Nicholas Weinrich, Plaintiff -VS- Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, incorrectly Identified As Lehigh Valley Grand Prix LLC, Defendant
File No. 2014-C-0226
COMMON PLEAS COURT OF LEHIGH COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, CIVIL DIVISION
2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 79
August 14, 2015, Decided
CORE TERMS: summary judgment, track, plastic, depositions, public policy, citations omitted, duration, genuine, issue of material fact, question of fact, reasonable amount, contravene, factfinder, covering, invitee, silent, rink, dangerous condition, constructive notice, protruding, inspection, customer, go-kart’s, execute, notice, repeat, snap, general rule, moving party’s, liability theory
COUNSEL: [*1] Robert G. Bauer, Esq. for Plaintiff.
Ian T. Baxter, Esq. for Defendant.
JUDGES: Douglas G. Reichley, J.
OPINION BY: Douglas G. Reichley
AND NOW, this 14 day of August, 2015, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, filed May 19, 2015, and after argument conducted August 12, 2015,
IT IS ORDERED Defendant’s Motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum Opinion.
By the Court:
Douglas G. Reichley, J.
Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, Inc., Defendant, owns and operates a go-kart track located at 649 South 10th Street, Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Nicholas Weinrich, Plaintiff, filed the instant action alleging he was injured while patronizing the facility. On May 19, 2015, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant’s motion is denied.
Factual and Procedural History
According to the Complaint, on June 4, 2012 at approximately 8:15 p.m, Plaintiff was operating a go-kart on Defendant’s track during which time a piece of the plastic covering the guardrail broke and was sticking out toward the track. As Plaintiff drove around the track, the plastic caught his go-kart’s bumper causing it to snap into his [*2] left leg. Plaintiff sustained a laceration on his leg less than two inches wide.
During depositions, Plaintiff testified that six months prior to the incident, he patronized Defendant’s facility without issue. On the date in question, Plaintiff completed two laps and did not notice the plastic covering jutting out. On his third lap, Plaintiff came around the adjacent turn and maintained momentum. He was near the wall, and the piece of the plastic guard was hanging out, bent toward him. He heard a loud snap, and subsequently felt pain in his calf.
Deposition testimony from Defendant’s staff indicated that the protrusion onto the track was common enough that employees were trained on how to repair it. Defendant’s owner conceded that it was possible for the plastic piece on the wall to snap and protrude onto the track.
Six months before the incident in question, on December 4, 2011, Plaintiff patronized Defendant’s establishment. At that time he was required to execute a waiver in order to participate in the race. When he returned in June of 2012, he was not presented with his original waiver, nor was he asked to execute a second one. Testimony from Michael Achey, the manager of Defendant’s [*3] establishment, indicated that repeat customers are not asked to re-execute the waiver. (N.T. Deposition of Michael P. Achey, February 25, 2015, at 45.) Mr. Achey acknowledged that while he has indicated to some repeat customers that they did not need to execute another waiver because one was already on file, he did not say that to every repeat customer. (Id. at 45-46.)
Plaintiff filed his Complaint on April 4, 2014. Defendant filed its Answer on April 29, 2014. On May 19, 2015, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff filed his response on June 19, 2015. Defendant filed a sur-reply brief on August 6, 2015. The Court heard oral argument on August 12, 2015, after which time the matter was taken under advisement.
This Opinion follows.
The standard of review for a motion seeking summary judgment is as follows:
A trial court properly enters summary judgment if “there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary clement of the cause of action.” Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2(1). The moving party’s right to summary judgment has to be clear and free from doubt after examination of the record in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolution of all doubts as to the existence [*4] of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party
Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (Pa. Super. 2009).
Defendant seeks summary judgment on two grounds. First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff executed a voluntary waiver which bars his recovery. Second, Defendant argues that even if the release were not binding and valid, as a landowner, Defendant cannot be held liable under these circumstances under a premises liability theory.
In Pennsylvania, exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed. Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Assoc., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966). Releases from liability are disfavored as a matter of public policy, but are nonetheless “valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)).
The courts of Pennsylvania have traditionally determined the effect of a release using the ordinary meaning of its language and interpreted the release as covering only such matters as can fairly be said to have been within the contemplation of the parties when the release was given. Moreover, releases [*5] are strictly construed so as not to bar the enforcement of a claim that had not accrued at the date of the execution of the release.
Fortney v. Callenberger, 2002 PA Super 182, 801 A.2d 594, 597 (Pa. Super. 2002) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
In the context of recreational activities, releases generally function as a bar to liability because the party executing the release is free to choose whether or not he or she wants to participate in the activity. Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1197 (Pa. 2012). Such releases do not contravene public policy. Id. However, where the injury was caused by recklessness or gross negligence, enforcement of the release would contravene public policy and the releases are thereby rendered void under those circumstances. Id.
The relevant language of the release in question provides:
IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to compete, officiate, observe, work, or participate in the EVENT(s), use the equipment, premises, facilities and/or services of Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, LLC., [the undersigned agrees to the release terms] …
Plaintiff argues that the waiver was no longer valid on the date in question because he executed it six months prior to the date of the accident. In support of this argument, Plaintiff does not cite any case law from Pennsylvania or any federal [*6] authority interpreting Pennsylvania law on this matter. The sole case upon which Plaintiff relics is a Florida case, Cain v. Banka, 932 So.2d 575 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006), which held a release unenforceable because the release contained no express language advising the plaintiff that it covered every future visit to a motocross track.
There are not any Pennsylvania cases reflecting the Florida court’s holding. Federal cases interpreting Pennsylvania law merely look at the language of the release to gauge its degree of applicability. See Savarese v. Camelback Ski Corp., 417 F.Supp.2d 663, 667 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (applying Pennsylvania law, language on the back of a ski lift ticket constituted a valid exculpatory agreement once the plaintiff purchased the ticket).
The salient issue in evaluating the instant waiver is that the language on the form neither limits the time for its applicability nor specifies the event or occasion to which it applies. When asked about the release’s duration during oral argument, Defendant’s counsel maintained that the waiver would be effective forever without limitation.
“As a general rule, releases encompass only such matters as may fairly be said to have been within the contemplation of the parties when the release was given.” Farrell v. Lechmanik, Inc., 417 Pa. Super. 172, 611 A.2d 1322, 1323 (Pa. Super. 1992). “[I]t is axiomatic that releases are construed in accordance [*7] with traditional principles of contract law, fundamental to which is the directive that the effect of a release must be determined from the ordinary meaning of its language.” Maloney v. Valley Med. Facilities, Inc., 2008 PA Super 32, 946 A.2d 702, 706 (Pa. Super. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Under contract principles, where a contract is silent as to the time for performance, courts must infer that the parties intended that performance occur within a reasonable amount of time. Cashdollar v. Mercy Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 406 Pa. Super. 606, 595 A.2d 70, 76 (Pa. Super. 1991) (“When the exact period for which the parties intended to contract cannot be ascertained, the agreement is not vitiated; rather, an agreement for a ‘reasonable time’ will be inferred.”).
In construing a contract, courts must adopt “an interpretation which under all circumstances ascribes the most reasonable, probable, and natural conduct of the parties, bearing in mind the objects manifestly to be accomplished.” Metzger v. Clifford Realty Corp., 327 Pa. Super. 377, 476 A.2d 1, 5 (Pa. Super. 1984) (citation omitted). “If an essential term is left out of the agreement, the law will not invalidate the contract but will include a reasonable term.” Stephan v. Waldron Elec. Heating & Cooling LLC, 2014 PA Super 205, 100 A.3d 660, 668 (Pa. Super. 2014) (quoting RegScan, Inc. v. Con-Way Transp. Services, Inc., 2005 PA Super 176, 875 A.2d 332 (Pa. Super. 2005)).
In this case, the release Plaintiff executed is silent as to duration. Based on the foregoing case law, the Court determines that this is an essential term which is left out of the agreement. Therefore, a reasonable [*8] term is to be imposed instead of invalidating the release as a whole. Id. Because contract principles further dictate that contractual duration is presumed to be for a reasonable amount of time in the absence of a specified time for performance, Metzger, 476 A.2d at 5, the parties’ release must therefore be deemed to apply for a reasonable period of time. What constitutes a reasonable time, however, is generally a question of fact to be resolved by the factfinder. See, e.g., Yates v. Clifford Motors, Inc., 283 Pa. Super. 293, 423 A.2d 1262, 1268 (Pa. Super. 1980) (in the Uniform Commercial Code context, whether goods were rejected within a reasonable amount of time where contract was silent as to time for rejection was question of fact for jury).
Consequently, Defendant’s argument in support of summary judgment based on the existence of a release must be denied. Summary judgment is only appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Whether six months following the execution of a release for a recreational activity constitutes a reasonable amount of time is a question more appropriately posed to a finder of fact. The reasonableness of the duration in question is therefore a genuine issue of material fact and summary judgment is inappropriate.
Defendant also argued in its motion [*9] that even if the release was not binding and valid, as a landowner, Defendant cannot be held liable under these circumstances under a premises liability theory. Plaintiff in this case was an invitee for premises liability purposes. An invitee is someone who is “invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public.” Restatement (Second) of Torts §332 (1965).
As a general rule, possessors of land are not liable to invitees for physical harm caused to them by activities or conditions on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 343A. A danger is deemed to be “obvious” when “both the condition and the risk are apparent to and would be recognized by a reasonable man, in the position of the visitor, exercising normal perception, intelligence, and judgment.” Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 123-24 (Pa. 1983) (citation omitted). “For a danger to be ‘known,’ it must not only be known to exist, but … also be recognized that it is dangerous and the probability and gravity of the threatened harm must be appreciated.” Id. at 124.
Nonetheless, the question of whether conditions on land were in fact open and obvious is generally [*10] a question of fact for a jury to decide. Id. It may be decided by a court where reasonable minds could not differ as to the conclusion. Id.; see also Long v. Manzo, 452 Pa. Super. 451, 682 A.2d 370, 373 (Pa. Super. 19%) (citation omitted) (issues of plaintiff’s knowledge of condition creating unreasonable risk of harm usually for jury to decide, but may be decided by court where reasonable minds could not differ).
In the context of amusement facilities, Pennsylvania courts have held that there is no duty to protect participants against the typical risks attendant to those activities. See Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525 (Pa. Super. 1983) (roller rink has no obligation to protect patrons from falling down or being bumped by other skaters). A duty arises only where the risks at play are atypical. See id. (liability found where accident attributable to a condition unique to defendant skating rink, i.e. a 60-foot wide opening in the rink and a 6″ drop-off on its side).
With respect to the requirement for notice, Plaintiff argued that Defendant’s employees’ depositions demonstrate an acute awareness that the sort of dangerous condition at issue–the broken plastic piece protruding into the racetrack–was something for which they were trained. While the record is devoid of evidence supporting [*11] actual notice, Plaintiff argued Defendant had constructive notice.
Neither the witnesses who were deposed nor Plaintiff testified that the plastic was protruding into the track for an extended period of time. The testimony at the depositions indicated that there are three scheduled inspections of the racetrack per day: morning, noon, and night. None of those inspections revealed the dangerous condition. There is also a visual inspection of the track in between each race according to the testimony offered by Michael McCreary, Defendant’s owner. Defendant’s employees, Michael Achey (manager) and Corey Dewalt (track marshal) conceded that it was possible that the protruding plastic could have been missed.
Summary judgment would not be appropriate on these grounds because there are factual issues regarding constructive notice and whether there were appropriate steps undertaken by Defendant. Testimony before a factfinder is necessary to assess whether and to what extent the employees were aware in advance of the existence of the dangerous condition. These are all factual questions to be resolved by a factfinder.
Because there is an outstanding factual issue concerning whether six [*12] months after execution of the subject release is a reasonable period of time for the release to remain in effect, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the ground of the release must fail. Further, there are outstanding factual questions concerning constructive notice which render summary judgment inappropriate on that basis. Accordingly, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.
By the Court:
Douglas G. Reichley, J.
Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563Posted: January 23, 2016
Jaclyn Cobb, Plaintiff, v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEVADA
933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563
February 13, 2013, Decided
February 14, 2013, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: As Amended March 18, 2013.
COUNSEL: [**1] For Jaclyn Cobb, Plaintiff: Angela D. Bullentini, Charles M Kilpatrick, Kilpatrick, Johnston & Adler, Carson City, NV.
For Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, Defendant: Rachel K McLendon-Kent, Graeme A. Reid, Bauman Loewe Witt & Maxwell, Reno, NV; Terence Cox, Cox, Wootton, Griffin, Hansen & Poulos, LLP, San Francisco, CA.
JUDGES: LARRY R. HICKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: LARRY R. HICKS
[*1296] AMENDED ORDER
Before the court is defendant Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC’s (“Aramark”) motion for summary judgment. Doc. #28. 1 Plaintiff Jaclyn Cobb (“Cobb”) filed an opposition (Doc. #33) to which Aramark replied (Doc. #38). This Order amends Order #39. 2
1 Refers to the court’s docket number.
2 This Order is identical to Order #39, but with needed edits for punctuation and citation accuracy.
I. Facts and Procedural History
Plaintiff Cobb is seeking recovery for a knee injury allegedly sustained while parasailing with an affiliate of defendant Aramark.
On June 15, 2010, Cobb paid to go parasailing on Lake Tahoe through an operation ran by Zephyr Cove Resort (“Zephyr”). Before going on the boat for parasailing, Cobb signed a waiver of liability entitled Acknowledgment and Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability (“Waiver”). The waiver stated in relevant part:
In consideration of my being allowed to participate in the parasailing [**2] activities operated and conducted by [Zephyr], I hereby RELEASE and WAIVE . . . any and all claims that I may have . . . against [Zephyr], and any of [its] affiliates . . . I specifically RELEASE [Zephyr], and any of [its] affiliates . . . from . . . all claims for . . . injury or death to persons caused by negligence of any one of them arising out of my participation in the parasailing activities. I AGREE NOT TO SUE . . . the aforementioned parties for any injuries or damages that I might hereby receive from my participation in the parasailing activities, whether or not such injury, loss or damage results from the aforementioned [*1297] parties’ negligence or from any other cause.
Doc. #28, Exhibit A.
After signing the waiver, Cobb boarded the parasailing vessel and, along with another family member, went parasailing in a tandem harness. At some point during the trip, adverse weather conditions, including high winds, caused the parasailing trip to be called short. As she was being reeled back into the boat Cobb struck her knee on the boat causing significant injury.
Subsequently, Cobb filed a complaint for negligence against Aramark. Doc. #1, Exhibit A. Thereafter, Aramark filed the present motion [**3] for summary judgment contending that Cobb expressly waived her right to sue. Doc. #28.
II. Legal Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate only when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In assessing a motion for summary judgment, the evidence, together with all inferences that can reasonably be drawn therefrom, must be read in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); County of Tuolumne v. Sonora Cmty. Hosp., 236 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir. 2001).
The moving party bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion, along with evidence showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). On those issues for which it bears the burden of proof, the moving party must make a showing that is “sufficient for the court to hold that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party.” [**4] Calderone v. United States, 799 F.2d 254, 259 (6th Cir. 1986); see also Idema v. Dreamworks, Inc., 162 F. Supp. 2d 1129, 1141 (C.D. Cal. 2001).
To successfully rebut a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must point to facts supported by the record which demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact. Reese v. Jefferson Sch. Dist. No. 14J, 208 F.3d 736 (9th Cir. 2000). A “material fact” is a fact “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Where reasonable minds could differ on the material facts at issue, summary judgment is not appropriate. See v. Durang, 711 F.2d 141, 143 (9th Cir. 1983). A dispute regarding a material fact is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248. The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient to establish a genuine dispute; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. See id. at 252.
A. Applicable Law
In its motion, Aramark argues that this action, and thereby [**5] the express waiver, is governed by federal admiralty law. See Doc. #28. An action falls within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) when: (1) the underlying tort occurred on navigable waters; and (2) the actions giving rise to the tort claim bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. Charnis v. Watersport Pro, LLC, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *5-6 [*1298] (D. Nev. 2009) (citing Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 365-66, 110 S. Ct. 2892, 111 L. Ed. 2d 292 (1990)).
The court has reviewed the documents and pleadings on file in this matter and finds that this action falls within the court’s exercise of admiralty jurisdiction. First, the alleged injury occurred on Lake Tahoe, a navigable waterway that lies within the borders of Nevada and California. Where, as here, a body of water forms a border between two states and is capable of supporting maritime commerce, it is considered navigable for the purpose of establishing admiralty jurisdiction. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6. Second, parasailing bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities sufficient to establish admiralty jurisdiction. See e.g., In the Matter of Skyrider, 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16510, *10 (D. Haw. 1990) [**6] (“Careful and safe navigation of vessels in navigable waters have always been a fundamental admiralty concern. Navigation is an essential component in the parasailing activity.”); UFO Chuting of Hawaii Inc. v. Smith, 508 F.3d 1189, 1193 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding that parasailing is an activity bearing a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities); Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6 (“The operation of recreational boats, including pulling skiers or wakeboarders, bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.”). Therefore, this action arises under the court’s admiralty jurisdiction and, as such, the court must apply substantive federal admiralty law to this action. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6 (“With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law.”) (citing E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S 858, 864, 106 S. Ct. 2295, 90 L. Ed. 2d 865 (1986)).
B. Assumption of the Risk
In her opposition, Cobb argues that the liability waiver is unenforceable because under federal maritime law assumption of the risk is not a valid defense. Cobb is correct that assumption of the risk is not an available defense in maritime cases involving [**7] personal injury. See e.g., De Sole v. United States, 947 F.2d 1169 (4th Cir. 1991); Skidmore v. Grueninger, 506 F.2d 716 (5th Cir. 1975). However, this does not preclude Aramark from raising the defense of express waiver in this case. Waiver and assumption of the risk are two distinct affirmative defenses and are addressed separately under federal admiralty law. See Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *10-11. Therefore, Aramark may raise the affirmative defense of express waiver in this action.
C. Express Waiver
In its motion, Aramark argues that the signed express waiver precludes the present action. See Doc. #28. Specifically, Aramark argues that under federal maritime law, pre-accident liability waivers are enforceable and may properly dispose of this action on summary judgment.
Under federal admiralty law, owners of recreational vessels may, through written waivers, disclaim liability for their own negligence. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *11. A pre-accident waiver absolves a defendant of liability for recreational activities on navigable waters if the exculpatory clause is (1) clear and unambiguous; (2) is not inconsistent with public policy; and (3) is not an adhesion contract. [**8] Id. at 13.
The court has reviewed the documents and pleadings on file in this matter and finds that the signed waiver of liability is [*1299] enforceable. First, Cobb concedes that she knowingly and voluntarily signed the liability waiver. See Doc. #33. Second, the court finds that the express waiver in this action is clear and unambiguous as it contains specific language releasing Zephyr and its affiliates, including defendant Aramark, for injuries sustained in carrying out the parasailing activities as a result of Zephyr’s negligence.
A waiver is clear and unambiguous if it specifically bars the plaintiff’s negligence claim and explicitly exonerates all defendants in the lawsuit. See Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022. Here, the waiver specifically bars plaintiff from suing for her injuries. Doc. #28, Exhibit A (“I AGREE NOT TO SUE . . . the aforementioned parties for any injuries or damages that I might hereby receive from my participation in the parasailing activities, whether or not such injury, loss or damage results from the aforementioned parties’ negligence or from any other cause.”). Further, the very injuries Cobb is suing for are specifically precluded by the waiver including “drowning, [**9] sprained or broken bones.” Doc. #28, Exhibit A. Therefore, the court finds that the express waiver is sufficiently clear and unambiguous to cover Cobb’s injuries sustained while parasailing.
Third, the underlying express waiver is not inconsistent with public policy because waivers of liability on navigable waters do not contravene federal public policy. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *13-14; In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123786, *21 (C.D. Utah 2012) (holding that maritime exculpatory clauses are enforceable when a party clearly absolves itself from liability for its own negligence).
Finally, the court finds that the express waiver signed by Cobb is not an adhesion contract because it concerns a voluntary recreational activity. Under federal admiralty law, liability waivers for recreational sporting activities like parasailing are not contracts of adhesion because they are not essential services. See e.g., Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *14-15; In re Aramark, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123789, *15. Therefore, the court finds that the underlying pre-accident waiver is valid and enforceable and absolves defendant Aramark of any liability [**10] arising from the recreational parasailing activity. Accordingly, the court shall grant Aramark’s motion for summary judgment.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. #28) is GRANTED. The clerk of court shall enter judgment in favor of defendant Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC and against plaintiff Jaclyn Cobb.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 18th day of March, 2013.
/s/ Larry R. Hicks
LARRY R. HICKS
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Jesus Espinoza, Jr., Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, LLC, Defendant – Appellee. Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, Amicus Curiae.
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 39
January 5, 2016, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. (D.C. No. 1:13-CV-01421-MSK-BNB).
Espinoza v. Ark. Valley Adventures, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136102 (D. Colo., Sept. 26, 2014)
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -The deceased’s son unsuccessfully argued that, while his mother signed a release, it should be still be held to violate state public policy as it ran afoul of the first two Jones factors because his is claim was one for negligence per se rather than common law negligence; -The argument mistook the nature of the inquiry called for by the first two Jones factors; -His argument suggested a firmer analytical line could be drawn between claims of negligence and negligence per se than the circumstances in the case would fairly allow; -His interpretation of the Colorado River Outfitters Act would require the court to read into that statute a good deal more than it said; -The disclosure and release sufficed to satisfy the third and fourth Jones factors.
OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.
CORE TERMS: rafting, recreational, common law, trip, claim of negligence, warning, negligence per se, public policy, equine, river, common law, private parties, recreational activities, misdemeanor, outfitter’s, provider, Colo Law, civil liability, purporting, raft, ski, matter of law, negligence claims, matter of practical necessity, public services, great importance, mean to suggest, horseback riding, standard of care, civil claims
COUNSEL: William J. Hansen of McDermott & McDermott, LLP, Denver, CO (George E. McLaughlin of Warshauer McLaughlin Law Group, P.C., Denver, CO, with him on the briefs), for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Alan Epstein (Ryan L. Winter and Conor P. Boyle, with him on the brief), of Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Denver, CO, for Defendant-Appellee.
Russell R. Hatten and Evan P. Banker of Chalat Hatten Koupal & Banker PC, Denver, CO, on the brief for amicus curiae Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, in support of Plaintiff-Appellant.
JUDGES: Before KELLY, HARTZ, and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges.
OPINION BY: GORSUCH
GORSUCH, Circuit Judge.
This case arises from a summer rafting trip gone tragically wrong. It began when Sue Ann Apolinar hired a guide for a family adventure in the Colorado Rockies: an overnight rafting and camping excursion on a popular stretch of the Arkansas River running through Brown’s Canyon. After she arrived at the outfitter’s office, Ms. Apolinar and the other rafters received the usual guidance, made the usual preparations, and signed the usual release before heading down river. The next day, while maneuvering around [*2] a rapid known locally as Seidel’s Suck Hole, the raft capsized. Everyone else was fished out of the water soon enough. But in a heartbreaking turn of events, the current swept Ms. Apolinar into a logjam where, despite repeated efforts to save her, she drowned. Eventually, Ms. Apolinar’s son, Jesus Espinoza, Jr., brought a lawsuit against the rafting company alleging negligence per se and fraud (and other claims no longer in dispute). In reply, the company sought summary judgment, arguing that the release Ms. Apolinar signed shielded it from liability. With this the district court agreed and proceeded to enter judgment for the company. It’s the propriety of this ruling that we’re asked to assess in this appeal.
No one before us doubts that Ms. Apolinar signed a release. Or that the release purported to absolve the rafting company from any claim of negligence. The only question in this appeal is whether Colorado law permits private parties to enforce a contract like this. [HN1] Under Colorado common law, it’s long settled that courts will not give effect to contracts purporting to release claims for intentional, knowing, or reckless misconduct. See, e.g., Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010). But claims of negligence are a different [*3] matter. Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence. Instead, and at the most general level, the Colorado Supreme Court has instructed courts to weigh four factors when deciding whether to give effect to agreements along these lines: “(1) the existence [or nonexistence] of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981).
Even more specifically, [HN2] the Colorado Supreme Court has explained that the first two Jones factors focus on public policy questions — asking whether “[t]he party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity [and] . . . [a]s a result of the essential nature of the service . . . the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.” Id. (quoting Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 444 (Cal. 1963)). Meanwhile, the latter two factors focus on more party- and contract-specific questions — asking whether the release was fairly [*4] obtained and clearly and unambiguously expressed. Id. at 378. If the release satisfies both sets of questions — the more general and the more particular — it may be enforced. (Provided, of course, that it is otherwise a valid contract, involving, for example, mutual assent and consideration, matters not in dispute here).
[HN3] When it comes to the first two Jones factors, the Colorado Supreme Court has offered even more specific guidance yet. Though some businesses perform essential public services and owe special duties to the public, the court has held that “businesses engaged in recreational activities” generally do not. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004); see also Boles, 223 P.3d at 726 (“More than a quarter century ago, this court rejected the assertion that any agreement purporting to shield a party from liability for its own tortious conduct” in the provision of recreational services “would violate . . . public policy . . . .”). So while businesses providing, say, water, electricity, or sanitary services usually may not shield themselves from claims of negligence, recreational service providers often can. Though, of course, they must still face and satisfy the latter two case-specific Jones factors.
This relatively permissive public policy toward [*5] recreational releases may not be unique to Colorado common law but it does seem to be one of its distinguishing features. We don’t doubt other states may rationally choose to pursue different lines when it comes to recreational releases: certainly the parties before us cite an array of cases from other jurisdictions taking an array of views. But [HN4] in our federal system, states are usually permitted (and encouraged) to pursue their own paths on policy matters like these. And it’s clear enough that Colorado allows private parties to assume some of the risks associated with their recreational pursuits. It’s a policy choice that, no doubt, means some losses go uncompensated but one that also promotes the output and diversity of recreational services consumers may enjoy. Of course, the Colorado Supreme Court and the Colorado General Assembly may change their judgment on this score at any time. And maybe someday they will prefer a policy that shifts the burden of loss to the service provider, ensuring compensation in cases like this even if also impairing to some degree individual choice and output. But that decision is their decision to make, not ours, and their current policy is clear. Indeed, [*6] following the Colorado Supreme Court’s guidance in this area, this court and many Colorado courts have upheld many releases in many recreational activities over many years. Only some examples of which we include in the margin.1
1 See, e.g., Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1444-46 (D. Colo. 1996) (whitewater rafting), aff’d sub nom. Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997); Forman v. Brown, 944 P.2d 559, 563-64 (Colo. App. 1996) (same); Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., No. 08-cv-00052-MSK-MJW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, 2009 WL 1108093, at *3-5 (D. Colo. Apr. 23, 2009) (skiing), aff’d, 363 F. App’x 547 (10th Cir. 2010); Fullick v. Breckenridge Ski Corp., No. 90-1377, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3 (10th Cir. Apr. 29, 1992) (same); Potter v. Nat’l. Handicapped Sports, 849 F. Supp. 1407, 1409-11 (D. Colo. 1994) (same); Bauer v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 788 F. Supp. 472, 474-75 (D. Colo. 1992) (same); Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 308 F.3d 1105, 1113 (10th Cir. 2002) (mountain biking); Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468-70 (horseback riding); B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 137-38 (Colo. 1998) (same); see also William R. Rapson & Stephen A. Bain, Recreational Waivers in Colorado: Playing at Your Own Risk, 32 Colo. Law. 77, 77 (2003) (noting that “Colorado law generally supports waivers of liability in connection with recreational activities”); James H. Chalat, Colorado Ski Law, 27 Colo. Law. 5, 14 (1998) (noting that “courts generally hold [ski racing] waivers to be enforceable”); Jordan Lipp, Horse Law — A Look at the Equine Statute and Liability Law, 41 Colo. Law. 95, 99 (2012) (“Releases have been upheld in a number of horseback riding cases.”).
Still, Mr. Espinoza submits, his case is categorically different. Yes, Ms. Apolinar signed a document purporting to release the rafting company from all claims of negligence. Yes, Colorado public policy generally permits the release of claims of negligence in recreational pursuits like the one here. But, Mr. Espinoza argues, the release Ms. Apolinar signed should still be held to violate state public policy — it should [*7] still be held to run afoul of the first two Jones factors — because his claim is one for negligence per se rather than common law negligence. He observes that the Colorado River Outfitters Act (CROA) makes it a misdemeanor for rafting companies to operate any raft in a “careless or imprudent manner.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-32-107(2)(b). And from this, he reasons, negligence by rafting companies has become a matter of public concern and a public service within the meaning of the first two Jones factors.
We find ourselves unable to agree for a number of related reasons.
First, we think this argument mistakes the nature of the inquiry called for by the first two Jones factors. [HN5] By their terms, those factors don’t ask whether the activity in question is the subject of some sort of state regulation. Instead, they ask whether the service provided is of “great importance to the public,” a matter of “practical necessity” as opposed to (among other things) a “recreational” one. 623 P.2d at 376-77. And the distinction the Jones factors draw between essential and recreational services would break down pretty quickly if the presence of some state regulation were enough to convert an otherwise obviously “recreational” service into a “practically necessary” [*8] one. After all, state law imposes various rules and regulations on service providers in most every field these days — including on service providers who operate in a variety of clearly recreational fields. See, e.g., Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-14-116 (snowmobiling); id. § 33-44-104(2) (skiing); id. § 13-21-119(4)(b)(I) (equine activities).
Second, Mr. Espinoza’s argument suggests a firmer analytical line can be drawn between claims of negligence and negligence per se than we think the circumstances here will fairly allow. As we’ve seen, [HN6] Colorado law has long permitted parties to contract away negligence claims in the recreational context. And negligence per se claims often differ very little from their common law cousins: they usually just substitute a common law duty or standard of care with one prescribed by statute and all other elements remain the same. See Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., Inc., 187 P.3d 565, 573 (Colo. 2008). In fact, in the case before us it’s not even clear what duty of care CROA adds to the common law. Mr. Espinoza says the rafting company violated the statutory duty to avoid operating a raft in a “careless or imprudent manner.” Mr. Espinoza points as well to implementing regulations that suggest a company should offer things like a “basic orientation” for rafters and help when accidents occur. [*9] But Mr. Espinoza does not suggest how these provisions create any distinctly new duty of care. Indeed, they appear to be more or less coextensive with [HN7] the preexisting common law standard of care, which requires parties to act with “reasonable care . . . i.e., that which a person of common prudence would use under the circumstances.” Christensen v. Hoover, 643 P.2d 525, 529 (Colo. 1982). And given this it seems hard to see a rational basis on which the law might treat such similar (identical?) claims so differently based merely on how they are pleaded, rewarding the crafty but penalizing the pedestrian pleader.2
2 Though we do not rely on the fact in our analysis above, Colorado authorities did conduct an investigation of the accident in this case pursuant to CROA and ultimately decided not to pursue any sanction.
Third, Mr. Espinoza’s interpretation of CROA would require us to read into that statute a good deal more than it says. [HN8] CROA imposes criminal misdemeanor sanctions for violating the duties it prescribes. It does not speak, one way or the other, to the question of civil liability — let alone suggest that private parties are forbidden from contractually releasing potential negligence claims. Neither [HN9] is it obviously irrational that the [*10] General Assembly might choose to pass legislation about public (criminal) liability but leave private (civil) liability to preexisting common law principles. Indeed, courts generally will not assume that the General Assembly means to displace background common law principles absent some clear legislative expression of that intent. See Robbins v. People, 107 P.3d 384, 387 (Colo. 2005). The General Assembly, too, has shown that — when it wishes — it well knows how to displace background common law norms and preclude the release of civil claims. See, e.g., Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 707-09 (Colo. App. 1996). Given all this, we do not think it our place to adorn the General Assembly’s handiwork with revisions to the common law that it easily could have but declined to undertake for itself.
Finally, we find it noteworthy that Colorado courts faced with similar challenges seem to have resolved them much as we resolve this one today. For example, the General Assembly has adopted a statute holding that “equine professional[s]” may not be held civilly liable for “the inherent risks of equine activities.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-119(3). But that statute goes on to state that the immunity it provides does not extinguish civil liability in cases where the equine professional supplied equipment or tack it should have known was faulty or [*11] failed to make reasonable efforts to determine the ability of the rider before the excursion began. Id. § 13-21-119(4)(b)(I). And despite the General Assembly’s express solicitude toward these latter classes of claims, the Colorado Supreme Court has allowed private parties to contract away claims of negligence on both fronts. B & B Livery, 960 P.2d at 135, 137-38. Maybe even more pointedly still, [HN10] since the enactment of CROA and its misdemeanor criminal penalties, various Colorado courts have enforced releases of civil negligence claims obtained by whitewater rafting companies. See, e.g., Lahey, 964 F. Supp. at 1444-46; Forman, 944 P.2d at 563-64. This court has upheld, too, a release a snowboarder gave to a ski area absolving its employees of negligence even when the area’s employee allegedly operated a snowmobile in a negligent manner and a state statute made that very behavior a misdemeanor. See Robinette, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, 2009 WL 1108093, at *3-5.
In saying this much, we take care to emphasize what we do not mean to say. We do not mean to suggest that some future statute could not — or even that some other current statute might not — preclude the enforcement of releases like the one here. Neither do we mean to suggest that the Colorado Supreme Court could not alter its common law policy with respect to recreational releases. In particular, we [*12] do not pass on the question whether the General Assembly’s enactment of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 6-1-101 to 6-1-1001, might preclude the enforcement of recreational releases when the plaintiff pleads a valid claim under that statute. See Rapson & Bain, supra, at 77-78 (noting that while Colorado law “generally supports” recreational waivers, it’s an open question whether a statutory CCPA claim can be waived). In this case, we merely hold that the CROA provisions cited to us do not satisfy and do not overrule the first two factors of the common law Jones test.
Of course, that takes us only half way. Having decided that the release survives Jones‘s public-policy factors, we must still consider its case-specific factors. [HN11] The third Jones factor requires us to ask whether “the circumstances and the nature of the service involved indicate that the contract was fairly entered into.” Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. Relatedly, the fourth Jones factor addresses the terms of the contract itself, inviting us to “examine the actual language of the [release] for legal jargon, length and complication” and any other evidence that a party might not “recognize the full extent of the release provisions.” Id. The district court held that the release before us [*13] satisfied both of these conditions — that it was fairly entered into and clear in its terms. And in the end we find we agree with its assessment on this score too.
Mr. Espinoza trains most of his attention on the third factor. He contends that the rafting company misrepresented the nature of the trip to Ms. Apolinar. He points for support to testimony suggesting that, when Ms. Apolinar first made her reservation, she was told by company representatives and read on its website that the trip was appropriate for beginners and involved at most only class III rapids. He points as well to his expert witness who testified that Seidel’s Suck Hole is really a class IV rapid, not a class III rapid, according to the “International Scale of River Difficulty.”3 But at the same time Mr. Espinoza must acknowledge that another of his witnesses — a state ranger charged with overseeing the stretch of river in question — testified that he believes the trip is indeed appropriate for families with children. So the facts Mr. Espinoza himself offers are mixed at best on whether the rafting company actually ever made a material misstatement about the nature of the trip.4
3 That scale describes class III rapids [*14] as requiring (among other things) “[c]omplex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges” and notes that “[i]njuries while swimming are rare.” The scale describes class IV rapids as involving “[i]ntense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. . . . [and] fast maneuvers under pressure” and notes that the “[r]isk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high.”
4 On appeal, Mr. Espinoza offers another theory why the circumstances surrounding the release were unfair. He alleges that the rafting company refused to reschedule the trip and might have refused to refund Ms. Apolinar’s deposit if she declined to sign the release. And this, he says, imposed unfair pressure on her to sign the release. But Mr. Espinoza’s argument along these lines before the district court consisted of only two sentences so it’s not surprising or improper that the district court declined to pass upon it. Neither will we pass on this argument for the first time now, leaving its development instead to future cases where it might prove relevant and more fully presented. See generally Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 679 (10th Cir. 1998); Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1127-28 (10th Cir. 2011).
Still, even if we might assume (without deciding) that the facts here are enough to create [*15] a material dispute of fact regarding whether the rafting company initially misrepresented the nature of the trip, it’s still hard to see how we could say the release was unfairly secured or unclear in its terms — at least within the meaning Colorado law gives to the third and fourth Jones factors. That’s because of what happened next. Whatever the rafting company said about the trip earlier on, when Ms. Apolinar arrived at the outfitter’s office she received a vivid description of the risks she could face. The rafting company provided — and Ms. Apolinar signed — a document titled in part “RAFTING WARNING” explaining that rafting can be “HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH.” The document proceeded to offer a detailed picture of the sorts of problems that could be (and sadly were) encountered: “cold water immersion, hidden underwater obstacles, trees or other above water obstacles, . . . changing and unpredictable currents, drowning, exposure, swimming, overturning, . . . entrapment of feet or other body parts under rocks or other objects . . . .” It added that “THE UNDERSIGNED ACKNOWLEDGE[S] AND UNDERSTAND[S] THAT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE RISKS LISTED ABOVE IS NOT COMPLETE AND THAT PARTICIPATING [*16] IN THE ACTIVITY MAY BE DANGEROUS AND MAY INCLUDE OTHER RISKS.” The document provided, too, that its representations and warnings about the trip superseded any prior “communications or representations” on these subjects. Neither can there be any question that the document clearly communicated that a signature would release civil claims for liability. At the outset it directed Ms. Apolinar to “PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS.” And later it provided that “THE UNDERSIGNED HEREBY IRREVOCABLY AND UNCONDITIONALLY RELEASE[S], FOREVER DISCHARGE[S], AND AGREE[S] NOT TO SUE . . . with respect to any and all claims and causes of action . . . which could be asserted [by] the Undersigned in connection with . . . the Activity.”
This disclosure and release suffices to satisfy the third and fourth Jones factors. To be sure, we can imagine other states might choose to hold circumstances and printed forms like these insufficiently fair or clear. But [HN12] Colorado courts have repeatedly emphasized that individuals engaged in recreational activities are generally expected to read materials like these, and because recreational businesses do not provide “essential” services of “practical [*17] necessity” individuals are generally free to walk away if they do not wish to assume the risks described. See, e.g., Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78. Particularly where, as here, the person confronted with the release is competent and reasonably educated. Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 469. Indeed, Colorado courts and this court have consistently found releases provided at the outset of a recreational activity and containing language very much like the one now before us sufficient as a matter of law to supply a fair and full warning within the meaning of the latter two Jones factors. See, e.g., Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78; Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 127 F.3d 1273, 1274-76 (10th Cir. 1997); Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 782, 785 (Colo. 1989); Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468-69.
As the district court recognized, too, this resolution of the third and fourth Jones factors also resolves Mr. Espinoza’s fraud claim. [HN13] To make out a claim for fraud in Colorado, a plaintiff must establish actual and reasonable reliance on a false statement; a party cannot — as a matter of law — continue to rely on a previously expressed false statement after the truth is aired. And, of course, we have just found that the rafting company’s written warnings accomplished just that — adequately airing the truth about the nature of the risks Ms. Apolinar faced. Neither do we see how we might arrive at a different result just because this claim is denominated [*18] in fraud rather than negligence. The inquiries prescribed for us by law are virtually indistinguishable (was the truth fairly and fully disclosed?), the facts are the same (the release’s warnings), and it follows that the result should be the same. See Vinton v. Virzi, 269 P.3d 1242, 1247, 2012 CO 10, 2012 CO 10 (Colo. 2012) (holding if a party “has access to information” that “would have led to the true facts, that party has no right to rely on a [prior] false representation”); Morrison v. Goodspeed, 100 Colo. 470, 68 P.2d 458, 462 (Colo. 1937) (same).
Enduring the death of a close family member in tragic circumstances is among life’s bitterest challenges. The loss Ms. Apolinar’s family has suffered is beyond words. But our charge is to follow the law. And in this case the law is just as the district court described it, permitting the enforcement of the release in this case and requiring the entry of summary judgment.
5 We decline Mr. Espinoza’s request for certification of his negligence per se claim to the Colorado Supreme Court for decision. Not only is the request fleetingly made (three sentences in the middle of a brief arguing state law unambiguously supports his position), [HN14] we generally do not trouble state supreme courts where, as here, existing state law provides “a reasonably clear and principled course” [*19] we may follow to resolve the case at hand. Pino v. United States, 507 F.3d 1233, 1236 (10th Cir. 2007).
HARTZ, Circuit Judge, concurring and dissenting:
I fully join all the opinion except the discussion of the third Jones factor. I respectfully dissent, however, on that factor. In my view, a jury must resolve whether Ms. Apolinar was misled about the danger of the rapids. Although the warning provided to her at the outfitter’s office listed all the potential risks that she would face, the description of the rapids is what would convey the probability of those risks. It is not enough to list a risk if the customer has been misled about its probability.
Alvero v. Allen, Jr., 262 A.D.2d 434; 692 N.Y.S.2d 116; 1999 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6634
Martin Alvero, Respondent, v. James W. Allen, Jr., Appellant.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT
262 A.D.2d 434; 692 N.Y.S.2d 116; 1999 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6634
April 26, 1999, Argued
June 14, 1999, Decided
COUNSEL: Montfort, Healy, McGuire & Salley, Garden City, N.Y. (Edward R. Rimmels of counsel), for appellant.
Siben & Siben, LLP, Bay Shore, N.Y. (Alan G. Faber and Gerald I. Friedman of counsel), for respondent.
JUDGES: Bracken, J. P., Thompson, Sullivan and Friedmann, JJ., concur.
[*434] [**117] Ordered that the order is reversed, on the law, with costs, that branch of the motion which was for summary judgment is granted, and the complaint is dismissed.
The infant plaintiff was hit on the head with what he described as an “ice ball” while he and several other Boy Scouts were waiting outside a church in which the weekly meeting of [*435] their Boy Scout troop was scheduled to begin. At a deposition given in connection with a separate action commenced against another entity, the infant plaintiff [***2] stated that he had not seen anyone throw anything prior to the time he was hit. He responded affirmatively when asked whether the “ice ball” with which he was struck, and which had apparently been thrown by another Boy Scout, was “the first thing that was thrown during the whole time from when you got to the church up until you got hit”.
The defendant in the present action is the Boy Scout troop leader who was to be in charge of the meeting. According to his affidavit, he was informed upon his arrival at the church that the infant plaintiff had already been injured. According to the affidavit of the infant plaintiff, on the other hand, the defendant had arrived prior to the incident, had entered the building, and had refused to allow the infant plaintiff to follow him inside. The Supreme Court denied the branch of the defendant’s motion which was premised on CPLR 3211, and denied that branch of the motion as was premised on CPLR 3212, holding that such an application was premature prior to the joinder of issue. We reverse.
The parties clearly laid bare their proof, and treated the motion as one for summary judgment. The [***3] Supreme Court was therefore authorized to treat the pre-answer application pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (7) as one for summary judgment (see, CPLR 3211 [c]; see, e.g., MacDonald v Prudential Sec., 247 AD2d 346; Palazolo v Palazolo, 244 AD2d 393; Gelmin v Quicke, 224 AD2d 481).
Turning to the merits, it is clear that the defendant cannot be held liable based on allegations of inadequate supervision under the facts as outlined above. As the Court of Appeals stated in Lawes v Board of Educ. (16 NY2d 302, 304), “[n]o one grows up in this climate without throwing snowballs and being hit by them. If snow is on the ground as children come to school, it would require intense policing, almost child by child, to take all snowball throwing out of play. It is unreasonable to demand or expect such perfection in supervision from ordinary teachers or ordinary school management; and a fair test of reasonable care does not demand it”.
[**118] Given the absence of proof that the defendant in the present case had notice of an ongoing and potentially dangerous snowball [***4] fight, the plaintiff may not prevail on a theory of inadequate supervision (see also, Johnsen v Cold Spring Harbor Cent. School Dist., 251 AD2d 548; Kennedy v Seaford Union Free School Dist. No. 6, 250 AD2d 574). This conclusion is [*436] reinforced by the fact that the plaintiff’s father was present in his car about 50 feet away and neither he nor any of the other parents who were present in the area saw fit to intervene in any way prior to the incident. We also note that the scout meeting had not begun, no official scouting activity was taking place, and, according to the plaintiff’s version, the defendant had entered the building locking the door behind him, thus implicitly leaving the assembling Boy Scouts in the custody of the adults who were present outside (see generally, Phillipe v City of New York Bd. of Educ., 254 AD2d 339 [school has no duty of supervision prior to starting of school day]). For these reasons, the defendant was entitled to summary judgment.
Bracken, J. P., Thompson, Sullivan and Friedmann, JJ., concur.
Bret D. Hawkins and Erin Hawkins, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v Ranch Rudolph, Inc. and Circle H Stables, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.
COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN
September 27, 2005, Decided
NOTICE: [*1] THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.
PRIOR HISTORY: Grand Traverse Circuit Court. LC No. 03-022735-NO.
DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
JUDGES: Before: Meter, P.J., and Murray and Schuette, JJ.
Plaintiffs appeal as of right from the order granting defendants summary disposition. Bret Hawkins was injured after falling off a horse during a guided trail ride conducted by defendants. We reverse and remand.
On June 18, 2002, plaintiffs, who were on their honeymoon, went to defendants’ stables to participate in a guided horseback trail ride. Defendants offered several different types of rides, based on age and level of experience. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride,” which was described by defendants’ brochure as a “walk/trot ride” and had the minimum age requirement of eight-years-old. The ride consisted of a four-mile, single-file ride on wooded trails. Plaintiffs chose the “Wrangler Ride” because Bret had never ridden a horse before. Before participating, however, [*2] plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the Equine Activity Liability Act (EALA), MCL 691.1661 et seq. MCL 691.1666.
Prior to beginning the ride, defendants’ trail guide, Kate Ridge, asked all the participants about their riding experience. Erin Hawkins indicated that she had only ridden a horse once before when she was eleven-years-old, and Bret indicated that he had never ridden a horse. In light of Bret’s lack of experience, Ridge assigned him “Tye,” a horse that defendants typically assign to beginning riders, including children, because he was calm and easy to ride. Plaintiffs were given basic instructions regarding how to stay on the horse and how to use the reins. According to Ridge, she saddled the horses before the ride and then double-checked all the saddles both before and after the horses were mounted. Bret claimed that after mounting Tye, he complained to Ridge that his saddle was not securely fastened, and she checked it again. Ridge stated that she did not recall Bret telling her his saddle was loose before the ride and she did not notice that it was loose while he [*3] was mounting the horse.
The ride started out at a slow walk, but after awhile, Ridge asked the participants if they wanted to go a little faster. The group responded, “Yes,” and Ridge told them to hold on to the saddlehorn with one hand and to put the other hand on the back of the saddle, and to yell if they wanted to slow down. According to plaintiffs, Ridge and her horse then “bolted” into a fast, or full-out run, and the other horses followed her lead. Both plaintiffs stated that when their horses began running they were too surprised or shocked to yell and were just trying to hang on. According to Bret, his saddle slid to the right and he grabbed the saddlehorn and the back of the saddle as instructed but was still falling off his horse. He stated that his arm hit a tree so hard that he suffered a humeral fracture. He then fell from the horse.
Defendants and Ridge denied that the horses were running. According to defendants, midway through the ride, Ridge asked the participants if they would like to begin a “short trot.” According to Ridge, a trot is a fast walk, “slower than a canter, and much slower than a run or gallop.” Other experienced riders in the group characterized [*4] a trot in similar language. After asking for but hearing no objections, defendants contended that Ridge then proceeded to trot the horses. Defendant noted that if anyone had stated that they did not want to trot, Ridge would not have began the trot and continued with the walk. Defendant also explained that horses are not permitted to engage in a “fast run” during rides.
Plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging gross negligence. Defendants moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8), and (C)(10), arguing, in pertinent part, that given the facts, even if there was a question of fact regarding whether defendants’ conduct amounted to negligence, reasonable jurors could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Defendant pointed out that Ridge attested that a couple seconds after commencing the trot she heard a scream and turned around to see that Bret had dropped his reins and was hanging on to the saddle horn with both hands, which she instructed him not to do. Ridge stated that Bret was losing his balance and leaning far to the right and he fell off his horse after hitting a tree branch. One of the other participants attested [*5] that he checked the saddle after the fall and it was not loose. Defendants argued that Bret’s injuries were not the result of defendants’ negligence, but of “the inherent risk of equine activity,” his own lack of experience, and his failure to follow Ridge’s instructions.
The trial court indicated that there was no question that plaintiffs’ allegations related to securing the saddle and instructing the participants only amounted to negligence. With respect to the allegation that the horses were made to run off at a high rate of speed, defendants continued to contend that there was no question of fact because Ridge and the other experienced participants stated that they began to trot, and the only people who said the horses began to run were plaintiffs, who had little or no riding experience. Plaintiffs responded that the differing accounts meant that there was a factual dispute, thereby precluding summary disposition. The court concluded that, given plaintiffs’ lack of experience compared with the experienced opinions of the guide and other participants, there was no genuine issue of fact that the horses were trotting not running. The court then concluded that even if it were a high [*6] speed run, reasonable minds could not differ that defendants’ conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Accordingly, the court granted defendants summary disposition.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Plaintiffs now argue that the trial court erred in granting defendants summary disposition on the issue of gross negligence. We agree. [HN1] This Court reviews de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Spiek v Dep’t of Transportation, 456 Mich. 331, 337; 572 N.W.2d 201 (1998).
[HN2] Under MCR 2.116(C)(7), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that a claim is barred because of a release. Neither party is required to file supportive material. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). Any documentation that is provided to the court, however, must be admissible evidence and must be considered by the court. MCR 2.116(G)(5). The plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other admissible documentary evidence must be accepted as true and construed in the plaintiff’s favor, unless contradicted by documentation submitted by the movant. [*7] Maiden, supra at 119. [HN3] Under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a party may move for dismissal of a claim on the ground that there is no genuine issue with respect to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment or partial judgment as a matter of law. The motion tests the factual support for a claim, and when reviewing the motion, the court must consider all the documentary evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 119; see also MCR 2.116(G)(4).
As an initial matter, [HN4] plaintiffs’ testimony was admissible because it was based on their personal observations and perceptions. MRE 602. To the extent that plaintiffs’ testimony merely amounted to opinion, such testimony would nevertheless be admissible evidence. MRE 701. “MRE 701 allows opinion testimony by a lay witness as long as the opinion is rationally based on the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony or a fact in issue.” Sells v Monroe Co, 158 Mich. App. 637, 644-645;405 N.W.2d 387 (1987). “Once a witness’s opportunity to observe is demonstrated, [*8] the opinion is admissible in the discretion of the trial court, and the weight to be accorded the testimony is for the jury to decide.” Id. at 646-647. Moreover, laypersons are permitted to testify regarding speed. Mitchell v Steward Oldford & Sons, Inc, 163 Mich. App. 622, 629-630;415 N.W.2d 224 (1987). Therefore, [HN5] that plaintiffs lacked experience with horses merely goes to the weight of their testimony not to its admissibility.
The concept of gross negligence has developed in recent years, evolving from its common law roots. The common-law rule was originally invoked in Gibbard v Cursan, 225 Mich 311; 196 NW 398 (1923), to “circumvent the harsh rule of contributory negligence[,]” which at the time would have barred the plaintiff’s recovery. Jennings v Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 129; 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994). The Gibbard definition was not crafted to be a higher degree of negligence; rather, it was simply “mere ordinary negligence of the defendant that followed from the negligence of the plaintiff.” Id. at 130. In actuality it was really just “the doctrine of last clear chance [*9] in disguise.” Id. at 132. Noting that such a construction was no longer viable after abandonment of the doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of pure comparative negligence and because it was not in keeping with the Legislature’s intent of limiting liability in certain contexts, the Jennings Court renounced further application of the Gibbard gross negligence definition. Id. at 132, 135
[HN6] Presented with the potentially arduous task of constructing a new definition of gross negligence in the context of the emergency medical services act (EMSA), MCL 333.20901 et seq., 1 the Jennings Court simply borrowed language from the government tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq. Jennings, supra at 135-136. The Court reasoned that the short cut was permissible given that the two statutory schemes shared the same purpose of insulating certain employees from liability for ordinary negligence. Id. at 136-137. Thus, the Court stated that in the context of the EMSA, gross negligence should be defined as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Id. at 136; [*10] see MCL 691.1407(7)(a).
1 MCL 333.20965(1) states:
Unless an act or omission is the result of gross negligence . . ., the acts or omissions of a medical first responder, emergency medical technician, [etc.,] . . . do not impose liability in the treatment of a patient on those individuals or any of the following persons. . . .
Subsequently, the definition has been employed in other Michigan statutes limiting liability for ordinary negligence while still allowing liability for gross negligence. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003). [HN7] The GTLA definition of gross negligence adopted in Jennings, arises in statutory contexts where there is a public policy rationale for limiting certain parties’ liability while still affording the public recourse when the parties’ conduct rises to the level of recklessness described in the definition. See id. (citing various examples of statutes using the same definition [*11] of gross negligence). Noting that a contractual waiver of liability can similarly serve to insulate against ordinary negligence but not gross negligence, this Court expanded the scope of application of the Jennings/GTLA gross negligence definition, likewise adopting the definition to address a claim of gross negligence where the decedent signed a waiver purporting to release a privately-owned fitness center from liability. Id. The Xu Court concluded that summary disposition for the defendant was proper where, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, reasonable minds could not differ that the defendant’s mere ignorance of industry safety standards did not constitute conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted to the decedent. Id. at 270-271. [HN8] “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.” Id. at 271.
Here, plaintiffs executed a release and indemnification waiver, in accordance with § 6 of the EALA. MCL 691.1666. By signing the release, plaintiffs agreed that because plaintiffs were participants in an equine [*12] activity defendants were not liable for plaintiffs’ injury or death resulting from an inherent risk of the equine activity. MCL 691.1666(3); MCL 691.1663. “Inherent risk of an equine activity” is defined by the EALA as:
[HN9] a danger or condition that is an integral part of an equine activity, including, but not limited to, any of the following:
(i) An equine’s propensity to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to a person on or around it.
(ii) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to things such as sounds, sudden movement, and people, other animals, or unfamiliar objects.
(iii) A hazard such as a surface or subsurface condition.
(iv) Colliding with another equine or object. [MCL 691.1662(f).]
However, [HN10] the EALA provides exceptions to this general immunity for certain acts, including negligence on the part of the equine professional. 2 Thus, solely applying the EALA, plaintiffs’ claims of negligence and, by implication, gross negligence, would not be barred.
2 MCL 691.1665 states:
[HN11] Section 3 does not prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or another person if the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person does any of the following:
(a) Provides equipment or tack and knows or should know that the equipment or tack is faulty, and the equipment or tack is faulty to the extent that it is a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.
(b) Provides an equine and fails to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity and to determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine. A person shall not rely upon a participant’s representations of his or her ability unless these representations are supported by reasonably sufficient detail.
(c) Owns, leases, rents, has authorized use of, or otherwise is in lawful possession and control of land or facilities on which the participant sustained injury because of a dangerous latent condition of the land or facilities that is known to the equine activity sponsor, equine professional, or other person and for which warning signs are not conspicuously posted.
(d) Commits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury, death, or damage.
[*13] However, the release that plaintiffs signed specifically relieved defendants of liability for negligence, and they were bound to the terms as agreed. Thus, in the face of a contractual waiver of liability insulating defendants against ordinary negligence, the trial court properly focused on whether defendants’ conduct constituted gross negligence. See Xu, supra at 269. Accordingly, following the precedent set by Xu, in addressing this claim of gross negligence, we consider “whether reasonable minds could differ regarding whether defendants’ conduct was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.” Xu, supra at 269. Accord Jennings, supra at 130.
[HN12] “Generally, once a standard of conduct is established, the reasonableness of an actor’s conduct under the standard is a question for the factfinder, not the court.” Tallman v Markstrom, 180 Mich. App. 141, 144; 446 N.W.2d 618 (1989). “However, if, on the basis of the evidence presented, reasonable minds could not differ, then the motion for summary disposition should be granted.” Vermilya v Dunham, 195 Mich. App. 79, 83; [*14] 489 N.W.2d 496 (1992). . . . These established precedents form the boundaries of our review. Accordingly, our task is to review the facts, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine the appropriateness of summary disposition in favor of the defendant. [Jackson v Saginaw Co, 458 Mich. 141, 146-147; 580 N.W.2d 870 (1998).]
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, it should be accepted as true that after asking the trail ride participants if they wanted to speed up a little bit, Ridge then bolted into a high-speed run – or at the very least, a ride that was too fast given plaintiffs’ lack of experience. While the trial court concluded that Ridge’s conduct “would not be gross negligence even if it were a high speed run,” we disagree. We conclude that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether her conduct of taking a totally inexperienced rider on a fast ride was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted.
In his dissent, our colleague Judge Murray emphasizes that the trail guide [*15] placed plaintiff (1) on a safe horse; (2) tightened the saddle; (3) provided safety instructions; (4) started slowly; and (5) sped up only after all riders including plaintiff agreed. We agree that the first four points referenced above appear reasonable. However, in our collective opinion, our point of departure from our esteemed colleague’s dissenting opinion is the trail guide’s decision to speed up the pace when plaintiff had never ridden a horse before. For a first time rider, yelling “Whoa Nellie” or in this instance, “Whoa Tye” hoping to slow the horse down or to obtain the trail guide’s attention for help could be difficult. Here, reasonable minds could indeed differ as to whether the conduct of the trail guide rose to the level of recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The question of whether the trail guide in this case demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted is a question of fact upon which reasonable minds could differ. Therefore, it is appropriate for a jury to make this determination.
By participating in the horseback ride, plaintiffs agreed to undertake the inherent risk of an equine activity. But, absent some unexpected [*16] event, Ridge was in control of the horses’ speed, as the guide riding the lead horse. And Bret’s horse “bolted” not because it was scared, which would clearly be an inherent risk of an equine activity, but because it was following Ridge’s lead. It cannot be disputed that she made the conscious decision to “speed things up a little bit,” knowing that Bret lacked the requisite experience to control the animal on which he rode. It would seem that it was indisputably an important part of Ridge’s job to look after the safety of those placed in her care. And asking an inexperienced horseback rider whether he objected to such a ride cannot insulate her conduct.
[HN13] Horseback riding, an activity in which people are exposed to all the inherent risks of dealing with an animal’s individual propensities and unpredictable nature, is a dangerous activity in and of itself. See MCL 691.1662(f). A reasonable person could conclude that Ridge’s conduct of taking plaintiffs on a fast ride given their known lack of experience unreasonably added to the risks of the already dangerous activity and was thus so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an [*17] injury resulted. Therefore, summary disposition in this case was not appropriate.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
/s/ Patrick M. Meter
/s/ Bill Schuette
DISSENT BY: MURRAY
MURRAY, J. (dissenting).
With great respect to my esteemed colleagues, I dissent from their decision to reverse the trial court’s grant of defendants’ motion for summary disposition.
As the majority correctly observes, in reviewing the propriety of granting defendants’ motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10), we, like the trial court, must view the admissible evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, the non-moving parties. MCR 2.116(G)(4); Maiden v Rozwood,461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). With the material facts viewed in that manner, we must then determine whether reasonable minds could differ as to whether the conduct at issue was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Xu v Gay, 257 Mich. App. 263, 270-271; 668 N.W.2d 166 (2003).
Where I depart from [*18] my colleagues is my conclusion that this evidence, under this standard, does not arise to the recklessness required to establish gross negligence. The material facts, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, established that the following events occurred at Ranch Rudolph:
1. Plaintiff Bret Hawkins (hereafter “plaintiff”), signed the waiver of liability, and informed the trail guide that he had never ridden a horse;
2. In response, the trail guide put plaintiff on the most cautious horse available, one usually utilized with children;
3. Once atop the horse, plaintiff informed the trail guide that his saddle was loose. The trail guide responded by attempting to tighten the saddle;
4. Before commencing the ride, the trail guide visually and orally instructed all the participants as to how to properly ride and handle the horse;
5. Once the trail ride commenced, the guide and all riders proceeded “extremely slow”;
6. Eventually, the trail guide asked the riders if they wanted to “go a little faster,” to which the group responded “yes”;
7. Before picking up the pace, the trail guide told the riders that they should yell if anyone wanted to [*19] slow down;
8. The trail guide, and all other horses, started on a “high speed run,” and less than a minute later, plaintiff was injured.
These material facts, taken from plaintiffs’ affidavits, answers to interrogatories and photos, do not establish that the trail guide acted so recklessly that she exhibited a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result. Rather, the evidence shows that, in response to plaintiff’s concerns, she (1) placed him on the safest possible horse; (2) attempted to further tighten the saddle; (3) instructed the riders on safety and riding procedures; (4) started the ride off “extremely slow;” and (5) sped up only after the riders – including plaintiffs – agreed to do so. Hence, the act at issue 1 was the trail guide’s decision to go too fast for plaintiff to handle, but not all the others, including his wife, who last rode a horse at age eleven. This misjudgment may have been a negligent one, but it did not reveal a recklessness with regard to plaintiff’s safety. Maiden, supra at 122-123(ordinary negligence does not amount to gross negligence). All the evidence of precautions taken, in fact, precludes reasonable [*20] jurors from so concluding. See, e.g., Lindberg v Livonia Public Schools, 219 Mich. App. 364, 368-369; 556 N.W.2d 509 (1996). 2
1 Plaintiff also complains about the trail guide’s inability to properly tighten the saddle. However, in my view, this is no more than an allegation of negligence, because there is no dispute that the trail guide attempted to tighten the saddle, but at best was unsuccessful in doing so.
2 As the trial court correctly observed, there seems to be a varying degree of decisions under this standard of liability. In my view, this results not from any inconsistency in determining the standard itself, but instead arises from the natural difference resulting from each judge’s own objective determination of whether the evidence meets that standard. Because judges do not always agree on the legal impact of the same undisputed set of facts, our decisions will at times necessarily result in different opinions.
I would affirm the trial court’s order.
/s/ [*21] Christopher M. Murray
Holly Wethington and Makenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs, v. Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant.
Case No. CIV-14-899-D
United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma
2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169145
December 18, 2015, Decided
December 18, 2015, Filed
CORE TERMS: causes of action, exculpatory, public policy, acknowledgment, parachuting, minor child, minor children, skydiving, genuine, waive, parachute, unenforceable, enforceable, pre-injury, initialed, guardian, jump, training, aviation, injuries suffered, summary judgment, duty to protect, bargaining power, gross negligence, void ab initio, ratification, voidable, willful, registration, bottom
COUNSEL: [*1] For Holly Wethington, individually, Mackenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
Robert Swainson, doing business as Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Third Party Plaintiff, Pro se.
Joseph Wethington, Third Party Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Counter Claimant, Pro se.
For Holly Wethington, individually, Counter Defendant: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
JUDGES: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI
The determinative issue before the Court concerns the authority of a parent to bind their minor child to an exculpatory agreement, which functions to preclude a defendant’s liability for negligence, before an injury has even occurred. Holly and Makenzie Wethington, mother and daughter (“Plaintiffs”), bring this action against Defendant Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, for injuries suffered by Makenzie while skydiving.1 Under theories of negligence and breach of contract, Plaintiffs contend Defendant (1) provided inadequate training to [*2] Makenzie in preparation for the parachute jump, (2) selected a person to provide radio assistance who had no prior experience, (3) provided old equipment that malfunctioned during Makenzie’s jump, and (4) permitted Makenzie to use a parachute she was ill-prepared to use and which was inappropriate for her skill level. Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24], to which Plaintiffs have filed their response in opposition [Doc. No. 30]. The matter is fully briefed and at issue.
1 At the time this action was brought, Makenzie was a minor. She has since become eighteen and will thus be referenced by name.
The following facts are undisputed. On January 24, 2014, Makenzie, who was then sixteen years old and accompanied by her parents, went to Defendant to learn how to skydive. As part of the registration process, Makenzie executed a Registration Form and Medical Statement. Near the bottom of the document, Makenzie initialed a disclaimer which read:
I FURTHER UNDERSTAND THAT SKYDIVING AND GLIDING ARE VERY SERIOUS AND HAZARDOUS SPORTS IN WHICH I COULD SUSTAIN SERIOUS AND PERMANENT INJURIES OR EVEN DEATH
Makenzie underwent an instruction course that included [*3] determining the condition of the parachute after deployment, gaining control and resolving any deployment problems and, if necessary, activating her emergency parachute. In connection with her registration and training, Makenzie and her parents both signed and/or initialed an accompanying document entitled “Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk” (the Release). The Release contained numerous exculpatory provisions, which stated in pertinent part:
1. RELEASE FROM LIABILITY. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE [Defendant] from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I may hereafter have for injuries and damages arising out of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities, including but not limited to LOSSES CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES.
2. COVENANT NOT TO SUE. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR MAKE A CLAIM AGAINST [Defendant] for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
* * *
5. ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. I understand and acknowledge that parachuting activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or [*4] expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ACKNOWLEDGE ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN PARACHUTING AND OTHER AVIATION ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES, including but not limited to equipment malfunction from whatever cause or inadequate training.
* * *
9. ENFORCEABILITY. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of risk is found to be unenforceable or against public policy, that only that portion shall fall and all other portions shall remain in full force and effect. . . . I also specifically waive any unenforceability or any public policy argument that I may make or that may be made on behalf of my estate or by anyone who would sue because of injury, damage or death as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
10. LEGAL RIGHTS. It has been explained to me, and I expressly recognize that this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk is a contract pursuant to which I am giving up important legal rights, and it is my intention to do so.
Near the bottom of the form, Makenzie [*5] read and rewrote the following statement: “I hereby certify that I have read this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk, that I fully understand the contents of this contract, that I wish to be bound by its terms, and that I have signed this contract of my own free will.” This statement was signed and dated by Makenzie and initialed by her mother. At the bottom of the Release, under the heading, “RATIFICATION BY PARENT/GUARDIAN if participant is under 18-years-of-age,” both parents attested that they had read the agreement, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby.
Makenzie received four hours of training and instruction. She was assigned a used parachute based on her size and weight. Defendant employed the assistance of Jacob Martinez to act as radio controller. Mr. Martinez’s duty was to help guide the jumpers onto the landing area and it was his first time to assist with the radio. Upon Makenzie’s jump, her chute malfunctioned, causing her to spin with increasing rapidity towards the ground. Makenzie landed at a high speed and impact, causing her to sustain serious injuries.
STANDARD OF DECISION
“Summary judgment is proper if, viewing the evidence in [*6] the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Bonidy v. U.S. Postal Service, 790 F.3d 1121, 1124 (10th Cir. 2015) (citing Peterson v. Martinez, 707 F.3d 1197, 1207 (10th Cir. 2013)). The Court’s function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter asserted, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Tolan v. Cotton, U.S. , 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014). An issue is “genuine” if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). An issue of fact is “material” if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id. Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present sufficient evidence in specific, factual form to establish a genuine factual dispute. Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991).
The nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Rather, it must go beyond the pleadings and establish, through admissible evidence, there is a genuine issue of material fact that must be resolved by the trier of fact. Salehpoor v. Shahinpoor, 358 F.3d 782, 786 (10th Cir. 2004). Unsupported conclusory allegations do not create an issue of fact. Finstuen v. Crutcher, 496 F.3d 1139, 1144 (10th Cir. 2007).
Defendant contends the Release absolves him from all liability [*7] for any injury suffered by Makenzie. Plaintiffs respond that Defendant’s motion should be denied because (1) Makenzie was a minor when she signed the Release, rendering it invalid under Oklahoma law,2 (2) Defendant is clearly liable under the theories asserted, and (3) this Court had a duty to protect Makenzie as a minor.
2 In Oklahoma, a minor is any person under eighteen (18) years of age. 15 Okla. Stat. § 13.
“An exculpatory clause releases in advance the second party for any harm the second party might cause the first party after the contract is entered.” Arnold Oil Properties LLC v. Schlumberger Tech. Corp., 672 F.3d 1202, 1206-07 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). While generally enforceable, such clauses are considered “distasteful to the law.” Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, P 8, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (emphasis in original).3 Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only if they meet the three following criteria:
(1) Their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages;
(2) At the time the contract was executed, there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between parties; and
(3) Enforcement of the clause would not (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual [*8] rights vis-a-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy.
Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874. “The clause will never avail to relieve a party from liability for intentional, willful or fraudulent acts or gross, wanton negligence.” Id. at 874 (citations omitted, emphasis in original); Satellite System, Inc. v. Birch Telecom of Okla., Inc., 2002 OK 61, P 11, 51 P.3d 585, 589 (“Oklahoma has a strong legislative public policy against contracts which attempt ‘to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.'”) (citing 15 Okla. Stat. § 212).
3 Notwithstanding this admonition, courts should void contract clauses on public-policy grounds “rarely, with great caution and in cases that are free from doubt.” Union Pacific R. Co. v. U.S. ex rel. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 591 F.3d 1311, 1321 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Shepard v. Farmers Ins. Co., 1983 OK 103, P 3, 678 P.2d 250, 251).
Oklahoma courts, and others, have upheld exculpatory contracts similar to the present Release, i.e., contracts that exculpate the defendant from injuries suffered by plaintiffs while skydiving. See Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, PP 15-17, 956 P.2d 156, 158-59 (exculpatory contract relieving defendant from any liability for injuries to plaintiff from parachuting activities was valid and enforceable); see also Scrivener v. Sky’s the Limit, Inc., 68 F. Supp. 2d 277, 280 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court, 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 756, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 177, 181 (1993); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). This Court, likewise, finds the Release is generally valid on its face.
First, the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused [*9] by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction. Plaintiffs signed and initialed several clauses containing the headings, RELEASE FROM LIABILITY, COVENANT NOT TO SUE, and ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. Mrs. Wethington and her husband signed a ratification stating they had read the Release, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby. Second, there is no evidence of unequal bargaining power. “Oklahoma courts consider two factors in determining parties’ relative bargaining power: ‘(1) the importance of the subject matter to the physical or economic wellbeing of the party agreeing to the release, and (2) the amount of free choice that party could have exercised when seeking alternate services.'” Arnold Oil, 672 F.3d at 1208 (quoting Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874). There is no evidence that skydiving was necessary or important to Plaintiffs’ wellbeing. In fact, when asked why she wanted to skydive, Makenzie answered, “It’s on my bucket list.” Moreover, Plaintiffs do not contend Makenzie had no choice but to agree to be trained by and jump with Defendant as opposed to going elsewhere. Third, as noted, Oklahoma courts have upheld such releases as not against public policy. See Manning, 956 P.2d at 159 (“we find a exculpatory contract in the [*10] context of a high-risk sport such as sky diving not against the public policy of this state.”).
Plaintiffs nevertheless maintain the Release is voidable because Makenzie was a minor when she signed it and her subsequent suit disaffirmed the agreement. It is also true that as a matter of public policy, courts have protected minors from improvident and imprudent contractual commitments by declaring the contract of a minor is voidable at the election of the minor after she attains majority. See 15 Okla. Stat. § 19. “A release is a contract.” Corbett v. Combined Communications Corp., 1982 OK 135, P 5, 654 P.2d 616, 617. Under Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent. Gomes v. Hameed, 2008 OK 3, P 26, 184 P.3d 479, 489 (citing Gage v. Moore, 1948 OK 214, P 8, 200 Okla. 623, 198 P.2d 395, 396).
In this case, however, Makenzie’s parents also knowingly signed the Release on her behalf, ratifying and affirming its exculpatory content, and agreeing to be bound thereby. Nevertheless, Defendant refers this Court to no controlling authority that permits the parent of a minor to, on the minor’s behalf, release or waive the minor’s prospective claim for negligence. The Court is unaware of any such authority, and therefore must predict how the Oklahoma Supreme Court would rule on the question. Ortiz v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., No. CIV-13-32-D, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41544, 2015 WL 1498713, at *5 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 31, 2015) (“A [*11] federal court sitting in diversity must apply state law as propounded by the forum’s highest court. Absent controlling precedent, the federal court must attempt to predict how the state’s highest court would resolve the issue.”) (quoting Royal Maccabees Life Ins. Co. v. Choren, 393 F.3d 1175, 1180 (10th Cir. 2005)).
Although the cases are split on the issue, it is well-recognized that the majority of state courts considering the issue have held a parent may not release a minor’s prospective claim for negligence. See Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of Am., 21 Conn. Supp. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 467-68 (Conn. 1958); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 356 (Fla. 2008) (pre-injury release executed by parent on behalf of minor is unenforceable against minor or the minor’s estate in a tort action arising from injuries resulting from participation in a commercial activity); Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381, 386 (N.J. 2006) (New Jersey public policy prohibits parents of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s potential tort claim arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 414, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994) (“[I]n the absence of statutory or judicial authorization, a parent cannot waive, compromise, or release a minor child’s cause of action merely because of the parental relationship . . . . This rule has also been extended to render ineffective releases or exculpatory agreements for future tortious conduct by other persons where such releases had been signed by parents on [*12] behalf of their minor children.”); Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252, 256 (Iowa 2010) (public policy precluded enforcement of parent’s pre-injury waiver of her child’s cause of action for injuries caused by negligence); Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n. 3 (Me. 1979) (“a parent, or guardian, cannot release the child’s or ward’s, cause of action.”); Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1, 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989); Woodman v. Kera, LLC, 280 Mich. App. 125, 760 N.W.2d 641, 655-56 (Mich. Ct. App. 2008) (pre-injury waivers effectuated by parents on behalf of their minor children are not presumptively enforceable); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F.Supp. 20, 24 (E.D. Penn. 1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release the claims or potential claims of a minor child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex. App. 1993) (statute which empowered parents to make legal decisions concerning their child did not give parents power to waive child’s cause of action for personal injuries); Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 11-12 (Wash. 1992) (“A parent does not have legal authority to waive a child’s own future cause of action for personal injuries resulting from a third party’s negligence”).4
4 Of the cases enforcing pre-injury releases executed by parents on behalf of minor children, most involve state-enacted legislation permitting such waiver or the minor’s participation in school-run or community-sponsored activities. See, e.g., Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 715 F.3d 867, 874 (10th Cir. 2013); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1564, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 649-50 (1990); BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714, 80 A.3d 345, 362 (Md. 2013); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 746-47 (Mass. 2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 205 (Ohio 1998).
These decisions have invalidated such agreements on the grounds that (1) parents have no [*13] such power, or (2) the agreements violate public policy. The underlying rationale employed by many is that courts, acting in the role as parens patriae, have a duty to protect minors. Oklahoma recognizes its duty to protect minor children. Baby F. v. Oklahoma County District Court, 2015 OK 24, P 23, 348 P.3d 1080, 1088. In Oklahoma, a parent or guardian may not settle a child’s claim without prior court approval. See 30 Okla. Stat. § 4-702 (“A guardian, with the approval of the court exercising jurisdiction in the suit or proceeding, may compromise and settle any claim made by, on behalf of or against the ward in such suit or proceeding.”). As aptly summarized by the Washington Supreme Court in Scott:
Since a parent generally may not release a child’s cause of action after injury, it makes little, if any, sense to conclude a parent has the authority to release a child’s cause of action prior to an injury. In situations where parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care and this is true regardless of when relinquishment of the child’s rights might occur.
Scott, 834 P.2d at 11-12 (emphasis added).
Based on the case law in Oklahoma and other jurisdictions, the Court is led to the conclusion [*14] that (1) Makenzie’s acknowledgment and execution of the Release is of no consequence and does not preclude her claims against Defendant, and (2) the Oklahoma Supreme Court would find that an exculpatory agreement regarding future tortious conduct, signed by parents on behalf of their minor children, is unenforceable. Accordingly, to the extent the Release purports to bar Makenzie’s own cause of action against Defendant, it is voidable. Plaintiffs correctly argue that commencement of this lawsuit constitutes a disaffirmance of the Release (see, e.g., Gage, supra; Ryan v. Morrison, 1913 OK 598, 40 Okla. 49, 135 P. 1049), and the contract is void ab initio. Grissom v. Beidleman, 1912 OK 847, P 8, 35 Okla. 343, 129 P. 853, 857 (“The disaffirmance of a contract made by an infant nullifies it and renders it void ab initio; and the parties are returned to the same condition as if the contract had never been made.”). The ratification signed by Makenzie’s parents is likewise unenforceable as a bar to Makenzie’s claims. The Release, however, is otherwise conspicuous and clear so as to bar the parents’ cause of action based upon injury to their child. Therefore, Mrs. Wethington’s causes of action, individually, are barred.5
5 As noted, exculpatory clauses cannot excuse one for, inter alia, gross negligence. The statutory definition [*15] of gross negligence is “want of slight care and diligence.” 25 Okla. Stat. § 6. Under Oklahoma law, “gross negligence” requires the intentional failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of consequences or in callous indifference to life, liberty, or property of another. Palace Exploration Co. v. Petroleum Dev. Co., 374 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2004). Plaintiffs expressly plead in their Complaint only causes of action for negligence and breach of contract. Moreover, although Plaintiffs’ Complaint seeks punitive damages based on Defendant’s alleged “gross, willful, and intentional acts,” Compl., P 8, Plaintiffs neither argue nor present any evidence indicating Defendant’s actions constituted anything beyond ordinary negligence.
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendant’s motion is granted as to Plaintiff Holly Wethington’s claims and denied as to Plaintiff Makenzie Wethington’s claim for negligence. Since the skydiving contract is rendered void ab initio by means of Makenzie’s lawsuit, her breach of contract claim cannot proceed as a matter of law.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 18th day of December, 2015.
/s/ Timothy D. DeGiusti
TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE