs’ suit on substantive grounds. However, we must determine whether the contractual fee-shifting provision under the agreement is enforceable.

[HN12] “New Jersey has a strong policy disfavoring shifting of attorneys’ fees.” North Bergen Rex Transp., Inc. v. Trailer Leasing Co., 158 N.J. 561, 569, 730 A.2d 843 (1999). We adhere to the “American rule” that “‘the prevailing [***25] litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys’ fee from the loser.'” Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 322, 661 A.2d 1202 (1995) (quoting Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc’y, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 1616, 44 L. Ed. 2d 141, 147 (1975)). Thus, our Supreme Court’s basic approach has been “‘that sound judicial administration is best advanced if litigants bear their own counsel fees.'” Satellite Gateway Communications, Inc. v. Musi Dining Car Co., Inc., 110 N.J. 280, 285, 540 A.2d 1267 (1988) (quoting State of New Jersey, Dep’t of Envtl. Prot. v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 473, 504, 468 A.2d 150 (1983)).

[*222] Nevertheless, New Jersey law permits parties to a contract to shift liability for attorneys’ fees. See Cohen v. Fair Lawn Dairies, Inc., 86 N.J. Super. 206, 214-16, 206 A.2d 585 (App.Div.), certif. granted, 44 N.J. 412, 209 A.2d 145 aff’d, 44 N.J. 450, 210 A.2d 73 (1965). “However, even where attorney-fee shifting is controlled by contractual provisions, courts will strictly construe that provision in light of the general policy disfavoring the award of attorneys’ [***26] fees.” North Bergen Rex Transp., Inc., supra, 158 N.J. at 570, 730 A.2d 843. Notably, New Jersey cases which uphold enforcement of such fee-shifting provisions generally involve breach of agreements entered into in the commercial setting, such as leases, sale of goods, construction contracts and promissory notes. See Hatch v. T & L Assocs., 319 N.J. Super. 644, 648, 726 A.2d 308 (App.Div.1999) (promissory note); [**136] McGuire v. City of Jersey City, 125 N.J. 310, 327, 593 A.2d 309 (1991) (lease); Glenfed Fin. Corp. v. Penick Corp., 276 N.J. Super. 163, 182-83, 647 A.2d 852 (App.Div.1994) (loan agreement), certif. denied, 139 N.J. 442, 655 A.2d 444 (1995); Specialized Med. Sys., Inc. v. Lemmerling, 252 N.J. Super. 180, 185-86, 599 A.2d 578 (App.Div.1991) (sale of goods), certif. granted, 127 N.J. 565, 606 A.2d 375, app. dism. 142 N.J. 443, 663 A.2d 1352 (1992). Freefall has cited no New Jersey case holding that a fee-shifting provision as part of a waiver or release given in a sports activity is enforceable.

Essentially, the fee-shifting clause in Freefall’s release/waiver may be construed as an indemnification agreement, [***27] whereby plaintiff has agreed to pay counsel fees incurred by Freefall in defending plaintiffs’ suit, even if the cause of plaintiff’s injuries was Freefall’s own negligence. Such agreements, of course, must also be strictly construed against the indemnitee. Ramos v. Browning Ferris Indus. of So. Jersey, Inc., 103 N.J. 177, 191, 510 A.2d 1152 (1986). Nevertheless, we have held “that [HN13] ‘there is no essential public policy impediment to an indemnitor undertaking to indemnify the indemnitee in respect of the indemnitee’s own negligence.'” Leitao v. Damon G. Douglas Co., 301 N.J. Super. 187, 192, 693 A.2d 1209 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 151 N.J. 466, [*223] 700 A.2d 879 (1997) (quoting Doloughty v. Blanchard Constr. Co., 139 N.J. Super. 110, 116, 352 A.2d 613 (Law Div. 1976)). However, this public policy statement has generally been applied in the context of indemnification clauses under construction contracts. See Leitao, supra, 301 N.J. Super. at 192-93, 693 A.2d 1209, and cases cited therein. That principle is derived “from the judicial recognition that ordinarily the financial responsibility for the risk of injury during the course of a construction [***28] project is shifted in any event by the primary parties to their insurance carriers. . . .” Doloughty, supra, 139 N.J. Super. at 116, 352 A.2d 613.

Against this backdrop, we conclude that the fee-shifting provision in Freefall’s agreement is void as against public policy. It obviously runs counter to our strong policy disfavoring fee shifting of attorneys’ fees. Clearly, it discourages the average recreational participant from seeking the refuge of our courts for fear that he may face the retribution of a substantial legal fee if he does so. [HN14] It is one thing to hold a party to a fee-shifting provision in a contract negotiated in a commercial setting; it is another when an amateur sports participant is asked to agree to such a provision shortly before he engages in the activity. The deterrent effect of enforcing such a fee-shifting agreement offends our strong policy favoring an injured party’s right to seek compensation when it is alleged that the injury was caused by the tortious conduct of another.

Also significant is the fact that both the FAA and New Jersey’s Department of Transportation have recognized that skydiving is a high-risk sport. By regulating the activity, the agencies have [***29] made it a matter of public interest that skydiving facilities be licensed and that agency oversight is necessary to assure that the facilities be operated in a safe and compliant manner. To allow an operator to recoup its counsel fees when, as here, the injured party claims that the operator deviated from those regulations, obviously runs counter to that sound policy. See McCarthy, supra, 87 N.J. Super. at 448-49, 209 A.2d 668 [HN15] (although an immunity [*224] clause may be enforceable if it does not contravene public policy, “[t]he situation becomes entirely different in the eyes of the law when the legislation in question is, as here, [**137] legislation obviously intended for the protection of human life. In such event, public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him”).

IV

We reject Freefall’s argument that the trial court erred in denying its application for counsel fees under the Frivolous Claims Statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1, and Rule 1:4-8. We cannot say that plaintiffs’ complaint was filed in bad faith or that plaintiffs knew or should have known that their complaint was without reasonable basis in law or [***30] equity, and could not be supported by a good faith argument under existing law. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1b(1) and 59.1b(2). See also McKeown-Brand v. Trump Castle Hotel & Casino, 132 N.J. 546, 548-49, 626 A.2d 425 (1993). In our view, the validity of the release/waiver agreement signed by plaintiff was at least debatable. See McCarthy, supra, 87 N.J. Super. at 446-47, 209 A.2d 668. Furthermore, because the negligence, rather than recklessness, standard applied to Freefall, plaintiffs’ theory based on purported violations of industry standards, though not factually supported, cannot be deemed frivolous. Finally, although we agree with the trial court that ultimately expert testimony was necessary to establish a case against Freefall, that question was at least open to debate when plaintiffs filed their complaint. See Crawn, supra, 136 N.J. at 508-10, 643 A.2d 600 (holding that plaintiff was not required to produce expert testimony to establish tortious conduct of a co-participant in an informal softball game).

Affirmed.


Wilson v. United States of America, 989 F.2d 953; 1993 U.S. App. LEXIS 6165

Wilson v. United States of America, 989 F.2d 953; 1993 U.S. App. LEXIS 6165

Mark D. Wilson; Janet L. Wilson, Appellants, v. United States of America; The Boy Scouts of America, Appellees. Mark D. Wilson; Janet L. Wilson, Plaintiffs, v. The Boy Scouts of America, Defendants. Jason S. Harbian; Michael Harbian; Sharon Harbian; Daniel R. Winfrey, a Minor, by Susan Crump, his Mother and Next Friend, and; Susan Crump, Appellants, v. United States of America; The Boy Scouts of America, Appellees.

No. 92-1438, No. 92-3363

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

989 F.2d 953; 1993 U.S. App. LEXIS 6165

September 18, 1992, Submitted

March 29, 1993, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [**1] Rehearing Denied May 10, 1993, Reported at: 1993 U.S. App. LEXIS 10903.

PRIOR HISTORY: Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. District No. 89-1696-C-7. Jean C. Hamilton, U.S. District Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: For MARK D. WILSON, JANET L. WILSON, Plaintiffs – Appellants: Alan E. DeWoskin, 314-727-6330, Suite 426, 225 S. Meramec Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63105.

For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant – Appellee: Joseph Moore, Asst. U.S. Attorney, 314-539-3280, U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, 1114 Market Street, St. Louis, MO 63101. Robert William Cockerham, BROWN & JAMES, 705 Olive Street, Suite 1100, St. Louis, MO 63101, 314-421-3400. For BOY SCOUTS, OF AMERICA, Defendants – Appellees: Russell F. Watters, Robert William Cockerham, Thomas Michael Ward, BROWN & JAMES, 705 Olive Street, Suite 1100, St. Louis, MO 63101, 314-421-3400.

JUDGES: Before HANSEN, Circuit Judge, and HEANEY and ROSS, Senior Circuit Judges.

OPINION BY: ROSS

OPINION

[*954] ROSS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Appellants Mark Wilson and Janet Wilson, the parents of Anthony Wilson, and [*955] Jason Harbian and Daniel Winfrey, and their parents, appeal from the trial court’s 1 grant of summary judgment in favor of appellees United States of America and the Boy Scouts of America, in an action arising out of the death of Anthony Wilson and the injuries sustained by Jason Harbian and Daniel Winfrey.

1 The Honorable Jean C. Hamilton, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri.

On April 22, 1988, Anthony Wilson, Daniel Winfrey and Jason Harbian, members of Troop 392 of the Boy Scouts of America, St. Louis Area Council, along with other boy scouts and five adult leaders, went to Fort Leonard Wood, a United States Army military post, on a boy scout trip as part of the Army’s Youth Tour Program. A pile of lightweight aluminum [**2] alloy irrigation pipes, approximately thirty feet in length, were stacked outside Building 1614, where the troop was billeted for the weekend. The pipes had been used for irrigation of the athletic field adjacent to the building, and when not in use, were stored alongside the building. The pipes had been stacked in this manner for approximately six years.

On the second night of their weekend stay, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Anthony, age thirteen, and five or six other scouts, ages twelve to sixteen, were outside Building 1614, while the leaders were inside the building. Anthony, Daniel and Jason picked up one of the aluminum pipes, carried it approximately twenty feet west of the building, and raised it to a near vertical position, causing the pipe to come in contact with a 7,200 volt power line which ran over the building. All three scouts received electric shocks; Anthony died as a result of the injuries he sustained.

Mark and Janet Wilson brought a wrongful death action against the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, and against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) pursuant to Missouri state law, for negligent supervision and failure to train the adult supervisors. [**3] Sometime later the Harbian/Winfrey plaintiffs filed personal injury actions against both the United States and the BSA, and eventually these cases were consolidated with the Wilson case for trial. Motions for summary judgment filed by the United States and the BSA were eventually granted as against all appellants. 2

2 On December 4, 1992, following oral argument of the Wilson appeal before this court, the Harbian and Winfrey cases were consolidated with the Wilson appeal. All parties agree that these cases arose from the same occurrence and are identical in material fact and law. The Harbians and the Winfreys rely on the briefs and oral argument submitted in the Wilson appeal. The Wilsons, Harbians and Winfreys will be collectively referred to as “appellants.”

The appellants’ theory of recovery against the BSA is based on an alleged agency relationship between the BSA and the adult volunteers supervising the scouts. The district court granted the BSA’s motion for summary judgment, concluding [**4] that appellants failed to produce any evidence that the national organization of the BSA had a duty to control, supervise or train volunteer leaders for the Fort Leonard Wood activity. The district court also granted the United States’ motion for summary judgment based on its finding that the United States owed no duty of care to the scouts because they were recreational users of the property under Missouri’s Recreational Land Use Statute. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.346. After careful consideration of each allegation raised by the appellants, we affirm the decision of the district court.

I. United States of America

The action against the United States arises [HN1] under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680, thus, the “United States shall be liable . . . in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.” Id. at § 2674. Further, the United States is “entitled to assert any defense based upon judicial or legislative immunity which otherwise would have been available to the employee of the United States . . . as well as any other defenses to which the United States is entitled.” [**5] Id. Therefore, the United States is entitled to [*956] the benefit of state recreational use statutes, if applicable, when it is sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act. See Hegg v. United States, 817 F.2d 1328, 1329 (8th Cir. 1987) (construing the Iowa Recreational Use Statute); Umpleby v. United States, 806 F.2d 812, 815 (8th Cir. 1986) (applying North Dakota’s Recreational Use Statute).

[HN2] The Missouri Recreational Land Use Statute, Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 537.345 – 537.348 immunizes landowners who make their property available for the recreational use of others without an entry charge. The statute specifically provides:

[HN3] Except as provided in sections 537.345 to 537.348, an owner of land owes no duty of care to any person who enters on the land without charge to keep his land safe for recreational use or to give any general or specific warning with respect to any natural or artificial condition, structure, or personal property thereon.

Id. at § 537.346. “Charge” is defined in the statute as:

[HN4] the admission price or fee asked by an owner of land or an invitation or permission without price or fee to use land for recreational [**6] purposes when such invitation or permission is given for the purpose of sales promotion, advertising or public goodwill in fostering business purposes.

Id. at § 537.345(1). “Recreational use” as defined in the statute includes outdoor activities, such as “hunting, fishing, camping, picnicking, biking, nature study [and] winter sports. Id. at § 537.345(4).

[HN5] While providing for a general immunity against liability, a landowner may nonetheless be liable if found to have been either maliciously or grossly negligent in failing to guard or warn against a dangerous condition which the owner knew or should have known to be dangerous, or if the landowner negligently failed to warn or guard against an ultrahazardous condition. Id. at § 537.348(1). Other exceptions to the nonliability of the statute include injuries occurring on or in any “noncovered land,” which is defined as land used primarily for commercial, industrial or manufacturing purposes. Id. at § 537.348(3)(d).

The appellants contend that the Missouri Recreational Land Use Statute does not apply to the United States because (1) the Army charged $ 2.00 per person to be billeted in Building 1614; (2) the United States [**7] receives an economic benefit from offering its land; (3) the Boy Scouts were not members of the “general public,” and thus were not covered by the Act; (4) the injury occurred on “noncovered land;” and (5) the United States negligently failed to protect against an ultrahazardous condition.

A.

Fort Leonard Wood is an open military post, where members of the public can freely enter without being stopped or questioned by guards or military police. Specified areas are open to the public for fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, picnicking or canoeing. Many tours are given to various groups, such as senior citizens and church and school groups, free of charge. The Fort also offers a Youth Tour Program which is open only to national youth organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America. The program includes activities which are not available to the general public, such as visits to the Fort’s museum, an indoor rifle range, an obstacle course and a cannon range.

If a troop in the Youth Tour Program chooses to stay overnight in Building 1614, a $ 2.00 per person/per night lodging fee is charged. This fee covers the cost of maintaining and equipping the facility with mattresses, toilet paper, [**8] soap, and other supplies. If a troop chooses to stay overnight but no beds are available, the lodging fee is reduced to $ 1.00 per person/per night. Significantly, the lodging fee is charged on a per person/per night basis, while there is no charge for the tour itself, which is offered only on Saturdays.

The interpretation of the various recreational use statutes is controlled by the precise language of each statute. Courts that have construed recreational land use statutes with language similar to the Missouri statute have interpreted “charge” as ” [*957] an admission fee to enter the land.” For example, in Genco v. Connecticut Light and Power Co., 7 Conn. App. 164, 508 A.2d 58, 62 (Conn. App. Ct. 1986), noting that the Connecticut General Statute § 52-557f defines “charge” as “the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land,” the court held that “the only way to avoid inconsistent application of the Act . . . is to interpret the word ‘charge’ as an actual admission price paid for permission to enter the land at the time of its use for recreational purposes.” Id. (emphasis added).

Furthermore, a parking fee paid by [**9] a camper is not a charge within the meaning of the Nebraska Recreational Use Statute, which defines “charge” as “the amount of money asked in return for an invitation to enter or go upon the land.” Garreans v. City of Omaha, 216 Neb. 487, 345 N.W.2d 309, 313 (Neb. 1984) (emphasis added). In Garreans, the court noted that the

charges were made for the right to park a camper on a pad, for the right to pitch a tent in a tent camping area, and for the use of camper dumping facilities. Payment of the fee . . . did not entitle . . . [the person paying the fee] to a greater right to use any of the park’s other facilities than that had by the general public.

Id.

As in Jones v. United States, 693 F.2d 1299, 1303 (9th Cir. 1982), where a one dollar fee was charged the injured plaintiff to rent an inner tube for snow sliding, the fee paid by the scouts to bunk in Building 1614 was not “charged to members of the public for entry on to the land or for use of the land.” Id. Rather, the scouts paid the $ 2.00 fee to bunk in Building 1614, but entered the park without paying a fee. The Jones court held that the plaintiff [**10] “could have used . . . the Park without making any payment if she had brought her own tube.” Id. Similarly, the appellants could have used Fort Leonard Wood without making this $ 2.00 payment if they had chosen not to stay overnight. The Missouri statute does not provide that the immunity for an entire parcel should be nullified if a landowner charges for admission to a different portion of the parcel, nor would such a rule be consistent with the statute’s purpose. “Consideration should not be deemed given . . . unless it is a charge necessary to utilize the overall benefits of a recreational area so that it may be regarded as an entrance or admission fee.” Moss v. Department of Natural Resources, 62 Ohio St. 2d 138, 404 N.E.2d 742, 745 (Ohio 1980) (emphasis added).

The appellants herein paid $ 2.00 per night for the right to stay overnight in Building 1614. There is no evidence in the record to indicate that this fee would have been charged to either participate in the Youth Tour Program, or to enter Fort Leonard Wood, if the scouts had elected not to stay overnight. In fact, all of the Fort Leonard Wood documents relating to this fee provide that it is a “lodging” [**11] fee and that it is assessed on a per person/per night basis. The appellants have failed to present any evidence that the fee was required in order to enter Fort Leonard Wood.

B.

The remainder of appellants’ arguments with regard to the liability of the United States are also without merit. The appellants contend that the United States is outside the protection of the Missouri Recreational Land Use Statute because the scouts are not “members of the general public.” They contend that because only members of national youth organizations are eligible to participate in the Youth Tour Program, the scouts should be treated as guests or invitees. Appellants’ argument, however, relies upon a distinction not made within the language of the Missouri Recreational Land Use Statute. The plain language of the statute indicates that a landowner owes no duty of care “to any person who enters on the land without charge” for recreational purposes. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.346 (emphasis added).

We also reject the appellants’ argument that the United States is outside the protection of the Missouri statute because the Army’s purpose in allowing admission to Fort Leonard Wood is to develop public [*958] goodwill [**12] in fostering a business purpose. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.345(1). When Boy Scout troops visit the Fort, they are not recruited or encouraged in any way to join the Army, nor are any records kept of scouts who have participated in the Youth Tour Program. Further, appellants have failed to establish that the Army operates as a business within the intended meaning of the statute.

Finally, appellants’ argument that Building 1614 was essentially a commercial “hotel” located in a “populated, residential area,” and therefore falls within the “noncovered land” exception of section 537.348(3)(d) is without merit. The record does not support appellants’ contention that the Fort was “predominately used for residential purposes,” nor that Building 1614 was operated as a commercial enterprise. Nor can we accept appellants’ argument that the United States acted with willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the troops or negligently failed to protect them against an ultrahazardous condition. There simply has been no evidence presented to establish either of these theories.

The judgment of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of the United States is affirmed.

II. Boy [**13] Scouts of America

The appellants also challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Boy Scouts of America. The appellants contend there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an agency relationship existed between the BSA and the adult volunteers of Troop 392 so as to provide for vicarious liability for any negligence on the part of the adult leaders. The appellants claim the BSA had the right to control and supervise Troop 392’s adults, that the BSA is liable for the negligent acts of the troop’s adult leaders which were committed within the scope and course of their agency relationship, and further that the troop’s adult leaders were clothed with implied and apparent authority to act on behalf of the BSA when they were present at Fort Leonard Wood.

The appellants first argue that the district court improperly considered the affidavit of Lloyd Roitstein, Area Director in the North Central Region of the Boy Scouts of America, in considering the relationship between the national organization and the individual troops because the affidavit was not based on personal knowledge. We agree with the district court that Roitstein’s role as an Area Director [**14] establishes his personal familiarity with the Boy Scout organization and conclude that the affidavit was properly considered.

The Boy Scouts of America is a congressionally chartered benevolent national organization, which is divided into geographic areas known as local councils. Three hundred ninety-eight local councils are chartered in the United States. Local sponsors, such as schools, churches or civic organizations apply for charters from the BSA through their local council. Local volunteers form a patrol leaders’ council to plan troop activities. BSA does not conduct or require any training for these adult volunteers. Troops do not need permission from BSA before participating in activities, with the exception of tours outside the United States or five hundred miles or more from the local council. The BSA had no advanced notice of Troop 392’s trip to Fort Leonard Wood. The troop was not required, nor did it receive, permission from the BSA to go to Fort Leonard Wood.

[HN6] Under the doctrine of respondeat superior an employer is liable for the negligent acts or omissions of his employee which are committed within the scope of his employment. Light v. Lang, 539 S.W.2d 795, 799 (Mo. App. Ct. 1976). [**15] Liability based on respondeat superior requires some evidence that a master-servant relationship existed between the parties. Usrey v. Dr. Pepper Bottling Co., 385 S.W.2d 335, 338 (Mo. Ct. App. 1964). The test to determine if respondeat superior applies is whether the person sought to be charged as a master had “the right or power to control and direct the physical conduct of the other in the performance of the act.” Id. at 339. If there is no right to control, there is no liability.

Courts of other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue now before this court have rejected the imposition of liability against the BSA or the local councils, [*959] noting the lack of control these entities exercise over individual troops and their sponsoring organizations. For example, in Mauch v. Kissling, 56 Wash. App. 312, 783 P.2d 601 (Wash. Ct. App. 1989), the court found there was no basis for the doctrine of apparent authority because the plaintiff had not presented evidence that BSA consented to or had control of the scoutmaster’s activities. Id. at 605.

Similarly, in Anderson v. Boy Scouts of America, Inc., 226 Ill. App. 3d 440, 589 N.E.2d 892, 168 Ill. Dec. 492 (Ill. App. Ct. 1992), [**16] the court found the plaintiffs had failed to establish that an agency relationship existed between the plaintiffs and the local council or the BSA:

We find no provisions in the charter, bylaws, rules and regulations promulgated by the BSA, nor can plaintiffs cite to any provisions within these documents, which specifically grant BSA or its district councils direct supervisory powers over the method or manner in which adult volunteer scout leaders accomplish their tasks.

Id. at 894-95.

Recently, the Missouri Court of Appeals considered the Wilson’s cause of action against the St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, arising from the same circumstances of the instant case. The Missouri court dismissed the suit against the local council, finding that “Council neither controlled the actions of the troop leaders nor ran the program at Fort Leonard Wood.” While the Missouri state court decision involved the local council, it is instructional here because the relationship between the national organization and the individual troop leaders is even more remote.

Appellants also contend that sufficient facts establish a jury question as [**17] to whether a principal/agent relationship existed under a theory of implied agency or apparent authority. Implied agency and apparent authority, however, are based on manifestations by the principal which causes a third person reasonably to believe that an agent of the principal is authorized to do certain acts. Barton v. Snellson, 735 S.W.2d 160, 162 (Mo. Ct. App. 1987). Appellants contend the use of common uniforms, emblems, books and awards in the scouting program, a national insurance program, issuance of the national membership card and other printed materials locally, as well as other indicia of a relationship between BSA and the local council, create a manifestation of authority upon which an innocent third party might reasonably rely.

Appellants fail, however, to produce any evidence that BSA manifested that it had direct control over the specific activities of individual troops or that it had a duty to control, supervise or train volunteer leaders for the Fort Leonard Wood activity. On the contrary, the Boy Scout Handbook clearly provides, “what the troop does is planned by the patrol leaders’ council.” The organizational structure of the BSA [**18] leaves the control of the specific activities at the level closest to the individual troop. Appellants have produced no direct or circumstantial evidence to suggest that in this case BSA manifested control.

In summary, we conclude that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the Boy Scouts of America and the United States. The judgment of the district court is affirmed.


Monaco v. Vacation Camp Resorts International, Inc., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 1125; 21 N.E.3d 187; 2014 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1272

Monaco v. Vacation Camp Resorts International, Inc., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 1125; 21 N.E.3d 187; 2014 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1272

Anthony Monaco vs. Vacation Camp Resorts International, Inc., & another.1

1 Jayne Cohen.

14-P-141

APPEALS COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS

86 Mass. App. Ct. 1125; 21 N.E.3d 187; 2014 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1272

December 18, 2014, Entered

NOTICE: DECISIONS ISSUED BY THE APPEALS COURT PURSUANT TO ITS RULE 1:28 ARE PRIMARILY ADDRESSED TO THE PARTIES AND, THEREFORE, MAY NOT FULLY ADDRESS THE FACTS OF THE CASE OR THE PANEL’S DECISIONAL RATIONALE. MOREOVER, RULE 1:28 DECISIONS ARE NOT CIRCULATED TO THE ENTIRE COURT AND, THEREFORE, REPRESENT ONLY THE VIEWS OF THE PANEL THAT DECIDED THE CASE. A SUMMARY DECISION PURSUANT TO RULE 1:28, ISSUED AFTER FEBRUARY 25, 2008, MAY BE CITED FOR ITS PERSUASIVE VALUE BUT, BECAUSE OF THE LIMITATIONS NOTED ABOVE, NOT AS BINDING PRECEDENT.

PUBLISHED IN TABLE FORMAT IN THE MASSACHUSETTS APPEALS COURT REPORTS.

PUBLISHED IN TABLE FORMAT IN THE NORTH EASTERN REPORTER.

DISPOSITION: [*1] Judgment affirmed.

CORE TERMS: pathway, campground, landowners, summary judgment, favorable, allowance, obvious danger, duty of care, citation omitted, unreasonably dangerous, obstructions, deposition, anticipate, precautions, unexpected, invitees, uneven, slope, fault, owe, shower, paved, path, owed

JUDGES: Cypher, Fecteau & Massing, JJ.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER PURSUANT TO RULE 1:28

Anthony Monaco seeks to recover for serious injuries he sustained when he fell down a grassy hill that campers used to reach a shower building located on Vacation Camp Resorts International, Inc.’s (VCRI’s) Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Campground in New Hampton, New Hampshire. The plaintiff alleges that VCRI and Jayne Cohen2 were negligent in failing to light the “pathway”3 and maintain it in a safe condition, to warn against its use, or to construct a graded path in its place. A Superior Court judge allowed the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, reasoning that traversing the shortcut in lieu of existing paved pathways, and in darkness, is an “obvious baseline danger,” and that the defendants therefore owed no duty. We affirm.

2 Cohen served as president of Vacation Camp Resorts International, Inc., during the time of the incident in question.

3 Construing the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and noting that the shower building was marked with a “restroom” sign visible from the paved road above, we accept the plaintiff’s characterization [*2] of the route between the road and the building as a pathway.

In reviewing the trial court judge’s allowance of a motion for summary judgment, we consider the evidence submitted with the motion, which may include “pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits.” Highlands Ins. Co. v. Aerovox, Inc., 424 Mass. 226, 232, 676 N.E.2d 801 (1997) (citation omitted). See Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c), as amended, 436 Mass. 1404 (2002). We construe inferences drawn from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and review de novo the trial court judge’s application of the law to the facts. LeBlanc v. Logan Hilton Joint Venture, 463 Mass. 316, 318, 974 N.E.2d 34 (2012). Allowance of the motion will survive appellate review so long as there is “no genuine issue” of “material fact” and “the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Id. at 325-326. Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

To succeed in an action for negligence, the plaintiff must establish duty, breach, causation, and damages. Ronayne v. State, 137 N.H. 281, 284, 632 A.2d 1210 (1993).4 “[P]ersons owe a duty of care ‘only to those who they foreseeably endanger by their conduct.'” Manchenton v. Auto Leasing Corp., 135 N.H. 298, 304, 605 A.2d 208 (1992) [*3] (citation omitted). “Not every risk that might be foreseen gives rise to a duty to avoid a course of conduct; a duty arises because the likelihood and magnitude of the risk perceived is such that the conduct is unreasonably dangerous.” Id. at 305.

4 The trial court judge determined that New Hampshire’s substantive law governed this action. The parties do not dispute that the choice of New Hampshire law is appropriate under the circumstances of this case.

“[O]wners and occupiers of land owe plaintiffs a duty of reasonable care under all the circumstances in the maintenance and operation of their property.” Werne v. Exec. Women’s Golf Assn., 158 N.H. 373, 376, 969 A.2d 346 (2009). Although landowners should anticipate and take measures to avoid the risks that their property poses to invitees, they are not obligated to “consistently and constantly” check for dangerous conditions. See Pesaturo v. Kinne, 161 N.H. 550, 555, 20 A.3d 284 (2011). The law does not impose a duty on landowners to exercise precautions, unless the dangers are “readily observable” by landowners and imperceptible to invitees. Ibid. Lawrence v. Hollerich, 394 N.W.2d 853, 855 (Minn. App. Ct. 1986). That is, an open and obvious danger negates the [*4] existence of a duty of care. Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 422, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002).

The mere fact that the plaintiff was injured does not trigger a legal duty on the defendants. He must produce some evidence, other than “the obviousness of the steep slope,” that the pathway posed an apparent danger. Lawrence, 394 N.W.2d at 856. To support his claim, the plaintiff submitted expert testimony that the pathway was “rutted,” “uneven,” and “unlit,” and did not comport with International Building Code standards. However, other evidence revealed that the condition of the pathway, as it appeared to both parties, posed no greater risk than walkways maintained by landowners in their ordinary exercise of care. Cf. Paquette v. Joyce, 117 N.H. 832, 835, 379 A.2d 207 (1977). Monaco testified at his deposition that he was not aware of any treacherous condition as he was descending the hill, and Cohen never observed any “unexpected,” unreasonably dangerous condition, Ahern v. Amoskeag Mfg. Co., 75 N.H. 99, 101, 102, 71 A. 213 (1908), during her annual visual inspections of the campground. Thus, Monaco’s inattention to obvious dangers on the pathway was the only risk presented, which did not impose on the [*5] defendants a duty to exercise precautions. Contrast Hacking v. Belmont, 143 N.H. 546, 553, 736 A.2d 1229 (1999) (defendant liable for “unreasonably increased or concealed” risks not inherent in the game of basketball).

Moreover, “[t]here is nothing unfamiliar about the inability to perceive in the dark obstructions to the course of one who walks without light.” Ahern, supra at 101. That is, “[i]f there may be obstructions whose presence cannot be ascertained by the eye, due care requires the use of some other sense to detect them.” Ibid. When the evidence is “uncontradicted” that the plaintiff was familiar with the area where the accident occurred and that the injury occurred because of an “unexpected” condition, the defendant is not at fault for failing to anticipate it. Ibid. Unless the defendant had superior knowledge of the danger, “[i]t cannot reasonably be found that of two persons of equal knowledge and of equal ability to appreciate and understand a danger, one is in fault for not apprehending the danger and the other is not.” Id. at 102.

In this case, Monaco’s knowledge and appreciation of the condition of the pathway was equal to the defendants’. Monaco had camped on the campground once per [*6] year for eighteen years and had used the pathway three times without incident on the day of his fall. Likewise, VCRI had been operating the campground for over two decades, and Cohen was VCRI’s president for approximately six years. Both parties had ample opportunities to observe the campground, yet neither noticed any unreasonable dangers. The only risk associated with the pathway was the open and obvious nature of its slope and uneven terrain, which did not impose any duty on the defendants to light or otherwise improve the path.

Conclusion. Drawing all inferences from the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we conclude that the defendants owed no duty to protect him against the injury-causing condition of the pathway. The allowance of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was proper.

Judgment affirmed.

By the Court (Cypher, Fecteau & Massing, JJ.5),

5 The panelists are listed in order of seniority.

Entered: December 18, 2014.


Kelly, v. United States of America, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135289

Kelly, v. United States of America, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135289

Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, and Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs, v. United States of America, Defendant.

NO. 7:10-CV-172-FL

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTHERN DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135289

September 25, 2014, Decided

September 25, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 (E.D.N.C., 2011)

CORE TERMS: orientation, training, summary judgment, public interest, guardian, non-commercial, attend, cadet, attendance, signature, daughter’s, public policy, enforceable, genuine, waive, obstacle, quasi-estoppel, participating, recreational, undersigned, pre-injury, parental, affirmative defense, genuine issue, transportation, municipalities, educational, unambiguous, discovery, workshop

COUNSEL: [*1] For Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs: Steven Michael Stancliff, LEAD ATTORNEY, James L. Chapman , IV, Crenshaw, Ware and Martin, P.L.C., Norfolk, VA.

For United States of America, Defendant: Matthew Lee Fesak, R. A. Renfer , Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Raleigh, NC.

JUDGES: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN

OPINION

ORDER

This matter comes before the court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (DE 93). This matter has been fully briefed, and the issues raised are ripe for review. For the following reasons, the court grants defendant’s motion.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

The court refers to and incorporates the case history provided in previous orders, including its recent order on defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for gross negligence. Kelly v. United States, No. 7:10-CV-172, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114376, 2014 WL 4098943 (E.D.N.C. Aug. 18, 2014) (“August 2014 Order”). Pertinent to the instant motion, plaintiffs commenced this action on September 2, 2010, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671, et seq., seeking damages in excess of ten million dollars ($10,000,000.00) for injuries allegedly suffered by plaintiff Morgan Kelly, daughter of plaintiffs Terry and Pamela Kelly. The [*2] court previously issued an order August 11, 2011, granting in part and denying in part plaintiffs’ motion to strike, in particular allowing defendant to raise the affirmative defense that plaintiff Pamela Kelly had waived plaintiffs’ claims. Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 437-38 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (“August 2011 Order”).

On November 25, 2013, defendant filed the instant motion for summary judgment, which also included the motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ gross negligence claim. Plaintiffs responded in opposition on February 27, 2014, and defendant replied on March 13, 2014.

Plaintiffs’ memorandum in opposition included a motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) for additional discovery regarding the use, allocation and disposition of monies received from Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (“NJROTC”) cadets in exchange for the cadets’ attendance in the July 2007 orientation visit at issue in this case. The court granted plaintiff’s motion on March 31, 2014, and subsequently issued an order on scheduling directing the parties to complete the additional discovery by May 30, 2014. Plaintiffs were given until June 13, 2014, to file a supplemental brief in opposition to the government’s motion. However, the deadline passed without such brief being filed.

On August [*3] 18, 2014, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss. The order noted that it did not address the motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ remaining claims. August 2014 Order, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114376, 2014 WL 4098943, at *1, n. 1. This motion comes now before the court.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, may be summarized as follows:

In July 2007, plaintiff Morgan Kelly, then fifteen (15) years of age, was a cadet in the NJROTC program at her high school. Plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s twin sister, Magan Kelly, also was a NJROTC cadet. The NJROTC program included an orientation visit to United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (“Camp Lejeune”).

Prior to the orientation visit, plaintiffs received a “Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement.” (“Liability Waiver”) (DE 94-3). The Liability Waiver included the following language:

In consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and further recognizing the voluntary nature of my participation in this event, I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, [*4] administrators, legal representatives and any other persons on my behalf, any and all rights and claims for damages, demands, and any other actions whatsoever, including those attributable to simple negligence, which I may have against any of the following persons or entities: the United States of America . . . which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me. I FURTHER VERIFY THAT I HAVE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ATTENDING THIS EVENT. I EXPRESSLY, KNOWINGLY, AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISKS INVOLVED IN THE PLANNED ACTIVITIES INCLUDING TRANSPORTATION TO AND FROM THE EVENT, AND AGREE TO HOLD THE UNITED STATES HARMLESS FOR ANY RESULTING INJURY. I understand that this assumption of risk agreement shall remain in effect until notice of cancellation is received by the Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized [*5] event.

(DE 94-3 at 1). (See attached as Addendum A hereto.)

Below this language, the form provided lines for the signature and printed name of the minor participant, along with lines for the signature of a parent or guardian, “on behalf of” the minor. Morgan and Magan’s mother, plaintiff Pamela Kelly, signed the form, believing that she was signing it for Magan. She left the blanks which required Magan’s name for Magan to complete. However, plaintiff Pamela Kelly did not sign a form for her other daughter because plaintiff Morgan Kelly originally planned to attend a sailing trip in Florida at the time of the orientation.

Subsequently, plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s sailing trip was cancelled, and she joined the orientation visit. She signed and printed her name onto the Liability Waiver in the spaces that her mother had left for Magan Kelly. The Liability Waiver, in its unredacted format, includes Magan Kelly’s social security number, but it is unclear how this number appeared on the form or who wrote it. The Liability Waiver does not otherwise mention Magan Kelly. It is unclear whether a separate form was submitted for Magan Kelly or whether she attended the orientation.

While planning the [*6] orientation visit, Operations Specialist Frank Acevedo (“Acevedo”) sent a packet of information to plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s high school, including a list of training activities and a brief description of an obstacle course challenge known as the “Confidence Course.” However, neither plaintiff Pamela Kelly nor plaintiff Terry Kelly received a copy of this information packet prior to the orientation visit, and neither parent otherwise communicated with Acevedo or any other government representative from Camp Lejeune before the orientation visit.

The orientation visit began on July 23, 2007. During the visit, the cadets were allowed to use government facilities at Camp Lejeune at no expense, and were not charged for the instruction they received. Cadets were responsible only for paying for meals eaten at a Camp Lejeune dining facility at a Discount Meal Rate, and for personal purchases made at a Post Exchange.1

1 Although plaintiffs’ memorandum in opposition questioned defendant’s characterization of how the money received from students was used, plaintiffs failed to renew any challenge or provide any support for such a challenge after the court granted their request for additional discovery [*7] on the matter. As such, the court finds that plaintiffs do not object to the government’s description of the collection and use of money from the NJROTC cadets.

On July 27, 2007, plaintiff Morgan Kelly, along with the other cadets, completed two obstacle courses prior to undertaking the series of obstacles known as the “Confidence Course.” Before the cadets completed the Confidence Course, two Marine instructors from the School of Infantry provided preliminary instructions, the content of which is disputed.2 The final obstacle of the Confidence Course, called the “Slide for Life,” was a climbing apparatus. Defendant knew that the Slide for Life posed a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury if it were not successfully negotiated. However, defendant did not assess plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s physical capabilities before she climbed the Slide for Life. Nor did defendant provide any safety harnesses, restraints, or other protection systems that would prevent her from falling. While attempting to climb the Slide for Life, plaintiff Morgan Kelly fell and suffered injuries.

2 Defendant asserts that the instructors “provided a safety brief and a demonstration of how to navigate each obstacle,” [*8] (Def.’s Mem. in Supp. at 1-2) (DE 94), while plaintiffs assert that Marine instructors provided only a “walk-through” of the course, without safety warnings. (Pls.’s Mem. in Opp. at 4) (DE 101).

COURT’S DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review 3

3 Plaintiffs’ arguments in opposition to the motion for summary judgment raise several issues addressed by the court in its August 2011 Order on motion to strike. The court considers anew plaintiffs’ arguments under the standard applicable to the instant motion for summary judgment.

Summary judgment is appropriate where an examination of the pleadings, affidavits, and other discovery materials properly before the court demonstrates “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (holding that a factual dispute is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the suit and “genuine” only if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party).

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate [*9] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must then “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). There is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. In making this determination, the court must view the inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962).

B. Analysis

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment rests on its argument that the Liability Waiver bars plaintiffs’ claims. As detailed in the court’s August 2011 Order on plaintiffs’ motion to strike, liability waivers are generally enforceable under North Carolina law.4 See Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 433 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (citing Hall v. Sinclair Refining Co., 242 N.C. 707, 709, 89 S.E.2d 396 (1955)). Moreover, because plaintiff Morgan Kelly is a minor and has disaffirmed her waiver by filing complaint, her own waiver is unenforceable under North Carolina law. See id. at 434 (citing Baker v. Adidas Am., Inc., 335 F. App’x 356, 359 (4th Cir. 2009); Creech v. Melnik, 147 N.C. App. 471, 475, 556 S.E.2d 587 (2001); Freeman v. Bridger, 49 N.C. 1 (1856)).

4 In actions under the FTCA, “federal courts apply the substantive law of the state in which the act or omission giving rise to the action occurred.” Myrick v. United States, 723 F.2d 1158, 1159 (4th Cir. 1983). Because the alleged act or omission giving rise to the action occurred in North Carolina, [*10] North Carolina law governs the nature and extent of the government’s liability for plaintiffs’ injuries.

It does not appear that North Carolina courts have ruled on whether a liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child is enforceable, yet numerous courts in other jurisdictions have upheld pre-injury liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of minors in the context of litigation filed against schools, municipalities, and clubs providing activities for children. See, e.g., Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So. 2d 1067, 1067-68 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2004); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 106-12, 769 N.E.2d 738 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 374, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201 (1998); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1564-65, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647 (1990). In its August 2011 Order the court held that North Carolina would similarly uphold a pre-injury waiver executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child in the context of the facts alleged here. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 437. Now on plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, the court continues to find that these cases are analogous to the circumstances here, where the facilities and instruction of the NJROTC program were provided at no expense and students were charged only for personal purchases from the Post Exchange and for meals at discount rate.

Plaintiffs nevertheless argue that the Liability Waiver is contrary to public policy. For support, they point to the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in McMurray v. United States, 551 F. App’x 651 (4th Cir. 2014). Although contracts [*11] seeking to release a party from liability for negligence generally are enforceable in North Carolina, the public policy exception prohibits a person from contracting to protect himself from “liability for negligence in the performance of a duty of public service, or where a public duty is owed, or public interest is involved, or where public interest requires the performance of a private duty.” McMurray, 551 F. App’x at 653-54 (quoting Hall, 242 N.C. at 710).5

5 Exculpatory clauses or contracts are also not enforceable when the provisions violate a statute, or are gained through inequality of bargaining power. McMurray, 551 F. App’x at 653; Hall, 242 N.C. at 709-10. The August 2011 Order rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that these two factors applied to the Liability Waiver. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 434, n. 6. Plaintiffs have not raised those arguments again here.

In McMurray, the plaintiff, a high school guidance counselor, completed a release of liability form in order to attend a workshop for educational professionals hosted by the Marine Corps at its facility on Parris Island, South Carolina. Id. at 652. The document released the government from any injuries arising out of participation in the workshop, including “riding in government-provided transportation (to include transportation to and from the Educator’s Workshop.)” Id. The [*12] plaintiff subsequently was injured when the Marine recruiter who drove her to the workshop ran a red light and collided with another car. Id. Noting the numerous statutes, regulations and cases governing public roads in North Carolina, the court determined that the state had a “strong public-safety interest in careful driving and the observance of all traffic-related rules and regulations.” Id. at 654. The court concluded that allowing the government to be released from the duty to use reasonable care when driving would violate that policy, and accordingly held the release unenforceable under North Carolina law. Id. at 656.

Plaintiffs argue that the Liability Waiver is contrary to an “equally compelling interest,” in this case being, “the obligation of the government to exercise reasonable care for the safety of minor school children participating in a congressionally-sanctioned (and funded) JROTC program.” (Pls.’s Mem. in Opp. at 20). Protecting the safety of minor school children in programs like JROTC (and NJROTC) is undoubtedly a matter of public interest. However, this case also involves a countervailing public interest in facilitating JROTC’s provision of non-commercial services to children on a [*13] voluntary basis without the risks and overwhelming costs of litigation.

The public’s interest in the benefits provided by JROTC programs is embodied in federal statutes and regulations governing these programs’ purpose and administration, which set forth such objectives as instilling in students “the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment,” 10 U.S.C. § 2031(a)(2), along with imparting other benefits such as good communication skills, an appreciation of physical fitness, and a knowledge of basic military skills. 32 C.F.R. § 542.4. Moreover, North Carolina has demonstrated a public interest in the non-commercial provision of educational or recreational activities, by enacting statutes such as the recreational use statute, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 38A-4, which encourages landowners to allow public use of their land without charge for educational or recreational purposes by limiting their duty of care to that of refraining from willful or wanton infliction of injury.

The cases from other jurisdictions which have upheld liability waivers such as the one at issue here have concluded that the public is best served when risks or costs of litigation regarding such programs are minimized. [*14] See Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 372 (“[W]e conclude that although [plaintiff], like many children before him, gave up his right to sue for the negligent acts of others, the public as a whole received the benefit of these exculpatory agreements. Because of this agreement, the Club was able to offer affordable recreation and to continue to do so without the risks and overwhelming costs of litigation.”); Hohe, 224 Cal. App. 3d at 1564 (“The public as a whole receives the benefit of such waivers so that groups such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Little League, and parent-teacher associations are able to continue without the risks and sometimes overwhelming costs of litigation. Thousands of children benefit from the availability of recreational and sports activities.”).

Courts have also found that such releases serve the public interest by respecting the realm of parental authority to weigh the risks and costs of physical injury to their children against the benefits of the child’s participation in an activity. Sharon, 437 Mass. at 109; Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 374. Likewise, North Carolina has recognized a public interest in respecting parents’ authority over certain life decisions for their children. See Doe v. Holt, 332 N.C. 90, 97, 418 S.E.2d 511 (1992) (“[R]easonable parental decisions concerning children should [not] be reviewed in the courts of this state. Such decisions [*15] make up the essence of parental discretion, discretion which allows parents to shape the views, beliefs and values their children carry with them into adulthood. These decisions are for the parents to make, and will be protected as such.”).

The court remains persuaded by the analysis of those courts upholding liability waivers signed by parents in the context of litigation against schools, municipalities and clubs, which either implicitly or explicitly found the risk presented by such waivers to be outweighed by interests in providing non-commercial activities and respecting parental authority. See Sharon, 437 Mass. at 105 (“In weighing and analyzing [plaintiff’s] public policy arguments, we must also consider other important public policies of the Commonwealth implicated in the resolution of this issue . . . .); Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 370-71 (“[T]he proper focus is not whether the release violates public policy but rather that public policy itself justifies the enforcement of this agreement.”).

Plaintiffs’ reliance on McMurray is misplaced. The public interest considered in that case, careful driving and observance of traffic rules and regulations, is not at issue here. Nor did that case address whether any contrary public interest was at [*16] stake which might justify the waiver.

Plaintiffs argue that other cases upholding liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of their children are not applicable in this case, because the claims here are directed against the United States and because the JROTC is not a community-based or volunteer-run activity. They note that the officials conducting the orientation visit acted as paid servants of the United States. They argue that the economic considerations at issue in cases from other jurisdictions are not applicable here, where the United States government is self-insured and has waived its immunity. However, none of these arguments are persuasive.

First, neither the defendant’s status as a government body, nor the volunteer status of a program’s personnel, are controlling factors in the analysis. In Sharon, the court upheld a liability waiver in the context of a suit against the city government for a cheerleading program coached by a public school employee, not a volunteer. Sharon, 437 Mass. at 100. Furthermore, the JROTC program is community-based, in that schools must apply for a unit, 10 U.S.C. § 2031(a)(1), and may decide to eliminate the program from their curriculum. See Esquivel v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 630 F. Supp. 2d 1055 (N.D. Cal. 2008). In this way, JROTC programs are run in cooperation [*17] with the community, and rely on the community for support. In turn, JROTC programs promote the community welfare by instilling the values and benefits noted above in the community’s children. Finally, the mere fact that the United States has waived its sovereign immunity through the FTCA does not mean that it should be denied the use of a waiver that other non-governmental volunteer or non-profit organizations could employ. On the contrary, the FTCA only makes the United States liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.” 28 U.S.C. § 2674.

It is clear that the July 2007 NJROTC orientation program was offered with a noncommercial purpose, and that students attended voluntarily. Because a liability waiver signed by a parent would be enforceable by a private person offering a non-commercial, voluntary activity of this nature, the United States should also be able to use a parent-signed liability waiver for the noncommercial, voluntary NJROTC orientation visit. See Sharon, 437 Mass. at 111-12 (holding that Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) would not prevent municipalities from using liability waivers as a precondition for participation in voluntary activities that they [*18] sponsored, because the MTCA gave such municipalities the same defenses as private parties in tort claims).

Aside from their public policy argument, plaintiffs contend that advance court approval is necessary for a parent to extinguish a minor’s personal injury claim. However, their argument is little more than an abbreviated version of their previous argument supporting their motion to strike. The cases they cite do not address the specific circumstances here, of a pre-injury liability waiver in the context of a non-commercial activity provided to children on a voluntary basis. For instance, plaintiffs quote from Justice White’s concurring opinion in International Union v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 111 S. Ct. 1196, 113 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1991), which recognized that “the general rule is that parents cannot waive causes of action on behalf of their children . . . .” (Pls’. Mem. in Opp. at 21) (quoting Int’l Union, 499 U.S. at 213-14.). The context of this quote was the concurring opinion’s speculation as to a potential justification for an employer’s fetal-protection policy, as a means of avoiding claims brought by children for injuries caused by torts committed prior to conception. Int’l Union, 499 U.S. at 212-14. This is far different than a pre-injury waiver for a non-commercial activity provided to children on a voluntary basis, where [*19] the activity does not generate its own profits and the benefits of the waiver extend to the entire community. Moreover, as the quote itself shows, the rule against parental waivers is only “general.” Id. at 213.

Plaintiffs also cite to the North Carolina cases of Sell v. Hotchkiss, 264 N.C. 185, 191, 141 S.E.2d 259 (N.C. 1965) and Creech, 147 N.C. App. at 475, neither of which involved non-commercial, voluntary activities like the NJROTC program. Moreover, both of these cases involved post-injury liability waivers. Concerns underlying courts’ reluctance to allow parents to dispose of childrens’ existing claims, such as the concern that the hardships posed by caring for an injured child will lead the parents to act for their own financial interest, or that the parents will be more vulnerable to fraud or coercion in such circumstances, are mitigated in the pre-injury release context. See Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 373. The cases from other jurisdictions noted above, where liability waivers signed by parents were upheld, did not require prior court approval for those waivers. E.g. Gonzalez, 871 So. 2d at 1067-68; Sharon, 437 Mass. at 106-12; Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 374; Hohe, 224 Cal. App. 3d at 1564-65. Further, as a practical matter, requiring prior court approval would seriously encumber the process for participation in non-commercial, educational activities such as the NJROTC program. Such prior approval is not required.

Having [*20] affirmed that a liability waiver is not unenforceable in the abstract, analysis turns to the particular agreement itself. First, plaintiffs argue that this Liability Waiver should not be enforced because the parties did not reach a “meeting of the minds,” alleging that plaintiff Pamela Kelly believed she was signing the form for plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s twin sister, Magan. A release from liability is subject to avoidance by showing that its execution resulted from mutual mistake. George v. McClure, 266 F. Supp. 2d 413, 418 (M.D.N.C. 2001); see also Marriott Fin. Servs., Inc. v. Capitol Funds, Inc., 288 N.C. 122, 136, 217 S.E.2d 551 (1975). However, a unilateral mistake, unaccompanied by fraud, imposition, undue influence or like circumstances is insufficient to avoid a contract. Marriott Fin. Servs., 288 N.C. at 136. Plaintiffs do not argue that defendant mistakenly believed that the Liability Waiver, to which plaintiff Morgan Kelly admittedly signed her own name, was intended to cover Magan Kelly. Nor do they argue that the government acted in a fraudulent manner or that other like circumstances were present. They have shown no more than a unilateral mistake.

In addition, plaintiff Pamela Kelly cannot avoid the contract because she subsequently allowed plaintiff Morgan Kelly to attend the orientation session, knowing that a liability waiver was required. See (DE 94-3 [*21] at 1) (noting that those who failed to sign the waiver would “not be permitted to attend the organized event”). North Carolina courts have held that, when a release is originally invalid or voidable, it may be ratified and affirmed by subsequent acts accepting the benefits. Presnell v. Liner, 218 N.C. 152, 154, 10 S.E.2d 639 (1940); see also VF Jeanswear Ltd. P’ship v. Molina, 320 F. Supp. 2d 412, 422 (M.D.N.C. 2004). Similarly, under the North Carolina theory of quasi-estoppel, also known as “estoppel by benefit,” a party who “accepts a transaction or instrument and then accepts benefits under it may be estopped to take a later position inconsistent with the prior acceptance of that same transaction or instrument.” Whitacre P’ship v. Biosignia, Inc., 358 N.C. 1, 18, 591 S.E.2d 870 (2004). The doctrine is grounded “upon a party’s acquiescence or acceptance of payment or benefits, by virtue of which that party is thereafter prevented from maintaining a position inconsistent with those acts.” Godley v. Pitt Cnty., 306 N.C. 357, 361-62, 293 S.E.2d 167 (1982).6

6 The court notes that defendant did not raise the defense of estoppel in its answer. Generally, estoppel is an affirmative defense that should be raised in the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c). Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(c); Simmons v. Justice, 196 F.R.D. 296, 298 (W.D.N.C. 2000). However, “[I]f an affirmative defense is raised in a manner that does not result in unfair surprise to the opposing party, failure to comply with Rule 8(c) will not result in waiver of the defense.” Simmons, 196 F.R.D. at 298 (quoting United States v. Cook, No. 94-1938, 1995 U.S. App. LEXIS 24342, 1995 WL 508888 (4th Cir. Aug. 29, 1995)). The requirement of pleading [*22] an affirmative defense may be waived if evidence of the defense is admitted into the record without objection. Caterpillar Overseas, S.A. v. Marine Transp. Inc., 900 F.2d 714, 725, n. 7 (4th Cir. 1990). “Courts have been more lenient in the context of motions for summary judgment.” Grunley Walsh U.S., LLC v. Raap, No. 1:08-CV-446, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38609, 2009 WL 1298244, at *5 (E.D. Va. May 6, 2009). The defense of quasi-estoppel was raised in defendant’s memorandum supporting summary judgment, and plaintiffs did not object to the defense in their memorandum in opposition. In this instance, no unfair surprise exists and defendant may assert this defense.

Zivich provides a helpful illustration of what constitutes “acceptance” of the benefits of a liability waiver in the context of non-commercial, voluntary recreational activities. Zivich, 82 Ohio St.3d at 375. There, the court held that a mother’s execution of a release would bar the claims of her husband for their son’s soccer practice injury. Id. The court noted that the father “was the parent who was at the practice field” on the evening of that the injury occurred. It held that his “conduct convey[ed] an intention to enjoy the benefits of his wife’s agreement and be bound by it.” Id.

Here, the benefits of the Liability Waiver for plaintiff Pamela Kelly consisted of her daughter’s participation in the NJROTC orientation program, [*23] with the attendant benefits of introducing her to the culture, skills, and values that the NJROTC seeks to impart. By accepting the benefit of her child’s attendance at the orientation session, knowing that a liability waiver was required for attendance, plaintiff Pamela Kelly cannot now disavow the effect of the instrument she signed that allowed her child to attend.

As an alternative ground for denying summary judgment, plaintiffs argue that the Liability Waiver cannot be enforced because the government did not identify the risks that the form covered. Plaintiffs Pamela and Terry Kelly both allege that they never received any information concerning the risks of injury associated with plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s use of the obstacle course. (P. Kelly Decl. ¶¶ 6-11; T. Kelly Decl. ¶¶ 6-11). Consequently, they state they anticipated that plaintiff Morgan Kelly would only be visiting Camp Lejeune to observe equipment and other military activities, and that she would only be performing the same activities that she had performed in the past, such as marching in formations, drills, and “ground-based physical fitness training.” (P. Kelly Decl., ¶ 10; T. Kelly Decl., ¶ 10.)

As a contract, the Liability [*24] Waiver is subject to the recognized rules of contract construction. Adder v. Holman & Moody, 288 N.C. 484, 492, 219 S.E.2d 190 (1975). “The heart of a contract is the intention of the parties,” which “must be determined from the language of the contract, the purposes of the contract, the subject matter and the situation of the parties at the time the contract is executed.” Id. Liability waivers are disfavored under North Carolina law, and strictly construed against the parties seeking to enforce them. Hall, 242 N.C. at 709. However, when the language is clear and unambiguous, construction of the agreement is a matter of law for the court, and the court cannot look beyond the terms of the contract to determine the parties’ intent. Root v. Allstate Ins. Co., 272 N.C. 580, 583, 158 S.E.2d 829 (1968).

In an analogous case, Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., No. 97-1394, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811 (4th Cir. April 6, 1998), the plaintiff rented a jet ski from the defendant, signing a rental agreement in which she “assume[d] all risk of accident or damages to my person . . . which may be incurred from or be connected in any manner with my use, operation or rental of the craft checked above.” 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, [WL] at *1. Plaintiff alleged that she did not understand that the form allowed defendant to escape liability for negligence. Id. Nevertheless, the court held that the clear and unambiguous language of the clause would bar her claim. 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, [WL] at *3-4.

Here, the Liability Waiver states [*25] in clear and unambiguous language that it is made “[i]n consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune,” and that it serves to waive “any and all rights and claims . . . including those attributable to simple negligence . . . which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me.” (DE 94-3).

As such, the waiver provides ample notice to plaintiffs of the potential for a wide range of activities at the event, not limited in any way to marching, drills, or “ground-based physical fitness training.” Plaintiffs do not allege that they were affirmatively misled as to the nature of the activities that would comprise the event, or that they were prevented from inquiring into the activities or the associated risks. They have not provided any reason for the court to look beyond the language clearly and unambiguously covering the circumstances of plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s injury. See Root, 272 N.C. at 583; Waggoner, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811 at *3-4; see also Kondrad v. Bismarck Park Dist., 2003 ND 4, 655 N.W. 2d 411, 413-14 (N.D. 2003) (Waiver language relinquishing [*26] all claims for injuries that would occur “on account of my participation of [sic] my child/ward in this program” exonerated park district from liability, even though child’s accident occurred during activity that was not “associated with the program;” language of waiver and release was “clear and unambiguous,” and “not limited only to injuries incurred while participating in activities associated with the program, but to all injuries incurred by the child on account of his participation in the program.”).

Plaintiffs also argue that summary judgment should be denied because plaintiff Morgan Kelly has disaffirmed it (by filing complaint) and because the Liability Waiver does not include express language waiving plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s claims on behalf of herself and her child. As noted above, the Liability Waiver refers to “my participation” in the “organized event” and states “I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized event.” (DE 94-3, at 1). This issue, too, was addressed in the court’s order on plaintiffs’ motion to strike. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 434-37. There, the court held that, despite plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s disaffirmation of the Liability [*27] Waiver, the document was nevertheless enforceable as signed by her parent. Id. Although the language of the Liability Waiver was written from plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s perspective, its plain language nevertheless stated that “I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, administrators, legal representatives and any other persons on my behalf . . . .” Id. at 438, n. 8.

Plaintiffs cite cases from other jurisdictions enforcing liability waivers signed by parents in which the waiver was tailored from the perspective of the signing parent. Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P. 3d 945, 948 (Colo. App. 2011) (“I, on behalf of myself and my child, hereby release . . .”); Sharon, 437 Mass. at 100-01 (“[I] the undersigned [father of] . . . a minor, do hereby consent to [her] participation in voluntary athletic programs and do forever RELEASE . . . all claims or right of action for damages which said minor has or hereafter may acquire.”). Yet plaintiffs have not cited any case holding that a form such as that used here, which expressly waives both the claims of the child and her guardians, and which is signed by one of those guardians, cannot be enforced against the guardian who signed it. The court again holds that the Liability [*28] Waiver is enforceable to bar the claims of both Morgan and Pamela Kelly.

The question remains whether the Liability Waiver is effective against the claims of plaintiff Terry Kelly, who did not sign the document, and denies ever seeing it prior to plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s orientation visit. (T. Kelly Decl. ¶ 14). Defendant nevertheless argues that plaintiff Terry Kelly’s claims should also be barred, asserting the doctrine of quasi-estoppel described above. As noted above, quasi-estoppel is applied when a party “accepts a transaction or instrument and then accepts benefits under it may be estopped to take a later position inconsistent with the prior acceptance of that same transaction or instrument.” Whitacre P’ship, 358 N.C. at 18. The doctrine faces problems in application to the Liability Waiver, however, where defendant has not directed the court to evidence that plaintiff Terry Kelly knew of the Liability Waiver or its terms.

However, it is not necessary to decide whether plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s signature could bind her husband under these circumstances, because defendant produced a document referred to as the “Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) Standard Release Form.” (DE 94-4) (“Release Form”) [*29] (See Attached as Addendum B hereto). Page 2 of the Release Form, dated July 13, 2007, provides the following:

I, Terry A Kelly, being the legal parent/guardian of Morgan Kelly, a member of the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, in consideration of the continuance of his/her membership in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps training, do hereby release from any and all claims, demands, actions, or causes of action, due to death, injury, or illness, the government of the United States and all its officers, representatives, and agents acting officially and also the local, regional, and national Navy Officials of the United States.

(DE 94-4 at 2).

In the paragraph quoted above, the names of plaintiffs Terry and Morgan Kelly are written by hand. Plaintiff Terry Kelly’s declaration provides that page 2 “appears to contains [sic] my handwriting, but I would have to see the original to be certain.” (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16).

Plaintiffs Terry and Pamela Kelly have attempted to challenge the Release Form, stating that they “do not believe that Document No. 94-4 is a genuine document.” In particular, they note that the front page, referenced as page 2 (the certification is appended [*30] as the first page of this filing), is identified as standard form “CNET 5800-4 (Rev. 1-00)” while the final page of the document, which includes a privacy act notification under which plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s name is signed, is identified as “CNET – General 5800/4 (REV. 1-95).” (DE 94-4 at 3; T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16; P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16). Like her husband, plaintiff Pamela Kelly declares that the writing on page 3 “looks like my signature, but I would need to see the original to be certain.” (P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16). She states that she does “not know when Page 3 of 3 was signed or for what purpose.” (Id.).

On April 27, 2011, the court amended its case management order to permit plaintiffs

to have until May 1, 2011, at their option, to visually inspect any original release and/or waiver document or documents relied upon by defendant at defendant’s counsel’s office. This deadline is without prejudice to plaintiffs’ right to have such document or documents examined by experts at a later date, if they deem necessary.

(April 27, 2011, order, p.1, DE 19).

It appears plaintiffs reviewed the Liability Waiver at defendant’s counsel’s office, but not the Release Form. (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 15; [*31] P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 15). No separate request to review was made.

Plaintiffs’ arguments are insufficient to create a genuine issue concerning the Release Form, which is accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity executed by the Compliance Officer of plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s school district, and notarized by a notary public. (DE 94-4 at 1). “Unsupported speculation . . . is not sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ash v. UPS, 800 F.2d 409, 411-12 (4th Cir. 1986)). Plaintiffs had opportunity to review the original Release Form, and to have it assessed by an expert if deemed necessary. An opponent of summary judgment “must produce more than frivolous assertions, unsupported statements, illusory issues and mere suspicions.” Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Rodenberg, 571 F. Supp. 455, 457 (D. Md. 1983); see also 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Fed. Practice and Procedure: Civil 3d § 2727 at 510-12 (1998) (“Neither frivolous assertions nor mere suspicions will suffice to justify a denial of summary judgment.”). It is little more than speculation to argue that the Release Form is not genuine, based merely on minor distinctions in form designations between pages. Similarly, plaintiffs’ allegations that they would “have to see the original” to be sure of their signatures amount to nothing more than mere suspicions, [*32] and they had this opportunity. Furthermore, neither Terry nor Pamela Kelly expressly denies seeing or writing on the pages where their names appear. This cannot create a genuine issue for summary judgment.7

7 To the extent plaintiffs’ challenge is an attack on the document’s authentication under Federal Rules of Evidence 901 and 902, it still fails to create a genuine issue of material fact. A party may show the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact by objecting “that the material cited to support or dispute a fact cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). However, the Certificate of Authenticity signed by the school district’s Compliance Officer satisfies the court that this document could be made admissible in evidence at trial.

The document therefore shows plaintiff Terry Kelly’s acceptance of a transaction whereby his claims were released “in consideration of” plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s continued participation in NJROTC training activities. The Release Form refers to “any and all claims.” In Waggoner, the court held that “the term ‘all claims’ must doubtless include a claim for negligence.” Waggoner, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811, at *4. See also Young v. Prancing Horse, Inc., No. COA04-727, 2005 N.C. App. LEXIS 1108, 2005 WL 1331065, at *2 (N.C. App. June 7, 2005) (“[W]e cannot agree with plaintiff [*33] that the absence of the word ‘negligence’ makes the release inoperable to bar this claim . . . . With all due regard to the severity of the injuries suffered by plaintiff, they are of the type contemplated and intended by this release.”).

Even if the Release Form failed to refer to the orientation visit in sufficiently specific terms, quasi-estoppel must operate to bar plaintiff Terry Kelly’s claims, because the record shows that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted the benefits of the Release Form as it applied to the orientation visit. By detailing the kind of activities that he “understood” and “anticipated” his child would be involved in when she arrived at the orientation visit, plaintiff Terry Kelly’s declaration discloses that he knew plaintiff Morgan Kelly would be visiting Camp Lejeune. (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 10). He also alleges that “[a] monetary payment was required as a condition of Morgan’s attendance at the orientation visit,” indicating that he consented to payment for the visit. Id. at ¶ 5. He does not allege any objection to his daughters’ attendance or participation. He does not allege that he was estranged from his family, or that he was kept unaware of the upcoming activity. [*34]

“[A] party will not be allowed to accept benefits which arise from certain terms of a contract and at the same time deny the effect of other terms of the same agreement.” Brooks v. Hackney, 329 N.C. 166, 173, 404 S.E.2d 854 (1991). In Brooks, the court determined that even though an agreement to convey real property was invalid because its terms were not sufficiently definite, the plaintiff was estopped from denying its validity because he had made regular payments on the agreement, and therefore that the defendants reasonably relied on the writing. Id. at 171-73.

The same principle operates here, where plaintiff Terry Kelly signed a Release Form surrendering claims related to his daughter’s participation in NJROTC training, then allowed his daughter to attend a NJROTC training orientation visit. On the evidence, there is no genuine issue that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted that plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s “membership in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps training,” included the orientation visit. In consideration of this training, including the orientation visit, he released “claims, demands, actions, or causes of action, due to . . . injury.” Defendant reasonably relied on plaintiff Terry Kelly’s writing, in addition to his acquiescence to his [*35] daughter’s attendance at the orientation visit. Plaintiff Terry Kelly cannot be allowed to accept the benefits of the Release Form through his daughter’s attendance, while at the same time denying the release that was required as a condition of that attendance.

With all of plaintiffs’ claims disposed by waiver and release, summary judgment must be granted.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above, the court GRANTS defendant’s motion for summary judgment. (DE 93). The clerk is DIRECTED to close this case.

SO ORDERED, this the 25th day of September, 2014.

/s/ Louise W. Flanagan

LOUISE W. FLANAGAN

United States District Judge

ADDENDUM A

Waiver of liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement United States Marine Corps

Dated: July 20, 2007

EXHIBIT B

WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK AGREEMENT UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS

In consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and further recognizing the voluntary nature of my participation in this event, I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, administrators, legal representatives and any other [*36] persons on my behalf, any and all rights and claims for damages, demands, and any other actions whatsoever, including those attributable to simple negligence, which I may have against any of the following persons or entities: the United States of America; the Depart of Defense; the Department of the Navy; the United States Marine Corps; Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; any and all individuals assigned to or employed by the United States, including but not limited to the Secretary of Defense; the Secretary of the Navy; the Commandant of the Marine Corps; Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; in both their official and personal capacities; any medical support personnel assigned thereto; and these, persons’ or entities’ representatives, successors, and assigns; which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment, or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me. I FURTHER VERIFY THAT I HAVE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ATTENDING THIS EVENT. I EXPRESSLY, [*37] KNOWINGLY, AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISKS INVOLVED IN THE PLANNED ACTIVITIES INCLUDING TRANSPORTATION TO AND FROM THE EVENT, AND AGREE TO HOLD THE UNITED STATES HARMLESS FOR ANY RESULTING INJURY. I understand that this assumption of risk agreement shall remain in effect until notice of cancellation is received by the Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized event.

(Signature of Witness)

[TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

/s/ Morgan E. Kelly 7/19/07

(Signature) (Date)

Morgan E. Kelly

(Printed Name)

/s/ Pamela D. Kelly

(Signature of Parent/Guardian)

on behalf of Morgan

(Name of Minor)

Date: 7-20-07

Participants Information/POC Page

FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY

(Please Print Legibly)

Participant Last Name, First Name, Initial: Kelly Pamela D

Parent/Guardian Name: Pam Kelly

Home Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

Work Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

Cellular Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

Alternative Adult to be Contacted in Case of Emergency and Relation to Participant: Terry Kelly

Home Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

Work Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE [*38] COURT]

Cellular Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]

Does the Participant have Any Allergies or Special Medical Conditions? None

ADDENDUM B

Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC)

Standard Release Form With Certificate of Authenticity

Dated: July 13, 2007

EXHIBIT 2

CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY

The undersigned certifies that I am the person responsible for keeping of school and\or student records in behalf of the Henry County Board of Education and that the within and attached is a true and accurate copy of certain school system records of

Morgan Kelly (DOB: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT])

thereof kept in the normal course of business of the Henry County School System. This Certificate of Authenticity may be used in lieu of the personal appearance of the person certifying hereto.

/s/ Archie Preston Malcom

Archie Preston Malcom, Bd.D

Compliance Officer (Contracted)

11-14-2013

Sworn to and subscribed before me on this 14th day of November 2013

/s/ Slyvia S/ Burch

Notary Public

My Commission Expires: 07/21/16

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Kindrich III et al., v. Long Beach Yacht Club et al., 167 Cal. App. 4th 1252; 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 824; 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 1705

Kindrich III et al., v. Long Beach Yacht Club et al., 167 Cal. App. 4th 1252; 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 824; 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 1705

Carl Kindrich III et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. Long Beach Yacht Club et al., Defendants and Respondents.

G038290

COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION THREE

167 Cal. App. 4th 1252; 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 824; 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 1705

October 28, 2008, Filed

COUNSEL: Brunick, McElhaney & Beckett and Steven K. Beckett for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Cogswell Nakazawa & Chang, Christina L. Owen and Dena S. Aghabeg for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: Opinion by Rylaarsdam, J., with Sills, P. J., concurring. Dissenting opinion by Bedsworth, J.

OPINION BY: Rylaarsdam [*1255]

OPINION

[**825] RYLAARSDAM, J.–Plaintiff Carl Kindrich III was injured while disembarking from a boat after participating in casting his late father’s ashes [**826] into the ocean. He sued defendants Long Beach Yacht Club, the owner of the boat and the dock, and Charles Fuller, the boat’s skipper, alleging they had been negligent in their use and maintenance of both the boat and the dock–specifically because they failed either to have someone on the dock to assist in tying off the boat when it returned, or to ensure that the portable steps, previously used in boarding the boat, would be available for his use when he attempted to disembark. Carl’s wife, Barbara, and son, Michael, also sued. Barbara claimed loss of consortium, and Michael claimed emotional distress suffered as an aural percipient witness to his father’s injury. (Because [***2] all three plaintiffs have the same last name, we will refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion and not out of disrespect.)

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, reasoning the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied to Carl’s decision to jump off the boat onto the dock. All plaintiffs appeal, contending the court improperly concluded that the act of jumping onto the dock was an activity subject to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. We agree that the court’s analysis was incorrect. Carl was not engaged in the type of sporting event where the doctrine of primary assumption of risk should be applied. At most Carl may have assumed risks, categorized as secondary assumption of risk, which are subsumed in contributory negligence. Whether he was contributorily negligent and, if so, how his negligence compares with that of defendants, if any, are questions of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact.

Defendants also contend summary judgment was properly granted because they were not negligent. But this is another question of fact and not subject to summary judgment. Defendants’ additional issues, whether Barbara suffered damages and whether [***3] Michael’s awareness of his father’s accident qualifies him as a “bystander” entitled to recover on a theory of negligent infliction of emotional distress, also raise questions of fact.

We therefore reverse the summary judgment.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The complaint alleges that plaintiffs and some of their relatives and friends gathered at the Yacht Club to participate in a “burial at sea” of the ashes of Carl’s late father. The Yacht Club arranged for the attendees to be taken to the burial site on a boat it owned and maintained and assigned Fuller to pilot that boat. The Yacht Club provided portable stairs on the dock to assist the [*1256] attendees in boarding. Plaintiffs contend that, when the boat returned to the dock, the portable steps were no longer in place. According to the complaint, Fuller told Carl to tie off the boat; there was no one on the dock waiting to do so. As Carl “started to jump from the side of the boat onto the dock … , the boat and dock moved relative to each other causing [Carl] to fall and injure himself.”

Plaintiffs allege causes of action for Carl’s personal injury, Barbara’s loss of consortium, and emotional distress suffered by Michael when he witnessed [***4] his father’s accident.

Defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued that Carl’s claim failed as a matter of law because (1) he assumed any risk of injury from his voluntary decision to jump onto the dock from the boat; and (2) they did not breach any duty of care they might have owed him and had no actual or constructive notice that the portable stairs may not have been in place when the boat returned to the [**827] dock. They also asserted that Barbara’s claim failed as a matter of law, both because it was derivative of Carl’s claim and because her discovery responses revealed no loss of consortium damages. Finally, defendants maintained Michael’s claim failed as a matter of law because it was derivative of Carl’s and because Michael was not actually aware of his father’s injury until after it had occurred.

These are the relevant undisputed facts offered in support of the motion: Carl’s father, a member of the Yacht Club before he died, had expressed the wish to be “buried at sea.” The Yacht Club agreed to assist with such a burial and permitted the Kindrich family to use one of its boats, without charge, for the ceremony. The Yacht Club also agreed to let Fuller, one of its long-standing [***5] members and a good friend of Carl’s father, pilot the boat for the ceremony.

Carl, Barbara, and Michael, along with other family members, used portable steps located on the dock to board the boat for the ceremony. After the ceremony was over, Carl and Michael were up on the bridge with Fuller, who piloted the boat back to the dock. According to Carl’s testimony, “[a]fter the burial, we were bringing the boat in and … not too far from the dock, [Fuller] looked to me and says ‘We have to tie up the boat, and someone else will have to help.’ And Michael and I were the only two on the bridge … . And so Michael said that he would help … . [¶] … When [Fuller] turned the boat into the dock and we had gotten up to the dock and we were getting ready to get off the boat, Mike, my son, jumped to the dock. We didn’t see the steps. The steps weren’t there. And then after Mike jumped off, I jumped off, also … .” [*1257]

Carl stated that at the moment he jumped off the boat, it was hit by the wake from another boat, causing it to “go up as he stepped off the boat and when he came down onto the deck, he broke his leg.” The boat used for the burial ceremony does not require more than two [***6] people to tie it up when it reaches the dock–one person to operate the boat and one person on the dock to tie the lines.

Plaintiffs opposed the summary judgment, arguing this was not a proper case for applying the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, and the case could not be summarily adjudicated on the basis that defendants acted with reasonable care as a matter of law. Plaintiffs argued there were numerous factual disputes relating to whether defendants satisfied the duty of care they owed to the passengers on their boat, and those issues must ultimately be resolved by a jury.

At the hearing, the court explained its initial thinking in favor of granting the summary judgment: “We have some conflicts in the facts as to whether he jumped, or stepped, or lowered himself, or whatever, but that doesn’t matter. What didn’t happen was he wasn’t pushed. He wasn’t ordered. He voluntarily undertook an activity that was inherently dangerous; namely, disembarking from a moving boat obviously onto the dock and he hurt himself. [¶] I believe that without really much hesitation that … primary assumption of the risk applies and the motions should be granted for summary judgment.”

Although [***7] plaintiffs’ counsel attempted to persuade the court that Fuller directed Carl to assist in tying up the boat, and thus his decision to jump from the boat should not be regarded as voluntary, the court did not agree. “[Carl] assumed the risk of something in this recreational activity going wrong. [¶] It did go wrong. The precise wrong is irrelevant. One way or the other he voluntarily disembarked the boat … with the idea of going onto [**828] the dock, and this was an unsafe thing to do.”

The formal order granting the motion cited two bases. First, the court found that “even if the portable steps were actually missing when the vessel … arrived back at dock after the burial at sea, [d]efendants had no notice, constructive or actual, of their absence. … [¶] The Court additionally finds that [d]efendants are entitled to summary adjudication on their Fourth Affirmative Defense because when [p]laintiff … made the deliberate and conscious decision to jump from the vessel … to the dock, he, with full knowledge thereof, knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of sustaining injury. (See Meintsma v. United States [(9th Cir. 1947)] 164 F.2d 976 … ; see also DeRoche v. Commodore Cruise Line, Ltd. (1994) 31 Cal.App.4th 802, 810 [46 Cal. Rptr. 2d 468] [***8] (‘[It] is settled that there is no duty to warn of a danger that is as obvious to the injured party as to the defendant.’).)” [*1258]

The order granted summary judgment against Barbara and Michael as well, concluding Barbara’s claim for loss of consortium was derivative as a matter of law and that any distinct claim for emotional distress was precluded by the fact she did not actually witness Carl’s injury. As to Michael’s claim, the court concluded that a bystander’s recovery for extreme emotional distress was dependent upon a determination the injury he witnessed was negligently inflicted. Since Carl’s negligence claim failed, Michael’s did as well.

DISCUSSION

Primary Versus Secondary Assumption of Risk

(1) Even were we to conclude that Carl’s decision to jump off the boat was a voluntary one, and that therefore he assumed a risk inherent in doing so, this is not enough to provide a complete defense. [HN1] Because voluntary assumption of risk as a complete defense in a negligence action was abandoned in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804, 829 [119 Cal. Rptr. 858, 532 P.2d 1226], only the absence of duty owed a plaintiff under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk would provide such a defense. But that doctrine does not come [***9] into play except when a plaintiff and a defendant are engaged in certain types of activities, such as an “active sport.” That was not the case here; plaintiff was merely the passenger on a boat. Under Li, he may have been contributorily negligent but this would only go to reduce the amount of damages to which he is entitled.

Before Li, contributory negligence and voluntary assumption of risk were distinct and complete defenses in an action for negligence. Under certain circumstances, the “last clear chance” doctrine provided relief from the harshness of the rules. Li changed all that. It adopted the doctrine of comparative negligence and held that “[t]he [HN2] doctrine of last clear chance is abolished, and the defense of assumption of risk is also abolished to the extent that it is merely a variant of the former doctrine of contributory negligence; both of these are to be subsumed under the general process of assessing liability in proportion to negligence.” (Li v. Yellow Cab Co., supra, 13 Cal.3d at p. 829.)

Li recognized that there are at least two distinct forms of assumption of risk. “As for assumption of risk, we have recognized in this state that this defense overlaps that of contributory [***10] negligence to some extent and in fact is made up of at least two distinct defenses. ‘To simplify greatly, it has been observed … that in one kind of situation, to wit, where a plaintiff unreasonably undertakes to encounter a specific known risk imposed by a defendant’s negligence, [**829] plaintiff’s conduct, although he may encounter that risk in a prudent manner, is in reality a form of contributory negligence … . [*1259] Other kinds of situations within the doctrine of assumption of risk are those, for example, where plaintiff is held to agree to relieve defendant of an obligation of reasonable conduct toward him. Such a situation would not involve contributory negligence, but rather a reduction of defendant’s duty of care.’ [Citations.] We think it clear that the adoption of a system of comparative negligence should entail the merger of the defense of assumption of risk into the general scheme of assessment of liability in proportion to fault in those particular cases in which the form of assumption of risk involved is no more than a variant of contributory negligence. [Citation.]” (Li v. Yellow Cab Co., supra, 13 Cal.3d at pp. 824-825.)

(2) So, [HN3] to the extent that “‘”a plaintiff unreasonably [***11] undertakes to encounter a specific known risk imposed by a defendant’s negligence,”‘” he or she is subject to the defense of comparative negligence but not to an absolute defense. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 305-306 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696].) This type of comparative negligence has been referred to as ” ‘secondary assumption of risk.’ ” (Id. at p. 308.) Assumption of risk that is based upon the absence of a defendant’s duty of care is called ” ‘primary assumption of risk.’ ” (Ibid.) “First, in ‘primary assumption of risk’ cases–where the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm–a plaintiff who has suffered such harm is not entitled to recover from the defendant, whether the plaintiff’s conduct in undertaking the activity was reasonable or unreasonable. Second, in ‘secondary assumption of risk’ cases–involving instances in which the defendant has breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff–the defendant is not entitled to be entirely relieved of liability for an injury proximately caused by such breach, simply because the plaintiff’s conduct in encountering the risk of such an injury was reasonable rather than unreasonable.” (Id. at p. 309.)

Primary assumption [***12] of risk, “‘”where plaintiff is held to agree to relieve defendant of an obligation of reasonable conduct toward him”‘” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 306), remains as a complete defense. That defense was not fully developed until our Supreme Court decided Knight v. Jewett. There, Knight sued Jewett for negligence and assault and battery after she was injured when Jewett knocked her over and stepped on her finger during a touch football game. In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, the court held that under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty. It “conclude[d] that a participant in an active sport breaches a legal duty of care to other participants–i.e., engages in conduct that properly may subject him or her to financial liability–only if the participant intentionally injures another player or engages in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” (Id. at p. 320, fn. omitted.) [*1260]

(3) Knight shifted the focus of assumption of risk from a plaintiff’s “subjective knowledge and awareness” of the risk to the nature of the activity in question. (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 313.) [***13] [HN4] “In cases involving ‘primary assumption of risk’–where, by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties’ relationship to the [**830] activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury–the doctrine continues to operate as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.” (Id. at pp. 314-315.) Knight justified maintaining the defense in a sports setting because there “conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself” (id. at p. 315), and imposing liability “might well alter fundamentally the nature of the sport by deterring participants from vigorously engaging in activity that falls close to, but on the permissible side of, a prescribed rule” (id. at p. 319). The focus of the questions should consider the nature of the activity and the relationship of the parties to the activity. (Id. at p. 315.)

There are situations other than active sports where under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk a plaintiff is held to agree to relieve a defendant of an obligation of reasonable conduct toward him or her. For example, Knight stated, “In addition to the sports [***14] setting, the primary assumption of risk doctrine also comes into play in the category of cases often described as involving the ‘firefighter’s rule.’ [Citation.] In its most classic form, the firefighter’s rule involves the question whether a person who negligently has started a fire is liable for an injury sustained by a firefighter who is summoned to fight the fire; the rule provides that the person who started the fire is not liable under such circumstances. [Citation.] Although a number of theories have been cited to support this conclusion, the most persuasive explanation is that the party who negligently started the fire had no legal duty to protect the firefighter from the very danger that the firefighter is employed to confront. [Citations.] Because the defendant in such a case owes no duty to protect the firefighter from such risks, the firefighter has no cause of action even if the risk created by the fire was so great that a trier of fact could find it was unreasonable for the firefighter to choose to encounter the risk.” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 309-310, fn. 5.)

Other examples of primary assumption of risk are the so-called veterinarian’s rule (e.g., Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112, 1121, fn. 1 [47 Cal. Rptr. 3d 553, 140 P.3d 848]) [***15] or where the plaintiff is hired to undertake a particular, dangerous job (e.g., Farnam v. State of California (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 1448, 1455 [101 Cal. Rptr. 2d 642]; Herrle v. Estate of Marshall (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1761, 1765 [53 Cal. Rptr. 2d 713]). But for purposes of this case, we need only consider whether Carl’s injuries occurred while he was engaged in an “active sport,” which relieved defendants of a duty of care. [*1261]

There are more than 100 published cases defining what is and what is not an “active sport” qualifying for application of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. “Since the decision in Knight, which involved a recreational game of touch football, our state Supreme Court and appellate courts have examined the applicability of the primary assumption of the risk defense in a wide variety of cases involving sports and recreational activities. In Ford[ v. Gouin (1992)] 3 Cal.4th 339 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 30, 834 P.2d 724], the companion case to Knight, the Supreme Court expanded the doctrine and applied it to the noncompetitive, nonteam sporting activity of waterskiing. The Supreme Court has applied the doctrine to other sports, including intercollegiate baseball (Avila v. Citrus Community College Dist. (2006) 38 Cal.4th 148, 161 [**831] [41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 299, 131 P.3d 383]), swimming (Kahn[ v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003)] 31 Cal.4th [990,] 1004-1005 [4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30] [***16] [examining coach’s relationship to sport]), and snow skiing (Cheong v. Antablin (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1063, 1067-1068 [68 Cal. Rptr. 2d 859, 946 P.2d 817] …). [Citation.] The Courts of Appeal have applied the primary assumption of the risk rule in cases involving snow skiing (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8 [45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855]), ‘off-roading’ with a motorcycle or ‘dune buggy’ (Distefano v. Forester (2001) 85 Cal.App.4th 1249, 1255, 1259-1265 [102 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813]), skateboarding (Calhoon v. Lewis (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 108, 115-117 [96 Cal. Rptr. 2d 394]), figure ice skating (Staten v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1628, 1632-1636 [53 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657]), and long-distance group bicycle riding (Moser v. Ratinoff (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 1211, 1218-1223 [130 Cal. Rptr. 2d 198]), to name a few.” (Truong v. Nguyen (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 865, 878-879 [67 Cal. Rptr. 3d 675] [primary assumption of risk applied to bar action for injury to passenger on jet ski].)

In Record v. Reason (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 472 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 547], the court held that where the plaintiff was injured when he fell off an inner tube while being towed behind a motor boat, primary assumption of risk applied. In doing so, the court considered the issue of whether a particular activity was a “sport” such that the doctrine should be applied. [***17] After reviewing a substantial number of cases applying primary assumption of risk to a variety of activities, the court concluded that “[c]ompiling all of the distinguishing factors, it appears that an activity falls within the meaning of ‘sport’ if the activity is done for enjoyment or thrill, requires physical exertion as well as elements of skill, and involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.” (Id. at p. 482.) Although we agree with the result in Record its reliance on a plaintiff’s subjective reasons for participating in a sport seems inconsistent with Knight‘s test, which focuses on whether imposing liability would “alter fundamentally the nature of the sport by deterring participants from” vigorous participation. (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 319.) [*1262]

(4) Stimson v. Carlson (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1201, 1205 [14 Cal. Rptr. 2d 670] applied primary assumption of risk to sailing where the plaintiff was one of the crew operating the boat; the court noted that sailing involves swinging booms and physical participation of crew. But in our case, plaintiff was not a participant in the “sport” of boating or in any “active sport.” He was a passenger. Thus [HN5] this activity does not fall within [***18] the test set out in Knight, i.e., that to hold defendants owed no duty to plaintiffs would “alter fundamentally the nature of [a] sport by deterring participants from” vigorous participation. (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 319.)

This case is more analogous to Shannon v. Rhodes (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 792 [112 Cal. Rptr. 2d 217]. There a six-year-old child and her siblings sued the owner and operator of a ski boat for negligence arising from injuries sustained by the child when she fell from the boat into the boat’s propeller. The Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment, holding that primary assumption of risk did not apply. The court noted, “Our analysis begins by examining with what activity the Knight court was concerned. In Knight, the court came to the commonsense conclusion that when two people are playing a sport together one should not be liable to the other for injuries sustained while playing that sport [**832] absent some recklessness or intentional misconduct. [Citation.] The parties in Knight were engaged in a recreational game of football, clearly a physical activity and ‘sport’ within any common understanding of the word.” (Id. at p. 796.) Shannon held that the defense did not apply where [***19] the plaintiff was merely a passenger in the ski boat. (Id. at p. 801.)

Shannon distinguished Ford v. Gouin, supra, 3 Cal.4th 339, the waterskiing case, by noting that in Ford, our Supreme Court “explicitly used the language ‘noncompetitive but active sports activity’ in applying the doctrine to waterskiing. [Citation.] A review of the reasoning set forth in Ford makes clear that the court focused on the physical skill and risk involved in the waterskiing itself to conclude that the activity of waterskiing was a sport, and the boat driver a coparticipant in that sport. [Citation.] The same certainly cannot be said of a mere passenger in a boat … .” (Shannon v. Rhodes, supra, 92 Cal.App.4th at p. 798.)

(5) Here, the trial court characterized the activity in which plaintiff engaged as “jumping” rather than boating. We disagree that [HN6] we must surgically separate an activity’s constituent parts apart from the general activity in which the plaintiff was engaged. Carl was engaged in boating, not in jumping. If he had been a jumper, in the sense of one who competes in athletic events, our conclusion would be different. But he was disembarking from the boat; his method of doing so, be it leaping, jumping, stepping off, or walking the gangplank, [***20] did not turn his activity into an “active sport.” [*1263]

We therefore conclude that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk does not bar plaintiffs’ action.

Defendants’ Remaining Arguments

(6) We need not expend a great deal of time dealing with the rest of defendants’ arguments. Although these were not the basis for the grant of summary judgment, we will comment briefly. Defendants contend they acted with reasonable care. But this argument should be made not to us but to the trier of facts. [HN7] Whether reasonable care has been exercised is normally a question of fact. (Butigan v. Yellow Cab Co. (1958) 49 Cal.2d 652, 656 [320 P.2d 500].) Even if defendants were not responsible for the removal of the steps, and they contend the steps were there, this would only be one possible theory of liability. And, in light of the conflicting evidence, it is not for us to decide whether the steps were removed and, if so, by whom.

(7) As to defendants’ argument that Carl’s wife, Barbara, did not sustain damages to support her loss of consortium claim, the contention rests on the absence of evidence of physical injuries. But, as plaintiffs point out, “[a]lthough [HN8] loss of consortium may have physical consequences, it is principally a form [***21] of mental suffering.” (Rodriguez v. Bethlehem Steel Corp. (1974) 12 Cal.3d 382, 401 [115 Cal. Rptr. 765, 525 P.2d 669].)

(8) Defendants’ final argument is equally specious. [HN9] Whether or not Carl’s son, Michael, had such a contemporaneous sensory awareness of the accident as to satisfy the requirements of Thing v. La Chusa (1989) 48 Cal.3d 644, 668-669 [257 Cal. Rptr. 865, 771 P.2d 814] is again a question of fact, not to be resolved by us.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is reversed. Appellants shall recover their costs.

Sills, P. J., concurred.

DISSENT BY: BEDSWORTH

DISSENT

BEDSWORTH, J., Dissenting.–“No good deed goes unpunished” has become a truism of modern life. Today, [**833] by allowing suit against a yacht club that tried to help one of the sons of a member in his time of grief, only to be sued when he hurt himself intruding into their conduct of the good deed, my colleagues give this sad commentary on modern society the force of law. I respectfully dissent from that.

Carl Kindrich III was injured when he jumped off a boat and onto a dock. He did so voluntarily, after he knew his adult son, Michael, had already [*1264] gotten onto the dock to assist in tying off the boat. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone suggested, let alone required, that Kindrich himself must get off the boat prior [***22] to the time the stairs were put into place on the dock for the egress of passengers. Nonetheless, Kindrich, along with his wife and son, sued both the Long Beach Yacht Club and Charles Fuller, the Yacht Club member who captained the boat, alleging they were responsible for his injuries.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, and I would affirm that judgment. I believe the trial court properly concluded that Kindrich’s specific act of “jumping onto the dock,” rather than the more generic and sedate “boating” was the relevant “activity” for purposes of assessing his assumption of risk. In my view, jumping or stepping some two and one-half or three feet off the side of a boat onto a dock–merely because portable steps had not yet been put into place–is no more an integral part of “boating” than diving out a window–because no one has yet opened the door–is an integral part of visiting a house.

This was not an outing or an excursion. It was not a leisurely sail. The trip was made to dispose of the ashes of Kindrich’s father. The injury in question was not the result of “boating.” Kindrich was not swept off the boat by a wave or hit by a jib. He jumped off the [***23] boat at the conclusion of the trip before the boat had been tied up. His injury was the result of his sudden decision he would leap off the boat rather than waiting for his son to finish tying it off and ensuring debarkation could be safely accomplished.

It is undisputed that defendants did not expect, let alone require, that passengers would have to jump off this particular boat as part of the “boating” experience. To my mind, the existence of portable stairs, which had been used by these passengers when boarding the boat, and were intended to be kept on the dock for the passengers to use in both getting on and off the boat, rather conclusively establishes the lack of any such expectation. And Kindrich’s own testimony demonstrates that even he did not consider jumping off the side of the boat onto the dock to be a normal part of this boat ride, let alone an integral part of the activity of “boating” in general. As Kindrich explained it, he not only did not expect that anyone else on the boat would be jumping off, he believed them unable to do it. 1

1 As Kindrich explained in his deposition, “Jim, my brother, has a back to where he can’t do a lot of jumping; Mary Ann would not be capable [***24] of doing it; Lisa wouldn’t be capable of doing it; my grandsons would not be capable of doing it. And the other two gentlemen would not be capable of doing it.”

Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone–either Fuller or the Yacht Club–imposed some special obligation on Kindrich to jump off the boat and [*1265] be on the dock while it was being tied up. Instead, Kindrich’s own testimony establishes that (1) Fuller merely stated (either directly to Kindrich or generally to him and his son) that it was necessary to tie up the boat, and “someone else” would have to assist; (2) Kindrich’s son immediately volunteered to do that; and (3) Kindrich was aware his son [**834] had already jumped onto the dock for the purpose of tying off lines before his own ill-fated attempt to follow suit. Even assuming it was actually necessary for “someone” to be on the dock–a fact disputed below–it is uncontested that need had been met prior to Kindrich’s jump.

Under these facts, it is clear that jumping off the boat before the stairs were in place was not a requirement placed generally on those who were passengers on the boat, and it was not a requirement placed specifically on Kindrich by any defendant. 2 Hence, [***25] Kindrich’s decision to do so was simply an optional, and entirely voluntary act, which must be distinguished, for analytical purposes, from any normal aspect of “boating.”

2 Of course, I do not mean to suggest Kindrich necessarily thought through these events with the specificity I have just employed. Presumably, he just figured if Fuller needed help getting the boat tied onto the dock, he was willing to do whatever he could to assist. But that instinct is the essence of volunteerism: “Somebody ought to do it, might as well be me” is not the same thing as being specifically assigned a task. And the fact Fuller might even have appreciated having two people on the dock is not the same thing as concluding he actually directed Kindrich to get onto the dock–by whatever means possible–as soon as the boat arrived. Based upon the evidence in this case, the trial court correctly determined Kindrich was acting voluntarily when he jumped off the boat.

As my colleagues seem to concede, when Kindrich’s activity is construed not as an integral part of “boating” but rather as simply an impetuous act of “jumping off the boat,” it falls within the scope of “athletic” endeavors, which includes those [***26] noncompetitive activities requiring some level of “physical skill and risk,” and thus primary assumption of the risk would apply. (See Ford v. Gouin (1992) 3 Cal.4th 339, 345 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 30, 834 P.2d 724]; Shannon v. Rhodes (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 792, 798 [112 Cal. Rptr. 2d 217].) Because I see it that way, I would apply that doctrine, and grant the summary judgment.

But I should also note that I disagree with the majority’s analysis for an additional reason. As they explain, they considered Kindrich’s situation to be more analogous to Shannon v. Rhodes, supra, 92 Cal.App.4th 792, in which the injured plaintiff, a six-year-old child, was merely a passenger when she fell out of a boat that lurched unexpectedly, than to Stimson v. Carlson (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1201 [14 Cal. Rptr. 2d 670], in which the court applied primary assumption of the risk to a plaintiff who was injured while serving as a crewmember on a sailboat. If that is the analysis, it would lead me to the opposite conclusion. After all, a cornerstone of Kindrich’s theory of liability [*1266] is the assertion he had agreed to help with the docking of the boat, which is why–unlike the other passengers–he could not simply wait for the stairs to be put in place before getting onto the dock. If we accept [***27] his view, it seems clear that at the time of the accident, Kindrich had assumed the role of “crew,” rather than remaining a mere passenger. That would bring him within the majority’s characterization of Stimson. For that reason as well, I would affirm the judgment.

My colleagues have expanded civil liability beyond previous decisional law and beyond my ability to sign on. This ship will have to sail without me.

Respondents’ petition for review by the Supreme Court was denied February 11, 2009, S168902. Werdegar, J., did not participate therein.


Angelo, v. USA Triathlon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

Angelo, v. USA Triathlon, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

Cheryl Angelo, Personal Representative of the Estate of Richard Angelo, Plaintiff, v. USA Triathlon, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 13-12177-LTS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131759

September 18, 2014, Decided

September 19, 2014, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Cheryl Angelo, Plaintiff: Alan L. Cantor, LEAD ATTORNEY, Joseph A. Swartz, Peter J. Towne, Swartz & Swartz, Boston, MA.

For USA TRIATHLON, Defendant: Douglas L. Fox, Shumway, Giguere, Fox PC, Worcester, MA.

JUDGES: Leo T. Sorokin, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Leo T. Sorokin

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

SOROKIN, D.J.

This action arises from a tragic set of facts in which Richard Angelo died while participating in the swim portion of a triathlon organized by the defendant, USA Triathlon (“USAT”). Plaintiff Cheryl Angelo (“the plaintiff”), as personal representative of Richard Angelo (“Angelo” or “the decedent”), has brought claims of wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. USAT has counterclaimed for indemnity against any liability and legal costs associated with this action pursuant to indemnity agreements executed by the decedent prior to his participation in the triathlon. USAT has now moved for partial summary judgment on its claim for indemnity. Doc. No. 18. The plaintiff has opposed the Motion. Doc. No. 19. For the reasons stated below, USAT’s Motion is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. [*2] STATEMENT OF FACTS

The following facts are stated in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the nonmoving party, although the key facts for the purposes of this motion are not disputed. Angelo was a member of USAT since, at the latest, 2011. Doc. No. 18-1 at 1 ¶ 3. When Angelo last renewed his membership on August 12, 2011, he agreed to and electronically signed a “Waiver and Release of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” Id. at 1 ¶ 3, 4. That agreement only required the member to execute the document, and, accordingly, the plaintiff did not sign the form. Id. at 4-5. That document contained a provision that, in its entirety, reads as follows:

4. I hereby Release, Waive and Covenant Not to Sue, and further agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless the following parties: USAT, the Event Organizers and Promoters, Race Directors, Sponsors, Advertisers, Host Cities, Local Organizing Committees, Venues and Property Owners upon which the Event takes place, Law Enforcement Agencies and other Public Entities providing support for the Event, and each of their respective parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies, officers, directors, partners, shareholders, members, agents, employees [*3] and volunteers (Individually and Collectively, the “Released Parties” or “Event Organizers”), with respect to any liability, claim(s), demand(s), cause(s) of action, damage(s), loss or expense (including court costs and reasonable attorneys [sic] fees) of any kind or nature (“Liability”) which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation in the Event, including claims for Liability caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the Released Parties. I further agree that if, despite this Agreement, I, or anyone on my behalf, makes a claim for Liability against any of the Released Parties, I will indemnify, defend and hold harmless each of the Released Parties from any such Liability which any [sic] may be incurred as the result of such claim.

Id. at 4.

USAT arranged to hold its National Age Group Championship on August 18, 2012, in Burlington, Vermont. Id. at 2 ¶ 5. On February 17, 2012, Angelo registered for the championship and, as part of his registration, electronically signed an indemnity agreement identical to the one excerpted above. Id. at 2 ¶ 6. As with the prior agreement, only Angelo as the participant was required to, and in fact did, sign the form. Doc. Nos. 18-1 at 33-34, 19-2 [*4] at 3. Angelo competed in that triathlon and died during his participation in the swim portion of that event or shortly thereafter. Doc. No. 18-2 at 11-12.

The plaintiff, the decedent’s wife and the personal representative of his estate, then brought this action in Essex Superior Court, alleging wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering by the decedent, gross negligence resulting in the decedent’s death, and negligent infliction of emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff, who was present at the site of the race. Doc. No. 6 at 12-16. USAT subsequently removed the action to this Court. Doc. No. 1.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Once a party “has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who ‘may not rest on mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Barbour v. Dynamics Research Corp., 63 F.3d 32, 37 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). The Court is “obliged to []view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw all reasonable inferences [*5] in the nonmoving party’s favor.” LeBlanc v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 6 F.3d 836, 841 (1st Cir. 1993). Even so, the Court is to ignore “conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation.” Prescott v. Higgins, 538 F.3d 32, 39 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990)). A court may enter summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986).

III. DISCUSSION

USAT has moved for partial summary judgment on their counterclaim for indemnity.1 USAT asserts that the decedent’s execution of the two release and indemnity agreements (“the indemnity agreements”) released or indemnified, or both, all claims that arise from his participation in the National Age Group Championship, including all claims brought by the plaintiff in this action. The plaintiff counters that the indemnity agreements could not function to release her claims for wrongful death or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and that an indemnity agreement is not enforceable insofar as it exempts the indemnitee from liability for its own grossly negligent conduct.

1 The Court understands this motion for summary judgment to be limited to the scope of the release and indemnity agreement [*6] and its application to the plaintiff’s claims as raised in the Complaint and as amplified in the motion papers. Despite USAT’s argument to the contrary, the Court does not believe this motion to be an appropriate vehicle to address the substantive merits of the plaintiff’s pleadings or claims.

Under Massachusetts law,2 “[c]ontracts of indemnity are to be fairly and reasonably construed in order to ascertain the intention of the parties and to effectuate the purpose sought to be accomplished.” Post v. Belmont Country Club, Inc., 60 Mass. App. Ct. 645, 805 N.E.2d 63, 69 (Mass. App. Ct. 2004) (quoting Shea v. Bay State Gas Co., 383 Mass. 218, 418 N.E.2d 597, 600 (Mass. 1981)). Indemnity contracts that exempt a party from liability arising from their own ordinary negligence are not illegal. Id. at 70. Further, contracts of indemnity can survive a decedent’s death and become an obligation of a decedent’s estate. Id. at 71.

2 The parties do not contend that the law of any other state applies.

Here, the language in the indemnity provision is broad. The plaintiff argues, briefly, that the indemnity agreements are ambiguous as to who is bound by the agreements. The Court disagrees. The agreement clearly states that “I . . . agree to Indemnify, Defend and Hold Harmless” the released parties from liability “of any kind or nature . . . which may arise out of, result from, or relate to my participation [*7] in the Event.” Doc. No. 18-1 at 4. By the plain language of the provision, the signatory of the agreement agreed to indemnify USAT for any losses arising from his participation in the triathlon, including losses and damages associated with lawsuits arising from his participation. See Post, 805 N.E.2d at 70. Both the scope of the indemnity and the party bound by the agreement are clear and unambiguous. A close examination is required, however, to ascertain the applicability of the provision to the specific claims raised and the sources available to satisfy the indemnity.

A. Counts 1 and 3: Wrongful Death

The first count in the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges wrongful death due to USAT’s negligence. The third count alleges wrongful death due to USAT’s gross negligence and seeks punitive damages. Under Massachusetts law, an action for wrongful death is “brought by a personal representative on behalf of the designated categories of beneficiaries” set forth by statute. Gaudette v. Webb, 362 Mass. 60, 284 N.E.2d 222, 229 (Mass. 1972); see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, §§ 1, 2. “The money recovered upon a wrongful death claim is not a general asset of the probate estate, but constitutes a statutory trust fund, held by the administratrix as trustee for distribution to the statutory beneficiaries.”3 Marco v. Green, 415 Mass. 732, 615 N.E.2d 928, 932 (Mass. 1993) (quoting Sullivan v. Goulette, 344 Mass. 307, 182 N.E.2d 519, 523 (Mass. 1962)). These [*8] aspects of Massachusetts law have led another judge of this Court to the conclusion that “[w]rongful death is not, in any traditional sense, a claim of the decedent.” Chung v. StudentCity.com, Inc., Civ. A. 10-10943-RWZ, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102370, 2011 WL 4074297, at *2 (D. Mass. Sept. 9, 2011).

3 The Massachusetts Legislature has created limited statutory exceptions whereby the recovery on a wrongful death claim may be reached to pay certain specified expenses. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6A. None of those exceptions are implicated by the present Motion. See id.

As stated above, the indemnity agreements signed by the decedent, by their terms, clearly were intended to indemnify losses arising from an action for wrongful death as a claim “aris[ing] out of” the decedent’s participation in the triathlon. Thus, USAT is entitled to indemnity on losses resulting from that claim. That does not end the matter, however, because the parties raise the question of where USAT may look in order to satisfy the indemnity obligation. The decedent, while having authority to bind his estate, see Post, 805 N.E.2d at 71, lacked authority to bind his surviving family members who did not sign the indemnity agreements and are not bound thereby, see Chung, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102370, 2011 WL 4074297, at *2. Accordingly, to satisfy the indemnity obligation, USAT may look to the assets of the decedent’s estate. See [*9] Post, 805 N.E.2d at 71 (noting that a contract of indemnity agreed to by a decedent became an obligation of the decedent’s estate). USAT may not, however, look to any recovery on the wrongful death claim for satisfaction, as that recovery would be held in trust for the statutory beneficiaries and would not become an asset of the estate. See Estate of Bogomolsky v. Estate of Furlong, Civ. A. 14-12463-FDS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2 (D. Mass. June 26, 2014).4 USAT concedes this outcome as to the plaintiff’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, Doc. No. 20 at 11-12, and given the structure of wrongful death claims in Massachusetts, there is no reason for a different result as to the wrongful death claims.5

4 In Estate of Bogomolsky, a recent decision of another session of this Court, Judge Saylor came to the same conclusion, finding that a judgment creditor of a decedent’s estate would not be able to restrain the proceeds of an insurance policy distributed pursuant to the wrongful death statute, as the proceeds of the policy were held in trust for the decedent’s next of kin and did not belong to the decedent’s estate. Estate of Bogomolsky, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2.

5 While the plaintiff notes that the Massachusetts Appeals Court has reserved the question of whether an indemnification provision would be [*10] enforced to effectively release the claims of people who were not signatories of such an agreement, see Post, 805 N.E.2d at 70-71, this case, as in Post, does not present that circumstance, as the indemnity agreements in this case do not purport to extinguish the plaintiff’s right to bring her claims nor her right to recover on those claims.

Count three of the plaintiff’s Complaint, alleging that the decedent’s death was a result of USAT’s gross negligence, raises the issue of whether Massachusetts courts would enforce an indemnity contract to the extent it functioned to indemnify a party’s own gross negligence. The Court has uncovered no controlling authority from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on this issue, nor any case of the Massachusetts Appeals Court on point. In such a case, “[w]here the state’s highest court has not definitively weighed in, a federal court applying state law ‘may consider analogous decisions, considered dicta, scholarly works, and any other reliable data tending convincingly to show how the highest court in the state would decide the issue at hand.'” Janney Montgomery Scott LLC v. Tobin, 571 F.3d 162, 164 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting N. Am. Specialty Ins. Co. v. Lapalme, 258 F.3d 35, 38 (1st Cir. 2001)).

In the closely analogous context of releases, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has held that, for reasons of public policy, [*11] a release would not be enforced to exempt a party from liability for grossly negligent conduct, though otherwise effective against ordinary negligence. Zavras v. Capeway Rovers Motorcycle Club, Inc., 44 Mass. App. Ct. 17, 687 N.E.2d 1263, 1265 (Mass. App. Ct. 1997). The Supreme Judicial Court, although not adopting that holding, has noted that public policy reasons exist for treating ordinary negligence differently from gross negligence when enforcing releases. Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 748 n.12 (Mass. 2002). Finally, Judge Saylor of this Court, examining this caselaw, has concluded that the Supreme Judicial Court would not enforce an indemnity agreement to the extent it provided for indemnification of a party’s own gross negligence. CSX Transp., Inc. v. Mass. Bay Transp. Auth., 697 F. Supp. 2d 213, 227 (D. Mass. 2010).

This Court, having studied the caselaw, agrees with and reaches the same conclusion as Judge Saylor: specifically that Massachusetts courts would not enforce an indemnity provision insofar as it relieved a party from liability stemming from its own gross negligence. Thus, the indemnity agreements executed by the decedent are not enforceable to the extent they would require the decedent’s estate to indemnify losses arising from USAT’s grossly negligent conduct.6

6 This conclusion would gain significance if the plaintiff were to be awarded punitive damages owing to USAT’s alleged gross negligence. Punitive damages [*12] awarded under the wrongful death statute, unlike compensatory damages under that statute, are considered general assets of the decedent’s estate. Burt v. Meyer, 400 Mass. 185, 508 N.E.2d 598, 601-02 (Mass. 1987). Any punitive damages, however, could not be reached in satisfaction of the indemnity obligation because gross negligence or more culpable conduct is the predicate upon which an award of punitive damages is based under the statute. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 2.

Accordingly, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to the plaintiff’s claims of wrongful death is ALLOWED insofar as it seeks indemnity from the decedent’s estate for USAT’s allegedly negligent conduct. The Motion is DENIED insofar as it seeks to satisfy the indemnity obligation from any amounts recovered on the wrongful death claim and insofar as the agreement would require the decedent’s estate to indemnify liability arising from USAT’s grossly negligent conduct.

B. Count 2: Conscious Pain and Suffering

The second count of the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges that USAT’s negligence caused the decedent’s conscious pain and suffering. Under Massachusetts law, a claim for conscious pain and suffering is a claim of the decedent, which may be brought on the decedent’s behalf by his or her personal representative. [*13] Gaudette, 284 N.E.2d at 224-25; see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6. Any recovery on such a claim is held as an asset of the decedent’s estate. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 229, § 6. By executing the two agreements, the decedent both released his claim of conscious pain and suffering caused by USAT’s negligence and indemnified USAT for any losses occasioned by such a claim. Putting aside the release for a moment, if the personal representative of the decedent received any recovery for his conscious suffering, USAT would be able to reach that recovery to satisfy the decedent’s indemnity obligation. See Estate of Bogomolsky, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86998, 2014 WL 2945927, at *2. Thus, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment is ALLOWED insofar as the claim for conscious suffering caused by USAT’s negligence was both released and indemnified.

In response to this argument, however, the plaintiff has stated her intent to proceed on the conscious suffering count only on a theory of gross negligence, and not to proceed upon ordinary negligence. As noted above, both the release and the indemnity provisions of the agreements are unenforceable to exempt USAT from liability for their own grossly negligent conduct. See CSX, 697 F. Supp. 2d at 227; Zavras, 687 N.E.2d at 1265. Thus, insofar as the plaintiff chooses to proceed on the conscious pain and suffering count only on a theory of gross negligence, USAT’s Motion for Summary [*14] Judgment is DENIED. If she chooses to so proceed, the plaintiff shall amend her Complaint accordingly.

C. Count 4: Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

The fourth and final count of the plaintiff’s Complaint alleges USAT’s negligent infliction of emotional distress on the plaintiff, who was present at the race venue. As an initial matter, the plaintiff, as currently denominated in the Complaint, only brings claims as personal representative of the estate of the decedent. Negligent infliction of emotional distress, however, alleges a harm directly against the plaintiff in her individual capacity, see Cimino v. Milford Keg, Inc., 385 Mass. 323, 431 N.E.2d 920, 927 (Mass. 1982), and thus cannot be brought in a representative capacity.

In response, the plaintiff has indicated her intent to amend her Complaint to bring this claim in her individual capacity. The Court will allow the amendment, as it is not futile in light of the Court’s rulings on the indemnity agreements. The indemnity language in those agreements is broad enough to reach a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a claim “aris[ing] out of” the decedent’s participation in the triathlon. Thus, USAT is entitled to indemnification on any losses resulting from such a claim. As conceded by [*15] USAT, however, any recovery on the emotional distress claim would belong to the plaintiff individually, and thus USAT would not be able to use that recovery to satisfy the indemnity and may look only to the estate of the decedent. Doc. No. 20 at 11-12. Accordingly, the plaintiff may so amend her Complaint to perfect her claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

D. Defense Costs

USAT also claims an entitlement to defense costs arising from the provisions in the indemnity agreements obligating the signatory to defend and hold harmless USAT. The language of the indemnity agreements does clearly obligate the decedent’s estate to make USAT whole on these losses. As with the claims discussed above, USAT may seek indemnity from the decedent’s estate for their defense costs which predate this Motion as well as prospective costs to the extent that the plaintiff chooses to proceed on at least one claim which is subject to indemnification.7 See Mt. Airy Ins. Co. v. Greenbaum, 127 F.3d 15, 19 (1st Cir. 1997) (“[U]nder Massachusetts law, if an insurer has a duty to defend one count of a complaint, it must defend them all.” (citing Aetna Cas. & Surety Co. v. Continental Cas. Co., 413 Mass. 730, 604 N.E.2d 30, 32 n.1 (Mass. 1992)).

7 Should the plaintiff decide to proceed only on those claims that, following the reasoning of this Order, are not subject to the [*16] indemnity obligation, the parties may request leave to brief the issue of USAT’s entitlement to prospective defense costs at that time.

IV. CONCLUSION

In conclusion, USAT’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Doc. No. 18, is ALLOWED as set forth above insofar as USAT seeks to establish the release of the conscious pain and suffering claim and indemnity from the decedent’s estate for the claims wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, and negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by USAT’s ordinary negligence. USAT’s Motion is DENIED, however, insofar as it argues for release of or indemnity on any claims caused by their own gross negligence and insofar as it seeks satisfaction of the indemnity obligation from any recovery on the wrongful death or emotional distress claims. The plaintiff shall amend the Complaint within seven days to more clearly specify the capacity in which each claim is brought and add the allegations of gross negligence, both as described in the plaintiff’s papers. The defendant shall respond to the Amended Complaint within seven days of its filing. The Court will hold a Rule 16 conference on October 21, 2014 at 1 p.m.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Leo T. Sorokin

Leo T. Sorokin

United [*17] States District Judge


Sanislo, et al., v. Give Kids The World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256; 2015 Fla. LEXIS 214; 40 Fla. L. Weekly S 79

Sanislo, et al., v. Give Kids The World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256; 2015 Fla. LEXIS 214; 40 Fla. L. Weekly S 79

Stacy Sanislo, et al., Petitioners, vs. Give Kids The World, Inc., Respondent.

No. SC12-2409

SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA

157 So. 3d 256; 2015 Fla. LEXIS 214; 40 Fla. L. Weekly S 79

February 12, 2015, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] (Osceola County). Fifth District – Case No. 5D11-748. Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal – Certified Direct Conflict of Decisions.

Give Kids The World, Inc. v. Sanislo, 98 So. 3d 759, 2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 17750 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 5th Dist., 2012)

COUNSEL: Christopher Vincent Carlyle and Shannon McLin Carlyle of The Carlyle Appellate Law Firm, The Villages, Florida; and Michael J. Damaso, II of Wooten, Kimbrough & Normand, P.A., Orlando, Florida, for Petitioners.

Dennis Richard O’Connor, Derek James Angell, and Matthew J. Haftel of O’Connor & O’Connor, LLC, Winter Park, Florida, for Respondent.

Bard Daniel Rockenbach of Burlington & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, Florida, for Amicus Curiae Florida Justice Association.

JUDGES: LABARGA, C.J., and PERRY, J., concur. CANADY and POLSTON, JJ., concur in result. LEWIS, J., dissents with an opinion, in which PARIENTE and QUINCE, JJ., concur.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

This case is before the Court for review of the decision of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Give Kids the World, Inc. v. Sanislo, 98 So. 3d 759 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012), in which the Fifth District held that an exculpatory clause was effective to bar a negligence action despite the absence of express language referring to release of the defendant for its own negligence or negligent acts. The district court certified that its decision is in direct conflict with [*2] the decisions of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal in Levine v. A. Madley Corp., 516 So. 2d 1101 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987); Van Tuyn v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 447 So. 2d 318 (Fla. 4th DCA 1984); Goyings v. Jack & Ruth Eckerd Found., 403 So. 2d 1144 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981); and Tout v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 390 So. 2d 155 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. For the following reasons, we approve the Fifth District’s decision in Give Kids the World and disapprove the decisions of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This action arose as a result of a negligence action brought against Give Kids the World, Inc., (Give Kids the World), a non-profit organization that provides free “storybook” vacations to seriously ill children and their families at its resort village,1 by Stacy and Eric Sanislo, a married couple who brought their seriously ill child to the village, for injuries sustained by Ms. Sanislo while on the vacation.

1 Fulfillment of a child’s wish is accomplished in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. See Give Kids the World, 98 So. 3d at 760 n.1.

As part of the application process for the “storybook” vacation, the Sanislos filled out and signed a wish request form, which contained language releasing Give Kids the World from any liability for any potential cause of action. After the wish was granted, the Sanislos arrived at the resort village located in Kissimmee, Florida, and again signed a liability [*3] release form. The wish request form and liability release form both provide, in pertinent part:

I/we hereby release Give Kids the World, Inc. and all of its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees from any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish, on behalf of ourselves, the above named wish child and all other participants. The scope of this release shall include, but not be limited to, damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind. . . .

I/we further agree to hold harmless and to release Give Kids the World, Inc. from and against any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us. . . .

While at the resort village, the Sanislos and their children participated in the horse-drawn wagon ride operated by Heavenly Hoofs, Inc. The wagon, manufactured by codefendant Thornlea Carriages, Inc., was equipped with a rear, pneumatic lift to allow those in wheelchairs to participate in [*4] the ride. The carriage was carrying the Sanislos’ children. The Sanislos stepped onto the wheelchair lift of the wagon to pose for a picture and the lift collapsed due to weight overload, causing injuries to Ms. Sanislo’s left hip and lower back.

The Sanislos subsequently brought suit in the circuit court for Osceola County against Give Kids the World alleging Ms. Sanislo’s injuries were caused by Give Kids the World’s negligence. See id. at 761. Give Kids the World asserted an affirmative defense of release, and filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the Sanislos signed releases that precluded an action for negligence. Id. The Sanislos also filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Give Kids the World’s affirmative defense of release. The trial court granted the Sanislos’ motion for summary judgment and denied Give Kids the World’s motion for summary judgment. Thus, the negligence action proceeded to trial. Following a jury verdict, judgment was entered in the Sanislos’ favor awarding them $55,443.43 for damages incurred as a result of the injury and costs of $16,448.61.

On appeal to the Fifth District, Give Kids the World argued that the lower court erred by denying its pretrial [*5] motion for summary judgment on its affirmative defense of release because the release was unambiguous and did not contravene public policy. The Fifth District reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, holding that an exculpatory clause releasing Give Kids the World from liability for “any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us” barred the negligence action despite the lack of a specific reference to “negligence” or “negligent acts” in the exculpatory clause. Id. at 761-62. The Fifth District reasoned that exculpatory clauses are effective if the wording of the exculpatory clause is clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person would know what he or she is contracting away, and that the court had previously rejected “‘the need for express language referring to release of the defendant for “negligence” or “negligent acts” in order to render a release effective to bar a negligence action.'” Id. at 761 (quoting Cain v. Banka, 932 So. 2d 575, 578 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006)). The Fifth District also held that the bargaining power of the parties should not be considered because it was outside of the public utility or public function [*6] context and the Sanislos were not required to request a vacation with Give Kids the World or go on the vacation.

In Levine, Van Tuyn, Goyings, and Tout, the remaining four district courts of appeal held that exculpatory clauses are ineffective to bar a negligence action unless there is express language referring to release of the defendant for its own negligence or negligent acts. Accordingly, the conflict presented for this Court’s resolution is whether an exculpatory clause is ambiguous and thus ineffective to bar a negligence action due to the absence of express language releasing a party from its own negligence or negligent acts.

The Sanislos argue that express language regarding negligence is necessary to render an exculpatory clause effective to bar an action for negligence because this Court has held that indemnification agreements, which are similar in nature to an exculpatory clause, require a specific provision protecting the indemnitee for its own negligence in order to be effective. Further, the Sanislos argue that an ordinary and knowledgeable person does not expect a release to relieve a party from liability for failure to provide reasonable care; thus, any document intending [*7] to do so must include specific, unambiguous language to that effect. Give Kids the World, however, argues that use of the term “negligence” should not be required because: (1) the term “liability” is more readily understandable than “negligence” to an ordinary and knowledgeable person; (2) the language of this exculpatory clause would be rendered meaningless if found ineffective; (3) indemnification agreements and exculpatory clauses serve different purposes and involve differing allocations of risks; and (4) this rule has been rejected by many states. For the reasons discussed below, we hold that an exculpatory clause is not ambiguous and, therefore, ineffective simply because it does not contain express language releasing a defendant from liability for his or her own negligence or negligent acts; such an approach could render similar provisions meaningless and fail to effectuate the intent of the parties.

ANALYSIS

The issue presented–the enforceability of a pre-injury exculpatory clause that does not contain express language releasing a party of liability for its own negligence or negligent acts–is a question of law arising from undisputed facts. Thus, [HN1] the standard of review is de [*8] novo. See Kirton v. Fields, 997 So. 2d 349, 352 (Fla. 2008) (citing D’Angelo v. Fitzmaurice, 863 So. 2d 311, 314 (Fla. 2003) (stating that the standard of review for pure questions of law is de novo and no deference is given to the judgment of the lower courts)).

[HN2] Public policy disfavors exculpatory contracts because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care and shift the risk of injury to the party who is probably least equipped to take the necessary precautions to avoid injury and bear the risk of loss. Applegate v. Cable Water Ski, L.C., 974 So. 2d 1112, 1114 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) (citing Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578); see Levine, 516 So. 2d at 1103 (“The rule is that [HN3] an exculpatory clause may operate to absolve a defendant from liability arising out of his own negligent acts, although such clauses are not favored by the courts.”); Goyings, 403 So. 2d at 1146 (same). Nevertheless, because of a countervailing policy that favors the enforcement of contracts, as a general proposition, unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy. Applegate, 974 So. 2d at 1114 (citing Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578); Ivey Plants, Inc. v. FMC Corp., 282 So. 2d 205, 208 (Fla. 4th DCA 1973); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B (1965). Exculpatory clauses are unambiguous and enforceable where the intention to be relieved from liability was made clear and unequivocal and the wording was so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away. Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578 (citing Gayon v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp., 802 So. 2d 420, 420-21 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001)); Raveson v. Walt Disney World Co., 793 So. 2d 1171, 1173 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001); cf. Univ. Plaza Shopping Ctr., Inc. v. Stewart, 272 So. 2d 507, 509 (Fla. 1973) ( [HN4] “‘A contract of indemnity will not be construed to indemnify [*9] the indemnitee against losses resulting from his own negligent acts unless such intention is expressed in clear and unequivocal terms. . . .'”).

The liability release forms signed in this case provided that the Sanislos released Give Kids the World from “any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish . . .” and “any and all claims and causes of action of every kind arising from any and all physical or emotional injuries and/or damages which may happen to me/us. . . .” Further, the form states that the scope of the release includes “damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind.” Although this exculpatory clause otherwise clearly and unequivocally includes negligence as its express terms encompass any liability, any and all claims and causes of action, and damages or losses or injuries encountered on the vacation, the issue before this Court is whether an exculpatory clause’s terms “clearly and unequivocally” release a party of liability for its own negligence or negligent acts when the [*10] clause does not contain express language regarding negligence or negligent acts.2

2 The Sanislos do not argue that the exculpatory clause here is void because it is against public policy. This claim is barred. Hoskins v. State, 75 So. 3d 250, 257 (Fla. 2011) (noting that an argument not raised in the initial brief is barred).

As noted above, in Give Kids the World, the Fifth District reaffirmed its position that exculpatory clauses are not ambiguous, equivocal, and unenforceable to bar negligence actions simply because they do not contain express language referring to release of the defendant for negligence or negligent acts. Id. at 761. The First, Second, Third, and Fourth Districts, however, relying on this Court’s holding in University Plaza regarding indemnity agreements, have held that an exculpatory clause is only effective to bar a negligence action if it clearly states that it releases a party from liability for his or her own negligence. Levine, 516 So. 2d at 1103; Van Tuyn, 447 So. 2d at 320; Goyings, 403 So. 2d at 1146 (reasoning that “This duty to undertake reasonable care expressed in the first part of the provision would be rendered meaningless if the exculpatory clause absolved appellees from liability.”); and Tout, 390 So. 2d at 156 (citing Ivey Plants, 282 So. at 209 (relying on University Plaza to conclude that the language in the indemnification agreement [*11] did not preclude maintenance of an action predicated on the alleged negligence of the defendant)).

Here, both parties argue the merits of extending the holding stated in University Plaza in the context of indemnity agreements to exculpatory clauses and hold-harmless agreements. The Sanislos contend that indemnity agreements and exculpatory clauses achieve the same result–abdication of responsibility for one’s own negligence–and therefore, should be treated the same. Give Kids the World, on the other hand, contends that it is sensible to require specificity in indemnity agreements because both parties to the contract can conceivably cause injury to an unknown third party, whereas exculpatory clauses shift the risk of injury and liability from one contracting party–usually a purveyor of voluntary amusements or a non-profit service provider–to the other contracting party, a voluntary consumer of the amusement or service. To determine whether the holding in University Plaza should be applied in this context, we examine University Plaza and its progeny, and out of state case law.

University Plaza

In University Plaza, University Plaza Shopping Center leased space in its building to a tenant [*12] who used the space to operate a barbershop. During the lease, a gas line exploded underneath the barbershop causing fatal injuries to a barber. The barber’s widow sued University Plaza Shopping Center for wrongful death alleging that the landlord negligently installed and maintained the gas line under the barbershop, which caused the explosion that led to the barber’s fatal injuries. University Plaza Shopping Center then instituted a third-party complaint against the tenant and his insurer seeking to impose liability on them based on an indemnity provision, which provided in pertinent part that the tenant would indemnify and save harmless the landlord from and against any and all claims for damages in and about the demised premises, and against any and all claims for personal injury or loss of life in and about the demised premises. Univ. Plaza, 272 So. 2d at 508-09. University Plaza Shopping Center conceded that the gas line was under, but not part of, the leased premises. Thus, the trial court entered a summary judgment for the tenant finding that an indemnity agreement stated in general terms does not apply to liability resulting from the sole negligence of the indemnitee. Further, the trial court found that the [*13] policy of insurance procured by the tenant was only applicable when the tenant was liable, and the tenant was free from liability for the gas line explosion. On appeal, the First District affirmed. This Court accepted certiorari review based on a decisional conflict because the Third District, in Thomas Awning & Tent Co., Inc. v. Toby’s Twelfth Cafeteria, Inc., 204 So. 2d 756 (Fla. 3d DCA 1967), held that indemnification for “any loss or claims” encompasses the indemnitee’s negligence.

The central issue in University Plaza was whether a contract of indemnity stated in general terms of “any and all claims” indemnifies the indemnitee for damages resulting from his sole negligence. Univ. Plaza, 272 So. 2d at 509. This Court noted that “divergent views” on the particular issue existed throughout the United States, but that the basic premise was that an indemnity contract does not indemnify the indemnitee against losses resulting from the indemnitee’s negligent acts unless such intention is expressed in clear and unequivocal terms. Id. The Court observed that the divergence in views across the country turned on an interpretation of the words “clear and unequivocal” and that three approaches existed: (1) the contract must contain a specific provision providing for indemnification in the event the indemnitee is negligent; [*14] (2) promises to indemnify against “any and all claims” include losses attributed solely to the negligence of the indemnitee because “all” means “all without exception”; and (3) the express use of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” is not required if the contractual language and any other factors indicate the intention to clearly and unequivocally indemnify for the indemnitee’s own negligence. Id. at 509-10.

In concluding that [HN5] the best alternative was to require a specific provision protecting the indemnitee from liability solely caused by his own negligence,3 this Court reasoned that its “basic objective in construing the indemnity provision is to give effect to the intent of the parties involved. . .” and that “the use of the general terms ‘indemnify . . . against any and all claims’ does not disclose an intention to indemnify for consequences arising solely from the negligence of the indemnitee.” Id. at 511 (emphasis omitted). The Court further reasoned that in the context presented, “the phraseology logically relates to the tenant’s occupation of the leased premises–not some outside (though proximately close) independent act of negligence of the landlord. . . . It might be likened to a ‘common [*15] stairway’ in an apartment complex. . . . One would not expect liability to extend under a shopowner’s policy for a landlord’s negligently maintained common walkway or mall in front of a series of shops.” Id. at 512 (emphasis omitted). Finally, we concluded our reasoning by stating that the other alternatives listed above impute an intent to indemnify for liability occasioned by the indemnitee’s sole negligence, which is a “harsh result not necessarily contemplated by the parties nor condoned by this Court.” Id. Six years later, we considered whether this rule applied to situations where the indemnitee was jointly liable due to his or her own negligence in Charles Poe Masonry, Inc. v. Spring Lock Scaffolding Rental Equip. Co., 374 So. 2d 487, 489 (Fla. 1979).

3 This Court did not follow the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Seckinger, 397 U.S. 203, 212 n.17, 90 S. Ct. 880, 25 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1970), in which the Supreme Court declined to hold that language in indemnification agreements needed to explicitly state that the indemnification extended to injuries caused by the indemnitee’s own negligence, and recognized that contract interpretation is largely an individualized process “with the conclusion in a particular case turning on the particular language used against the background of other indicia of the parties’ intention.”

Charles Poe Masonry

In Charles Poe Masonry [*16] , an employee of Charles Poe Masonry was injured when he fell from a scaffold on a construction site. The employee filed an action alleging the manufacturer of the scaffold, Spring Lock, was negligent, breached the implied warranty, and was strictly liable for his injuries. The scaffold had been leased by Spring Lock to Charles Poe Masonry. The lease agreement provided in pertinent part that the lessee assumed all responsibility for claims asserted by any person whatsoever growing out of the erection and maintenance, use, or possession of the scaffolding equipment, and that the lessee agreed to hold the lessor harmless from such claims. Id. at 489. Thus, Spring Lock filed a third-party complaint against Charles Poe Masonry for contractual indemnity.4 Id. at 488.

4 Spring Lock also filed the third-party complaint against Charles Poe Masonry for common law indemnity, which this Court held was unavailable for the reasons expressed in Houdaille Industries, Inc. v. Edwards, 374 So. 2d 490 (Fla. 1979).

In considering whether the provision barred a negligence action, we found that the provision at issue was “exactly the sort of ‘general terms’ which we held in University Plaza do not disclose an intention to indemnify for consequences arising from the wrongful acts of the indemnitee” [*17] and that the public policy reasons expressed in University Plaza applied with equal force to instances where the indemnitor and indemnitee were jointly liable. Id. at 489-90 (“Under classical principles of indemnity, courts of law rightfully frown upon the underwriting of wrongful conduct, whether it stands alone or is accompanied by other wrongful acts.”). Further, we reasoned that the language of the provision demonstrated “nothing more than an undertaking by [Charles Poe Masonry] to hold Spring Lock harmless from any vicarious liability which might result from [Charles Poe Masonry’s] erection, maintenance or use of the scaffold.” Id. at 489.

We reaffirmed these principles thirteen years later in Cox Cable Corp. v. Gulf Power Co., 591 So. 2d 627 (Fla. 1992).

Cox Cable

In Cox Cable, Cox Cable Corporation and Gulf Power Company entered into a written contract authorizing Cox Cable to attach its cables, wires, and appliances to Gulf Power’s utility poles. The contract also provided that Cox Cable was to ensure the safe installation and maintenance of any wires, cables, or devices attached to the poles and indemnify Gulf Power against claims for personal injury and property damages. Cox Cable hired a cable installation contractor to perform the installation, and the [*18] cable installation contractor’s employee suffered electrical burns when he overtightened a guy wire during the course of installation. This employee sued Gulf Power alleging that its failure to warn him of the danger was negligent. Gulf Power then filed a third-party complaint against Cox Cable seeking indemnification.5 Id. at 628-29. The indemnity agreement provided in pertinent part that the licensee was to indemnify and save the licensor forever harmless against any and all claims and demands for damages to property and injury or death to any persons including, but not restricted to, employees of the licensee and employees of any contractor or subcontractor performing work for the licensee which may arise out of or be caused by the erection, maintenance, presence, use or removal of the aforementioned attachments. Id. at 629.

5 Gulf Power also claimed breach of contract and alleged that Cox Cable’s negligence was the sole and proximate cause of the employee’s injuries.

On appeal, the district court stated that the degree of specificity required for indemnification in cases of joint negligence was less stringent than in cases where the indemnitee is solely negligent. This Court, however, reaffirmed the principles [*19] established in University Plaza and Charles Poe Masonry in holding that the district court had erred by applying a less stringent standard to cases involving parties who are jointly liable, and that the language of the provision before it was insufficiently clear and unequivocal. Accordingly, it is clear that since 1973 and as recently as 1992, this Court has found that [HN6] an indemnity agreement only indemnifies the indemnitee for his or her own negligence or negligent acts if the agreement contains a specific provision protecting the indemnitee from liability caused by his or her own negligence.

[HN7] The principles underlying our case law regarding indemnity agreements, however, are not applicable to exculpatory clauses. Generally, “[i]ndemnification provides a party entitled to indemnification the right to claim reimbursement for its actual loss, damage, or liability from the responsible party. . . .” First Baptist Church of Cape Coral, Florida, Inc. v. Compass Constr., Inc., 115 So. 3d 978, 986 (Fla. 2013) (Lewis, J., dissenting) (emphasis added) (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 837 (9th ed. 2009)); see also Dade Cnty. Sch. Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638, 643 (Fla. 1999) ( [HN8] “A contract for indemnity is an agreement by which the promisor agrees to protect the promisee against loss or damages by reason of liability to a third party.”). Further, “[i]ndemnification serves the purpose of holding [*20] the indemnified party harmless by shifting the entire loss or damage incurred by the indemnified party–who has without active negligence or fault ‘been obligated to pay, because of some vicarious, constructive, derivative, or technical liability’–to the responsible party who should bear the cost because it was that party’s wrongdoing for which the indemnified party is held liable.” Compass Constr., 115 So. 3d at 986 (Lewis, J., dissenting) (emphasis added); see also Rosati v. Vaillancourt, 848 So. 2d 467, 470 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003) ( [HN9] “Indemnity is a right which inures to one who discharges a duty owed by him but which, as between himself and another, should have been discharged by the other.” (citing Houdaille Indust., Inc. v. Edwards, 374 So. 2d 490, 492-93 (Fla. 1979))). These contracts are typically negotiated at arm’s length between sophisticated business entities and can be viewed as an effort to allocate the risk of liability. Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 400 N.E.2d 306, 310, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (N.Y. 1979). Thus, it would not be apparent that a party has agreed to indemnify a party for liability incurred due to that party’s own negligent conduct based on general language in an indemnification agreement.

[HN10] An exculpatory clause, on the other hand, shifts the risk of injury and deprives one of the contracting parties of his or her right to recover damages suffered due to the negligent act of the other contracting party. See Ivey Plants, 282 So. 2d at 207. Thus, [*21] although indemnification agreements can sometimes produce the same result as an exculpatory provision by shifting responsibility for the payment of damages back to the injured party, see O’Connell v. Walt Disney World Co., 413 So. 2d 444, 446 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982), Florida courts recognize a distinction between exculpatory clauses and indemnity clauses.6 Acosta v. Rentals (N. Am.), Inc., No. 8:12-CV-01530-EAK-TGW, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31392, 2013 WL 869520 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 7, 2013).

6 In Yang v. Voyagaire Houseboats, Inc., 701 N.W.2d 783, 792 n.6 (Minn. 2005), the court noted that [HN11] although it had previously recognized similarities between exculpatory clauses and indemnity agreements, the “[i]ndemnification clauses are subject to greater scrutiny because they release negligent parties from liability, but also may shift liability to innocent parties.”

These distinctions are evidenced in this Court’s precedent noted above. In University Plaza and Charles Poe Masonry, this Court recognized that [HN12] indemnification agreements are construed subject to the general rules of contract construction–the Court looks to the intentions of the parties. See Dade Cnty. Sch. Bd., 731 So. 2d at 643 (noting that indemnity contracts are subject to the general rules of contractual construction). Thus, given the typical purpose of indemnification, and that the parties’ apparent intent was to reduce the risk of vicarious liability, we were reluctant to decipher an intent to indemnify a party [*22] for its own wrongdoing through the parties’ use of general terms. See Univ. Plaza, 272 So. 2d at 512 (noting that the language of the agreement appeared to relate to injuries occurring due to the tenant’s occupation of the leased premises–liability would not logically extend to a landlord’s negligently maintained common walkway); Charles Poe Masonry, 374 So. 2d at 489 (noting that the language of the lease agreement appeared to be an undertaking by the indemnitor to indemnify the indemnitee from any vicarious liability). Further, because courts “frown upon the underwriting of wrongful conduct. . .,” specificity is required in the indemnity context. See id. at 489-90 (holding that courts should not allow underwriting of wrongful conduct). In short, because indemnification agreements allocate the risk of liability for injuries to an unknown third party, specificity is required so that the indemnitor is well aware that it is accepting liability for both its negligence and the negligence of the indemnitee. Exculpatory clauses, however, primarily release a party from liability for its own negligence and not vicarious liability.7 See Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784-85 (Colo. 1989) (noting, in a release relieving a party from liability for any injuries due to horseback riding, that any claim the injured party could [*23] have asserted would have been based on negligence). Further, releasing a party from liability does not result in the underwriting of wrongful conduct or shift liability to an innocent party. Thus, discerning the intent of the parties regarding the scope of an exculpatory clause involves less uncertainty than in an indemnification context. Accordingly, University Plaza and its progeny do not control our conclusion here.

7 Indeed, the petitioner in this case could not indicate what this liability release form covered if not the negligence of Give Kids the World.

Review of out-of-state precedent illustrates that many states have expressly rejected the requirement that an exculpatory clause contain an explicit provision releasing a party from liability for his or her own negligence or negligent acts.

Out-of-State Precedent

State courts across the country have rendered four different standards for determining whether language in an exculpatory clause clearly and unequivocally releases a party from liability for negligence. 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53 (2004). First, recognizing that “the intentions of the parties with regard to an exculpatory provision in a contract should be delineated with the greatest of particularity,” [*24] an exculpatory clause will be given effect if the agreement clearly and unambiguously expresses the parties’ intention to release a party from liability for his or her own negligence by using the words “negligence” or “negligent acts” and specifically including injuries definitely described as to time and place. 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53 (citing Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981); Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (N.H. 1995)). Second, a specific reference to negligence is not required if the clause clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for a personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. See 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53 (citing Seigneur v. Nat’l Fitness Inst., Inc., 132 Md. App. 271, 752 A.2d 631 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000); Swartzentruber v. Wee-K Corp., 117 Ohio App. 3d 420, 690 N.E.2d 941 (Ohio Ct. App. 1997); Empress Health & Beauty Spa, Inc. v. Turner, 503 S.W.2d 188 (Tenn. 1973); Russ v. Woodside Homes, Inc., 905 P.2d 901 (Utah Ct. App. 1995); Blide v. Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., 30 Wn. App. 571, 636 P.2d 492 (Wash. Ct. App. 1981)). Third, a specific reference to negligence is not required if protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract. See, e.g., American Druggists’ Ins. Co. v. Equifax, Inc., 505 F. Supp. 66, 68-69 (S.D. Ohio 1980) (applying Ohio law). Fourth, a specific reference to negligence is not required if the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision. See, e.g., Blide, 636 P.2d 493). Courts, however, have required words conveying a similar import; a release will not cover negligence if it neither specifically refers to negligence nor contains any other language that could relate to negligence. See 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53 (citing Lewis v. Snow Creek, Inc., 6 S.W.3d 388 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999) (retransferred to Mo. Ct. of Appeals (Dec. 21, 1999) and opinion adopted [*25] and reinstated after retransfer (Jan. 6, 2000)); Sivaslian v. Rawlins, 88 A.D.2d 703, 451 N.Y.S.2d 307 (N.Y. App. Div. 1982); Colton v. New York Hospital, 98 Misc. 2d 957, 414 N.Y.S.2d 866 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1979)). According to American Jurisprudence, however, “the better practice is to expressly state the word ‘negligence’ somewhere in the exculpatory provision.”8 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 53; see Give Kids the World, 98 So. 3d at 763 (Cohen, J., concurring specially) (“The better view is to require an explicit provision to that effect. . . . I would suggest that the average ordinary and knowledgeable person would not understand from such language that they were absolving an entity from a duty to use reasonable care.”).

8 Although many courts have noted that it may be “better practice” to include the term “negligence” in contracts, our jurisprudence recognizes that the term “negligence” may not be understood by the average ordinary and knowledgeable person. For instance, the legal term “negligence” is defined for juries. See Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.) 401.4. Thus, the inclusion of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” may not clarify the meaning of an exculpatory contract for the average ordinary and knowledgeable person at all.

Although some courts have suggested that “the better practice” for contracting parties is to require an explicit provision releasing a party from liability for his or her own negligence or negligent acts, most [*26] states have expressly rejected such a requirement. For instance, the Supreme Court of Kentucky does not require the word “negligence,” but reviews the contractual language to determine whether it satisfies any one of four standards articulated by the court. Hargis v. Baize, 168 S.W.3d 36, 47 (Ky. 2005) (“. . . a preinjury release will be upheld only if (1) it explicitly expresses an intention to exonerate by using the word ‘negligence'; or (2) it clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release a party from liability for a personal injury caused by that party’s own conduct; or (3) protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract language; or (4) the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision.”); see Cumberland Valley Contractors, Inc. v. Bell Cnty. Coal Corp., 238 S.W.3d 644, 649-50 (Ky. 2007) (finding that the wording of the release was “unmistakable” and that “‘the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision.'”).

The Colorado Supreme Court has “examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. . .” and has “also made clear that the specific terms ‘negligence’ and ‘breach of [*27] warranty’ are not invariably required for an exculpatory agreement to shield a party from claims based on negligence and breach of warranty.” Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004) (citing Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785). Indeed, in Heil, the Colorado Supreme Court noted several factors supporting the enforceability of the exculpatory clause: (1) the agreement was written in terms free from legal jargon; (2) the clause was not inordinately long or complicated; (3) when the agreement was read to the injured party at a deposition she indicated that she understood it; (4) the release specifically addressed a risk that adequately described the circumstances of the injury; and (5) it was difficult to imagine any claims that the injured party could have asserted other than negligence. 784 P.2d at 785. However, in Wycoff v. Grace Community Church of Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1265 (Colo. App. 2010), the court of appeals noted that in every Colorado Supreme Court case upholding an exculpatory clause, the clause “contained some reference to waiving personal injury claims based on the activity being engaged in.” Thus, a release form that did not reference the relevant activity or that personal injury claims were specifically waived was unenforceable.

Other states have similarly held that reference to negligence is not required. The Supreme Court of Hawai’i [*28] has held that an exculpatory clause that did not include specific language pertaining to negligence was effective to bar simple negligence claims, but not gross negligence or willful misconduct. See Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 111 Haw. 254, 141 P.3d 427, 439-40 (Haw. 2006). In Massachusetts, an exculpatory clause releasing a party from liability for “any and all liability, loss, damage, costs, claims and/or causes of action, including but not limited to all bodily injuries” occurring during a motorcycle safety course was deemed “unambiguous and comprehensive” despite the absence of language specifically mentioning negligence. Cormier v. Cent. Mass. Chapter of the Nat’l Safety Council, 416 Mass. 286, 620 N.E.2d 784, 785 (Mass. 1993).

The following states also hold that the word “negligence” is not required. See, e.g., Adloo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 344 Md. 254, 686 A.2d 298, 304 (Md. 1996) (“To be sure, as the weight of authority makes clear . . . the exculpatory clause need not contain or use the word ‘negligence’ or any other ‘magic words.'”); Cudnik v. William Beaumont Hosp., 207 Mich. App. 378, 525 N.W.2d 891, 894 n.3 (Mich. App. 1994) (holding exculpatory agreement executed by patient before receiving radiation therapy was void as against public policy, but noting that exculpatory clause was not void for ambiguity because it “quite clearly attempts to absolve defendant of all liability ‘of every kind and character’ arising out of the radiation therapy” despite no reference to negligence); Mayfair Fabrics v. Henley, 48 N.J. 483, 226 A.2d 602, 605 (N.J. 1967) (“But there are no required words [*29] of art and, whatever be the language used or the rule of construction applied, the true goal is still the ascertainment and effectuation of the intent of the parties.”); Reed v. Univ. of N.D., 1999 ND 25, 589 N.W.2d 880, 885-86 (N.D. 1999); Estey v. MacKenzie Eng’g Inc., 324 Ore. 372, 927 P.2d 86, 89 (Or. 1996) (noting that the Supreme Court of Oregon had previously upheld clauses releasing others from liability “‘from whatever cause arising,'” and “‘all liability, cost and expense,'” and declining “to hold that the word ‘negligence’ must expressly appear in order for an exculpatory or limitation of liability clause to be effective against a negligence claim”); Empress Health & Beauty Spa, Inc. v. Turner, 503 S.W.2d 188, 190 (Tenn. 1973); Russ v. Woodside Homes, Inc., 905 P.2d 901, 906 (Utah Ct. App. 1995); Fairchild Square Co. v. Green Mountain Bagel Bakery, Inc., 163 Vt. 433, 658 A.2d 31, 34 (Vt. 1995); Scott ex rel. Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 9-10 (Wash. 1992) (en banc) (rejecting proposed requirement of “the word ‘negligence’ or language with similar import” and holding “[c]ourts should use common sense in interpreting purported releases, and the language ‘hold harmless . . . from all claims’ logically includes negligent conduct”); Murphy v. N. Am. River Runners, Inc., 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504, 511 (W. Va. 1991); Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Ctr., 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334, 341 (Wis. 2005) (noting that “this court has never specifically required exculpatory clauses to include the word ‘negligence,'” but has recognized that its inclusion would be “very helpful”); Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1061 (Wyo. 1986) (adopting a “common sense” approach “based on the clear intent of the parties rather than specific ‘negligence’ terminology” for interpreting exculpatory clauses); Sanchez v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp., 68 Cal. App. 4th 62, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 902, 904 (Cal. Ct. App. 1998)9 (noting that courts look to the intent of the parties [*30] and use of the term “negligence” is not dispositive); Neighborhood Assistance Corp. v. Dixon, 265 Ga. App. 255, 593 S.E.2d 717 (Ga. Ct. App. 2004); Finagin v. Ark. Dev. Fin. Auth., 355 Ark. 440, 139 S.W.3d 797 (Ark. 2003) (noting that courts are not restricted to the literal language of the contract and will consider the facts and circumstances surrounding the execution of the release to determine the intent of the parties).10

9 In Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica, LLC, 104 Cal. App. 4th 1351, 129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197 (Cal. Ct. App. 2002), the injured party did not contend that the release is ineffective due to the ambiguity of the language. Thus, Division Five of the Second Appellate District did not address this issue. However, California law appears to provide that a release need not achieve perfection, but “must be clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the intent of the subscribing parties.”

10 It is also evident that federal courts in circuits finding complete limitations on liability enforceable in maritime contracts hold that express reference to the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” is not required. See Cook v. Crazy Boat of Key West, Inc., 949 So. 2d 1202 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007) (“State laws requiring specific reference to the releasee’s negligence therefore conflict with federal law and may not be applied in cases involving federal maritime law.”).

Other jurisdictions, however, require express use of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts.” See Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf, 762 N.W.2d 873, 878-79 (Iowa 2009) (requiring specific reference to exculpee’s own negligence); McCune v. Myrtle Beach Indoor Shooting Range, Inc., 364 S.C. 242, 612 S.E.2d 462 (S.C. Ct. App. 2005); [*31] Powell v. Am. Health Fitness Ctr. of Fort Wayne, Inc., 694 N.E.2d 757, 761 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998); Morganteen v. Cowboy Adventures, Inc., 190 Ariz. 463, 949 P.2d 552 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1997); Alack v. Vic Tanny Int’l of Mo., Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 337-38 (Mo. 1996) (holding that express language is required because “[o]ur traditional notions of justice are so fault-based that most people might not expect such a relationship to be altered, regardless of the length of an exculpatory clause, unless done so explicitly”); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508-09 (Tex. 1993) (applying an “express negligence doctrine” because “indemnity agreements, releases, exculpatory agreements, or waivers, all operate to transfer risk” and such agreements are “an extraordinary shifting of risk”); Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (Ill. App. Ct. 1991); Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 190-91 (Alaska 1991).11 The Supreme Court of Connecticut held that express language was required explaining that

A person of ordinary intelligence reasonably could believe that, by signing this release, he or she was releasing the defendant only from liability for damages caused by dangers inherent in the activity of snowtubing. A requirement of express language releasing the defendant from liability for its negligence prevents individuals from inadvertently relinquishing valuable legal rights. Furthermore, the requirement that parties seeking to be released from liability for their negligence expressly so indicate does not impose on them any significant cost.

Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Conn., Inc., 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827, 831 (Conn. 2003). In New York, the Court of Appeals of New York held that in order for a party to shed [*32] its ordinary responsibility of due care, express use of the terms “negligence,” “negligent acts,” or words conveying a similar import are required because although parties may be alerted to dangers inherent in dangerous activities, “it does not follow that [parties are] aware of, much less intended to accept, any enhanced exposure to injury occasioned by the carelessness of the very persons on which [the parties] depend[] for [his or her] safety. . . . Thus, whether on a running reading or a careful analysis, the agreement could most reasonably be taken merely as driving home the fact that the defendant was not to bear any responsibility for injuries that ordinarily and inevitably would occur, without any fault of the defendant.” Gross, 400 N.E.2d at 309-11.

11 In Alaska, however, indemnification agreements do not require specific words regarding indemnity for the indemnitee’s own negligence. Kissick, 816 P.2d at 192 (Compton, J., dissenting) (citing Manson-Osberg Co. v. State, 552 P.2d 654, 659 (Alaska 1976)).

Although we agree that it may be better practice to expressly refer to “negligence” or “negligent acts” in an exculpatory clause, we find that the reasoning employed by the states that do not require an express reference to render an exculpatory clause effective to bar a negligence action [*33] is more persuasive, particularly in the context presented here. As discussed above, the courts’ basic objective in interpreting a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent. Further, as the United States Supreme Court has observed, [HN13] contract interpretation is largely an individualized process “with the conclusion in a particular case turning on the particular language used against the background of other indicia of the parties’ intention.” United States v. Seckinger, 397 U.S. 203, 212 n.17, 90 S. Ct. 880, 25 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1970). As a result, we are reluctant to hold that all exculpatory clauses that are devoid of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” are ineffective to bar a negligence action despite otherwise clear and unambiguous language indicating an intent to be relieved from liability in such circumstances. Application of such a bright-line and rigid rule would tend to not effectuate the intent of the parties and render such contracts otherwise meaningless.12 The contract at issue demonstrates as much.

12 In a concurring opinion in Florida Department of Financial Services v. Freeman, Justice Cantero referred to several Florida Supreme Court cases discussing the freedom of contract and noted that this Court had previously recognized that [HN14] “‘while there is no such [*34] thing as an absolute freedom of contract, nevertheless, freedom is the general rule and restraint is the exception.'” 921 So. 2d 598, 607 (Cantero, J., concurring) (quoting Larson v. Lesser, 106 So. 2d 188, 191 (Fla. 1958)). Further, Justice Cantero noted that “[t]his freedom . . . ‘includes freedom to make a bad bargain.'” Id. at 607 (quoting Posner v. Posner, 257 So. 2d 530, 535 (Fla. 1972)). Finally, Justice Cantero acknowledged that courts may not “‘rewrite contracts or interfere with freedom of contracts or substitute [their] judgment for that of the parties to the contract in order to relieve one of the parties from apparent hardships of an improvident bargain.'” Id. at 607 (quoting Quinerly v. Dundee Corp., 159 Fla. 219, 31 So. 2d 533, 534 (Fla. 1947)).

The wish request form and liability release form signed by the Sanislos released Give Kids the World and all of its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees from “any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish. . . .” The language of the agreement then provided that the scope of the agreement included “damages or losses or injuries encountered in connection with transportation, food, lodging, medical concerns (physical and emotional), entertainment, photographs and physical injury of any kind. . . .” This agreement clearly conveys that Give Kids the World would be released [*35] from any liability, including negligence, for damages, losses, or injuries due to transportation, food, lodging, entertainment, and photographs. With regard to Give Kids the World and the wish fulfilled for the Sanislos, it is unclear what this agreement would cover if not the negligence of Give Kids the World and its agents, officers, directors, servants, and employees, given that exculpatory clauses are unenforceable to release a party of liability for an intentional tort. See Loewe v. Seagate Homes, Inc., 987 So. 2d 758, 760 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) (citing Kellums v. Freight Sales Ctrs., Inc., 467 So. 2d 816 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985), and L. Luria & Son, Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 460 So. 2d 521 (Fla. 4th DCA 1984)). Further, this agreement specifically operates to release Give Kids the World in connection with circumstances that are not inherently dangerous. Thus, this is not a situation where a person of ordinary intelligence would believe that the release “could most reasonably be taken merely as driving home the fact that the defendant was not to bear any responsibility for injuries that ordinarily and inevitably would occur, without any fault of the defendant.” Cf. Gross, 400 N.E.2d at 309-10; Hyson, 829 A.2d at 831 (requiring the use of the word “negligence” in a release pertaining to snowtubing). Accordingly, this agreement would be rendered meaningless if it is deemed ineffective to bar a negligence action solely on the basis of the absence of [*36] the legal terms of art “negligence” or “negligent acts” from the otherwise clear and unequivocal language in the agreement.

Despite our conclusion, however, we stress that our holding is not intended to render general language in a release of liability per se effective to bar negligence actions. As noted previously, [HN15] exculpatory contracts are, by public policy, disfavored in the law because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care. Applegate, 974 So. 2d at 1114 (citing Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578); see Levine, 516 So. 2d at 1103 (“The rule is that an exculpatory clause may operate to absolve a defendant from liability arising out of his own negligent acts, although such clauses are not favored by the courts.”); Goyings, 403 So. 2d at 1146 (same). Further, exculpatory clauses are only unambiguous and enforceable where the language unambiguously demonstrates a clear and understandable intention to be relieved from liability so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away. Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578 (citing Gayon, 802 So. 2d at 420); Raveson, 793 So. 2d at 1173; cf. Univ. Plaza, 272 So. 2d at 509 (“‘A contract of indemnity will not be construed to indemnify the indemnitee against losses resulting from his own negligent acts unless such intention is expressed in clear and unequivocal terms.'”). Moreover, as we stated in University Plaza, this [*37] Court’s “basic objective . . . is to give effect to the intent of the parties. . . .” Id. at 511 (emphasis deleted). Accordingly, our decision is merely a rejection of the Sanislos’ invitation to extend University Plaza, which applies to indemnity agreements, to exculpatory clauses.

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that [HN16] the absence of the terms “negligence” or “negligent acts” in an exculpatory clause does not render the agreement per se ineffective to bar a negligence action. Accordingly, we approve the Fifth District’s decision in Give Kids the World and disapprove the decisions of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth District Courts of Appeal in Levine v. A. Madley Corp., 516 So. 2d 1101 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987); Van Tuyn v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 447 So. 2d 318 (Fla. 4th DCA 1984); Goyings v. Jack & Ruth Eckerd Found., 403 So. 2d 1144 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981); and Tout v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 390 So. 2d 155 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980).

It is so ordered.

LABARGA, C.J., and PERRY, J., concur.

CANADY and POLSTON, JJ., concur in result.

LEWIS, J., dissents with an opinion, in which PARIENTE and QUINCE, JJ., concur.

DISSENT BY: LEWIS

DISSENT

LEWIS, J., dissenting.

Today the majority leaves our most vulnerable citizens open to catastrophe from those who seek to shield themselves from their own fault. Florida precedent mandates that because the advance liability release and hold harmless agreement signed by the Sanislos did not explicitly and unambiguously warn that Give Kids the World [*38] would be released and held harmless for its own failure to exercise reasonable care as previously outlined and required under Florida law, no such waiver was made. I disagree with the decision of the majority that such explicit warning is required only for valid indemnity agreements, but not for combined releases, indemnification, and hold harmless agreements, such as the document in this case.

In University Plaza Shopping Center v. Stewart, 272 So. 2d 507, 509 (Fla. 1973), the Court considered whether an indemnity agreement in which one party agreed to indemnify another for “any and all claims” included those that arose solely out of the negligence of the indemnitee. The Court concluded that indemnification agreements will be effective against the negligence of the indemnitee only if that intention is expressed in clear and unequivocal terms. Id. The Court then held that an agreement to indemnify against “any and all claims” does not clearly and unequivocally express the intent to include claims that result exclusively from the negligence of the indemnitee. Id. at 511. The majority provides no logical basis to ignore that well established principle.

As the majority recognizes but fails to apply, exculpatory clauses that protect a party from his or her own negligence [*39] are disfavored. See Slip Op. at 7, 32; see also Charles Poe Masonry, Inc. v. Spring Lock Scaffolding Rental Equip. Co., 374 So. 2d 487, 489 (Fla. 1979). Based on this policy, the Court in Charles Poe Masonry extended the holding of University Plaza to apply even where the indemnified party is jointly liable with the indemnitor. See id. at 489-90 (“Under classical principles of indemnity, courts of law rightfully frown upon the underwriting of wrongful conduct, whether it stands alone or is accompanied by other wrongful acts.”). Additionally, courts strictly construe exculpatory clauses against the party that seeks to be relieved of liability. See Cain v. Banka, 932 So. 2d 575, 580 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); see also Sunny Isles Marina, Inc. v. Adulami, 706 So. 2d 920, 922 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998). Courts have consistently required that explicit language be used in agreements that attempt to contract away liability for one’s own negligence, and the language must be sufficiently clear and understandable such that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will comprehend the rights that he or she relinquishes. Gillette v. All Pro Sports, LLC, 135 So. 3d 369, 370 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014). The language here has previously been held to be insufficient. The public policy that disfavors exculpatory clauses should apply with equal force to all contracts that operate to remove a party’s obligation to act with reasonable care.

Moreover, a hold harmless agreement is simply another term for an indemnification agreement. See 42 [*40] C.J.S. Indemnity § 23 (2014) (“The term ‘hold harmless’ means to fully compensate the indemnitee for all loss or expense, and an agreement to hold harmless is a contract of indemnity that requires the indemnitor to prevent loss to the indemnitee or to reimburse the indemnitee for all losses suffered from the designated peril.”) (footnotes omitted); see also Black’s Law Dictionary 887 (10th ed. 2014) (stating that “indemnity clause” may also be termed “hold-harmless clause”). Accordingly, because the Court has previously held that indemnification agreements are ineffective against the negligence of the party being indemnified unless they clearly and explicitly state this intent in language that can be understood by an ordinary and knowledgeable person, agreements to release and hold harmless without such language should be deemed similarly ineffective.

The rational basis for this principle of law is that a general release and hold harmless agreement may not sufficiently warn the untrained signing party that the other party will not be responsible for its own negligent acts. The signing party may instead understand the contract as an agreement that exempts the other party from any injury [*41] that occurs as a result of a third party. For example, in this case, the Sanislos signed a contract that was both a release and a hold harmless agreement, and a number of other entities were involved in carrying out the wish that Give Kids the World granted, including food vendors and transportation providers. The Sanislos could have understood that Give Kids the World would not be liable for the negligence of these other entities, and may not have understood that Give Kids the Worlds would not be liable for its own negligence. As established under Florida law, a specific provision that explicitly states that a party will be released and held harmless for liability for its own negligence would clarify the nature of the release so that individuals would have full knowledge of what risks they undertake by signing such a contract. There simply is no rational or logical legal reasoning that would require one to explicitly state a party will be indemnified for its own negligence as a condition of validity as is the current law, but not required to do so if that agreement also includes a release!

For these reasons, I dissent.

PARIENTE and QUINCE, JJ., concur.


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