Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
Alicia Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al.
SUPERIOR COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, AT MIDDLESEX
1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99
March 11, 1999, Decided
JUDGES: [*1] Raymond J. Brassard, Justice of the Superior Court.
OPINION BY: RAYMOND J. BRASSARD
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff, Alicia Herberchuk (“Ms. Herberchuk”), brought this action for recovery of damages for injuries sustained while on land owned by defendant, Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. (“4H”), while attending an outing accompanied by co-workers employed by defendant, Teleglobe Communications, Inc. (“Teleglobe”). The plaintiff alleges that the injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendants and that there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude the entry of summary judgment on the issue of liability. For the reasons set forth below, defendants’ motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Viewing the facts available at this summary judgment stage in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Ms. Herberchuk, the undisputed facts are as follows.
On August 28, 1993, Ms. Herberchuk attended an employee outing at a campground owned by 4-H. The campground had been rented through a third party under the name of Teleglobe by certain of its employees, but not by Teleglobe itself. At the cookout [*2] Ms. Herberchuk observed other guests using an apparatus known as a zipwire. The zipwire was used by children who attended the 4H’s camp during the summer months. Using the zipwire involved climbing up a ladder which reached to a platform mounted on a tree, and then leaving the platform to traverse the entire length of the wire. Proper use of the zipwire required a safety helmet, a safety harness, a drag line, and several people assisting the rider. The zipwire also included an 8 inch square 2,000 pound-test pulley to which the safety harness was attached. At the end of the camping season all removable equipment, including the safety equipment, was required to be removed from the zipwire, leaving only the cable and the platform.
On the date in question, a ladder found on or near the campground was propped against the tree upon which the platform was mounted by unidentified parties allowing guests to access the zipwire. Hanging from the zipwire was a nylon rope described as green in color which other guests were using to slide down the wire. No rules or instructions on how to use the zipwire were posted on or near the apparatus on the day in question. After watching several other [*3] people use the zipwire, Ms. Herberchuk decided she wanted to use the apparatus. In order to reach the zipwire, the plaintiff climbed the ladder. Although the ladder did not reach the platform at the end of the wire, Ms. Herberchuk was able to reach the platform by pulling herself up by her hands. Once on the platform Ms. Herberchuk wrapped the rope around her hands as she had seen others do and pushed herself off. Instead of traveling down the wire, however, Ms. Herberchuk fell to the ground sustaining serious injuries, including two elbow fractures and a fractured jaw. As result of these events Ms. Herberchuk commenced this lawsuit against 4H and Teleglobe. Both 4H and Teleglobe have moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability.
[HN1] Summary judgment shall be granted where there are no issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to as a matter of law. Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 716, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991); Cassesso v. Comm’r of Correction, 390 Mass. 419, 422, 456 N.E.2d 1123 (1983); Community Nat’l Bank v. Dawes, 369 Mass. 550, 553, 340 N.E.2d 877 (1976); Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of affirmatively demonstrating the [*4] absence of a triable issue and that, therefore, she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17, 532 N.E.2d 1211 (1989). If the moving party establishes the absence of a triable issue, in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must respond and allege facts which would establish the existence of disputed material facts. Id.
[HN2] A judge, when ruling on a motion for summary judgment must consider “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, in determining whether summary judgment is appropriate.” Flesner v. Technical Communications Corporation et al., 410 Mass. 805, 807, 575 N.E.2d 1107 (1991). Where no genuine issue of material fact exists, “the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.” Id. citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).
1. The Claim Against 4-H.
[HN3] A property owner has a duty to maintain its property [*5] “in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk.” Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 708, 297 N.E.2d 43 (1973). A defendant is not required to “supply a place of maximum safety, but only one which would be safe to a person who exercises such minimum care as the circumstances reasonably indicate.” Toubiana v. Priestly, 402 Mass. 84, 88, 520 N.E.2d 1307 (1988). “A landowner has no duty to protect lawful visitors on his property from risks that would be obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Id. at 89.
In the present case, Ms. Herberchuk claims there are genuine issues of fact concerning the condition in which the zipwire was kept, as well as, what actions 4-H took to prevent unauthorized use of the apparatus. The evidence on the record, for the purposes of this motion, includes affidavits from both Ms. Herberchuk and Mr. Charles G. Ingersoll, a member of the 4-H Board of Trustees, as well as exhibits, including photographs of the area immediately before the accident.
In his affidavit, Mr. Ingersoll states that, while not having [*6] a specific memory of doing so the summer during which Ms. Herberchuk was injured, it was his practice to remove and put away for the winter all those removable parts and safety equipment associated with the zipwire at the end of each camping season (before the outing). Mr. Ingersol also stated that the ladder used by the plaintiff to get to the platform was not one of those presently used by the camp and that the pulley was not on the line the day of the outing. Ms. Herberchuk admitted in her affidavit that when she first arrived at the outing there was no ladder attached to the tree and that when she attempted to make her way to the platform she had to pull herself up because the wooden ladder placed there did not reach the platform. Ms. Herberchuk stated further that she did not know if the pulley was attached to the wire or where the strap had come from.
[HN4] “The question to be decided is whether the jury reasonably could have concluded that, in view of all the circumstances, an ordinarily prudent person in the defendant’s position would have taken steps, not taken by the defendant, to prevent the accident that occurred.” Id. at 89. In this case the evidence shows that 4-H [*7] had removed both the ladder and the safety equipment used with the zipwire during the camping season. Upon arriving at the outing Ms. Herberchuk saw no ladder allowing entry to the platform rendering the zipwire inaccessible, it being twenty feet above the ground. Ms. Herberchuk chose to use the zipwire without the benefit of safety equipment or instructions on the use of the device. Ms. Herberchuk also admitted in her deposition that she knew there was a chance she could be injured but decided to use the apparatus. Further, 4-H did not have a duty to warn Ms. Herberchuk of the obvious dangers involved with using the zipwire without safety equipment or instruction. “There is no duty to warn of dangers obvious to persons of average intelligence.” Thorson v. Mandell, 402 Mass. 744, 749, 525 N.E.2d 375 (1988). On this evidence, a fair minded jury could not return a verdict for the plaintiff.
2. The Claim Against Teleglobe.
[HN5] “Before liability for negligence can be imposed there must first be a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, and a breach of that duty proximately resulting in the injury.” Davis v. Westwood Group, 420 Mass. 739, 743, 652 N.E.2d 567 (1995). [*8] Ms. Herberchuk urges that Teleglobe played a part in the organization and funding of the outing at which the plaintiff was injured. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. First, the outing was organized by Teleglobe employees because the company no longer sponsored such events. Second, the money to pay for the outing was raised by a group of employees independent of Teleglobe through the use of a raffle. Finally, Ms. Herberchuk’s attendance was not required by her employment and she received no compensation for attending. On this evidence a reasonable jury could not find that Teleglobe owed any duty to Ms. Herberchuk.
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that defendants’, 4-H and Teleglobe, motions for summary judgment are ALLOWED.
Raymond J, Brassard
Justice of the Superior Court
Dated: March 11, 1999
Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
Claire A. Donahue, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. Ledgends, Inc. d/b/a Alaska Rock Gym, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
Supreme Court Nos. S-14910/14929, No. 6932
SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA
2014 Alas. LEXIS 153
August 1, 2014, Decided
THIS OPINION IS SUBJECT TO CORRECTION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE PACIFIC REPORTER. READERS ARE REQUESTED TO BRING ERRORS TO THE ATTENTION OF THE CLERK OF THE APPELLATE COURTS.
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-10-07305 CI.
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -Plaintiff alleged injured party’s negligence claim failed because a release stated waived risks, used “negligence,” stated important factors in emphasized language, specifically disclaimed liability, did not imply safety standards conflicting with a release, was not contested on public policy grounds, and was not modified by advertising; -The Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, AS 45.50.471 et seq., did not apply because conflicts with a personal injury claim barred assuming such a legislature intent, which “ascertainable loss of money or property” in AS 45.50.531(a) did not state; -It was no clear error to find defendant gym waived Alaska R. Civ. P. 68 attorney’s fees because it only raised its offer of judgment when seeking fees under an indemnity clause, and only raised enhanced fees under Alaska R. Civ. P. 82, before its reconsideration motion.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
COUNSEL: Christine S. Schleuss, Law Office of Christine S. Schleuss, Anchorage, for Appellant and Cross-Appellee.
Tracey L. Knutson, Girdwood, for Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
JUDGES: Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.
OPINION BY: MAASSEN
This case arises from an injury at a climbing gym. Claire Donahue broke her tibia during a class at the Alaska Rock Gym after she dropped approximately three to four-and-a-half feet from a bouldering wall onto the floor mat. Before class Donahue had been required to read and sign a document that purported to release the Rock Gym from any liability for participants’ injuries.
Donahue brought claims against the Rock Gym for negligence and violations of the Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment, contending that the release bars Donahue’s negligence claim. It also moved to dismiss the UTPA claims on grounds that the act does not apply to personal injury claims and that Donahue failed to state a prima facie [*2] case for relief under the act. Donahue cross-moved for partial summary judgment on the enforceability of the release as well as the merits of her UTPA claims. The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s, then awarded attorney’s fees to the Rock Gym under Alaska Civil Rule 82.
Donahue appeals the grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym; the Rock Gym also appeals, contending that the superior court should have awarded fees under Alaska Civil Rule 68 instead of Rule 82. We affirm the superior court on all issues.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Ledgends, Inc. does business as the Alaska Rock Gym, a private indoor facility that is open to the public. Its interior walls have fixed climbing holds and routes; for a fee, it provides classes and open gym or free climbing time. There are signs posted around the Rock Gym warning of the dangers of climbing, including falling; at her deposition Donahue did not dispute that the signs were there when she visited the gym.
Donahue had been thinking about trying rock climbing for several years, and she finally decided in March 2008 to attend a class at the Rock Gym called “Rockin’ Women.” She testified that she chose the class because she thought it could be tailored to specific [*3] skill levels, and because she “got the impression [from the advertisements] that that is the type of group it was, that it was a . . . safe way to learn to climb.” She also testified she understood that the essential risk of climbing is falling.
Donahue had no rock climbing experience, but she was an occasional runner and cyclist and had pursued other high-risk athletic activities such as kite-boarding. She had been a river guide on the Colorado River after college. She had engaged in physical occupations such as commercial fishing and construction. She testified that she understood the nature of risky activities and felt competent to decide about them for herself. In connection with other recreational activities, she had signed releases and waivers similar to the one she signed at the Rock Gym. She testified that she understood that parties who sign contracts generally intend to be bound by them.
When Donahue arrived at the Rock Gym for her first class, she was given a document entitled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.” She was aware of the document’s nature and general intent but testified that although [*4] she signed it voluntarily, she did not read it closely.
The release contains nine numbered sections on two single-spaced pages. There is also an unnumbered introductory paragraph; it defines the Rock Gym to include, among others, its agents, owners, participants, and employees, as well as “all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf.”
Section one of the release contains three paragraphs. The first recites the general risks of rock climbing, including injury and death, and explains that these risks are essential to the sport and therefore cannot be eliminated. The second paragraph lists about a dozen specific risks inherent in rock climbing, including “falling off the climbing wall,” “impacting the ground,” “the negligence of other[s],” and “my own negligence[,] inexperience, . . . or fatigue.” The third paragraph asserts that the gym and its instructors “seek safety, but they are not infallible.” It describes some errors instructors might make, including being ignorant of a participant’s abilities and failing to give adequate warnings or instructions. The final sentence in the third paragraph reads, “By signing this [release], I acknowledge that I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE [*5] for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals, or activities.”
Section two begins, “I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all the risks . . .”; it then highlights the voluntary nature of participation in Rock Gym activities.
Section three is the clause that releases the Rock Gym from liability (the releasing clause). It reads in full,
I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym's] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].
The next six sections of the release address other issues: indemnification for attorney’s fees, certification that the participant is fit to climb, permission to provide first aid, permission to photograph for promotional purposes, the voluntariness of participation and signing the release, and jurisdiction for claims arising from the release.
The ultimate paragraph is printed in bold. It reads in part,
By signing this [*6] document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.
Finally, centered on the second page, in bold capital letters directly above the signature line, the release reads: “I HAVE HAD SUFFICIENT OPPORTUNITY TO READ THIS ENTIRE DOCUMENT. I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD IT, AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.”
Donahue’s hand-printed name and the date appear on the first page of the release, and her initials are at the bottom of the page; her signature appears on the second page, along with her printed name, her contact information, and the date.
Donahue completed her first class on harnessed climbing on March 23, 2008, and returned for a second class on May 11. When class began she was told that the day’s focus would be on bouldering, or unharnessed climbing on low walls. She did not express any hesitation. She climbed for almost two hours, successfully ascending and descending a number of routes. [*7] During this time she saw other people drop from the wall without injury. After another successful ascent near the end of the lesson, she felt unable to climb down using the available holds. Her feet were somewhere between three and four-and-a-half feet from the ground. Her instructor suggested that she drop to the mat and told her to be sure to bend her knees. Donahue landed awkwardly and broke her tibia in four places. She was attended to immediately by Rock Gym personnel and a physician who happened to be present.
The Rock Gym had run various advertisements during the two years preceding Donahue’s accident, using a number of different slogans. One newspaper ad, running on at least three occasions, stated: “[T]the only safe place in town to hang out.” Another Rock Gym ad showed an adult bouldering and a child climbing while harnessed; its text contained the same slogan and added, in part, “Trust us, it still exists. . . . [E]very child in your family will be reminded of what it’s all about — friends and fun.” A third ad described climbing programs for everyone in the family and said, “[Y]ou have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” In an affidavit, Donahue testified she had read these ads.
Donahue [*8] sued the Rock Gym for negligent failure to adequately train and supervise its instructors. She alleged that the Rock Gym was liable for its employee’s negligent instruction to drop from the bouldering wall. She also alleged a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, contending that the Rock Gym’s advertisements “misleadingly advertised [the gym] as a safe place where users of its services had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment on all of Donahue’s claims. She opposed the motion and cross-moved for partial summary judgment herself, arguing that the Rock Gym had violated the UTPA as a matter of law and that the release she had signed was null and void.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s cross-motion. It then granted the Rock Gym, as prevailing party, partial attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(a)(3).
III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
[HN1] We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.1 In making this determination, we construe the facts in favor of the non-moving party.2 If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving [*9] party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.3
1 Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013) (citing Yost v. State, Div. of Corps., Bus. & Prof’l Licensing, 234 P.3d 1264, 1272 (Alaska 2010)).
2 Id. (citing McCormick v. City of Dillingham, 16 P.3d 735, 738 (Alaska 2001)).
3 Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012).
[HN2] We decide questions of law, including statutory interpretation, using our independent judgment.4 We will adopt the most persuasive rule of law in light of precedent, reason, and policy.5 This requires us, when interpreting statutes, to “look to the meaning of the language, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute.”6
4 Therchik v. Grant Aviation, Inc., 74 P.3d 191, 193 (Alaska 2003).
5 ASRC Energy Servs. Power & Commc’ns, LLC v. Golden Valley Electric Ass’n, 267 P.3d 1151, 1157 (Alaska 2011).
[HN3] “A superior court’s determination whether waiver occurred is a question of fact that we review for clear error.”7
7 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
A. The Release Is Enforceable And Bars Donahue’s Negligence Claims.
Three cases define Alaska law on pre-activity releases from liability.8 [HN4] These cases consistently state that such releases are not per se invalid;9 in each of the cases, however, we concluded that the release at issue did not bar the plaintiff’s claim.
8 Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991).
9 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961-62 (noting that “under Alaska law pre-recreational exculpatory releases are held to a very high standard of clarity”); Moore, 36 P.3d at 631 (noting that “an otherwise valid release is ineffective when releasing a defendant from liability would violate public policy” (emphasis added)); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to [*10] sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (quoting 15 Samuel Williston, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 1750A, at 143-45 (3d ed. 1972)); see also Mitchell v. Mitchell, 655 P.2d 748, 751 (Alaska 1982) (upholding provision not to sue in settlement agreement and noting that, “[a]s a matter of law, . . . a valid release of all claims will bar any subsequent claims covered by the release”).
Kissick v. Schmierer involved a plane crash that caused the deaths of all four people aboard.10 The three passengers had signed a covenant not to sue before they boarded the plane.11 They agreed in the release not to bring a claim “for any loss, damage, or injury to [their] person or [their] property which may occur from any cause whatsoever.”12 When the passengers’ surviving spouses filed wrongful death claims against the pilot, their claims were allowed to proceed despite the release.13 We ruled that [HN5] “[i]ntent to release a party from liability for future negligence must be conspicuously and unequivocally expressed.”14 We also held that a release must use the word “negligence” to establish the required degree of clarity, something the release in Kissick did not do.15 Further, since liability for “death” was not specifically disclaimed and the term “injury” [*11] was ambiguous, we held that the release did not apply to claims for wrongful death, construing it against the drafter.16
10 Kissick, 816 P.2d at 188.
11 Id. at 189.
14 Id. at 191 (citations omitted).
15 Id. (citing W.Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 483-84 (5th ed.1984) (footnotes omitted)).
16 Id. at 191-92.
The second case, Moore v. Hartley Motors, involved an injury during a class on driving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).17 We first addressed whether the plaintiff’s signed release violated public policy.18 We noted that the type of service involved was neither essential nor regulated by statute;19 these factors, along with the voluntariness of the plaintiff’s participation, persuaded us that the defendants 20 had no “decisive advantage in bargaining strength.”21 We therefore held that the release did not violate public policy.22
17 36 P.3d 628, 629 (Alaska 2001).
18 Id. at 631-32.
19 Id. at 631-32 (noting that ATV riding is similar to parachuting, dirt biking, and scuba diving, for which releases have been upheld in other jurisdictions).
20 The defendants included the dealer that sold the plaintiff the ATV and referred her to the safety course, the ATV Safety Institute that developed the curriculum, and the individual instructor. Id. at 629.
21 Id. at 631-32.
We did decide, however, that the release did not conspicuously and unequivocally [*12] express an intent to release the defendants from liability for the cause of the exact injury that occurred — a rollover when the plaintiff drove over a big rock hidden in tall grass.23 The release covered the inherent risks of ATV riding, but we found that it also included “an implied and reasonable presumption that the course [was] not unreasonably dangerous.”24 We found there to be fact questions about whether “the course posed a risk beyond ordinary negligence related to the inherent risks of off-road ATV riding assumed by the release,” and we held that summary judgment for the defendants on the basis of the release was therefore improper.25
23 Id. at 632.
25 Id. at 633-34.
The third case, Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, involved the same rock gym as this case.26 It involved a similar injury as well, sustained when the plaintiff fell from a bouldering wall.27 Unlike Donahue, however, who landed squarely on the floor mat, the plaintiff in Kerr was allegedly injured when her foot slipped through the space between two floor mats.28 The plaintiff alleged the gym knew of the defect in the landing area but had failed to fix it.29
26 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004).
27 Id. at 961.
The superior court, whose order we approved and attached as an appendix to our opinion, cited Kissick [*13] for the notion that a pre-activity release for tortious conduct must be “clear, explicit, and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”30 The superior court also noted the requirement that “such an agreement, read as a whole, must clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.”31 With these principles in mind, the superior court pointed to language in the release that was problematic because it was internally inconsistent: the release stated that the gym would try to keep its facilities safe and its equipment in good condition, but it simultaneously disclaimed liability for actions that failed to meet such standards.32 The superior court construed this ambiguity against the drafter and held that the release was not valid as a bar to the plaintiff’s negligence claims, a holding we affirmed.33
30 Id. at 961-62 (quoting Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
31 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191) (internal quotation marks omitted).
32 Id. at 963.
In this case, the superior court concluded that Kissick, Moore, and Kerr, considered together, meant that [HN6] “an effective liability release requires six characteristics.” We agree with the superior court’s formulation of the list:
(1) the risk being waived must [*14] be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language by using simple words and capital letters; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.
The superior court found that each of these characteristics was satisfied in this case, and again we agree.34
34 Donahue does not challenge the release on public policy grounds, so the fourth characteristic of a valid release is satisfied here. Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities. Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (internal citations [*15] and quotation marks omitted)). The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case involving claims against a health club, held that liability releases in gym cases do not violate public policy in part because gyms remain liable for their gross negligence or recklessness — levels of culpability not alleged in this case. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 N.J. 286, 1 A.3d 678, 681 (N.J. 2010); see also City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal. 4th 747, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095, 1102-03 (Cal. 2007) (surveying jurisdictions and concluding that “[m]ost, but not all” hold that releases of ordinary negligence in recreational activities do not violate public policy but “the vast majority of decisions state or hold that such agreements generally are void” if they attempt to release “aggravated misconduct” such as gross negligence).
1. The risks being waived (falling and instructor negligence) are specifically and clearly set forth.
[HN7] A conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived is the keystone of a valid release.35 Here, the release clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue: injury from falling while climbing. The following are excerpts from the Rock Gym’s release:
I specifically acknowledge that the inherent risks associated with rock climbing . . . include, but [are] not limited to: falling off of the climbing wall, . . . impacting [*16] the ground . . . , general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant’s limits, . . . my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue . . . .
To the extent that the risk at issue is the risk of hitting the ground after falling (or dropping in what is essentially an intentional fall), the first characteristic of a valid release is satisfied by this language.
35 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
Rather than focusing on her injury, however, Donahue focuses on its alleged cause, which she argues was the negligent training and supervision of Rock Gym instructors and the consequently negligent instructions she was given. She claims that the release did not specifically and clearly set forth this risk, and that she was therefore unaware that she was waiving the right to sue for instructor negligence.
But the release did cover this risk. The first paragraph expressly incorporates “employees” into the definition of the entity being released. The release further warns that Rock Gym “instructors, [*17] employees, volunteers, agents or others . . . are not infallible” and that “[t]hey may give inadequate warnings or instructions.” In its on-site interactions with the public, the Rock Gym necessarily acts through its instructors and other employees; Donahue knew she would be taking a class and that classes require instructors. It would not be reasonable to conclude that the Rock Gym sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees, and we cannot construe the release in that way.36 We agree with the superior court’s conclusion that “the Release clearly expresses that it is a release of liability for the negligence of the releasor-participant, other participants, climbers, spotters or visitors, as well as [the Rock Gym's] negligence, including [Rock Gym] employees.”
36 See Kahn v. E. Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, 40 (Cal. 2003) (holding that “the risks associated with learning a sport may themselves be inherent risks of the sport. . . . [A]nd . . . liability should not be imposed simply because an instructor asked the student to take action beyond what, with hindsight, is found to have been the student’s abilities” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).
Donahue also argues that [*18] she could not understand the risks involved due to the release’s appearance and presentation. However, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her, the record does not support her argument. Although Donahue did not carefully read the release before signing it,37 she was aware she was signing a liability release. She has signed a number of such documents in the past and was familiar with their general purpose. When asked to read the release at her deposition, she testified that she understood the pertinent risks it described. There is no reason to believe that she would have found it less comprehensible had she read it at the time she signed it.
37 [HN8] Failure to read a contract in detail before signing it is no defense to its enforceability. Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991).
2. The waiver of negligence is specifically set forth using the word “negligence.”
Kissick and Kerr both emphasize that a valid release from liability for negligence claims requires use of the word “negligence.”38 This requirement is met here.
38 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.
The Rock Gym’s release first lists negligence among the inherent risks of climbing (“the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants” and “my own negligence”). It then provides: [*19] “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].” (Emphasis added.) The phrase “any and all claims” is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.
Cases from other jurisdictions support the conclusion that the language in the Rock Gym’s release covers all of Donahue’s negligence claims. In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., the plaintiff was injured on a motocross track after falling from his bike and being struck by two other riders.39 A California Court of Appeal concluded that the signed waiver releasing the track from liability for “any losses or damages . . . whether caused by the negligence of [the Releasees] or otherwise” precluded the plaintiff’s claim “for ordinary negligence as well as negligent hiring and supervision” of employees at the racetrack (though it did not release the track from liability for gross negligence — a claim not made here).40
39 192 Cal. App. 4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, 27 (Cal. App. 2011).
40 Id. at 30. See also Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 28, 49 (Tex. App. 2002) (“Negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claims are all simple negligence causes of action based on an [*20] employer’s direct negligence rather than on vicarious liability.” (citations omitted)).
In short, the requirement that a waiver of negligence be specifically set out using the word “negligence” is satisfied by the Rock Gym’s release.
3. The important factors are brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language with simple words and capital letters.
Donahue argues that although “negligence” is expressly mentioned and disclaimed in the release, its placement at the end of long sentences written in small font rendered its presence meaningless to her. Quoting a California case, she argues that when the risk of negligence is shifted, a layperson “should not be required to muddle through complex language to know that valuable, legal rights are being relinquished.”41 Donahue also cites New Hampshire and Washington cases in which the structure and organization of releases obscured the language that purported to shield the defendants from claims.42 These cases considered factors such as “whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, [and] whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type.”43 In one Washington case, a release [*21] was invalidated because the releasing language was in the middle of a paragraph.44
41 Conservatorship of the Estate of Link v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 158 Cal. App. 3d 138, 205 Cal. Rptr. 513, 515 (Cal. App. 1984).
42 See Wright v. Loon Mtn. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1342 (N.H. 1995); Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn. App. 533, 210 P.3d 1021, 1023 (Wash. App. 2009).
43 Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1023 (citing Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (Wash. 1971)).
44 Baker, 484 P.2d at 407.
Fundamentally, Donahue argues that the Rock Gym’s release was so ambiguous and laden with legalese that she lacked any real ability to understand that she was agreeing to release the Rock Gym from the negligence of its instructors. She complains of the release’s “lengthy, small-printed, and convoluted” language which required a “magnifying glass and lexicon” to decipher. She points out that the clause purporting to release the Rock Gym from liability is not obvious or emphasized through bold print or capital letters. She testified at her deposition that she believed the waiver shielded the gym only “from frivolous lawsuits, from people blaming them for something that’s not their fault.”
It is true that the release’s text is small and the releasing clause is in the middle of the document toward the bottom of the first page. But the clauses addressing negligence do not appear to be “calculated to conceal,” as Donahue argues. Though not highlighted, they are in a logical place where they cannot be missed by someone who reads the release. The clause releasing the Rock Gym from liability is [*22] a single sentence set out as its own numbered paragraph, and it is not confusing or needlessly wordy.45 The inherent risks of climbing are enumerated in great detail but using ordinary descriptive language that is easy to understand.46 Several sentences are devoted to the role of the gym’s “instructors, employees, volunteers, agents or others,” stating that they “have difficult jobs to perform,” that they “seek safety, but they are not infallible,” and that they may “be ignorant of mine or another participant’s fitness or abilities” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
45 Paragraph 3 of the release reads: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym's] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].”
46 Paragraph 1 of the release lists the inherent risks of climbing as including “but . . . not limited to”:
falling off of the climbing wall, being fallen on or impacted by other participants, poor or [*23] improper belaying, the possibility that I will be jolted or jarred or bounced or thrown to and fro or shaken about while climbing or belaying, entanglement in ropes, impacting the ground and/or climbing wall, loose or dropped or damaged ropes or holds, equipment failure, improperly maintained equipment which I may or may not be renting from [the Rock Gym], displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure, general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant['s] limits, the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present, participants giving or following inappropriate “Beta” or climbing advice or move sequences, mine or others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym], my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue — some or all of which may diminish my or the other participants’ ability to react or respond.
Because [HN9] releases should be read “as a whole” in order to decide whether they “clearly [*24] notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement,”47 we consider these provisions in the context of the entire document. Three other sections of emphasized text mitigate Donahue’s complaints about ambiguity and incomprehensibility. First, section one reads in part, “I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals or activities” (bold in original). This alone makes it clear to the reader that the Rock Gym, to the extent it is allowed to do so, intends to shift responsibility to the climber regardless of the actions of anyone else. Second, a final unnumbered paragraph, set out in bold letters, reads in part: “By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.” And finally, directly above the lines where Donahue entered her signature, her printed name, her contact [*25] information, and the date, the release reads, in bold and capital letters, “I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD [THE RELEASE], AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.” If Donahue had read the release and found herself genuinely confused about any of its terms, she was prominently notified that she should inquire about it before signing.
47 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991).
The New Hampshire case on which Donahue relies, Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., examined the release in question to determine whether “a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have understood that the agreement clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence.”48 Applying that test here, we conclude that a reasonable person in Donahue’s position could not have overlooked or misunderstood the release’s intent to disclaim liability. Our case law’s third characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
48 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1343-44 (N.H. 1995); see also Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1021 (holding reasonable persons could disagree about the conspicuousness of the release provision in the waiver, and remanding for trial).
4. Regardless of whether falling and instructor negligence are inherent risks of rock climbing, the release specifically disclaims [*26] liability for them.
The fifth characteristic set forth by the superior court 49 is that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”50 This requirement stems from the release’s ill-defined scope in Moore; the injury that occurred — arguably caused by an unreasonably dangerous ATV training course — was not obviously included in the inherent risks of riding ATVs, which the signed release did intend to cover.51 Here, in contrast, the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered by the release, as explained above. Negligence claims are specifically contemplated, as are “falls,” “impact” with the ground, and “inadequate warnings or instructions” from Rock Gym instructors. Regardless of whether these are inherent risks of climbing, they are specifically covered by the release. This characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.
49 As noted above, the fourth characteristic of a valid release — that it not violate public policy — is not at issue on this appeal. See supra note 34.
50 See Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 633-34 (Alaska 2001).
5. The release does not represent or imply standards of safety or maintenance that [*27] conflict with an intent to release negligence claims.
The sixth characteristic of a valid release is that it does not imply standards of safety or maintenance that conflict with an intent to waive claims for negligence.52 The Rock Gym argues that nothing in the release confuses its purpose, unlike the release at issue in Kerr, which at least implicitly promised that equipment would be kept “in good condition.”53 We agree. In fact, far from providing assurances of safety, the release highlights the fallibility of the Rock Gym’s employees, equipment, and facilities, explicitly stating that the equipment may “fail,” “malfunction[,] or be poorly maintained” and that the staff is “not infallible,” may be ignorant of a climber’s “fitness or abilities,” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”
52 See Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960, 962-63 (Alaska 2004).
53 Id. at 963.
Donahue agrees that the release is not internally inconsistent, but she argues that the advertisements run by the Rock Gym had the same confounding impact on her understanding of it as the release’s language about equipment maintenance had in Kerr. She contends that she relied on the ads’ assurances that the gym was “a safe place” and the class “would be a safe way to learn to climb” when [*28] she enrolled in the climbing class. She argues that these assurances created ambiguity that, as in Kerr, requires that the release be interpreted in a less exculpatory way.
Although extrinsic evidence may be admissible as an aid to contract interpretation,54 the release here clearly defines climbing as an inherently risky activity. And we have said that
[HN10] where one section deals with a subject in general terms and another deals with a part of the same subject in a more detailed way, the two should be harmonized if possible; but if there is a conflict, the specific section will control over the general.55
Were we to give the Rock Gym’s advertisements any weight in our analysis of the release, we would not find that their use of the word “safe” overrode the release’s very clear warnings about the specific risks of climbing.
54 Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1004 (Alaska 2004) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Gentile, 922 P.2d 248, 256 (Alaska 1996)).
55 Id. (quoting Estate of Hutchinson, 577 P.2d 1074, 1075 (Alaska 1978)).
Because the advertisements cannot reasonably be considered as modifications to the release, and because the release does not otherwise contain implicit guarantees of safety or maintenance that could confuse its purpose, we find the final requirement of a valid release to be satisfied. The release thus satisfies all characteristics of a valid release [*29] identified by our case law, and we affirm the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym on this issue.
B. The UTPA Does Not Apply To Personal Injury Claims.
[HN11] Under the UTPA, “[a] person who suffers an ascertainable loss of money or property as a result of another person’s act or practice declared unlawful by AS 45.50.471 may bring a civil action to recover for each unlawful act or practice three times the actual damages . . . .”56 Donahue alleges that, by publishing ads that gave the impression the Rock Gym was safe, the Rock Gym engaged in “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce” which are unlawful under the statute.57 [HN12] We have not yet decided whether the statutory phrase “loss of money or property” includes personal injury claims. We now hold that it does not.
56 AS 45.50.531(a) (emphasis added).
57 AS 45.50.471(a).
[HN13] The UTPA was “designed to meet the increasing need in Alaska for the protection of consumers as well as honest businessmen from the depredations of those persons employing unfair or deceptive trade practices.”58 The act protects the consumer from deceptive sales and advertising practices,59 and it protects honest businesses from their unethical [*30] competitors.60 Donahue concedes that we have limited the UTPA to “regulating practices relating to transactions involving consumer goods and services.”61 She contends, however, that because we have never restricted the types of damages available for conduct within the UTPA’s reach, damages for personal injury should be recoverable.
58 W. Star Trucks, Inc. v. Big Iron Equip. Serv., Inc., 101 P.3d 1047, 1052 (Alaska 2004) (quoting House Judiciary Committee Report on HCSCS for S.B. 352, House Journal Supp. No. 10 at 1, 1970 House Journal 744) (court’s emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted).
59 See, e.g., Kenai Chrysler Ctr., Inc. v. Denison, 167 P.3d 1240, 1244-45 (Alaska 2007) (affirming superior court’s award of treble damages against a car dealer for its insistence on enforcing an invalid contract); Pierce v. Catalina Yachts, Inc., 2 P.3d 618, 624 (Alaska 2000) (holding unconscionable sailboat manufacturer’s warranty in favor of buyers).
60 See, e.g., Garrison v. Dixon, 19 P.3d 1229, 1230-31, 1236 (Alaska 2001) (holding suit to be frivolous where real estate buyer’s agents sued competitors, alleging false and misleading advertising); Odom v. Fairbanks Mem’l Hosp., 999 P.2d 123, 127, 131-32 (Alaska 2000) (holding viable physician’s claims against hospital for retaliatory and anticompetitive behavior).
61 See Roberson v. Southwood Manor Assocs., LLC, 249 P.3d 1059, 1062 (Alaska 2011) (holding the UTPA does not apply to residential leases) (citing Aloha Lumber Corp. v. Univ. of Alaska, 994 P.2d 991, 1002 (Alaska 1999) (holding the UTPA does not apply to the sale of standing timber because it is real property rather than a consumer good)).
The superior court observed that there is nothing [*31] in the UTPA’s legislative history to support Donahue’s contention that the Alaska Legislature intended the act “to expand liability for personal injury or wrongful death or to supplant negligence as the basis for such liability.” The superior court identified “significant incongruities between the elements of common law personal injury claims and the UTPA, which suggest that the two claims cannot be reconciled.” The court explained:
For most of the past twenty years the Alaska Legislature has enacted and amended, in various forms, multiple iterations of tort reform aimed at reducing, not expanding, the scope of civil liability for personal injury and wrongful death. Expanding UTPA liability to personal injury and wrongful death would contradict many of the tort reform provisions enacted by the legislature in AS 09.17.010-080. For example, AS 09.17.020 allows punitive damages only if the plaintiff proves defendant’s conduct was outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives, or with reckless indifference to the interest of another person. The UTPA, on the other hand, does not require such a culpable mental state and almost as a matter of course allows a person to receive trebled actual damages. [*32] AS 09.17.060 limits a claimant’s recovery by the amount attributable to the claimant’s contributory fault; the UTPA, in contrast, does not provide a contributory fault defense. Moreover, AS 09.17.080 apportions damages between multiple tortfeasors whereas the UTPA does not permit apportionment of damages. A UTPA cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death would sidestep all of these civil damages protections.
We agree with the superior court that [HN14] the private cause of action available under the UTPA conflicts in too many ways with the traditional claim for personal injury or wrongful death for us to assume, without clear legislative direction, that the legislature intended the act to provide an alternative vehicle for such suits. The language of AS 45.50.531(a) — “ascertainable loss of money or property” — does not provide that clear direction. The legislature is well aware of how to identify causes of action involving personal injury and wrongful death, does so in other contexts,62 and declined to do so in this statute.
62 See, e.g., AS 04.21.020(e) (for purposes of statute governing civil liability of persons providing alcoholic beverages, ” ‘civil damages’ includes damages for personal injury, death, or injury to property of a person”); [*33] AS 05.45.200(4) (in statutes governing liability of ski resorts, “‘injury’ means property damage, personal injury, or death”); AS 09.10.070(a) (providing general statute of limitations for “personal injury or death”); AS 09.17.010 (limiting noneconomic damages recoverable “for personal injury or wrongful death”); AS 46.03.825(b)(1) (providing that limitations on oil spill damages do not apply to “an action for personal injury or death”).
Other states have similar laws, and their courts’ interpretations are helpful. Section 531(a) has a counterpart in Oregon’s UTPA, which likewise allows private actions by those who suffer a “loss of money or property.”63 The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering an action for personal injuries occurring after a mechanic allegedly misrepresented the state of a car’s brakes, held that the UTPA was not a vehicle for the pursuit of personal injury claims.64 It held that the Act plainly had a restitutionary purpose — “i.e., restitution for economic loss suffered by a consumer as the result of a deceptive trade practice.”65 It noted the lack of any legislative history “to the effect that by the adoption of that provision the legislature intended to confer upon private individuals a new cause of action for personal injuries, including [*34] punitive damages and attorney fees,” or of “any decisions to that effect by the courts of any of the many other states which have adopted similar statutes.”66 It emphasized the availability of common law remedies, which provided a range of possible causes of action for personal injury — negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability — and noted that these remedies provide for a more expansive range of damages, such as pain and suffering, not available under the UTPA.67
63 ORS 646.638(1); ORS 646.608.
64 Gross-Haentjens v. Leckenby, 38 Ore. App. 313, 589 P.2d 1209, 1210-11 (Or. App. 1979).
65 Id. at 1210; see also Fowler v. Cooley, 239 Ore. App. 338, 245 P.3d 155, 161 (Or. App. 2010).
66 Gross-Haentjens, 589 P.2d at 1210-11.
67 Id. at 1211. Other courts have reached similar conclusions. See Beerman v. Toro Mfg. Corp., 1 Haw. App. 111, 615 P.2d 749, 754 (Haw. App. 1980) (“[T]hough individual actions based on damage to a consumer’s property may be within the purview of [the Hawaii consumer protection act], the scope of the statutes does not extend to personal injury actions.”); Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 804 S.W.2d 68, 73 (Tenn. App. 1990) (“We must hold that the General Assembly intended for the Consumer Protection Act to be used by a person claiming damages for an ascertainable loss of money or property due to an unfair or deceptive act or practice and not in a wrongful death action.”); Stevens v. Hyde Athletic Indus., Inc., 54 Wn. App. 366, 773 P.2d 871, 873 (Wash. App. 1989) (“We hold actions for personal injury do not fall within the coverage of the [Washington consumer protection act].”).
We agree with the reasoning of the Oregon court and conclude that Alaska’s [*35] UTPA does not provide the basis for a claim for personal injury.
C. The Superior Court Did Not Clearly Err In Finding That The Rock Gym Waived Any Claim For Rule 68 Attorney’s Fees.
The superior court granted the Rock Gym, as the prevailing party, 20 percent of its reasonable, actual attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(b)(2). [HN15] Twenty percent of “actual attorney’s fees which were necessarily incurred” is the presumptively reasonable award for a party who prevails in a case resolved short of trial but who does not recover a money judgment.68
68 See Williams v. Fagnani, 228 P.3d 71, 77 (Alaska 2010) (“Awards made pursuant to the schedule of Civil Rule 82(b) are presumptively correct.”).
The Rock Gym contends that it should have been awarded fees under Civil Rule 68 instead. [HN16] Rule 68 provides that (a) where an adverse party makes an offer to allow judgment entered against it in complete satisfaction of the claim, and (b) the judgment finally entered is at least five percent less favorable to the offeree than the offer, the offeree shall pay a percentage of the reasonable actual attorney’s fees incurred by the offeror from the date of the offer, the percentage depending on how close the parties are to trial when the offer is made. The Rock Gym made a Rule 68 offer of judgment on February 7, 2012, over two months before [*36] the April trial date. Donahue rejected the offer. Under these facts, once judgment was granted in the Rock Gym’s favor, the conditions for an award of 30 percent of “the offeror’s reasonable actual attorney’s fees” under the Rule 68 schedule were satisfied.69
69 Alaska R. Civ. P. 68(b)(3). We note that the award of fees under Rule 68 was likely to be only nominally greater than that under Rule 82. Rule 68 affects only fees incurred after the date the offer is made, here February 7, 2012. The parties had already completed their summary judgment briefing by that time, and summary judgment was entered a month later.
The question presented here, however, is whether the Rock Gym waived any request for Rule 68 fees. The Rock Gym initially argued to the superior court that it should be awarded full fees because of express language in the release, which reads:
Should [the Rock Gym] or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.
While arguing this point, the Rock Gym noted in a footnote that it was eligible for full fees under AS 09.30.065 (the statute authorizing the Rule 68 procedure). But it made that observation only in support of its argument [*37] for full fees under the release. Its motion did not otherwise mention Rule 68; rather, as an alternative to fees under the indemnity clause, the Rock Gym asked the court to use its discretion to award up to 80 percent of its fees under Rule 82 — far more than the scheduled award of 20 percent — in light of Donahue’s “vexatious” behavior, particularly having complicated the case with claims under the UTPA.
The superior court denied the Rock Gym’s request for full fees based on the release and ordered it to submit an affidavit detailing its counsel’s billings. The order also stated, “Plaintiff should address the effect, if any, of defendant’s Rule 68 offer on the amount of fees that may be awarded.” The Rock Gym submitted the required fee affidavit and also moved for reconsideration, again arguing that full fees should be awarded under the release’s indemnity clause; again relying on Rule 82 as an alternative; and failing to mention Rule 68 at all. Donahue submitted no response.
The superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s argument based on the release’s indemnity clause and ordered the Rock Gym to submit a more detailed fee affidavit. The Rock Gym filed another affidavit which did not address the offer of judgment. [*38]
In its third order, the superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s request for full attorney’s fees and awarded 20 percent of its fees under Rule 82(b)(2). The Rock Gym again moved for reconsideration. This time the Rock Gym argued that it was entitled to 30 percent of its fees under Rule 68, relying on the footnote in its first motion to contend that the argument was not waived.70
70 As noted above, the increased percentage of attorney’s fees would only apply to those fees incurred after the date the offer of judgment was made; the amount at issue thus appears to be minimal.
The superior court then issued its fourth order on fees. It reaffirmed its Rule 82 award, finding that the Rock Gym had not adequately or timely made a claim under Rule 68. The court observed that the Rock Gym’s failure to make the claim earlier was likely a “tactical decision, initially, to pursue full attorney fees based on indemnity rather than present all of its alternative fee award theories at once.”
[HN17] The superior court’s finding that the Rock Gym waived a request for fees under Rule 68 is reviewed for clear error.71 We see no clear error here. The Rock Gym’s reference to its offer of judgment in its motion for attorney’s fees was made only to support its [*39] request for full fees under the indemnity provision of the release; the only alternative it expressly requested was an award of enhanced fees under Rule 82. As the superior court observed, it was not the court’s duty in this context “to solicit additional arguments for a moving party.”72 Nor was the superior court obliged to consider the Rule 68 argument when it was raised for the first time in motions for reconsideration.73 And under the circumstances of this case, including the modest difference between fee awards under Rule 82 and Rule 68 and an apparent deficiency in the Rule 68 offer itself,74 we cannot see plain error.75
71 See Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).
72 See, e.g., Forshee v. Forshee, 145 P.3d 492, 498 (Alaska 2006).
73 See Haines v. Cox, 182 P.3d 1140, 1144 (Alaska 2008) (holding that the plaintiff’s submission of evidence only when she moved for reconsideration forecloses her claim that the court abused its discretion by failing to rely on that evidence); Koller v. Reft, 71 P.3d 800, 805 n.10 (Alaska 2003) (noting that superior court is not obliged to consider documents presented for the first time with a motion for reconsideration).
74 The offer did not encompass the Rock Gym’s counterclaim against Donahue for contractual indemnity. See Progressive Corp. v. Peter ex rel. Peter, 195 P.3d 1083, 1089 (Alaska 2008) (“Both Rule 68 and AS 09.30.065 . . . implicitly require that an offer of judgment include all claims between the parties and be capable of completely resolving the case by way of a final [*40] judgment if accepted.”).
75 [HN18] The plain error doctrine requires a party to prove that the error waived below was “so prejudicial that failure to correct it will perpetuate a manifest injustice.” Forshee, 145 P.3d at 500 n.36 (quoting Hosier v. State, 1 P.3d 107, 112 n.11 (Alaska App. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The judgment of the superior court is AFFIRMED.
Sa v. Red Frog Events, LlC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355
James Sa, Plaintiff, vs. Red Frog Events, LlC, an Illinois corporation, Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN, SOUTHERN DIVISION
979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355
October 22, 2013, Decided
October 22, 2013, Filed
CORE TERMS: mud, dive, pit, own negligence, willful, wanton misconduct, obstacle, gross negligence, diving, indemnity, negligence claim, indemnitee, indemnify, negligent acts, indemnification, disclaim, pit head, risk of injury, citation omitted, unambiguous, encouraged, summary judgment, claim arising, recreational activities, reasonable care, encouraging, disclaimer, hazardous, choosing, ladder
COUNSEL: [**1] For James Sa, Plaintiff: Michael J. Behm, Behm and Behm, Flint, MI.
For Red Frog Events, LLC, Defendant: Brian T. McGorisk, Plunkett & Cooney, Flint, MI.
JUDGES: Hon. GERALD E. ROSEN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: GERALD E. ROSEN
[*769] OPINION AND ORDER PARTIALLY GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
This action arises out of an unfortunate and tragic accident during a running race organized by Defendant Red Frog Events, resulting in Plaintiff James Sa’s paralysis from his chest down. On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a three-count Complaint, asserting negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct. 1 Defendant has now moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint on the grounds that Plaintiff waived his negligence claim and that his two other claims fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 2 Having reviewed and considered the parties’ briefs and supporting documents and the entire record of this matter, the Court has determined that the pertinent allegations and legal arguments are sufficiently addressed in these materials and that oral [*770] argument would not assist in the resolution of these motions. Accordingly, the Court will decide Defendant’s [**2] motion “on the briefs.” See L.R. 7.1(f)(2). This Opinion and Order sets forth the Court’s ruling.
1 Michigan courts use “willful” and “wilful” interchangeably. For consistency, this Court uses the former, unless in the context of a direct quote.
2 Though captioned as a “Motion for Summary Judgment,” Defendant’s Motion makes clear that it seeks dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or alternatively, pursuant to Rule 56. As discussed in more detail in footnotes 3 and 4, this Court applies Rule 12(b)(6) to this Motion.
II. PERTIENT FACTS
In July 2011, Plaintiff participated in a two-day event known as the “Warrior Dash” in Mt. Morris, Michigan. (Plf’s Compl., Dkt. # 1, at ¶¶ 5, 8). The Warrior Dash is a 5k running race with obstacles, including jumping over fire, wall climbing, and a mud pit. (Id. at ¶ 7). Plaintiff was injured as a result of diving head first into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 21-22).
Positioned directly across from bleachers and right before the finish line, the mud pit was the last obstacle of the race. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14). One of Defendant’s employees or agents was stationed near the mud pit with a microphone and loudspeaker, acting as an emcee for the [**3] event. (Id. at ¶ 15). Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 16, 26, 27). It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged. (Id. at ¶ 17). As an example of this “common knowledge,” bloggers commented about mud diving online. (Id. at ¶ 18). One noted the following:
When I arrived at the Warrior Dash on Saturday morning I found out rather quickly that “mud diving” was rather popular on the last obstacle before the finish line. . . . A good mud dive at this point makes perfect sense since runners are tired from the grueling course yet rejuvenated as they see the last obstacle. I’m sure the spectator attention also gives a little more motivation for participants to bring their best mud dive as well. . . . Hopefully this joy is worth the pain they may have endured to make this happen since my brother-in-law had to go to the hospital after attempting a cannon ball.
(Id.). This same person also posted “sweet pictures of an assortment of some of the best mud dives” and requested that readers “vote” for their favorite. (Id.).
Before [**4] Plaintiff’s race wave began, he witnessed many participants dive into the mud pit, heard the emcee encourage others to dive into the mud pit, and never saw anyone tell participants not to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 27). Defendant also did not post any signs instructing individuals not to dive into the mud pit. (Id. at ¶ 20). Accordingly, Plaintiff followed the emcee’s encouragement and the lead of other participants and dove into the mud pit, resulting in paralysis from the chest down. (Id. at ¶ 22).
Prior to participating in the Warrior Dash, Plaintiff — as well as all other participants — signed a “Waiver and Release of Claims” (Waiver). (Id. at ¶ 9). The Waiver provides, in no uncertain terms, that Plaintiff “agree[s] not to dive into or enter the mud pit head first.” (Ex. A. to Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4-1, at ¶ 17). 3 Other pertinent language includes:
1. I understand that entering Warrior Dash is a hazardous activity.
2. I understand that Warrior Dash presents extreme obstacles including, but not limited to: fire, mud [*771] pits with barbed wire, cargo climbs, junk cars, and steep hills.
* * *
7. I assume all risks associated with competing in Warrior Dash, including, but not limited [**5] to: falls, contact with other participants, negligent or wanton acts of other participants, completing all obstacles, any defects or conditions of premises, and the effects of weather including high heat and/or humidity, all such risks being known and appreciated by me.
* * *
I understand that Red Frog Events, LLC is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard. I understand that Red Frog Events, LLC continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety. I also understand, however, that participants . . . registering for the race, programs, and activities must recognize that there is an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.
* * *
WAIVER & RELEASE OF ALL CLAIMS; ASSUMPTION OF RISK
I recognize and acknowledge that there are certain risks of physical injury to participants in Warrior Dash, and voluntarily assume the full risk of any and all injuries, damages, or loss, regardless of severity, that I . . . may sustain as a result of said participation. [**6] . . . I assume all risks and hazards incidental to such participation in Warrior Dash, and I hereby waive, release, absolve, indemnify, and agree to hold harmless . . . Red Frog Events, LLC . . . for any claim arising out of an injury to me . . . and from any and all claims, causes of action, obligations, lawsuits, charges, complaints, contracts, controversies, covenants, agreements, promises, damages, costs, expenses, responsibilities, of whatsoever kind, nature, or description, whether direct or indirect, in law or in equity, in contract or tort, or otherwise, whether known or unknown, arising out of or connected with my . . . participation in Warrior Dash.
(Id.) In accepting these terms, Plaintiff checked that he had read and fully understood the Waiver and signed with his own free act and deed. (Id.).
3 Defendant attached a signed copy of the Waiver in support of its Motion. This Court may consider this document without treating Defendant’s Motion as one for summary judgment because it is referred to in Plaintiff’s Complaint and is central to his claim. Weiner v. Klais and Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 86, 89 (6th Cir. 1997).
A. Applicable Standards
1. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard
In [**7] deciding a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs and accept all well-pled factual allegations as true. League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007). To withstand a motion to dismiss, however, a complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The factual allegations in the complaint, accepted as true, “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” and must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). “The plausibility of [*772] an inference depends on a host of considerations, including common sense and the strength of competing explanations for defendant’s conduct.” 16630 Southfield Limited P’ship v. Flagstar Bank, F.S.B., 727 F.3d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 2013).
The Sixth [**8] Circuit has emphasized that the “combined effect of Twombly and Iqbal [is to] require [a] plaintiff to have a greater knowledge . . . of factual details in order to draft a ‘plausible complaint.'” New Albany Tractor, Inc. v. Louisville Tractor, Inc., 650 F.3d 1046, 1051 (6th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). Put another way, complaints must contain “plausible statements as to when, where, in what or by whom,” Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Napolitano, 648 F.3d 365, 373 (6th Cir. 2011), in order to avoid merely pleading “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
2. Application of Michigan law
This Court applies Michigan law as enunciated by the Michigan Supreme Court because subject matter jurisdiction in the matter is premised solely on diversity jurisdiction. See, e.g., Corrigan v. U.S. Steel Corp., 478 F.3d 718, 723 (6th Cir. 2007); Garden City Osteopathic Hosp. v. HBE Corp., 55 F.3d 1126, 1130 (6th Cir. 1995). “Where the Michigan Supreme Court has not addressed an issue, [courts] may look to opinions issued by the Michigan appellate courts and should follow their reasoning unless [they] are ‘convinced by other persuasive data that the [**9] highest court of the state would decide otherwise.'” Tooling, Mfg. & Technologies Ass’n v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 693 F.3d 665, 670 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ziegler v. IBP Hog Market, Inc., 249 F.3d 509, 517 (6th Cir. 2001)).
B. The Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim (Count I)
In Michigan, “the validity of a release turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.” Batshon v. Mar-Que Gen. Contractors, Inc., 463 Mich. 646, 650 n.4, 624 N.W.2d 903 (2001). “The interpretation of [a] release [is] a question of law.” Cole v. Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc., 241 Mich. App. 1, 13, 614 N.W.2d 169 (2000).
Michigan law expressly permits “a party to contract against liability or damages caused by its own ordinary negligence.” Skotak v. Vic Tanny Intern., Inc., 203 Mich. App. 616, 617-18, 513 N.W.2d 428 (1994). Plaintiff does not dispute that he signed the Waiver and provides no factual support to avoid the consequences of the Waiver. He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; [**10] (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.” Xu v. Gay, 257 Mich. App. 263, 273, 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003). 4 Rather, Plaintiff asserts [*773] that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 6). For this proposition, Plaintiff begins with a citation to an Eastern District of Michigan case, Buffa v. General Motors Corporation, 131 F. Supp. 478 (E.D. Mich. 1955), finding that “a contract of indemnity which purportedly indemnifies against the consequences of one’s own negligence is subject to strict construction and will not be so construed unless it clearly appears from the language used that it was intended to have that effect.” Id. at 482.
4 In response to Defendant’s Motion, Plaintiff submitted various materials outside the pleadings, including an unsigned and different version of the Waiver, an affidavit from Plaintiff, affidavits from two participants, a press release from Defendant regarding the Warrior Dash, and an excerpt from the above quoted blog picturing [**11] participants’ dives and requesting that readers vote for the best dive. To the unsigned Waiver, the Court notes that while slightly different, the material language at issue is the same — including that Plaintiff agreed to “not dive into or enter the mud pit head first,” that the Warrior Dash is a “hazardous activity,” that he “assum[ed] the full risk of any and all injuries,” and that he agreed to release Defendant from “any and all” claims. Plaintiff’s affidavit also fails to raise any issues challenging the factual circumstances of his signing of the Waiver. Finally, the remaining materials just supplement his Complaint assertions — namely, that Defendant’s agent encouraged participants to dive into the mud pit. Such materials “simply fill in the contours and details of the [P]laintiff’s complaint, and add nothing new.” Yeary v. Goodwill Indus.-Knoxville, Inc., 107 F.3d 443, 445 (6th Cir. 1997). In short, nothing in these materials provides the Court with any basis for finding that there would be any facts that could be developed through discovery that would provide a factual predicate to support Plaintiff’s negligence cause of action. Accordingly, the Court declines to consider [**12] these materials and therefore evaluates the sufficiency of Plaintiff’s Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
There is no doubt that Michigan courts have adopted this general proposition, but not in the manner in which Plaintiff suggests. See, e.g., Skinner v. D-M-E Corp., 124 Mich. App. 580, 586, 335 N.W.2d 90 (1983) (“It is universally recognized that a contract which purports to confer an express right to indemnification against the consequences of one’s own negligence is subject to strict construction and will not be so construed unless the contract language clearly evidences that such was the intended effect.”). Instead, Michigan courts hold that “indemnity clauses need not expressly mention the indemnitee’s own acts to provide coverage for them.” Badiee v. Brighton Area Sch., 265 Mich. App. 343, 353, 695 N.W.2d 521 (2005) (citing Sherman v. DeMaria Bldg. Co., Inc., 203 Mich. App. 593, 513 N.W.2d 187 (1994)). As the Sherman court explained:
Michigan courts have discarded the additional rule of construction that indemnity contracts will not be construed to provide indemnification for the indemnitee’s own negligence unless such an intent is expressed clearly and unequivocally in the contract. Instead, broad indemnity [**13] language may be interpreted to protect the indemnitee against its own negligence if this intent can be ascertained from “other language in the contract, surrounding circumstances, or from the purpose sought to be accomplished by the parties.”
Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 596-97 (citation omitted); see also Chrysler Corp. v. Brencal Contractors, Inc., 146 Mich. App. 766, 771, 381 N.W.2d 814 (1985) (“Earlier cases imposed the additional rule of construction that indemnification contracts will not be construed to indemnify the indemnitee against losses from his own negligent acts unless such an intent is expressed in unequivocal terms. That rule of construction no longer applies.”) (internal citations omitted). Put another way, “although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.” Fischbach-Natkin Co. v. Power Process Piping, Inc., 157 Mich. App. 448, 452-53, 403 N.W.2d 569 (1987); Harbenski v. Upper Peninsula Power Co., 118 Mich. App. 440, 454, 325 N.W.2d 785 (1982) (“The [*774] contention that the intent to indemnify an indemnitee against his own negligence must be expressly stated has been rejected.”) (citing Vanden Bosch v. Consumers Power Co., 394 Mich. 428, 230 N.W.2d 271 (1975)).
Plaintiff [**14] contends that Sherman does not so hold, and rather only stands for the narrow proposition that “if there is no unequivocal language in the agreement indemnifying defendant for its own negligent acts then the indemnity language may be interpreted to protect the indemnitee against its own negligence if this intent can be ascertained from other language in the contract, surrounding circumstances, or from the purpose sought to be accomplished by the parties.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 8) (citation and internal quotations omitted). For support, Plaintiff argues that the presence of an exclusionary clause in Sherman — excluding indemnification for claims based on the defendant’s sole negligence — “evince[d the] . . . intent to indemnify [defendant] against losses from its own negligence but not from loses caused solely by [defendant].” (Id.) (quoting Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 598-99). 5 Though the Waiver here contains no such clause, Sherman cannot be read as requiring such juxtaposing language to either read in or read out coverage for a party’s own negligence. Instead, Sherman counsels that courts must examine, among other things, the contract’s “other language” in the absence of an [**15] unequivocal statement regarding a party’s own negligence.
5 Sherman also notes that the waiver referenced the “owner’s continuing operations, which indicated that the parties realized their employees would be on the job site at the same time . . . [t]hus, the possibility that an injury or damage could result from [the defendant]‘s negligence was apparent at the time the parties entered the contract.” Sherman, 203 Mich. App. at 599. The Court addresses this language below.
Here, the Waiver’s “other language” “clearly expresses [D]efendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Skotak, 203 Mich. App. at 619. Michigan law plainly holds that the phrases “‘any’ and ‘all’ and of the phrase ‘any and all’ . . . include[s] one’s own negligence.” Paquin v. Harnischfeger Corp., 113 Mich. App. 43, 50, 317 N.W.2d 279 (1982). This is because “there cannot be any broader classification than the word ‘all.’ In ‘its ordinary and natural meaning, the word “all” leaves no room for exceptions.'” Id. (citation omitted).
In personal injury cases interpreting language nearly identical to the Waiver’s language, Michigan courts find that such phrases disclaim one’s own negligence. Take Skotak [**16] for example. There, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the scope of a waiver in a matter alleging negligence — failing to train staff to respond to a heart attack — against a health club after a club member suffered a fatal heart attack while sitting in a steam room. 203 Mich. App. at 617. In construing the waiver to include the defendant’s own negligence, the Skotak court noted that the waiver’s “inclusive language, ‘any and all claims, demands, damages, rights of action, or causes of action, . . . arising out of the Member’s . . . use of the . . . facilities,’ clearly expresses defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including its own.” Id. at 619 (alterations in original). The Skotak court also emphasized the breadth of the word “all,” rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that it covered certain kinds of negligence (slip and fall injuries resulting from use of exercise equipment), but not others (like negligent training and supervision):
[*775] We fail to see how such a line can be drawn. We do not believe that the risk that medical assistance might not be available is somehow less foreseeable than the danger of a slip and fall injury. In any event, there is no [**17] broader classification than the word “all.” In its ordinary and natural meaning, the word “all” leaves no room for exceptions. Therefore, assuming that defendant was negligent in failing adequately to train and supervise its employees, any claim arising out of that negligence would be barred by the release clause the decedent signed.
Id. (internal citation omitted).
Other personal injury cases — of which Defendant features prominently and Plaintiff avoids all together — also interpret similar waiver language to include one’s own negligence. 6 See Cole, 241 Mich. App. at 14 (release covering “all risks of any injury that the undersigned may sustain while on the premises . . . clearly expressed defendant’s intention to disclaim liability for all injuries, including those attributable to its own negligence”); Gara v. Woodbridge Tavern, 224 Mich. App. 63, 67, 568 N.W.2d 138 (1997) (“The language whereby the participant agreed to assume ‘any risks inherent in any other activities connected with this event in which I may voluntarily participate’ and to take responsibility for ‘any and all injuries (including death) and accidents which may occur as a result of my participation in this event . . . ‘ clearly [**18] expressed defendants’ intention to disclaim liability for all negligence, including their own.”).
6 None of the cases cited by Plaintiff discuss this line of cases. Instead, he relies upon older cases that do not hold that releases must include the magic words of “negligence” or “negligent acts” and do not substantively analyze whether “any” or “all” language covers negligence claims. See, e.g., Gen. Acc. Fire & Life Assur. Corp., Ltd. v. Finegan & Burgess, Inc., 351 F.2d 168 (6th Cir. 1965); Tope v. Waterford Hills Racing Corp., 81 Mich. App. 591, 265 N.W.2d 761 (1978). He also distinguishes this matter from a recent unpublished Sixth Circuit case, Fish v. Home Depot USA, Inc. 455 F. App’x 575 (6th Cir. 2012). There, the Sixth Circuit found that a ladder rental contract favored indemnification for several reasons: (1) the waiver included a rental “as is” provision; (2) the waiver had an acknowledgment that the plaintiff inspected the ladder; (3) the plaintiff had rented other equipment from the defendant before; and (4) because the plaintiff was renting and not purchasing the ladder, he was “undoubtedly aware” that others had used the ladder before him, and was therefore aware that there was a possibility [**19] that “latent equipment problems can be caused by ordinary wear and tear.” Id. at 580. Plaintiff distinguishes Fish, asserting that he did not agree to an “as is” provision,” had not dealt with Red Frog or the Warrior Dash before, did not inspect the course beforehand, and was not aware that the course would “become dangerous though the ‘wear and tear’ of other participants.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 10). Fish is not binding authority, and even if it was, it is not applicable to the instant matter because it still does not address the core issue of whether the Waiver’s “any” or “all” language covered Defendant’s own negligent conduct.
More recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals distinguished this line of cases in Xu v. Gay. In that matter, a man using a treadmill at a fitness center fell, hit his head, and died. 257 Mich. App. at 265. Distinguishing Skotak and Cole, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the notion that the parties intended to release the fitness center from liability stemming from its own negligence:
We find that the language in the alleged release is unambiguous, and clearly states that defendant would not assume responsibility for “any injuries and/or sicknesses [**20] incurred to [sic] me or any accompanying minor person as a result of entering the premises and/or using any of the facilities.” However, this provision does not inform the reader that he is solely responsible for injuries [*776] incurred or that he waives defendant’s liability by relinquishing his right to sue, nor does it contain the words “waiver,” “disclaim,” or similar language that would clearly indicate to the reader that by accepting its terms he is giving up the right to assert a negligence claim.
Id. at 275.
Here, as with Skotak, Cole, and Gara, the Waiver unambiguously covered Defendant’s own negligence. The Waiver warned Plaintiff that “enter[ing] Warrior Dash [was] a hazardous activity” and that it presented “extreme obstacles.” Plaintiff agreed to “assume all risks associated with competing in Warrior Dash” and acknowledged that there was “an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.” Most critically, Plaintiff “voluntarily assume[d] the full risk of any and all injuries, damages or loss, regardless of severity, that [he] . . . may sustain as a result of . . . participation [in the Warrior Dash].” Likewise, he also agreed to “waive, [**21] release, absolve, indemnify, and agree to hold harmless . . . Red Frog Events, LLC . . . for any claim arising out of an injury to me and from any and all claims . . . [including] tort . . . arising out of or connected with [his] participation in Warrior Dash.” 7 The Waiver therefore unambiguously covered Defendant’s own negligence. Finally and unlike Xu, the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.
7 Plaintiff’s argument that “[t]here was nothing in Red Frog’s indemnity provision that warned participants that Red Frog’s agents would be interfering with the actual race or to notify James that there was potential that the risks of the race would be or could be heightened by the presence of Red Frog’s agents, or that injury could result from the negligence of Red Frog or its agents” misses the mark. (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 9) (contrasting with Sherman, see footnote 5). Whether the indemnity provision warned of certain negligent acts or not, just as in Skotak, any claim arising out of negligence is [**22] barred given the Waiver’s express and unambiguous language.
Notwithstanding this clear language, Plaintiff claims other language contained in the Waiver “gave James the false impression that Red Frog would not be negligent in the operation and performance of this racing event.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 10). For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.” Plaintiff omits, however, the remainder of the disclaimer, which provides that “participants . . . registering for the race, programs, and activities must recognize that there is an inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.”
This argument is without merit. In Cole, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected a similar argument in a personal injury case arising out of an accident at a horse-racing facility. There, the plaintiff “acknowledge[d] [**23] that due to the unique combination of dangerous factors in the restricted area associated with the stabling, exercising and training of a large number of horses, and the presence of tradespeople, jockeys, owner and other personnel in the area, there are inherent dangers in the restricted area which [the defendant] cannot eliminate after exercising [*777] reasonable care.” 241 Mich. App. at 14. In rejecting the argument that the “which [the defendant] cannot eliminate after exercising reasonable care” language limited the scope of the release (to not cover negligent acts), the court reasoned that the language “specifically addressed the dangerous conditions and inherent dangers in the restricted area of the racetrack.” Id. The “reasonable care” language was, therefore, “an unambiguous emphasis of the fact that being in the restricted area entails dangers that cannot be eliminated by exercising reasonable care.” Id.
Just as in Cole, the Waiver’s language here regarding Defendant’s commitment to conducting the Warrior Dash in a safe manner and to reducing risks cannot be read to carve out Defendant’s negligence from the Waiver’s scope. The very next sentence expressly warns participants of the [**24] “inherent risk of injury when choosing to participate in recreational activities and programs.” The disclaimer language, read in toto, and pursuant to Cole, serves only as “an unambiguous emphasis” that participating in the Warrior Dash carries a risk of injury. This is especially true when, as discussed above, read in conjunction with the fact that the Waiver releases liability with respect to “any and all injuries” sustained as a result of participation in the Warrior Dash. Id. at 14-15.
In the alternative, Plaintiff presents an interesting theory with respect to the Waiver’s enforceability: Defendant’s conduct — the emcee’s statements encouraging participants to dive head first into the mud pit — “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.” (Plf’s Resp., Dkt. # 8, at 14). In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.” (Id.)
To find an implied waiver, the conduct of the party against whom waiver is [**25] asserted must be inconsistent with strict compliance with the terms of the contract. H J Tucker & Associates, Inc. v Allied Chucker & Eng’g Co., 234 Mich. App 550, 564-65, 595 N.W.2d 176 (1999). Though Plaintiff does not articulate this theory as such, Plaintiff essentially argues a waiver by estoppel theory. “[A] waiver by estoppel implied from conduct focuses not on the intent or purpose of the waiving party but on the effect of its conduct on the other party.” 13 Williston on Contracts § 39:29 (4th ed). “To prove waiver by estoppel, a party need only show that it was misled to its prejudice by the conduct of the other party into the honest and reasonable belief that the latter was not insisting on, and was therefore giving up, some right.” Id.
Plaintiff’s argument, however, is untenable. Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, 8 the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries [**26] arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.
8 Neither Plaintiff nor Defendant briefed this issue. The Court also notes that the Waiver does not include an integration clause.
[*778] C. Plaintiff’s gross negligence (Count II) and willful and wanton misconduct (Count III) claims9
9 These claims are not within the Waiver’s scope as “a party may not insulate himself against liability for gross negligence or wilful and wanton misconduct.” Lamp v. Reynolds, 249 Mich. App. 591, 594, 645 N.W.2d 311 (2002).
1. Plaintiff has stated a claim for gross negligence
Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.” Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 271. Taking Plaintiff’s allegations as true, Plaintiff’s gross negligence count states a claim for relief. As Plaintiff emphasizes, Defendant not only made participants acknowledge that the Warrior Dash is a “hazardous” activity and that it presents “extreme obstacles,” it expressly enumerated rules regarding how participants [**27] were to enter the mud pit without doing so for other obstacles. Simply, Plaintiff has adequately alleged that Defendant was aware of the dangers presented by the obstacles throughout the Warrior Dash and especially those presented by diving headfirst into the mud pit. Despite this awareness, it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury would result. Cf. Kahn v. East Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 1012-13, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30 (2003) (finding issue of fact regarding swimming coach’s recklessness where a student broke her neck after diving into shallow water after the coach, among other things, allegedly “ignored her overwhelming fears and made a last-minute demand that she dive during competition, in breach of a previous promise that she would not be required to dive”); Falgoust v. Richardson Indus., Inc., 552 So. 2d 1348 (La. Ct. App. 1989) (affirming apportionment of fault to pool owner who “not only failed to warn or reprimand plaintiff [for diving into a non-diving pool], but [who also] encouraged diving by doing it himself”).
This is therefore [**28] distinguishable from the case relied upon by Defendant where the plaintiff just alleged that the defendant “acted in a grossly negligent manner.” See Thomas v. Rijos, 780 F. Supp. 2d 376, 380 (D.V.I. 2011). Moreover, that “there are no specific allegations that [Defendant] knew when Plaintiff approached the mud pit that he would dive into it or that he would be injured,” as Defendant asserts (Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4, at 19), is irrelevant to the present inquiry. Defendant’s knowledge of Plaintiff’s intent before he dove into the mud pit is immaterial as to whether the act of encouraging Plaintiff to dive head first demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether injury would result. 10
10 Defendant urges this Court to “take into account the undisputed fact that Plaintiff expressly acknowledged the danger prior to encountering it when he signed the Waiver . . . and was specifically instructed not to ‘dive or enter the mud pit head first.'” (Def’s Br., Dkt. # 4, at 19). Such an argument has no bearing on whether Defendant demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results with respect to Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant encouraged Plaintiff to dive head first into [**29] the mud pit. This is not to say that Defendant’s argument might not have some merit down the road as, for example, Michigan law requires the allocation of damages “in direct proportion to the person’s percentage of fault.” M.C.L. § 600.2957(1).
[*779] In sum, Plaintiff has stated a claim for gross negligence.
2. Plaintiff has stated a claim for willful and wanton misconduct
Willful and wanton misconduct is separate and distinct from gross negligence. Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269 n.3 (citing Jennings v. Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 138, 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994)); Burnett v. City of Adrian, 414 Mich. 448, 462, 326 N.W.2d 810 (1982) (Moody, J., concurring) (“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to another, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous [**30] to another.” Miller v. Bock, 223 Mich. App. 159, 166, 567 N.W.2d 253 (1997) (citing Jennings, 446 Mich. at 137). Michigan’s Supreme Court has clarified that “willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.” Jennings, 446 Mich. at 138 (1994) (emphasis omitted). It is, therefore, “in the same class as intentional wrongdoing.” Boumelhem v. Bic Corp., 211 Mich. App. 175, 185, 535 N.W.2d 574 (1995).
The seminal Michigan case on point with respect to willful and wanton misconduct is Burnett v. City of Adrian. In that case, the City of Adrian created Lake Adrian to use as a reservoir for its water treatment facilities. 414 Mich. at 458. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, a 14-year old boy drowned after walking off the edge of a submerged structure that the City of Adrian failed to destroy or level when it created the lake. Id. The boy drowned after being swept away by “an unnatural current” created by the submerged structure. Id. Finally, the complaint alleged that “that the city [**31] knew that the structure existed from maps at the time of flooding and from the fact that the structure is visible when the water level is low; that the city knew or had reason to know of the potential harm created for swimmers, including children, who used the area; and that it failed to avert the danger by destroying the structure, fencing the lake, or posting warnings.” Id. at 458-59. Taking these allegations as true, the Michigan Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs “barely” asserted enough facts to make out the claim that the City of Adrian “was indifferent to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a member of the public using the lake, an indifference essentially equivalent to a willingness that it occur.” Id. at 456.
Applying this standard, it is plausible — though barely — that Defendant’s actions amounted to willful and wanton misconduct. The Michigan Supreme Court has often noted that “[i]t is most difficult to determine, in a particular case, where negligence ends and wilful and wanton begins.” Id. at 477 (Moody, J, concurring) (citing Goss v. Overton, 266 Mich. 62, 253 N.W. 217 (1934) and Finkler v. Zimmer, 258 Mich. 336, 241 N.W. 851 (1932)). “This caution is appropriate in the case at hand, [**32] because the [gross] negligence claim stands.” Bondie v. BIC Corp., 739 F. Supp. 346, 352 [*780] (E.D. Mich. 1990). Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]” Burnett, 414 Mich. at 456. The Court reaches this conclusion with some significant reservation as to whether discovery will produce such facts. However, giving Plaintiff the benefit of every doubt and knowing that he need only “nudge[ his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible” in order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, it seems appropriate here to allow Plaintiff the opportunity to try to develop his case. This is particularly so given that the facts set forth in Burnett also “barely” stated a claim and that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim also survives. Accordingly, Plaintiff has pled enough facts sufficient to plausibly [**33] state a claim for willful and wanton misconduct.
For all of the foregoing reasons,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. # 4) is partially granted. Accordingly, the Court dismisses Plaintiff’s Count I (negligence) with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: October 22, 2013
/s/ Gerald E. Rosen
GERALD E. ROSEN
CHIEF, U.S. DISTRICT COURT
Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris, Appellants v. City of Dallas, Appellee
COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FIFTH DISTRICT, DALLAS
855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714
March 31, 1993, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] On Appeal from the 68th District Court. Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 89-13400-C
COUNSEL: For Appellants: KRISTINA BLINE DIAL.
For Appellee: PATRCIA MEDRANO.
JUDGES: Before Justices Lagarde, Kinkeade, and Barber 1
1 Justice Will Barber succeeds Justice Jeff Kaplan, a member of the original panel. Justice Barber has reviewed the briefs and record in this case.
OPINION BY: WILL BARBER
Opinion By Justice Barber
This is a premises liability case. Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell sued the City of Dallas for damages sustained by their minor son when he fell from his bicycle at a municipal park. The City moved for summary judgment. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the City. We reverse and remand.
Ashley Harris suffered serious injuries when he fell from his bicycle into a creek bed at Hamilton Park. The park is owned [*744] and maintained by the City of Dallas. The accident occurred at a part of the creek where there is a fifteen to twenty-five foot drop-off. This condition was created by a gabion wall constructed by the City for erosion control. [**2] The wall consists of rocks wired together. Ashley fell over the edge of the drop-off onto the rocks below.
The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They also allege that the City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area.
ISSUES ON APPEAL
The Mitchells attack the trial court’s summary judgment on two broad grounds. First, they contend that this case is governed by common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions. Alternatively, the Mitchells argue that their claims against the City are within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They assert that fact issues exist concerning gross negligence in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall and the City’s negligent failure to warn of or correct this dangerous condition.
LIABILITY UNDER COMMON LAW
In their fourth point of error, the Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act does not apply to this case. Rather, the Mitchells argue that the City [**3] is liable under common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions.
Under common law, the establishment and maintenance of public parks were deemed proprietary functions. See Dancer v. City of Houston, 384 S.W.2d 340, 342 (Tex. 1964); City of Waco v. Branch, 117 Tex. 394, 5 S.W.2d 498, 499 (1928). These common-law classifications have been redefined under the Texas Tort Claims Act. [HN1] Section 101.0215 of the Act now provides that the operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(a)(13) (Vernon Supp. 1993).
The Mitchells argue that section 101.0215(a) does not reclassify all actions taken by a city regarding public parks. We refuse to adopt such a restrictive interpretation of the statute. To the contrary, the legislature specifically provided that [HN2] the proprietary functions of a municipality do not include those governmental activities listed in section 101.0215(a). See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(c) (Vernon Supp. 1993).
We conclude that the claims against the City made the basis of this suit involve governmental functions. [**4] The Mitchells do not have any common-law cause of action against the City. We overrule the fourth point of error.
LIABILITY UNDER THE TEXAS TORT CLAIMS ACT
The Mitchells next contend that the trial court erred in granting summary Judgment because they stated a cause of action within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They allege that the City is not immune from liability for negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall along the creek bank. See, e.g., City of Watauga v. Taylor, 752 S.W.2d 199, 202 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1988, no writ); Stanford v. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp., 635 S.W.2d 581, 582 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.).
The City argues that these allegations involve the design, upgrading, and placement of an erosion control deuce. The City contends that it is immune from liability because these activities involve discretionary functions. See, e.g., City of El Paso v. Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d 553, 554 (Tex. App.–El Paso 1990, writ denied); Tarrant County Water Control & Improvement Dist. No. 1 v. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d 427, 433 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1989, writ denied). [**5]
1. Governmental Immunity
[HN3] A municipality performing a governmental function is afforded sovereign immunity [*745] unless immunity has been waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. §§ 101.001-.109 (Vernon 1986 & Supp. 1993). A governmental unit is liable for personal injuries proximately caused “by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.021 (Vernon 1986).
2. Discretionary Functions
The Texas Tort Claims Act creates certain exceptions to the waiver of governmental immunity. [HN4] Section 101.056 provides that the waiver provisions of the Act do not apply to claims based on:
(1) the failure of a governmental unit to perform an act that the unit is not required by law to perform; or
(2) a governmental unit’s decision not to perform an act or on its failure to make a decision on the performance or nonperformance of an act if the law leaves the performance or nonperformance of the act to the discretion of the governmental unit.
TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE [**6] ANN. § 101.056 (Vernon 1986); see generally Lee M. Larkin, Comment, The “Policy Decision” Exemption of the Texas Tort Claims Act: State v. Terrell, 32 BAYLOR L. REV. 403 (1980) [hereinafter Larkin]. 2
2 The Larkin comment and several cases cited in this opinion involve the interpretation of the original Tort Claims Act contained in the Revised Civil Statutes. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19 (Vernon 1970) (repealed 1985). The codification of the prior statute in the Civil Practice and Remedies Code did not effect any substantive change, and the language of the current version of the Texas Tort Claims Act is virtually identical to the prior statute. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 1.001 (Vernon Supp. 1993).
[HN5] The discretionary function exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity is designed to avoid judicial review of governmental policy decisions. State v. Terrell, 588 S.W.2d 784, 787 (Tex. 1979); McKinney v. City of Gainesville, 814 S.W.2d 862, 866 (Tex. [**7] App.–Fort Worth 1991, no writ). Thus, a governmental entity is immune from liability if an injury results from the formulation of policy. However, a governmental unit is not immune if an injury is caused by the negligent implementation of that policy. See Terrell, 588 S.W.2d at 787-88; Christilles v. Southwest Tex. State Univ., 639 S.W.2d 38, 42 (Tex. App.–Austin 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.); Larkin at 409. This distinction is often stated in terms of actions taken at the planning or policy-making level, which are immune, and actions taken at the subordinate or operational level, which are not immune. See McKinney, 814 S.W.2d at 866; Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Larkin at 410.
Design decisions made by the City are discretionary and therefore immune from liability. See Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Stanford, 635 S.W.2d at 582. Maintenance activities undertaken at the operational level are not discretionary functions and are not immune from liability. See City of Round Rock v. Smith, 687 S.W.2d 300, 303 (Tex. 1985); Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Hamric v. Kansas City S. Ry., 718 S.W.2d 916, 919 (Tex. App.–Beaumont [**8] 1986, writ ref’d n.r.e.). There is some conflict in the case law regarding the characterization of construction activities. Compare Smith, 687 S.W.2d at 303, and Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d at 554 (indicating that city is not immune from liability for construction and maintenance activities), with Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202 (indicating that planning and construction are immune activities).
We hold that construction activities are not discretionary functions. These activities involve the implementation of planning or policy-making decisions at the operational level. Therefore, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall.
STANDARD OF CARE
We next determine the standard of care owed by the City to park users. The City argues that it only owes the duty owed to a trespasser. The Mitchells contend that the City owes the same duty as [*746] owed to an invitee because they paid for use of the premises through the payment of taxes and because of the nature of the premises defect.
[HN6] Section 101.022 of the Texas Tort Claims Act provides:
(a) If a claim arises from a premises [**9] defect, the governmental unit owes to the claimant only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for the use of the premises.
(b) The limitation of duty in this section does not apply to the duty to warn of special defects such as excavations or obstructions on highways, roads, or streets.
TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).
Section 75.002 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides:
If an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property other than agricultural land gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:
. . . .
(2) owe to the person to whom permission is granted a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.
TEX. CIV PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 75.002 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).
These two statutes are in apparent conflict in cases where the owner or occupier of the premises is a governmental unit that gives implied permission to persons to enter the property for recreational purposes. We must resolve this conflict by examining the [**10] case law and implementing well-settled rules of statutory construction.
2. Case Law
One court has held that the statutory predecessor to section 75.002, article 1b of the Revised Civil Statutes, should apply only if the injured party was a trespasser. It held the statute did not apply in a governmental tort liability context by simply stating that the persons who used the premises were not trespassers. Trinity River Auth. v. Williams, 659 S.W.2d 714, 720 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1983), aff’d in part a rev’d in part on other grounds, 689 S.W.2d 883 (Tex. 1985); see TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § l (Vernon 1969). It should be noted that the statute did not declare that recreational users are trespassers but merely provided that the duty owed to such users is the same as that owed to trespassers. Another court has held that section 75.002 did apply to governmental units. Noting that section 101.022(a) provides that the governmental entity owes “only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property,” the court held that the section 75.002 duty standard applied to the State. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 547. Although the Crossland court [**11] purported to rely on section 101.022(a) in reaching its result, it ignored the fact that such provision states the governmental unit owes the duty that a private person owes to a licensee.
3. Statutory Analysis
We are not persuaded by the reasoning of either Williams or Crossland. Instead, we look to the legislative history of sections 75.002 and 101.022(a).
Article 1b of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes preceded section 75.002. See Act of May 29, 1965, 59th Leg., R.S., ch. 677, 1965 Tex. Gen. Laws 1551, 1551-52. Until this statute was codified in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, it was contained in the “General Provisions” of Title 1. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § 1 (Vernon 1969). The statutory predecessor to section 101.022(a) of the Texas Tort Claims Act was article 6252-19, section 18(b) of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes. Article 6252-19 was first enacted in 1969, four years after the enactment of article 1b. See Texas Tort Claims Act, 61st Leg., R.S., ch. 292, 1969 Tex. Gen. Laws 874, 878-79; TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19, § 18(b) (Vernon 1970).
We conclude that section 75.002 and its predecessor, article [**12] 1b, were intended [*747] to be laws of general application. Section 101.022(a) and its predecessor, section 18(b) of article 6252-19, were specific laws applicable to governmental owners and occupiers of real property. [HN7] When two statutes conflict, the specific controls over the general. Sam Bassett Lumber Co. v. City of Houston, 145 Tex. 492, 496, 198 S.W.2d 879, 881 (1947); see also TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.026(b) (Vernon 1988); Carr v. Hunt, 651 S.W.2d 875, 882 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1983, writ ref’d n.r.e). Further, a more recent statutory enactment prevails over an earlier one. TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.025(a) (Vernon 1988); State v. McKinney, 803 S.W.2d 374, 376 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1990, no pet.); Commercial Standard Fire & Marine Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 429 S.W.2d 930, 933 (Tex. Civ. App.–Austin 1968, no writ).
We hold that section 101.022(a) controls over section 75.002. The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. [HN8] An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An [**13] owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition and the licensee does not. State v. Tennison, 509 S.W.2d 560, 562 (Tex. 1974).
EXCEPTIONS TO THE STANDARD OF CARE UNDER THE TORT CLAIMS ACT
The Mitchells argue that the duty owed by the City in this case is the same duty owed to an invitee. The Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act creates a higher standard of care because: (1) they paid for use of the park through the payment of taxes; and (2) the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.
1. Taxpayer Status
The Mitchells first contend that their son was an invitee because they paid for use of the park through the payment of city taxes.
A similar argument was recently rejected by the San Antonio Court of Appeals in Garcia v. State, 817 S.W.2d 741 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1991, writ denied). The plaintiff in Garcia sued the State of Texas under the Texas Tort Claims Act for damages sustained in a highway accident. He claimed invitee status because he paid for use of the highway through [**14] driver’s license fees and fuel taxes. The court held that the payment of fees and taxes does not confer invitee status for several reasons: (1) invitee status requires payment of a specific fee for entry onto and use of public premises; (2) the plaintiff’s contention would result in a lesser duty owed to nonresident users who did not pay taxes; and (3) the legislature did not intend such a broad grant of invitee status under section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act. See Garcia, 817 S.W.2d at 743.
We adopt the reasoning of Garcia. We hold that [HN9] section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act does not confer invitee status on park users based on the payment of taxes alone.
2. Special Defect
The Mitchells next contend that the City owed a higher standard of care because the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.
[HN10] A governmental unit has a duty to warn of or protect against special defects. TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022(b) (Vernon 1986); see City of Houston v. Jean, 517 S.W.2d 596, 599 (Tex. Civ. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 1974, writ ref’d n.r.e.). The duty to warn of a special defect is the same duty owed to an invitee. [**15] County of Harris v. Eaton, 573 S.W.2d 177, 180 (Tex. 1978). A special defect must be distinguished by some unusual quality outside the ordinary course of events. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Sutton v. State Highway Dep’t, 549 S.W.2d 59, 61 (Tex. Civ. App.–Waco 1977, writ ref’d [*748] n.r.e.). A condition is a special defect only if it presents an unexpected and unusual danger to ordinary users of a roadway. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 1993 Tex. LEXIS 26, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 678, 679 (March 24, 1993); State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Payne, 838 S.W.2d 235, 238-39 n.3 (Tex. 1992) (op. on mot. for reh’g). A longstanding, routine, or permanent condition is not a special defect. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433.
The Mitchells do not argue that the condition created by the gabion wall was unusual or outside the ordinary course of events. The summary judgment evidence establishes that the drop-off near the creek bank was longstanding and permanent. We hold that the premises defect made the basis of this claim was not a special defect.
MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
We now consider the summary judgment rendered in favor [**16] of the City in light of our holding that (1) construction and maintenance activities are not discretionary functions, and (2) the duty owed to park users is the same duty owed to a licensee.
1. Standard of Review
[HN11] Summary judgment may be rendered only if the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. TEX. R. Civ. P 166a(c); Rodriguez v. Naylor Indus., Inc., 763 S.W.2d 411, 413 (Tex. 1989). A summary judgment seeks to eliminate patently unmeritorious claims and defenses, not to deny a party its right to a full hearing on the merits of any real fact issue. Gulbenkian v. Penn, 151 Tex. 412, 416, 252 S.W.2d 929, 931 (1952).
[HN12] A defendant who moves for summary judgment must show that the plaintiff has no cause of action. Citizens First Nat’l Bank v. Cinco Exploration Co., 540 S.W.2d 292, 294 (Tex. 1976). A defendant may meet this burden by either (1) disproving at least one essential element of each theory of recovery, Anderson v. Snider, 808 S.W.2d 54, 55 (Tex. 1991), or (2) conclusively proving all elements of an affirmative defense. Swilley v. Hughes, 488 S.W.2d 64, 67 (Tex. [**17] 1972).
[HN13] In reviewing a summary judgment, we must take all evidence favorable to the nonmovant as true in deciding whether a fact issue exists. Nixon v. Mr. Property Management Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548-49 (Tex. 1985). We must indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubt in favor of the nonmovant. Id.
2. Application of Law to the Facts
a. Negligent Construction and Maintenance
The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They specifically pleaded that the City was negligent in constructing the wall for erosion control “in such a manner so as to result in a dangerous condition by creating a 15 to 25 foot steep cliff drop-off . . . when the City should have built the creek bank in a non-cliff manner.” The Mitchells also alleged that “construction and maintenance of a 15 to 25 foot drop-off behind a public restroom in a public park without a fence and Warning signs demonstrates a lack of due care and conscious indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of those affected by it.” 3
3 Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 41.001(5) (Vernon Supp. 1993). Absent a special exception, the allegation of “lack of due care and conscious indifference” contained in the Mitchell’s petition is sufficient to plead the duty owed by the City to park users.
[**18] The City characterizes these allegations as defective design claims. It correctly notes that design claims are discretionary functions for which governmental entities are immune from liability. However, the City has failed to conclusively demonstrate that design defect is the sole basis for the Mitchells’ claim.
[*749] The City argues it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there is no specific pleading or proof that the premises were unreasonably dangerous or that it breached any duty owed to park users. The City misconstrues the burden of proof in a summary judgment proceeding. It is incumbent upon a defendant as movant to conclusively negate at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case. Citizens First Nat’l Bank, 540 S.W.2d at 294. [HN14] A plaintiff as nonmovant is not required to establish his right to prevail. Ramirez v. Bagley Produce Co., 614 S.W.2d 582, 584 (Tex. Civ. App.–Corpus Christi 1981, no writ). A nonmovant has no duty or burden whatsoever in a summary judgment case until the movant establishes its right to a judgment as a matter of law. Bankers Commercial Life Ins. Co. v. Scott, 631 S.W.2d 228, 232 (Tex. App.–Tyler 1982, [**19] writ ref’d n.r.e.).
The City presented no evidence of the original design of the gabion wall. The City did not show that the gabion wall was constructed and maintained pursuant to its original design and that the design of the wall was not otherwise modified. The City, therefore, failed to show that the Mitchells’ allegations were defective design claims and, thereby, failed to meet its burden of negating an essential element of the Mitchells’ case.
The Mitchells alleged that Ashley was injured when he fell from his bicycle down a steep cliff drop-off. The area was unfenced and located adjacent to the sidewalk. The Mitchells contend that this constitutes a dangerous condition. Ashley’s deposition testimony reflects that there was erosion of the ground underneath the sidewalk where he fell. 4 The City did not conclusively negate these allegations. The pleadings and deposition testimony are sufficient to create a fact issue regarding negligent and grossly negligent maintenance and construction.
4 Ashley’s testimony on this point is not very clear, but it is susceptible to the interpretation advanced by the Mitchells. In a summary judgment case, all inferences and doubts must he resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Nixon, 690 S.W.2d at 548-49.
[**20] b. Failure to Warn or Make Safe
The Mitchells alleged that the City failed to warn of a dangerous condition in the area of the restrooms and sidewalk adjacent to the creek. They also claimed that the City failed to construct a fence or other barrier in the area or otherwise correct the dangerous condition.
The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of a premises created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge. The question of knowledge is a fact issue. See Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 273, 275 (December 2, 1992). An affidavit from a civil engineer states the drop-off should have been fenced off from the public area of the park. The engineer’s affidavit concludes that in failing to fence off or otherwise obstruct public movement into the area, “the City has failed to protect the [**21] public or give adequate warning to the public of a defect which created a dangerous condition.”
The City argues that Ashley must be charged with knowledge of any dangerous condition because the alleged premises defect was open and obvious. [HN15] The duty to warn or make safe applies when the licensee lacks actual knowledge. Payne v. State, 838 S.W.2d at 237; Tennison, 509 S.W.2d at 562. The City contends that the Mitchells have conceded that Ashley had actual knowledge of the condition of the premises. The response to the summary judgment motion recites that Ashley was aware of the existence of the creek. The response recites that Ashley, “being unaware . . . that the ground had eroded under the sidewalk next to this drop-off . . . fell over the edge and onto the rocks below.” [*750] The Mitchells never stated that Ashley was aware of the drop-off next to the sidewalk. The record does not conclusively establish that Ashley had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. The lack of knowledge is an element of appellant’s claim that when disputed should be submitted to the fact finder. See Payne, 838 S.W.2d at 241.
The establishment and maintenance [**22] of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.
We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.
5 The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.
6 The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.
We reverse [**23] the trial court’s judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms a Permission Slip is not a release, but leaves open the argument that releases may stop a minor’s claim for negligence.Posted: July 21, 2014
City Parks Department sued for injuries of an eight-year-old girl hit by a flying bat at a baseball game field trip.
State: Supreme Court of Iowa
Plaintiff: Tara Sweeney, Individually, and by Cynthia Sweeney, Her Mother and Next Friend
Defendant: City of Bettendorf and Bettendorf Parks and Recreation
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release (Permission Slip), No duty owed,
Holding: Split, the permission slip was not a release however there triable issues to the defense of duty owed
The city recreation department would take kids on field trips to see minor-league baseball games in other cities. The plaintiff was an eight-year-old girl who loved baseball and her mother. The minor went on several of these field trips in the past. Her mother signed the permission slip and she went off on the trip.
In the past, the participants had sat behind home plate which was protected by netting from flying objects. This time the kids were taken to bleachers along the third baseline. They were told they had to sit there and could not move.
During the game, a player lost his grip on the bat which sailed down the third baseline hitting the girl. The minor had turned to talk to her friend when she was struck. No adults were around at the time.
The plaintiffs sued for negligent. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment citing a permission slip the mother had signed as a release and that the plaintiff had not shown a breach of duty owed to the injured minor.
The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment arguing:
The plaintiffs further argued that even if the permission slip amounted to a valid release, it was fatally flawed because it purported to release only the Department and not the City. Finally, plaintiffs asserted even if the permission slip amounted to an anticipatory release of future claims based on acts or omissions of negligence, statutory and common law public policy prevents a parent from waiving such claims on behalf of a minor child.
The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment based on the permission slip no evidence of a breach of duty. The plaintiff’s appealed.
Summary of the case
The court reviewed several procedural issues and then looked into releases under Iowa law. The court found the permission slip was deficient in many ways.
…the permission slip contains no clear and unequivocal language that would notify a casual reader that by signing the document, a parent would be waiving all claims relating to future acts or omissions of negligence by the City. The language at issue here refers only to “accidents” generally and contains nothing specifically indicating that a parent would be waiving potential claims for the City’s negligence.
Based on the language in the permission slip the court found it could not enforce the release because it was not a release.
Next the court looked at whether being hit by a bat at a baseball game was an inherent risk of being a spectator at a baseball game. In Iowa this is called the inherent risk doctrine. (This doctrine is very similar to a secondary assumption of risk argument.) What created a difference in this issue, is the issue of whether a flying bat is an inherent risk, is a defense of the baseball team/promoter/owner or field rather than a city recreation department field trip.
In the majority of cases, spectators sitting outside protective netting at baseball stadiums have been unable to recover from owners or operators for injuries related to errant bats and balls on the ground that such injuries were an “inherent risk” of attending the game.
Regardless of whether the approach is characterized as involving inherent risk or a limited duty, courts applying the doctrine have held that the owner or operator of a baseball stadium is not liable for injury to spectators from flying bats and balls if the owner or operator provided screened seating sufficient for spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire such protection and if the most dangerous areas of the stands, ordinarily the area behind home plate, were so protected.
Because the inherent risk was not one of a field trip, the court found differently than if the defense was argued by the owner of the field. The issue was not one of attending a sporting event invited by the event, but supervision of a minor child by a recreation department.
A negligent supervision case is fundamentally different than a case involving premises liability. The eight-year-old child in this case made no choice, but instead sat where she was told by the Department. The plaintiffs further claim that there was inadequate adult supervision where the child was seated. The alleged negligence in this case does not relate to the instrumentality of the injury, but instead focuses on the proper care and supervision of children in an admittedly risky environment.
As a negligent supervision case, the recreation department owed a different type and a higher degree of care to the minor.
Viewed as a negligent supervision case, the City had a duty to act reasonably, under all the facts and circumstances, to protect the children’s safety at the ball park. The gist of the plaintiffs’ claim is that a substantial cause of the injury was the supervisors’ decision to allow the children, who cannot be expected to be vigilant at all times during a baseball game, to be seated in what a jury could conclude was an unreasonably hazardous location behind third base instead of behind the safety of protective netting.
Add to this the change in sitting and the restrictions the adults placed on where the minors could sit and the court found there was a clear issue as to liability.
The third issue reviewed by the court was whether the recreation department failed to provide an adequate level of care to the minor. Here the court agreed with the recreation department. Not because the level of care was sufficient, but because the plaintiff could not prove the level of care was inadequate.
There was a dissent in this case, which argued that the risk of being hit by a bat was an inherent risk of attending a baseball game and that the permission slip was a valid release.
The case was then sent back for trial on the negligence claims of the plaintiff.
So Now What?
What is of interest is the single sentence that argues a release signed by an adult stops the claims of a minor. It was argued by the plaintiff’s as one of the ways the permission slip was invalid. However, the court did not look at the issue in its review and decision in the case.
The court’s review was quite clear on releases. If you do not have the proper language in your release, you are only killing trees. It was a stretch, and a good one, by the recreation department to argue that a document intended to prove the minor could be on a field trip was also a release of claims.
Releases are different legal documents and require specific language.
You also need to remember that defenses that are available to a lawsuit are not just based on the activity, like baseball, but the relationship of the parties to the activity. If the minor child had attended the baseball game on her own or with her parents, the Iowa Inherent Risk Doctrine would have probably prevented a recovery. However, because the duty owed was not from a baseball game to a spectator, but from a recreation department to a minor in its care, the inherent risk defense was not available.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Morgan v. State of Tennessee, 2004 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62
Evelean Morgan v. State of Tennessee
COURT OF APPEALS OF TENNESSEE, AT NASHVILLE
2004 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62
November 3, 2003, Session
January 27, 2004, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Claims Commission Affirmed. Appeal from the Tennessee Claims Commission No. 99000125 W. R. Baker, Commissioner.
DISPOSITION: Affirmed and remanded.
COUNSEL: David H. Dunaway, LaFollette, Tennessee, for the appellant, Evelean Morgan.
Paul G. Summers, Attorney General and Reporter; Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General; and Christopher Michael Fancher, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.
JUDGES: WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM B. CAIN and PATRICIA J. COTTRELL, JJ., joined.
OPINION BY: WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., P.J., M.S.
This appeal involves a fatal accident at the Colditz Cove State Natural Area in Fentress County. The mother of a woman who fell to her death from the bluff surrounding Northrup Falls filed a claim with the Tennessee Claims Commission. The State of Tennessee denied liability based on (1) the recreational use defense in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 (1995), (2) its lack of actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition, and (3) its assertion that the decedent’s fault exceeded its own. The commissioner granted the State’s motion for summary judgment. [*2] While he did not rely on the statutory recreational use defense, the commissioner determined that the State had no notice of a dangerous condition at the natural area, it was not reasonably foreseeable that intoxicated persons who were unfamiliar with the natural area would hike into the area of the falls in the middle of the night, and the decedent’s actions were the sole proximate cause of her death. The decedent’s mother has appealed. We have determined that the commissioner properly granted the summary judgment because, as a matter of law, (1) the State established a defense under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, (2) the decedent’s estate presented no evidence that the State had actual or constructive notice of an allegedly dangerous condition on the trail in the natural area, and (3) the decedent’s fault far exceeded whatever fault could be attributed to the State.
Rochelle Copeland Zegilla and her two small children were living with her mother in mid-1997 following a separation from her husband. On Saturday evening, July 26, 1997, she told her mother that she was “going to go out for awhile,” and then she drove to the Top of the Mountain Lounge in [*3] Jamestown, Tennessee. After the lounge closed at midnight, Ms. Zegilla and four companions 1 decided to drive to a nearby VFW club. When they arrived at the club, however, they discovered that it had closed earlier than usual. After a brief discussion in the club parking lot, the group decided to continue their drinking and talking in the parking lot of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area.
1 Ms. Zegilla’s companions at the Top of the Mountain Lounge were Chris Smith, Loretta Johnson, Edward Raines, and Larry King.
The Colditz Cove State Natural Area is a 165-acre Class II natural-scientific area in Fentress County owned by the State of Tennessee. It is heavily wooded and contains the 75-foot Northrup Falls and a scenic gorge with interesting rock formations. 2 The area has been designated by statute as “worthy of perpetual preservation,” 3 and accordingly, improvements to the area are limited to foot trails, foot bridges, and primitive campgrounds 4 and “facilities as may be reasonably necessary . . .for [*4] the safe and proper management and protection of the area.” 5 In addition to a parking lot, the State had erected several signs and a gate and had constructed a 1.5 mile foot trail along the bluff overlooking Northrup Falls, as well as a scenic overlook. The State had not installed lights in the parking lot or along the foot trail.
2 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-108(b)(2)(F) (Supp. 2003).
3 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-105(2) (1999).
4 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-106(a)(1)(B) (1999).
5 Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-14-106(a)(2).
All of the group except Mr. Raines had been drinking throughout the evening, and they continued drinking in the parking lot because Messrs. Smith and King had brought along a cooler of beer purchased earlier in the evening at Midway Qwick Stop. After talking for several minutes, the group decided to walk down the foot trail toward Northrup Falls in the pitch dark even though [*5] three of them, including Ms. Zegilla, had never been to Colditz Cove before. The only illumination they had was Mr. King’s flashlight.
When the group reached a fork in the trail, Mr. Raines and Ms. Johnson decided to walk no further and sat near a trash container to talk and drink. Ms. Zegilla and Messrs. Smith and King kept walking along the trail toward Northrup Falls. After they stopped to drink and talk, Mr. King asked Mr. Smith to shine the flashlight into the bushes to enable him to find a place to urinate. Mr. King walked into the bushes and, on his return, he fell over the bluff into the gorge below.
Mr. Smith yelled, “Larry has fallen off,” and called to Mr. Raines for assistance. Mr. Raines made his way down the trail to Mr. Smith and Ms. Zegilla. After they all called out to Mr. King to no avail, Mr. Raines decided to go for help and took the flashlight to help make his way back up the foot path to the parking lot. Ms. Zegilla and Mr. Smith, now joined by Ms. Johnson, continued to call for Mr. King. Mr. Smith decided to start a fire with his shirt to make some light. After his shirt went out, Ms. Zegilla somehow fell over the bluff. The rescue workers who arrived at the [*6] scene at approximately 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, 1997, found the lifeless bodies of both Mr. King and Ms. Zegilla in the water at the bottom of the falls. An autopsy revealed that Ms. Zegilla’s blood alcohol level was .18%.
On July 23, 1998, Evelean Morgan, Ms. Zegilla’s mother and her personal representative, filed a claim for $ 500,000 with the Tennessee Claims Commission asserting that the State had violated Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) (Supp. 2003) by negligently creating or maintaining a dangerous condition at Colditz Cove State Natural Area. 6 The State moved to dismiss the claim on the ground that it was shielded from liability by the recreational use statute [Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105 (1995)]. After the claims commissioner denied its motion, the State filed an answer denying Ms. Morgan’s negligence claims. The State asserted, as affirmative defenses, (1) that Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 shielded it from liability, (2) that it had no actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition at Colditz Cove State Natural Area and that it was not reasonably foreseeable that intoxicated [*7] persons who were unfamiliar with the natural area would hike into the area of the falls in the middle of the night, and (3) that Ms. Zegilla’s own negligence “contributed in excess of 50% to the cause of her death.”
6 Ms. Morgan also filed a civil damage action in the Circuit Court for Fentress County against Ms. Johnson, Messrs. Smith and Raines, and the estate of Mr. King.
In February 2002, following lengthy and somewhat contentious discovery, the State moved for a summary judgment on two grounds – Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 and its assertion that Ms. Zegilla’s “negligence was equal to or greater than [the] negligence of the State, if any.” 7 In April 2002, Ms. Morgan responded by asserting that the State was not entitled to a judgment on either ground because the State was grossly negligent and because its negligence was greater than Ms. Zegilla’s. The claims commissioner held a hearing on the State’s motion for summary judgment after conducting his own personal inspection of [*8] the Colditz Cove State Natural Area without the lawyers or parties present. On June 5, 2002, the commissioner filed an order granting the State’s motion for summary judgment. While the commissioner declined to base his decision on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, he determined that the undisputed evidence demonstrated as a matter of law that Ms. Morgan had not shown that she could prove notice and foreseeability as required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) and that Ms. Zegilla was “preponderantly negligent in her own death.” 8 The commissioner later denied Ms. Morgan’s request for a hearing before the entire claims commission. Ms. Morgan has appealed.
7 The State based the latter assertion on what it called the “step in the dark” rule, i.e., that stepping into an unfamiliar dark area constitutes the proximate cause of injuries sustained by falling down stairs hidden in the darkness. Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d 587, 594 (Tenn. 1994); Goodman v. Memphis Park Comm’n, 851 S.W.2d 165, 171 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992).
8 We construe this finding to be that Ms. Zegilla’s fault exceeded the fault of the State, if any. The claims commissioner stated later in its order that “the sole proximate cause of Ms. Zegilla’s death was her own actions.”
THE STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standards for reviewing summary judgments on appeal are well-settled. [HN1] Summary judgments are proper in virtually any civil case that can be resolved on the basis of legal issues alone. Fruge v. Doe, 952 S.W.2d 408, 410 (Tenn. 1997); Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d 208, 210 (Tenn. 1993); Pendleton v. Mills, 73 S.W.3d 115, 121 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). They are not, however, appropriate when genuine disputes regarding material facts exist. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. Thus, a summary judgment should be granted only when the undisputed facts, and the inferences reasonably drawn from the undisputed facts, support one conclusion – that the party seeking the summary judgment is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Pero’s Steak & Spaghetti House v. Lee, 90 S.W.3d 614, 620 (Tenn. 2002); [*10] Webber v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 49 S.W.3d 265, 269 (Tenn. 2001).
[HN2] The party seeking a summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating that no genuine dispute of material fact exists and that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002); Shadrick v. Coker, 963 S.W.2d 726, 731 (Tenn. 1998). To be entitled to a judgment as a matter of law, the moving party must either affirmatively negate an essential element of the non-moving party’s claim or establish an affirmative defense that conclusively defeats the non-moving party’s claim. Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 215 n. 5; Cherry v. Williams, 36 S.W.3d 78, 82-83 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000).
[HN3] Once the moving party demonstrates that it has satisfied Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56’s requirements, the non-moving party must demonstrate how these requirements have not been satisfied. Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997). Mere conclusory generalizations will not suffice. Cawood v. Davis, 680 S.W.2d 795, 796-97 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984). The non-moving party must convince the [*11] trial court that there are sufficient factual disputes to warrant a trial (1) by pointing to evidence either overlooked or ignored by the moving party that creates a factual dispute, (2) by rehabilitating evidence challenged by the moving party, (3) by producing additional evidence that creates a material factual dispute, or (4) by submitting an affidavit in accordance with Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.07 requesting additional time for discovery. McCarley v. West Quality Food Serv., 960 S.W.2d 585, 588 (Tenn. 1998); Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 215 n. 6. A non-moving party who fails to carry its burden faces summary dismissal of the challenged claim because, as our courts have repeatedly observed, the “failure of proof concerning an essential element of the cause of action necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Alexander v. Memphis Individual Practice Ass’n, 870 S.W.2d 278, 280 (Tenn. 1993).
[HN4] A summary judgment is not appropriate when a case’s determinative facts are in dispute. However, for a question of fact to exist, reasonable minds must be able to differ over whether some alleged occurrence or event did or did not happen. Conatser v. Clarksville Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 920 S.W.2d 646, 647 (Tenn. 1995); [*12] Harrison v. Southern Ry. Co., 31 Tenn. App. 377, 387, 215 S.W.2d 31, 35 (1948). If reasonable minds could justifiably reach different conclusions based on the evidence at hand, then a genuine question of fact exists. Louis Dreyfus Corp. v. Austin Co., 868 S.W.2d 649, 656 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993). If, on the other hand, the evidence and the inferences to be reasonably drawn from the evidence would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion, then there are no material factual disputes and the question can be disposed of as a matter of law. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d at 695; Seavers v. Methodist Med. Ctr., 9 S.W.3d 86, 91 (Tenn. 1999); Beaudreau v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 118 S.W.3d 700, 703 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).
[HN5] Summary judgments enjoy no presumption of correctness on appeal. BellSouth Advertising & Publ’g Co. v. Johnson, 100 S.W.3d 202, 205 (Tenn. 2003); Scott v. Ashland Healthcare Ctr., Inc., 49 S.W.3d 281, 285 (Tenn. 2001). Accordingly, appellate courts must make a fresh determination that the requirements of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56 have been satisfied. [*13] Hunter v. Brown, 955 S.W.2d 49, 50-51 (Tenn. 1997). We must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and we must resolve all inferences in the non-moving party’s favor. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d at 695; Doe v. HCA Health Servs., Inc., 46 S.W.3d 191, 196 (Tenn. 2001). When reviewing the evidence, we must determine first whether factual disputes exist. If a factual dispute exists, we must then determine whether the fact is material to the claim or defense upon which the summary judgment is predicated and whether the disputed fact creates a genuine issue for trial. Byrd v. Hall, 847 S.W.2d at 214; Rutherford v. Polar Tank Trailer, Inc., 978 S.W.2d 102, 104 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998).
THE APPLICATION OF TENN. CODE ANN. § 70-7-102
The State’s defense predicated on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 figures prominently in this appeal even though the claims commissioner expressly declined to base his decision on this defense. 9 For her part, Ms. Morgan asserts that the commissioner erred by “failing and refusing” [*14] to rule on this defense. While the State does not specifically assert that the commissioner erred by not addressing this defense, 10 it asserts that it did not owe a duty to Ms. Zegilla by virtue of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70- 7-102. Accordingly, we have decided to address the applicability of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 to this case head on.
9 The commissioner’s cryptic rulings regarding Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 are not easy to reconcile. He stated:
The Commission renders its ruling without considering the applicability of the state Recreational Use Immunity Statute. The individuals involved in this incident were using the State property for recreation, thus the Recreational Use Statute applies.
As for gross negligence, if the facts involved the Recreational Use statute alone, in absence of the other three factors discussed heretofore, then this claim should probably proceed to trial. Although the Commission believes there was not any gross negligence, it does not base its conclusion on the Recreational Use Immunity statute.
Because the commissioner stated twice that he was not basing his decision on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102, we will take him at his word.
10 The State could have raised this issue pursuant to Tenn. R. App. P. 13(a).
At common law, property owners could be held liable for injuries to persons who were using their property, with or without their permission, for recreational purposes. Beginning in the 1950s, state legislatures began to enact statutes to limit property owners’ liability when persons were using their property for recreational purposes. 11 The Tennessee General Assembly enacted one of these statutes in 1963. 12 As originally enacted, the statute was applicable only to private landowners and excluded from its coverage the “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity.”
11 James C. Becker, Landowner or Occupier Liability for Personal Injuries and Recreational Use Statutes: How Effective Is the Protection?, 24 Ind. L. Rev. 1587, 1587-88 (1991).
12 Act of Mar. 15, 1963, ch. 177, 1963 Tenn. Pub. Acts 784, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105 (1995).
[*16] In 1987, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the recreational use statute in two significant ways that are directly applicable to this case. First, it amended the statute to explicitly apply to real property owned by governmental entities. 13 Second, it broadened the exemption to cover “gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct.” 14
13 Act of May 7, 1987, ch. 448, § 8, 1987 Tenn. Pub. Acts 897, 899, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2)(B).
14 Act of May 7, 1987, ch. 448, § 5, 1987 Tenn. Pub. Acts 897, 898, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104(1).
The operation of the recreational use statutes is straightforward. Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 [HN6] is an affirmative defense available to persons who fit within the definition of “landowner” in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2). Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d 240, 242 (Tenn. 1999); Bishop v. Beckner, 109 S.W.3d 725, 728 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). [*17] Landowners may assert a Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense if they prove that the injured person was engaged in a recreational activity 15 at the time of the injury. Plaintiffs may defeat this affirmative defense in essentially three ways: (1) prove that the defendant is not a “landowner,” (2) prove that the injured party was not engaged in a recreational activity, or (3) prove that the landowner’s conduct fits within one of the three exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104. The exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 do not create new independent causes of action against the landowner. Rather, they enable a plaintiff to pursue its negligence claim by negating a landowner’s Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 242-43.
15 The applicable recreational activities are identified in Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-102, -103.
[HN7] Applying Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101 [*18] , -105 to a particular case requires a three-step analysis. First, the court must determine whether the party asserting the Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 defense is a landowner. Second, the court must determine whether the activity in which the injured party was engaged at the time of the injury is a recreational activity. Third, the court must determine whether any of the exceptions in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 are applicable to the case. See Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 243. If the activity is recreational and no Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104 exceptions apply, the landowner is shielded from liability by Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102. If, however, the activity is recreational, but one of the exceptions applies, the landowner may be liable.
Based on the undisputed facts, there can be no dispute (1) that the State, as a governmental entity, is a “landowner” under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-101(2)(B), (2) that Ms. Zegilla was engaged in a recreational activity because she was “hiking” or “sightseeing” when she fell to her death, [*19] and (3) that the land on which Ms. Zegilla was killed was not exempt from coverage of the statute. 16 Thus, the only remaining question with regard to the application of the recreational use statute is whether one of Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104’s exceptions applies to this case. Ms. Morgan insists that the exception for gross negligence in Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-104(1) applies.
16 Ms. Morgan argued before the claims commissioner that improvements in state natural areas and parks were somehow exempt from Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 70-7-101, -105. However, both the Tennessee Supreme Court and this court have recognized that [HN8] the recreational use statute may apply to state parks and wildlife management areas. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 241; Rewcastle v. State, 2002 Tenn. App. LEXIS 943, No. E2002-00506-COA-R3-CV, 2002 WL 31926848, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 31, 2002) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
[HN9] Gross negligence [*20] is negligent conduct reflecting a reckless disregard for the safety of others. Davidson v. Power Bd., 686 S.W.2d 581, 586 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984); Odum v. Haynes, 494 S.W.2d 795, 807 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1972). It does not require a particular state of mind as long as it creates an extremely unjustified risk to others. 1 DAN B. DOBBS, THE LAW OF TORTS § 147, at 351 (2001). It differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, not in kind. W. PAGE KEETON, PROSSER & KEETON ON THE LAW OF TORTS § 34, at 212 (5th ed. 1984). Thus, gross negligence is a negligent act or failure to act that reflects more than lack of ordinary care (simple negligence) but less than intentional misconduct. Inter-City Trucking Co. v. Daniels, 181 Tenn. 126, 129-30, 178 S.W.2d 756, 757 (1944); Bennett v. Woodard, 60 Tenn. App. 20, 31-32, 444 S.W.2d 89, 94 (1969).
[HN10] Determining whether particular conduct rises to the level of gross negligence is ordinarily a question of fact. 3 STUART M. SPEISER ET AL., THE AMERICAN LAW OF TORTS § 10:05, at 368 (1986) (“SPEISER”); see also Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73, 76 (Tenn. 1985) (gross negligence [*21] determined from the facts alleged in the complaint). However, it may be decided as a matter of law when the material facts are not in dispute and when these facts, and the conclusions reasonably drawn from them, would permit a reasonable person to reach only one conclusion. Leatherwood v. Wadley, 121 S.W.3d 682, ___, 2003 WL 327517, at *8-9 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (affirming summary judgment dismissing gross negligence claim); Buckner v. Varner, 793 S.W.2d 939, 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990) (affirming summary judgment dismissing gross negligence claim); Fellows v. Sexton, 46 Tenn. App. 274, 282, 327 S.W.2d 391, 394 (1959) (granting a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on a gross negligence claim).
We find no evidence in this record upon which a reasonable person would conclude that the State was grossly negligent with regard to the construction or maintenance of the Colditz Cove State Natural Area. The State had a statutory obligation to maintain this area in a pristine, natural condition. Erecting warning signs, installing lighting along the trails, fencing the entire area, or installing guard rails, barriers, or other sorts of buffers, [*22] while perhaps appropriate at Dollywood, would have been entirely unwarranted and unnecessary at a natural area such as Colditz Cove. Accordingly, we have determined that the record, as a matter of law, supports the claims commissioner’s conclusion that “there was not any gross negligence.” 17 The State was simply not acting recklessly with disregard of the safety of persons entering the natural area.
17 Ms. Morgan asserts in her brief that “the State of Tennessee knew that at Northrop [sic] Falls . . . there was a cliff that eroded into a commonly used path which suddenly dropped at a ninety degree angle approximately one hundred feet and that it posed a deadly, dangerous condition.” This is the only assertion in her papers that approaches an allegation of gross negligence. We have searched the record for substantiation of this claim and have found none. There is no evidence that any of the trails in Colditz Cove had dangerously eroded on July 26, 1997. There is no evidence that the State had actual or constructive notice of any dangerous erosion along any of the trails in the natural area. There is likewise no evidence that either Ms. Zegilla or Mr. King fell to their deaths at a spot on the trail that had eroded.
[*23] Because the State was not grossly negligent, it was entitled to assert a defense predicated on Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102. Therefore, we have concluded, based on the undisputed facts, that the recreational use statute shields the State from liability for Ms. Zegilla’s death and that the State was entitled to a summary judgment dismissing her claims on this ground alone.
THE STATE’S LIABILITY UNDER TENN. CODE ANN. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C)
Despite our conclusion that the State has established an affirmative defense under Tenn. Code Ann. § 70-7-102 as a matter of law, we will also address Ms. Morgan’s assertion that the claims commissioner erred by concluding that she had failed to demonstrate that she would be able to prove that the State was liable for her daughter’s death under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C). We have concluded that the undisputed facts also support the commissioner’s conclusion that the State was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because Ms. Morgan had not demonstrated that she would be able to prove the essential elements of her claim.
[*24] [HN11] The State is not the insurer of the safety of persons on its property. Byrd v. State, 905 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995). It is, however, liable to these persons to the same extent that private owners and occupiers of land are liable, Sanders v. State, 783 S.W.2d 948, 951 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), because Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) has imposed this common-law duty on the State. Parent v. State, 991 S.W.2d at 242. Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) provides that the State may be held monetarily liable for
Negligently created or maintained dangerous conditions on state controlled real property. The claimant under this subsection must establish the foreseeability of the risks and notice given to the proper state officials at a time sufficiently prior to the injury for the state to have taken appropriate measures.
Based on this statute, the State, like a private landowner, has a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent foreseeable injuries to persons on the premises. Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d at 593-94. This duty is [*25] grounded on the foreseeability of the risk involved. To recover, a claimant must prove that the injury was a reasonably foreseeable probability. Dobson v. State, 23 S.W.3d 324, 331 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999).
Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) required Ms. Morgan to prove that Ms. Zegilla was injured in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable and that the State had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that caused Ms. Zegilla’s death in time to take “appropriate measures.” The claims commissioner properly concluded that she failed on both counts.
The record contains no factual, legal, or policy basis for concluding that the State should have foreseen that intoxicated persons who were unfamiliar with the Colditz Cove State Natural Area would hike down the trail to Northrup Falls in the middle of the night without adequate illumination.
Likewise, the record contains no evidence meeting the standards in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 and Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06 that the improvements to Colditz Cove are either inherently dangerous 18 or, as we have already pointed out, that the State had actual or constructive notice of any particular [*26] dangerous condition in the natural area that caused Ms. Zegilla’s death.
18 Ms. Morgan’s lawyer asserted in the proceeding below that he had consulted an architect who “felt” that the Colditz Cove State Natural Area was “unduly dangerous” and that “the majority of the defects were certainly foreseeable and could have been rectified at a relatively modest capital investment.” While the record contains an unauthenticated letter from this architect summarizing his impressions of the improvements in the natural area, it does not contain the architect’s affidavit or deposition stating these conclusions. The architect’s letter does not meet the requirements in Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04 and Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06 for evidentiary materials that may be used to support or oppose a motion for summary judgment.
COMPARISON OF MS. ZEGILLA’S FAULT WITH THE STATE’S FAULT
As a final issue, Ms. Morgan asserts that the claims commissioner erred by determining that Ms. Zegilla’s fault exceeded the State’s fault. [*27] She bases her argument on the assertion that the State’s “gross negligence” should somehow count for more in a comparative fault analysis. We have determined that this argument has no merit for two reasons. First, we have already concluded that the undisputed facts demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the State was not grossly negligent. Second, even if the States could somehow be considered grossly negligent, its fault would still be compared with Ms. Zegilla’s fault. Conroy v. City of Dickson, 49 S.W.3d 868, 873 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). A majority of the courts in comparative fault jurisdictions permit gross negligence to be compared to ordinary negligence. 3 SPEISER, § 13:25, at 764; 1 ARTHUR BEST, COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE LAW & PRACTICE § 4.40 (1999); Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Fault § 7 cmt. b (1999).
[HN12] The allocation of fault is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury or the trial court sitting without a jury. Brown v. Wal-Mart Discount Cities, 12 S.W.3d 785, 789 (Tenn. 2000). The task of allocating fault should be taken from the fact-finder only when it can be determined beyond question (or alternatively, when reasonable [*28] minds cannot differ) that the plaintiff’s fault is equal to or greater than the defendant’s. Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 91-92 (Tenn. 2000); Eaton v. McLain, 891 S.W.2d at 589; Kim v. Boucher, 55 S.W.3d 551, 556-57 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). The procedural avenues for obtaining a decision that the plaintiff’s fault exceeds the defendant’s as a matter of law are governed by the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The question may be raised using (1) a motion for summary judgment under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56, (2) a motion for directed verdict governed by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 50.01, and (3) a post-trial motion for a judgment as a matter of law governed by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 50.02. Henley v. Amacher, 2002 Tenn. App. LEXIS 72, No. M1999-02799-COA-R3-CV, 2002 WL 100402, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2002) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
Ms. Zegilla’s voluntary intoxication on the evening of July 26, 1997 does not relieve her from the responsibility of her own negligence. Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 739 S.W.2d 230, 235 (Tenn. 1987); Schwartz v. Johnson, 152 Tenn. 586, 592, 280 S.W. 32, 33 (1926). [*29] She was required to use reasonable care under the circumstances, and her conduct must be measured against the conduct of an ordinary, reasonable person rather than an ordinary and reasonable intoxicated person. Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Hall, 5 Tenn. Civ. App. 491, 502 (1915). Accordingly, if her conduct while intoxicated was a proximate cause of her death, it may be compared with the fault of the other parties whose fault was also a proximate cause. Worley v. State, 1995 Tenn. App. LEXIS 755, No. 02A01-9312-BC-00267, 1995 WL 702792, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 28, 1995) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed).
It cannot be reasonably disputed that Ms. Zegilla was intoxicated when she arrived at Colditz Cove State Natural Area after midnight on July 26, 1997. Even though she had never visited the natural area before, she decided to venture into a wooded area down an unfamiliar, rough foot path in the dark. After one of her companions fell to his death, she continued to walk around in the darkness even though she must have known that danger was close at hand. As tragic as her death is, the only conclusion that reasonable persons can draw from these facts is that her fault [*30] far exceeded any fault that may reasonably be attributed to the State. Accordingly, the claims commissioner properly concluded the State was not liable to Ms. Zegilla’s estate because her fault exceeded any fault that could be attributed to the State.
We affirm the order dismissing the Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(C) claim of Ms. Zegilla’s estate against the State and remand the case to the Tennessee Claims Commission for whatever further proceedings may be required. We tax the costs of this appeal to Evelean Morgan for which execution, if necessary, may issue.
Give Kids The World, Inc., v. Sanislo, 2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 7403; 37 Fla. L. Weekly D 1143
Give Kids The World, Inc., Appellant, v. Stacy Sanislo and Eric Sanislo, Appellees.
Case No. 5D11-748
COURT OF APPEAL OF FLORIDA, FIFTH DISTRICT
2012 Fla. App. LEXIS 7403; 37 Fla. L. Weekly D 1143
May 11, 2012, Opinion Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
Appeal from the Circuit Court for Osceola County, Jeffrey Fleming, Judge.
COUNSEL: Wm. Jere Tolton, lll, of Ogden & Sullivan, P.A., Tampa, and Matthew J. Haftel of O’Connor & O’Connor, LLC, Orlando, for Appellant.
Michael J. Damaso, ll, of Wooten, Kimbrough and Normand, P.A., Orlando, and Jack W. Shaw, Jr., of Jack W. Shaw, Jr., P.A., Winter Park, for Appellees.
JUDGES: ORFINGER, C.J., and PALMER, J., concur. COHEN, J., concurs and concurs specially with opinion.
Give Kids the World, Inc. (“GKTW”), the defendant below, appeals a final judgment entered against it in a negligence action. GKTW argues that the lower court erred by denying its pretrial motion for summary judgment on its affirmative defense of release. We agree and reverse.
GKTW is a non-profit organization that provides free “storybook” vacations to seriously ill children and their families at its resort village, the Give Kids the World Village (“the Village”). Stacy and Eric Sanislo (“the Sanislos”) are the parents of a young girl with a serious illness. In November 2004, the Sanislos executed a liability release to GKTW in connection with a “wish request” that benefitted their daughter.1 The release, in pertinent part, provided:
By [*2] my/our signature(s) set forth below, and in consideration of Give Kids the World, Inc. granting said wish, 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 the 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 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, or damage to or theft of our personal belongings, jewelry or other personal property which may occur while staying at the Give Kids the World Village.
The wish request was approved and, upon their arrival at the Village from the state of Washington, the Sanislos executed another liability release [*3] with identical language.
1 Fulfillment of a child’s wish is accomplished in conjunction with the Make-AWish Foundation, a separate entity from GKTW.
During the course of her stay at the Village, Stacy Sanislo was injured when she, along with her husband, posed for a picture on a pneumatic wheelchair lift that was attached to the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The lift collapsed because the weight limit had been exceeded, injuring Ms. Sanislo. The Sanislos brought suit against GKTW, alleging that Ms. Sanislo’s injuries were caused by GKTW’s negligence. In its answer, GKTW asserted the affirmative defense of release. Subsequently, GKTW filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the signed liability releases precluded a finding of liability. The Sanislos filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of release as well. The trial court denied GKTW’s motion, but granted that of the Sanislos.2 Following a jury verdict, judgment was entered in the Sanislos’ favor.
2 The parties stipulated that if the trial court granted one of the motions for summary judgment, then the other should be denied.
On appeal, GKTW correctly asserts that it was entitled to summary judgment based on the [*4] release. [HN1] Exculpatory clauses are disfavored under the law, but unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy. Applegate v. Cable Water Ski, L.C., 974 So. 2d 1112, 1114 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) (citing Cain v. Banka, 932 So. 2d 575, 578 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006)). The wording of the exculpatory clause must be clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away. Raveson v. Walt Disney World Co., 793 So. 2d 1171, 1173 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001). This Court has expressly “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.” Cain, 932 So. 2d at 578. In Cain, this Court noted that an exculpatory clause absolving a defendant of “any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever” was sufficient to encompass the plaintiff’s negligence action filed against a defendant track owner in connection with motocross bike riding. Id. at 579; see also Hardage Enters., Inc. v. Fidesys Corp., N.V., 570 So. 2d 436, 437 (Fla. 5th DCA 1990) (determining that “any and [*5] all claims, demands, damages, actions, causes of action, or suits in equity, of whatsoever kind or nature” encompassed negligent action). A release need not list each possible manner in which the releasor could be injured in order to be effective. Cf. DeBoer v. Fla. Offroaders Driver’s Ass’n, Inc., 622 So. 2d 1134, 1136 (Fla. 5th DCA 1993).
The instant release contains two separate provisions releasing GKTW from liability. One provision releases GKTW from “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 . . . which may occur while staying at the Give Kids the World Village.” This language is markedly similar to the language in the release signed by the plaintiff in Cain, which encompassed the release of a negligence action. 932 So. 2d at 577. A second provision releases GKTW from “any liability whatsoever in connection with the preparation, execution, and fulfillment of said wish . . . .” This language is broad enough to encompass negligence claims arising from the injuries suffered by Ms. Sanislo due to the collapse of the wheelchair lift.
The Sanislos argue that the release is not [*6] clear and unambiguous because it applies to liability arising “in connection with the preparation, execution and fulfillment of said wish.” They suggest the nature and scope of the wish is not clear or defined and thus renders the release unenforceable. However, the wish, which was requested by the Sanislos, clearly encompassed events at the Village related to their stay and attendance at Orlando area theme parks. The Sanislos’ interpretation is not likely the interpretation that an “ordinary and knowledgeable person” would give to the clause. See Raveson, 793 So. 2d at 1173. The language used clearly and unambiguously releases GKTW from liability for the physical injuries Ms. Sanislo sustained during her stay at the Village, and was sufficiently clear to make the Sanislos aware of the breadth of the scope of the release and what rights they were contracting away. [HN2] The ability to predict each and every potential injury is unattainable and is not required to uphold an exculpatory provision within a release.
[HN3] In addition to assessing the clarity of the language used in releases, this Court must consider the parties’ relative bargaining power in determining the enforceability of a release. [*7] Ivey Plants, Inc. v. FMC Corp., 282 So. 2d 205, 208 (Fla. 4th DCA 1973). Enforcement of an exculpatory clause has been denied where the relative bargaining power of the contracting parties is unequal and the clause seeks to exempt from liability for negligence the party who occupies a superior bargaining position. Id. However, Florida courts have held that the bargaining power of the parties will not be considered unequal in settings outside of the public utility or public function context. For instance, in Banfield v. Louis, 589 So. 2d 441, 443-44 (Fla. 4th DCA 1991), the court upheld the enforcement of a release executed by a participant in a triathlon and the trial court’s ruling that a disparity in bargaining power was “not applicable to entry of athletic contests of this nature, where a party is not required to enter it and not entitled to participate unless they want to.” The Banfield court emphasized that the application of Ivey Plants was limited to circumstances in which a release was executed on behalf of a public utility or a company serving some public function. Id. at 444-45. Consistent with this analysis, Florida courts have refused to find an inequality of bargaining [*8] power in recreational settings. Id.; DeBoer, 622 So. 2d at 1136. Similarly, in Hardage Enterprises, this Court found that an exculpatory clause in an agreement entered into by the owner of a hotel complex and a construction manager of the complex was enforceable because its language was unambiguous and the parties were not in a position of unequal bargaining power. 570 So. 2d at 438. This Court explained that the case did not present “a situation where public policy mandates the protection of consumers who are offered a contract in a ‘take it or leave it’ form.” Id. at 439.
GKTW argues that the bargaining power of the parties cannot be viewed as unequal, because the Sanislos voluntarily participated in the GKTW program. The Sanislos, for their part, argue that the parties are of unequal bargaining power because they were offered a contract in a “take it or leave it” form, and GKTW gave them no choice but to sign the release in order to have their daughter’s wish fulfilled. Unfortunately for the Sanislos, however, the instant case is more akin to Banfield and DeBoer than it is to Ivey Plants. The Sanislos’ desire to fulfill their ill daughter’s wish is certainly understandable, but the [*9] parents’ desire to fulfill the wish and take advantage of the GKTW program does not equate to unequal bargaining power. The Sanislos were not consumers as contemplated in Hardage Enterprises. They were provided a copy of the release at the time they applied to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and made a decision to waive certain rights. GKTW is entitled to enforcement of that release.
ORFINGER, C.J., and PALMER, J., concur.
COHEN, J., concurs and concurs specially with opinion.
CONCUR BY: COHEN
COHEN, J., concurring specially.
If I were writing on a clean slate, I would affirm the trial court’s denial of GKTW’s summary judgment. I am bound, however, to follow this Court’s prior decisions that do not require an express reference to negligence in a release in order to render the release effective to such actions. This District stands alone on this position. See 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); Tout v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 390 So. 2d 155 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1980).
The better view is to require an explicit provision to that [*10] effect. Exculpatory clauses are “by public policy disfavored in the law 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.” Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, Inc., 27 So. 3d 108, 110 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009). While those trained in the law might understand and appreciate that the general language releasing a party from any and all liability could encompass the injuries suffered by Ms. Sanislo, a release should be readily understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person would know what is being contracted away. 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. Conversely, a clause which provides a waiver of liability for one’s own negligence is easily understood. The other district courts of appeal have recognized how simple it is to add such a clause in a release. I suggest we do the same.