Diana Camire v. The Gunstock Area Commission
SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
166 N.H. 374; 97 A.3d 250; 2014 N.H. LEXIS 60
February 26, 2014, Argued
June 18, 2014, Opinion Issued
PRIOR HISTORY: [***1]
HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES
1. Appeal and Error–Questions Considered on Appeal–Questions Not Preserved, but Considered Ordinarily, an appellate court will not review arguments that were not timely raised before the trial court because trial forums should have an opportunity to rule on issues and to correct errors before they are presented to the appellate court, This rule, however, is not absolute. Preservation is a limitation on the parties to an appeal and not the reviewing court. [*375]
2. Torts–Defenses–Assumption of Risk The specification of “collisions with other skiers or other persons” in the enumerated categories of inherent risks in the statute regarding responsibilities of skiers and passengers plainly includes all person-to-person collisions. As the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire has concluded, the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute’s immunity provision could hardly be clearer: it identifies collisions with other skiers or other persons as one of the risks, dangers, or hazards which the skier assumes as a matter of law. It makes no exception for collisions with skiers who are violating the statute, nor does it except collisions with ski area employees, even when those employees are themselves violating the statute or otherwise conducting themselves in a negligent or reckless fashion. RSA 225-A:24, I.
3. Torts–Defenses–Assumption of Risk Based upon the plain language of the statute regarding responsibilities of skiers and passengers, the legislature intended to include, as a category of inherent risk, collisions with ski area employees, regardless of whether they were working at the time of the collision. Thus, when a snowboarder collided with an instructor who was snowboarding prior to his scheduled “lineup,” the statute barred her vicarious liability claims as a matter of law. RSA 225-A:24, I.
4. Torts–Defenses–Assumption of Risk The current statute regarding responsibilities of skiers and passengers does not limit the risks assumed to those enumerated therein. Thus, “collisions with other skiers or other persons” does not exclude collisions with ski area employees because the legislature did not specifically identify them as an inherent risk of skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and snowshoeing. RSA 225-A:24, I.
5. Appeal and Error–Questions Considered on Appeal–Particular Cases Because plaintiff did not develop an argument as to why the trial court erred by granting summary judgment to defendant on her direct negligence claim, the court declined to review it.
COUNSEL: McLaughlin Law Office, P.C., of Laconia (Emily F. McLaughlin on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.
Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A., of Manchester (Thomas Quarles, Jr. and Leigh S. Willey on the brief, and Mr. Quarles orally), for the defendant.
JUDGES: CONBOY, J. DALIANIS, C.J., and HICKS, LYNN, and BASSETT, JJ., concurred.
OPINION BY: CONBOY
[**252] Conboy, J. The plaintiff, Diana Martinez (formerly Diana Camire), appeals an order of the Superior Court (O’Neill, J.) granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, The Gunstock Area Commission (Gunstock), on the plaintiff’s claims for damages for negligence and recklessness. We affirm.
The following facts are drawn from the trial court’s order and the record, or are otherwise undisputed. On February 13, 2010, the plaintiff, a snowboarder, visited Gunstock’s ski and snowboard area. Posted on the wall of the ticket kiosk was a thirty-five inch by forty inch sign that recited, in part, the language of RSA 225-A:24 and also stated: “By purchasing and/or affixing a ticket to use our facilities, you are agreeing to accept, as a matter of law, all inherent risks of winter sports activities and agree not [*376] to sue Gunstock for NEGLIGENCE or any other [***2] legal claim.” (Bolding omitted.). See RSA 225-A:24 (2011) (outlining responsibilities of skiers and passengers). In addition, the back of the lift ticket purchased by the plaintiff included language stating that, as a condition of using the ski area, the purchaser or user of the ticket agreed to release Gunstock, and its employees and agents from any legal liability, including, but not limited to, claims for negligence.
Later that day, between 11:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., the plaintiff was injured when she was snowboarding on a ski trail and another snowboarder struck her from behind. The snowboarder was employed by Gunstock during the 2009-2010 season as a snowboard instructor. At the time of the collision, he was snowboarding prior to his scheduled 11:45 a.m. “lineup” in anticipation of a 12:00 p.m. lesson. The plaintiff alleges that she suffered injuries as a result of the collision.
The plaintiff sued Gunstock, asserting three counts based upon vicarious liability for the instructor’s alleged negligent and reckless conduct, and one count alleging that Gunstock was directly liable for negligently hiring, training, and supervising the instructor. The trial court granted Gunstock’s motion [***3] for summary judgment on all of the claims. This appeal followed.
[HN1] “In reviewing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, we consider the affidavits and other evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Candia Woods Golf Links, 161 N.H. 201, 203, 13 A.3d 268 (2010) (quotation omitted). “If our review of that evidence discloses no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, we will affirm the grant of summary judgment.” Id. (quotation omitted). We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Id.
On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the trial court erred by determining that the liability releases barred her claims “in the absence of some evidence that [she] expressly agreed to [the] exculpatory language.” She also contends that the trial court erred in finding that, as a matter of law, the instructor was not in Gunstock’s employ at the time of the collision. She further asserts that RSA 225-A:24, I, “does not bar recovery for [a ski area] operator’s negligent supervision of its employees and the negligence of its agents in violation of their [***4] duties as employees.”
The defendant disputes the plaintiff’s contention that the releases do not preclude its liability and that the instructor was working at the time of the collision. The defendant further asserts that, even if the instructor had been “working at the time of the accident, because this accident was a skier-to-skier collision [–] an inherent [**253] risk of skiing, for which ski areas are immune [–] Gunstock would have immunity from [the plaintiff’s] claims.”
[*377]  We recognize that, in the trial court proceeding, neither party, nor the court, addressed the applicability of RSA 225-A:24, I, to the plaintiff’s claims. [HN2] Ordinarily, we will not review arguments that were not timely raised before the trial court, Baines v. N.H. Senate President, 152 N.H. 124, 128 (2005), because “trial forums should have an opportunity to rule on issues and to correct errors before they are presented to the appellate court,” Petition of Guardarramos-Cepeda, 154 N.H. 7, 9, 904 A.2d 609 (2006) (quotation omitted). This rule, however, is not absolute. Id. As we have previously recognized, preservation is a limitation on the parties to an appeal and not the reviewing court. Id. The issue of whether a ski area operator has statutory [***5] immunity under RSA 225-A:24, I, presents a question of law that, in this case, is dispositive of the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claims. Accordingly, in the interest of judicial economy, and because both parties addressed the issue during oral argument before this court, we will consider it. See id.
Whether RSA 225-A:24, I, precludes the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claims is a question of statutory interpretation. [HN3] “We are the final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole.” Martin v. Pat’s Peak, 158 N.H. 735, 738, 973 A.2d 333 (2009) (quotation omitted). “We first examine the language of the statute, and, where possible, we ascribe the plain and ordinary meanings to the words used.” Id. (quotation omitted). “Our goal is to apply statutes in light of the legislature’s intent in enacting them, and in light of the policy sought to be advanced by the entire statutory scheme.” Id. (quotation omitted).
RSA 225-A:24, I, provides, in pertinent part:
[HN4] Each person who participates in the sport of skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and snowshoeing accepts as a matter of law, the dangers inherent in the sport, and to that extent may not maintain [***6] an action against the operator for any injuries which result from such inherent risks, dangers, or hazards. The categories of such risks, hazards, or dangers which the skier or passenger assumes as a matter of law include but are not limited to the following: … collisions with other skiers or other persons . …
(Emphasis added.). The plaintiff argues that the statute does not bar her claims because “collisions with other skiers or other persons” does not include collisions with employees of the ski area operator.
[2, 3] Contrary to the plaintiff’s argument, [HN5] the specification of “collisions with other skiers or other persons” in the enumerated categories of inherent risks plainly includes all person-to-person collisions. Cf. LaChance v. U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., 156 N.H. 88, 94, 931 A.2d 571 (2007) (interpreting “any [*378] person injured” broadly within context of Consumer Protection Act). As the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire recently concluded:
the “plain and ordinary meaning” of the [statute’s] immunity provision could hardly be clearer: it identifies “collisions with other skiers or other persons” as one of the “risks, dangers, or hazards which the skier assumes as a [***7] matter of law.” It makes no exception for collisions with skiers who are violating the [statute], nor does it except collisions with ski area employees, even when those employees are themselves violating [**254] the [statute] or otherwise conducting themselves in a negligent or reckless fashion.
Hanus v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., No. 13-cv-44-JL, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52778, 2014 WL 1513232, at *3 (D.N.H. Apr. 16, 2014) (ellipsis omitted). If we were to conclude, as the plaintiff urges, that the legislature intended to exclude collisions with ski area employees, we would, in effect, be rewriting the statute. This we decline to do. See LaChance, 156 N.H. at 94. Thus, we hold that, [HN6] based upon the plain language of the statute, the legislature intended to include, as a category of inherent risk, collisions with ski area employees, regardless of whether they were working at the time of the collision.
The plaintiff relies upon Adie v. Temple Mt. Ski Area, 108 N.H. 480, 238 A.2d 738 (1968), to support her argument that a “ski area can be liable for an employee’s negligence, despite the existence of statutory immunity.” In Adie, we considered whether the statute barred “an action for negligent instruction against an operator who has undertaken [***8] to instruct skiers.” Adie, 108 N.H. at 482. We concluded that the statute did not bar recovery for a ski area operator’s negligence in ski instruction to a skier because “the statute does not regulate instruction in skiing by operators.” Id. at 483-84. We noted that “[i]f the Legislature had intended to bar skiers from actions against an operator for negligent instruction … , some regulation of their operations in th[is] area[ ] would have appeared in the statute.” Id. at 484. Here, unlike in Adie, the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claims allege injuries caused by a “collision[ ] with other skiers or other persons,” RSA 225-A:24, I; such claims are expressly addressed in the statute.
 Moreover, as we have previously explained, [HN7] the current statute “does not limit the risks assumed to those enumerated therein.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area, 146 N.H. 495, 498, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001); see RSA 225-A:24, I (risks, hazards, or dangers “include but are not limited to” enumerated items). Thus, we disagree with the plaintiff to the extent that she argues that “collisions with other skiers or other persons,” RSA 225-A:24, I, excludes [*379] collisions with ski area employees because the legislature did not specifically [***9] identify them as an inherent risk of skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and snowshoeing.
Accordingly, because RSA 225-A:24, I, bars the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claims as a matter of law, the trial court properly granted summary judgment to Gunstock on those claims. In light of our holding, we need not decide whether the instructor was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the collision or whether the claims are also barred by Gunstock’s liability releases.
 The final count of the plaintiff’s writ alleged negligence on the part of Gunstock in failing to properly hire, train, and supervise the instructor. Gunstock moved for summary judgment on this claim on the basis that the plaintiff could not establish a causal connection between her injury and the fact that the ski instructor worked for Gunstock. Although, on appeal, the plaintiff cites Trahan-Laroche v. Lockheed Sanders, 139 N.H. 483, 485, 657 A.2d 417 (1995), for the proposition that “[a]n employer may be directly liable for damages resulting from the negligent supervision of its employee’s activities,” she does not develop an argument as to why the trial court erred by granting summary judgment to the defendant on her [***10] direct negligence claim. As she has failed to brief this argument sufficiently for appellate review, we decline to review it. See Porter [**255] v. City of Manchester, 155 N.H. 149, 157, 921 A.2d 393 (2007); State v. Blackmer, 149 N.H. 47, 49, 816 A.2d 1014 (2003).
Dalianis, C.J., and Hicks, Lynn, and Bassett, JJ., concurred.
Brian Kopeikin, M.D., Plaintiff, vs. Moonlight Basin Management, LLC, D/B/A Moonlight Ba In Resort, Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA, BUTTE DIVISION
90 F. Supp. 3d 1103; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15348
February 9, 2015, Decided
February 9, 2015, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Kopeikin v. Moonlight Basin Mgmt., LLC, 981 F. Supp. 2d 936, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160390 (D. Mont., 2013)
CORE TERMS: skier, skiing, rock, snow, elkhorn, ski, track, cat, terrain, inherent dangers, summary judgment, ski area, hazard, reasonable care, mountain, sport, hit, injuries resulted, surface, slope, skis, visible, ski resort, disputed, safely, skied, unmarked, matter of law, entitled to judgment, legal responsibility
COUNSEL: [**1] For Brian Kopeikin, M.D., Plaintiff: Edward P. Moriarity, MORIARITY BADARUDDIN & BOOKE, LLC, Missoula, MT.
For Moonlight Basin Management, LLC doing business as Moonlight Basin Resort, Defendant: Ian McIntosh, LEAD ATTORNEY, CROWLEY FLECK, Bozeman, MT.
JUDGES: Dana L. Christensen, Chief United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Dana L. Christensen
Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons explained, the Court grants the motion.
Plaintiff Dr. Brian Kopeikin (“Kopeikin”) was injured in a skiing accident in Montana. Kopeikin is a resident of California. He brought this diversity action against Defendant Montana ski area operator Moonlight Basin Management, LLC (“Moonlight”) asserting a claim for negligence sounding in premises liability and a claim for negligent hiring, training, supervision and management.
Earlier in the litigation, Moonlight moved to dismiss the Complaint asserting that it failed to state a claim under Montana’s skier responsibility statute, Montana Code Annotated § 23-2-736, because even as alleged all of Kopeikin’s injuries resulted from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. The Court denied the motion.
Now before the Court is Moonlight’s motion for summary judgment, and a [**2] fully-developed record in which several of Kopeikin’s key allegations from the Complaint are conclusively rebutted. On this updated evidentiary record, the Court concludes that Moonlight acted consistent with its duty of reasonable care and that all of Kopeikin’s injuries resulted from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Accordingly, Moonlight is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and its motion for summary judgment is granted.
1 Defendant filed its motion for summary judgment on June 23, 2014, and Kopeikin responded on July 25, 2014. In accordance with Local Rule 56.1(b), Kopeikin simultaneously filed a separate Statement of Disputed Facts with his brief in opposition to the motion for summary judgment. Then, on the afternoon of January 28, 2015, less than 24 hours prior to a hearing on the motion, Kopeikin filed a document styled as a “Supplement to Statement of Disputed Facts.” (Doc. 41.) Kopeikin did not seek leave of Court to file the “Supplement,” and the filing is not contemplated by Local Rules. Indeed, it is contrary to the Local Rule’s requirement that a Statement of Disputed Facts be filed “simultaneously with” the brief in opposition. L.R. 56.1(b). The filing is untimely by [**3] at least six months, and Kopekin has not sought leave to file it. Accordingly, its contents are not considered for purposes of deciding this motion.
On February 5, 2012, Kopeikin and his skiing partner, Sven Rose, purchased lift tickets to ski Moonlight Basin ski resort. Near the ticket booth where Kopeikin purchased his ticket is a sign warning skiers of unmarked hazards. Kopeikin is a very experienced skier, having skied at several ski resorts throughout the Rocky Mountain West over the past 36 years, and he had seen similar signs at other ski resorts warning patrons of unmarked hazards. Kopeikin knew that the presence of rocks is common at ski areas in the Rocky Mountains, such as Moonlight, and he did not expect that all hazards at Moonlight would be marked.
Skiing conditions at Moonlight on February 5, 2012, were generally good, with [*1105] clear skies, calm winds, and temperatures near thirty-two degrees. However, it was a low snow coverage year, and Kopeikin acknowledges that prior to his accident he saw uncovered rocks on the sides of the ski runs. Rocks are prevalent at Moonlight.
After skiing several easier warm-up runs, Kopeikin and Rose decided to take the Six Shooter chairlift up [**4] the mountain in an effort to access an area of more challenging, expert terrain known as Headwaters. Upon learning that hiking was required to access the terrain, and due to their concern about a lack of sufficient snow coverage, the two men decided not to ski Headwaters.
Instead, Kopeikin and Rose decided to ski a run called “Elkhorn.” At the unloading area for the Six Shooter chairlift there is a sign identifying Elkhorn as a black diamond, or “most difficult,” run. (Doc. 21-9; 30-7.) To access Elkhorn, Kopeikin and Rose began by skiing on an intermediate run called “Fast Lane.” On Fast Lane, there were plainly visible rocks above the snow surface that Kopeikin admits that he likely saw.
The two then approached the entrance to Elkhorn. Immediately before the entrance to Elkhorn, there is a sign indicating, again, that Elkhorn is designated a black diamond, or “most difficult,” run. (Doc. 21-13.) Kopeikin and Rose skied past this sign and onto Elkhorn. At this point, the terrain steepened and narrowed, and the ski run was occupied by obstacles such as moguls and snowdrifts.2 As Kopeikin began skiing down Elkhorn, plainly visible grass and rocks could be seen poking through the snow on [**5] the side of the run.
2 A snowdrift, or wind drift, is defined as “a heap of snow piled up by the wind.” Webster’s New World Dictionary (4th Ed., Wiley Publishing 2002). In his deposition, Kopeikin referred to the snowdrifts as “drift lumps.” (Doc. 25-4 at 93.)
Approximately 200 yards below the entrance of Elkhorn, there is an area where a cat track, or its remains, crosses Elkhorn. In 2007, after determining the cat track was not being used regularly, Moonlight removed the edges of the cat track where it crossed Elkhorn in an attempt to return the slope to its natural condition. The cat track, or what remains of it, partially obscures the terrain immediately below it.
Rose skied in front of Kopeikin and successfully navigated the cat track and the terrain immediately below it. Kopeikin estimates that he was skiing behind Rose at approximately 10 to 15 miles per hour. Kopeikin “came over the cat track and absorbed it and when [his] skis touched down both hit rocks,” and he was ejected from his skis. (Doc. 25-4 at 120.) He fell forward and landed in other rocks that were either visible or buried under the snow. As a result of his fall, Kopeikin suffered serious and disabling injuries that [**6] necessitated extensive medical care and treatment.
Kopeikin testified that he “would not have fallen because of the cat track,” id. at 124:1-2, but fell because his “skis hit rocks.” Id. at 124:2-3. The particular rock that caused him to be ejected from his ski was one that he could not see because it was under the snow and was “something you had to penetrate and hit with a little force.” Id. at 146:14-15.
From 2003, when Moonlight opened, through the end of the 2012 ski season, Moonlight had approximately 700,000 skier visits. Other than Kopeikin’s accident, there have been no other reported accidents due to rocks in the location of the subject accident.3
3 Kopeikin disputes whether any other accidents had been reported at the location of his accident, but he presents no contrary evidence. In an effort to show that the fact is disputed, Kopeikin cites to the Court three incident reports involving skiing or snowboarding accidents on the Elkhorn run generally. These include: (1) a 2013 accident that occurred somewhere on Elkhorn in which a woman with “no vision on one side” bumped into her daughter on her blind side and fell, (Doc. 25-11 at 3); (2) a 2011 accident in which a snowboarder “was [**7] going down of [sic] the second hill of elkhorn [and] rolled forward,” (Doc. 25-9 at 2-3.); and (3) a 2008 accident that occurred on the “left side on skiers L of Lower Elkhorn” in which a snowboarder “caught [his] edge on ice [and] fell forward,” (Doc. 25-10 at 2-3). None of these accident appear to have occurred at the location of Kopeikin’s accident, and all of them are, in any case, of such dissimilar nature as to be immaterial to the Court’s analysis.
[*1106] Legal Standard
A party is entitled to summary judgment if it can demonstrate that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Summary judgment is warranted where the documentary evidence produced by the parties permits only one conclusion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit will preclude entry of summary judgment; factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary to the outcome are not considered. Id. at 248. In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Id. at 255. The “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s [**8] position” is insufficient to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252.
In this diversity action, the Court applies Montana substantive law. Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 79, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938).
Pursuant to Montana statute, “[a] skier shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(4). The “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” are statutorily defined as “those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing,” including in pertinent part:
. . .
(b) snow conditions as they exist or as they may change, . . .
. . .
(d) collisions with natural surface or subsurface conditions, such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps . . . and other natural objects;
. . .
(f) variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or the result of slope design, snowmaking, or snow grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, ski jumps, catwalks,4 and other terrain modifications.
Id. at § 702(2).
4 Consistent with its Order of November 7, 2013, the Court interprets the term “catwalk” to be synonymous with the term “cat track.” No objection to this interpretation has been raised by the parties. [**9]
Under Montana statute, “[a] skier has the duty to ski at all times in a manner that avoids injury to the skier and others and to be aware of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Id. at § 736(1). Additionally, Montana statute requires a skier to “know the range of the skier’s ability and safely ski within the limits of that ability . . . so as to negotiate any section of terrain or ski slope and trail safely and [*1107] without injury or damage.” Id. at 736(2)(a). A skier is also statutorily required to “know that the skier’s ability may vary because of ski slope and trail changes caused by weather, grooming changes, or skier use.” Id.
A ski area operator must act “consistent with the duty of reasonable care owed by a ski area operator to a skier.” Id. at § 733. Montana’s skier responsibility statutes cannot be read to immunize ski resorts from their own negligent or intentional acts, because such an interpretation would violate Montana’s constitution. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc., 264 Mont. 465, 872 P.2d 782, 788 (Mont. 1994). However, the stated purpose of Montana’s skier responsibility statutes is to “discourage claims based on damages resulting from the inherent risks of skiing.” Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-731.
In ruling on Defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Court articulated an interpretation of Montana’s skier [**10] responsibility statutes that harmonizes the definition of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing with the requirement that a ski area operator act consistent with its duty of reasonable care. In so doing, the Court rejected the notion that a court’s only role in ski area liability cases is to inquire whether the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from a collision with a particular object appearing on the statutory list of inherent risks of skiing, because such an application would produce absurd results and render the statute unconstitutional. Kopeikin v. Moonlight Basin Management, LLC, 981 F.Supp.2d 936, 945 (D. Mont. 2013). At the same time, not every case involving hazards on a ski mountain presents a genuine dispute of fact appropriate for trial, and summary judgment will sometimes be appropriate. Id. at 943.
Ultimately, Montana’s skier responsibility statutes make clear that the duty of reasonable care owed by a ski area operator to a skier “must be viewed in the unique context of skiing.” Id. at 945. Skiing is a sport in which thrill-seeking skiers embrace its inherent dangers and risks. It is a sport that occurs on “a mighty mountain, with fluctuation in weather and snow conditions that constantly change.” Wright v. Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., 96 F.Supp. 786, 791 (D. Vt. 1951). “[A] ski area operator cannot be expected to expend all of its resources [**11] making every hazard or potential hazard safe, assuming such an end is even possible,” or desirable. Kopeikin, 981 F.Supp.2d at 946. “Ski areas encompass vast and unwieldy terrain and mother nature is always at play.” Id. The act of skiing in such terrain presents an obvious array of dangers to a skier, many of which the ski area operator has no duty to protect against under Montana law. Fundamentally, a skier bears much of the responsibility for avoiding injury to himself, which is a principal that is consistent with Montana law.
In this case, Kopeikin’s injuries resulted from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Without question, applying a plain language interpretation of Montana’s skier responsibility statutes leads to this conclusion. In snow conditions as they existed on February 4, 2012, Kopeikin skied over a variation in terrain and collided with a subsurface rock that caused him to fall and collide with other surface or subsurface rocks. Thus, the accident falls clearly within the definition of the inherent dangers and risks that are part of the sport of skiing. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-701(2)(b)(d)&(f). Furthermore, Kopeikin failed to negotiate the terrain safely and without injury. Notwithstanding his years of experience and expertise, [**12] he failed to ski in manner that avoided injury to himself and to be aware of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. See id. at § 23-2-736. Accordingly, so long as Moonlight [*1108] acted consistent with its duty of reasonable care owed to Kopeikin, Kopeikin must accept all legal responsibility for his injuries. Id. at § 23-2-736(4).
It is clear that Moonlight acted consistent with its duty of reasonable care as a ski area operator with respect to Kopeikin. Moonlight warned generally of unmarked hazards. It posted multiple signs designating the run on which Kopeikin was injured a black diamond, or most difficult, run. With respect to the cat track, Moonlight had taken efforts to remove it and return the slope back to its natural condition.
Kopeikin did not suddenly and blindly encounter an unmarked cat track. Rather, Kopeikin admits that what remained of the cat track could be clearly seen from above. Also, the rocks that Kopeikin collided with, like all of the rocks on the Elkhorn run, were naturally occurring. Without citation to any record evidence, Kopeikin asks the Court to infer that some of the rocks in the area where he fell unnaturally accumulated there through the process of removing the cat track back [**13] in 2007. The record evidence, however, establishes the opposite — the process of removing the cat track reduced the number of rocks in the area because many of the rocks were covered up during the cat track removal process.
Furthermore, with over 700,000 skier visits, there had never been another reported accident at the location of Kopeikin’s accident caused by a collision with rocks. According to Kopeikin, the rock that he hit with his skis, which caused him to fall, was buried under the snow and “was something you had to penetrate and hit with a little force and then it was there.” (Doc. 25-4 at 147.) Thus, Kopeikin’s theory that Moonlight had a duty to warn of these specific rocks, is undermined by this specific accident’s unforeseeability, despite the fact that accidents of this general nature were foreseeable to skiers that were skiing on the mountain in low snow conditions. To impose a duty on Moonlight to mark or remove all submerged rocks, which are not readily visible, would be to require Moonlight to undertake an impossibility.
Kopeikin himself recognized that it was a low snow year. He had seen other rocks on other runs prior to skiing Elkhorn. He elected not to ski Headwaters [**14] in part because there was “no snow.” (Doc. 25-4 at 90.) He rightly did not expect that all hazards on the mountain would be marked. On Elkhorn, rocks and grass were plainly visible. When he approached the area of Elkhorn where the remains of the cat track obscured the terrain immediately below, he did not stop and assess what was below.
It is clear that Montana’s skier responsibility statutes apply to these facts, that Kopeikin encountered the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, and that he must therefore accept all legal responsibility for his injuries and damages. As was eloquently stated by Judge Gibson in granting a directed verdict for the defendant ski area operator against a claim by a plaintiff injured when her skis unexpectedly hit a tree stump buried under the snow:
Skiing is a sport; a sport that entices thousands of people; a sport that requires an ability on the part of the skier to handle himself or herself under various circumstances of grade, boundary, mid-trail obstructions, corners and varied conditions of the snow. Secondly, it requires good judgment on the part of the skier and recognition of the existing circumstances and conditions. Only the skier knows his own [**15] ability to cope with a certain piece of trail. Snow, ranging from powder to ice, can be of infinite kinds. Breakable crust may be encountered where soft snow is expected. [*1109] Roots and rocks may be hidden under a thin cover. A single thin stubble of cut brush can trip a skier in the middle of a turn. Sticky snow may follow a fast running surface without warning. Skiing conditions may change quickly. What was, a short time before, a perfect surface with a soft cover on all bumps may fairly rapidly become filled with ruts, worn spots and other manner of skier created hazards.
Wright, 96 F.Supp. at 790-91 (emphasis added).
The Montana Legislature has recognized these truths about skiing and codified them, so that a skier has a duty to ski safely and within his abilities, and accepts all responsibility for injuries resulting from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Because Kopeikin’s injuries resulted only from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and because Moonlight did not breach its duty of reasonable care, Moonlight is entitled to judgment as matter of law.
IT IS ORDERED that Moonlight’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 20) is GRANTED. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that all other motions are DENIED AS MOOT. The [**16] clerk shall enter judgment in favor of Defendant and against Plaintiff. This case is CLOSED.
Dated this 9th day of February 2015.
/s/ Dana L. Christensen
Dana L. Christensen, Chief District Judge
United States District Court
Karlsberg v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., 131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746Posted: November 16, 2015
David Karlsberg, appellant, v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., doing business as Hunter Mountain, respondent. (Index No. 38816/11)
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT
131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746
September 23, 2015, Decided
COUNSEL: [*1] The Berkman Law Office, LLC, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Robert J. Tolchin and Meir Katz of counsel), for appellant.
Carol A. Schrager, New York, N.Y. (Beth A. Willensky of counsel), for respondent.
JUDGES: JOHN M. LEVENTHAL, J.P., THOMAS A. DICKERSON, SHERI S. ROMAN, SYLVIA O. HINDS-RADIX, JJ. LEVENTHAL, J.P., ROMAN, and HINDS-RADIX, JJ., concur.
[***746] DECISION & ORDER
In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, the plaintiff appeals, as limited by his brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Pastoressa, J.), entered March 24, 2014, as, upon reargument, adhered to a prior determination in an order of the same court dated December 3, 2012, granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.
ORDERED that the order entered March 24, 2014, is affirmed insofar as appealed from, with costs.
On March 19, 2011, the plaintiff sought beginner snowboarding lessons at the defendant’s facility, and signed an “Equipment Rental Form and Release of Liability” that provided, among other things, that
“all disputes arising under this contract and/or the use of this equipment and/or the use of the facilities [*2] at Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, shall be litigated exclusively in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Greene, or in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.”
In December 2011, the plaintiff commenced this action in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, alleging that an instructor employed by the defendant failed to provide him with proper instruction, causing him to sustain injuries while snowboarding at the defendant’s facility. In September 2012, the defendant moved, inter alia, pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.
Upon reargument, the Supreme Court properly adhered to its original determination [***747] granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County. Contrary to the plaintiff’s contentions, the “Equipment Rental Form and Release of Liability” was not an unenforceable contract of adhesion, and enforcement of the forum selection clause contained therein does not [**2] contravene public policy (see Molino v Sagamore, 105 AD3d 922, 923, 963 N.Y.S.2d 355; KMK Safety Consulting, LLC v Jeffrey M. Brown Assoc., Inc., 72 AD3d 650, 651, 897 N.Y.S.2d 649; LSPA Enter., Inc. v Jani-King of N.Y., Inc., 31 AD3d 394, 395, 817 N.Y.S.2d 657). Contrary to the plaintiff’s additional contention, the defendant’s motion was timely, inasmuch as it was [*3] made within a reasonable time after the commencement of the action (see CPLR 511[a]; Medina v Gold Crest Care Ctr., Inc., 117 AD3d 633, 634, 988 N.Y.S.2d 578; Bonilla v Tishman Interiors Corp., 100 AD3d 673, 953 N.Y.S.2d 870).
LEVENTHAL, J.P., ROMAN, and HINDS-RADIX, JJ., concur.
CONCUR BY: DICKERSON
DICKERSON, J., concurs in the result, on constraint of Molino v Sagamore (105 AD3d 922, 963 N.Y.S.2d 355), with the following memorandum:
I vote with the majority on constraint of this Court’s precedent, but I write separately to express my view that the better rule is one where forum selection clauses are not to be enforced if they are shown to consumers for the first time upon their arrival at a resort.
In Molino, the injured plaintiff made a reservation to stay as a guest at a resort in Warren County (see id.). Upon arrival, and while registering for the stay, the injured plaintiff signed a document, entitled “Rental Agreement,” containing a provision stating that “if there is a claim or dispute that arises out of the use of the facilities that results in legal action, all issues will be settled by the courts of the State of New York, Warren County” (id.). After the injured plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell on the resort’s property, she, and her husband suing derivatively, commenced an action against the resort in the Supreme Court, Queens County (see id.). This Court held that the Supreme [*4] Court should have granted the defendant’s motion pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Queens County to Warren County, concluding that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that: (1) enforcement of the forum selection clause would be unreasonable, unjust, or would contravene public policy; (2) the clause was invalid because of fraud or overreaching; or (3) a trial in the selected forum of Warren County would, for all practical purposes, deprive them of their day in court (see id. at 923).
In so holding, the Molino Court cited Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v Shute (499 U.S. 585, 111 S. Ct. 1522, 113 L. Ed. 2d 622) for the proposition that “the fact that the Rental Agreement containing the forum selection clause was presented to the plaintiffs at registration and was not the product of negotiation does not render it unenforceable” (Molino v Sagamore, 105 AD3d at 923). In Carnival Cruise Lines, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit erred in refusing to enforce a forum selection clause contained on the face of cruise tickets issued to the plaintiffs in that case. However, the United States Supreme Court noted that it did not “address the question of whether [the plaintiffs] [***748] had sufficient notice of the forum selection clause before [*5] entering the contract for passage” (Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v Shute, 499 US at 590) because the plaintiffs had essentially conceded that they had notice of the forum selection provision and the Ninth Circuit had evaluated the enforceability of the forum clause under the assumption, although ” doubtful,'” that the passengers could be deemed to have knowledge of the clause (id., quoting Shute v Carnival Cruise Lines, 897 F2d 377, 389 n 11 [9th Cir]).
In Sun Trust Bank v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd. (184 F Supp 2d 1246 [SD Fla]) and Foster v Sun Intl. Hotels, Ltd. (2002 WL 34576251, 2002 US Dist LEXIS 28475 [SD Fla, No. 01-1290-CIV]), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida concluded that forum selection clauses set forth in reservation forms that were not shown to consumers until they arrived at a resort were unenforceable because the consumers were not given an adequate opportunity to consider the clause and reject their contracts with the resort (see Foster v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd., 2002 WL 34576251, *1, 2002 US Dist LEXIS 28475 *3-4; Sun Trust Bank v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd., 184 F Supp 2d at 1261-1262). Similarly, in Ward v Cross Sound Ferry (273 F3d 520 [2d Cir]), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a contractual statute of limitations clause set forth in a ticket issued to a cruise passenger just minutes before she boarded a ship, and then collected at boarding, was not enforceable because the circumstances did not permit the passenger to become meaningfully informed of the contractual terms at stake (see id. at 523-526). By contrast, where forum selection clauses have been sent [*6] to consumers or travel agents prior to the [**3] consumer’s arrival at the subject resort, or where consumers had visited the subject resort on previous occasions and signed forms containing similar forum selection clauses, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has found that the clauses were reasonably communicated to the consumers and, thus, enforceable (see McArthur v Kerzner Intl. Bahamas Ltd., 607 Fed. Appx. 845, 2015 WL 1404409, *1-2, 2015 US App LEXIS 5058, *6-7 [11th Cir, No. 14-138897]; Pappas v Kerzner Intl. Bahamas Ltd., 585 Fed Appx 962, 965-966 [11th Cir]; Estate of Myhra v Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 695 F3d 1233, 1246 [11th Cir]; Krenkel v Kerzner Intl. Hotels Ltd., 579 F3d 1279, 1282 [11th Cir]).
While I believe that the federal cases discussed above set forth the better rule, the doctrine of stare decisis dictates that we follow our prior decision in Molino, which is factually indistinguishable from this case in all relevant respects (see Matter of State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v Fitzgerald, 25 NY3d 799, 2015 NY Slip Op 05626 ; Eastern Consol. Props. v Adelaide Realty Corp., 95 NY2d 785, 788, 732 N.E.2d 948, 710 N.Y.S.2d 840). Accordingly, I agree with the majority that the subject forum selection clause was enforceable, notwithstanding the fact that it was shown to the plaintiff for the first time upon his arrival at the defendant’s facility. I also agree with the majority’s other conclusions, and that, upon reargument, the Supreme Court properly adhered to its prior determination granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.
Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584Posted: November 8, 2015
April Dodge, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, and Michael Quinn, Defendants-Petitioners.
APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIFTH DISTRICT
2015 IL App (5th) 140124-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1584
July 14, 2015, Decision Filed
NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(E)(1).
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 13-L-238. Honorable Barbara L. Crowder, Judge, Presiding.
Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 2014 Ill. LEXIS 1270, 387 Ill. Dec. 513, 22 N.E.3d 1166 (Ill., 2014)
JUDGES: JUSTICE SCHWARM delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Welch and Moore concurred in the judgment.
OPINION BY: SCHWARM
[*P1] Held: Appellate court declines to answer the certified question and remands to the trial court to hear evidence to determine whether exculpatory agreement is between the public and one charged with a duty of public service, i.e., a common carrier, and therefore unenforceable.
[*P2] The plaintiff, April Dodge, filed the instant suit seeking recovery for injuries she sustained while riding on an aerial zip line course designed and operated by defendant Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC (Grafton Zipline), by which defendant Michael Quinn is employed. The circuit court certified a question after denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
[*P4] In her first amended complaint filed on May 3, 2013, the plaintiff alleged that Grafton Zipline operated an aerial zip line course in which paying guests, riding from one elevated platform to another, were guided over a series of suspended wire cable runs. The plaintiff alleged that [**2] “guests [we]re outfitted with a harness and pulley system which attache[d] to the suspended cables and which in theory allow[ed] them to control their speed by braking on descents.” The plaintiff alleged that on the eighth run of the zip line course, the plaintiff’s braking system failed to slow her descent, she approached the landing platform at a high rate of speed, and she violently struck the trunk of the tree on which the landing platform was mounted, fracturing her right heel bone.
[*P5] In count I, the plaintiff alleged that Grafton Zipline was a common carrier that breached its duty of care by negligently designing and operating its course, intentionally or recklessly violated the safety regulations promulgated by the Illinois Department of Labor (56 Ill. Adm. Code 6000.350 (2013)), and thereby engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. In count II, the plaintiff claimed that Quinn, a tour guide for Grafton Zipline, was negligent in instructing the plaintiff, in inspecting and maintaining the braking system, and in failing to prevent the plaintiff from colliding with the tree. The plaintiff also alleged willful and wanton misconduct against Quinn.
[*P6] On June 7, 2013, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2012)), the defendants [**3] filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s first amended complaint on the basis that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by an exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff prior to her participation in the zip line activity. In the agreement, the plaintiff agreed to release the defendants from liability for injury, disability, death, or loss or damage to persons or property, whether caused by negligence or otherwise.
[*P7] In the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in opposition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff asserted that the defendants’ exculpatory agreement was unenforceable. The plaintiff asserted that zip line courses are common carriers under Illinois law, and as such, they cannot exempt themselves from liability for their own negligence.
[*P8] On November 1, 2013, the circuit court held that exculpatory clauses were unenforceable against plaintiffs injured by the ordinary negligence of a common carrier. The circuit court noted that when parties disagree as to whether a defendant is a common carrier, the question becomes a controverted question of fact to be determined after considering evidence. However, the circuit court found that the pleadings before it alleged sufficient [**4] facts to establish that the defendants were common carriers, in that zip lines fell within the definition of amusement rides pursuant to the Illinois Carnival and Amusement Rides Safety Act (430 ILCS 85/2-2 (West 2012)) and were akin to merry-gorounds or other amusement rides that had been held to be common carriers. The circuit court thereby denied the defendants’ section 2-619 motion to dismiss based on the exculpatory clause but also stated that “questions of fact remain as to whether [d]efendants *** are within the definition of common carriers.”
[*P9] On March 6, 2014, the circuit court, pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010), entered its order certifying the following question for appeal:
“Is an exculpatory agreement signed by a participant on a zip[ ]line course, that released the zip[ ]line operator and its employees from their own negligence, enforceable to bar the participant’s suit for negligence, or is the zip[ ]line course a common carrier such that the exculpatory agreement is unenforceable?”
[*P10] On March 20, 2014, the defendants filed an application for permissive interlocutory appeal, which we denied on April 21, 2014. On September 24, 2014, however, the Illinois Supreme Court directed this court to vacate its judgment denying [**5] the defendants’ application for leave to appeal and directed us to grant such application. Dodge v. Grafton Zipline Adventures, LLC, 387 Ill. Dec. 513, 22 N.E.3d 1166 (Ill. 2014). On November 5, 2014, per the supreme court’s supervisory order and pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308, we thereafter allowed the defendants’ permissive interlocutory appeal.
[*P12] On appeal, the defendants argue that the exculpatory agreement signed by the plaintiff bars her negligence claims and that the exculpatory agreement is enforceable because Grafton Zipline is not a common carrier. The plaintiff counters that the circuit court’s certified question is not ripe for determination because there are unresolved questions of fact regarding whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier. We agree with the plaintiff.
[*P13] “The scope of review in an interlocutory appeal brought under [Illinois Supreme Court] Rule 308 is limited to the certified question.” Spears v. Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 2013 IL App (4th) 120289, ¶ 15, 986 N.E.2d 216, 369 Ill. Dec. 267. “A reviewing court should only answer a certified question if it asks a question of law and [should] decline to answer where the ultimate disposition ‘will depend on the resolution of a host of factual predicates.’ [Citations.]” Id. “A certified question pursuant to Rule 308 is reviewed de novo.” Id.
[*P14] An exculpatory [**6] clause is a contractual provision that excuses the defaulting party’s liability. See Black’s Law Dictionary 648 (9th ed. 2009) (defining an exculpatory clause as “a contractual provision relieving a party from liability resulting from a negligent or wrongful act”); McKinney v. Castleman, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14, 968 N.E.2d 185, 360 Ill. Dec. 106 (exculpatory agreement involves express assumption of risk wherein one party consents to relieve another of a particular obligation). “Courts disfavor such agreements and construe them strictly against the benefitting party, particularly one who drafted the release.” McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14. “Nevertheless, contracting parties are free to ‘allocate the risk of negligence as they see fit, and exculpatory agreements do not violate public policy as a matter of law.'” Id. (quoting Evans v. Lima Lima Flight Team, Inc., 373 Ill. App. 3d 407, 412, 869 N.E.2d 195, 311 Ill. Dec. 521 (2007)).
[*P15] Accordingly, if a valid exculpatory clause clearly applies, and in the absence of fraud or willful and wanton negligence, courts will enforce it unless “‘(1) it would be against a settled public policy of the State to do so, or (2) there is something in the social relationship of the parties militating against upholding the agreement.'” McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14 (quoting Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 548, 519 N.E.2d 917, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988)). Exculpatory agreements between the public and those charged with a duty of public service, such as those involving a common [**7] carrier, an innkeeper, a public warehouseman, or a public utility, have been held to be unenforceable as contrary to public policy. McKinney, 2012 IL App (4th) 110098, ¶ 14; Johnson v. Salvation Army, 2011 IL App (1st) 103323, ¶ 19, 957 N.E.2d 485, 354 Ill. Dec. 169; White v. Village of Homewood, 256 Ill. App. 3d 354, 358-59, 628 N.E.2d 616, 195 Ill. Dec. 152 (1993). Courts have alternatively recognized that exculpatory agreements between common carriers and passengers are unenforceable because of the special social relationship of a semipublic nature that permeates the transaction between the parties. See McClure Engineering Associates, Inc. v. Reuben Donnelley Corp., 101 Ill. App. 3d 1109, 1111, 428 N.E.2d 1151, 57 Ill. Dec. 471 (1981); First Financial Insurance Co. v. Purolator Security, Inc., 69 Ill. App. 3d 413, 419, 388 N.E.2d 17, 26 Ill. Dec. 393 (1979) (“when an exculpatory provision is found invalid because of a special relationship between the parties, it is the semipublic nature of the party seeking to exculpate itself from liability that allows the court to invalidate the provision”).
[*P16] Thus, any contract by which a common carrier of goods or passengers undertakes to relieve itself from liability for loss or damage arising from its negligence or the negligence of its servants is void. Checkley v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 257 Ill. 491, 494, 100 N.E. 942 (1913); Simmons v. Columbus Venetian Stevens Buildings, Inc., 20 Ill. App. 2d 1, 17, 155 N.E.2d 372 (1958); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B cmt. g (1965) (“Where the defendant is a common carrier ***, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, and the agreement to assume the risk relates to the defendant’s performance of any part of that duty, it is well settled that it will not be given effect.”). “Having undertaken the duty to the public, which includes the obligation of reasonable care, [**8] [common carriers] are not free to rid themselves of their public obligation by contract, or by any other agreement.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B cmt. g (1965).
[*P17] An exculpatory contract, wherein a common carrier of goods or passengers undertakes to exempt itself from liability for negligence “if sustained, would relieve the carrier from its essential and important duties to the public growing out of the character of its employment, and tend to defeat the foundation principle on which the law of common carriers is based; that is, the securing of the highest care and diligence in the performance of the important duties due to the public.” Checkley, 257 Ill. at 494; see also Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17. “The heightened status afforded to common carrier[ ] *** relationships is based on the protection of the public ***.” Zerjal v. Daech & Bauer Construction, Inc., 405 Ill. App. 3d 907, 912, 939 N.E.2d 1067, 345 Ill. Dec. 887 (2010); see also Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17 (“It has been said if there is any general reason for the rule to be deduced from the passenger cases, it is that the public service consideration alone prevents contractual limitation of liability for negligence.”).
[*P18] In holding that a common carrier has a duty to exercise the highest degree of care consistent with the practical operation of its conveyances to protect its passengers (Rotheli v. Chicago Transit Authority, 7 Ill. 2d 172, 177-78, 130 N.E.2d 172 (1955); Browne v. Chicago Transit Authority, 19 Ill. App. 3d 914, 917, 312 N.E.2d 287 (1974)), courts have considered the “‘unique control [a common [**9] carrier] possesses over its passengers’ safety.'” Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority, 391 Ill. App. 3d 663, 666, 909 N.E.2d 887, 330 Ill. Dec. 865 (2009) (quoting Sheffer v. Springfield Airport Authority, 261 Ill. App. 3d 151, 154, 632 N.E.2d 1069, 198 Ill. Dec. 458 (1994)); see also O’Callaghan v. Dellwood Park Co., 242 Ill. 336, 345, 89 N.E. 1005 (1909) (“If the injury of a passenger is caused by apparatus wholly under the control of a carrier and furnished and managed by it, and the accident is of such a character that it would not ordinarily occur if due care is used, the law raises a presumption of negligence.”). “Common carriers are charged with the highest duty of care when transporting passengers because passengers must wholly rely upon a common carrier’s proper maintenance and safe operation of its equipment during passage.” Sheffer, 261 Ill. App. 3d at 156. “[C]ommon carriers are responsible for their patrons’ physical safety for which there is no second chance if a mistake should occur.” Zerjal, 405 Ill. App. 3d at 912.
[*P19] In determining whether a defendant is a common carrier that owes the highest degree of care in transporting its passengers, the courts have characterized the following as common carriers: owners of buildings with elevators (Rotheli, 7 Ill. 2d at 177); a scenic railway at an amusement resort, where “steep inclines, sharp curves, and great speed necessarily are sources of peril” (O’Callaghan, 242 Ill. at 344); a merry-go-round (Arndt v. Riverview Park Co., 259 Ill. App. 210, 216-17 (1930)); a taxicab (Metz v. Yellow Cab Co., 248 Ill. App. 609, 612 (1928)); and a Ferris wheel (Pajak v. Mamsch, 338 Ill. App. 337, 341, 87 N.E.2d 147 (1949)).
[*P20] In finding that an escalator was not a common carrier, the Illinois Supreme Court in Tolman found [**10] it significant that a person on an escalator may actively participate in the transportation in a manner similar to the use of a stairway and may contribute to his own safety. Tolman v. Wieboldt Stores, Inc., 38 Ill. 2d 519, 526, 233 N.E.2d 33 (1967). The court noted that the role of a passenger on a train, bus, or elevator is a passive one, and ordinarily such a passenger cannot exercise any control over his own safety. Id. at 525. The court further held that the rule as to the higher duty one owning and operating an elevator owes to a passenger riding in same, who is injured through some defect in its operating mechanism, is predicated upon the fact that a person riding in an elevator cannot possibly know or show, if such elevator gets out of control, what caused it to do so. Id. at 524-25. The court noted that because the elevator owner was in sole control of the elevator and the machinery used in its operation, an inference of negligence on the part of said owner arose out of the circumstances. Id.; see also Lombardo v. Reliance Elevator Co., 315 Ill. App. 3d 111, 125, 733 N.E.2d 874, 248 Ill. Dec. 199 (2000) (because bank had full control of premises, it had the duties of common carrier owed to the plaintiff who suffered injuries when the lift he was riding suddenly fell); Carson v. Weston Hotel Corp., 351 Ill. App. 523, 532, 115 N.E.2d 800 (1953) (lessee in full control of the premises had the duties of a common carrier of elevator [**11] passengers).
[*P21] While proper solicitude for human safety requires a carrier of passengers not to diminish its liability to them, the relative bargaining power of the parties is also a factor. Simmons, 20 Ill. App. 2d at 17. In Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 43-44, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), the plaintiff sought to recover for injuries she suffered on a tour run where she rode a segway onto a small grassy hill, and it threw her off. The plaintiff signed a release before participating in the tour. Id. The plaintiff argued, however, that her social relationship with the defendant and its tour guide rendered the release unenforceable. Id. at 46. The court concluded, without analysis, that the defendant was not a common carrier. Id. Finding also that that there was no disparity of bargaining power because the plaintiff simply could have refused to join the tour if she had disagreed with the exculpatory clause, the court held that the exculpatory language of the release was enforceable. Id.
[*P22] Further, courts have distinguished between a common and a private carrier. “A common carrier, generally, is a carrier hired to carry any person who applies for passage as long as there is room available and there is no legal excuse for refusing.” Long v. Illinois Power Co., 187 Ill. App. 3d 614, 628, 543 N.E.2d 525, 135 Ill. Dec. 142 (1989). “Ordinarily, a common carrier must accept as a passenger [**12] any person offering himself or herself for passage at the proper time and in the proper manner and who is able and willing to pay the fare.” Id. “[A] common carrier may be liable for an unexcused refusal to carry all who apply.” Doe v. Rockdale School District No. 84, 287 Ill. App. 3d 791, 794, 679 N.E.2d 771, 223 Ill. Dec. 320 (1997). A common carrier is “obligated by law to undertake the charge of transportation, which none but a common carrier, without a special agreement, is.” Rathbun v. Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corp., 299 Ill. 562, 566, 132 N.E. 754 (1921).
[*P23] A common carrier holds himself out as such by advertising or by actually engaging in the business and pursuing the occupation as an employment. Id. at 567. The test to distinguish a common carrier from a private carrier is whether the carrier serves all of the public alike. Green v. Carlinville Community Unit School District No. 1, 381 Ill. App. 3d 207, 211, 887 N.E.2d 451, 320 Ill. Dec. 307 (2008); Illinois Highway Transportation Co. v. Hantel, 323 Ill. App. 364, 375, 55 N.E.2d 710 (1944). Again, common carriers necessarily have control and regulation of the passengers’ conduct and of the operation of the carriage before they can be held to the extraordinary liability of common carriers to such passengers. Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 567 (evidence that deceased contracted car by private contract and had control of car and driver revealed defendant was not common carrier but was liable only as private carrier for ordinary negligence).
[*P24] “Private carriers as ordinarily defined are those who, without being engaged in such business as a public employment, undertake [**13] to deliver goods or passengers in a particular case for hire or reward.” Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 566. A private carrier makes no public profession to carry all who apply for transport, transports only by special agreement, and is not bound to serve every person who may apply. Green, 381 Ill. App. 3d at 211; Rockdale School District No. 84, 287 Ill. App. 3d at 795.
[*P25] “Whether a particular transportation service is undertaken in the capacity of a private or of a common carrier must be determined by reference to the character of the business actually carried on by the carrier, and also by the nature of the service to be performed in the particular instance.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Long, 187 Ill. App. 3d at 630. When a plaintiff affirms and the defendant denies that the defendant is operating as a common carrier, the question becomes a controverted question of fact to be determined by a consideration of the evidence by the trial court. Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 566; Bare v. American Forwarding Co., 242 Ill. 298, 299, 89 N.E. 1021 (1909); Hantel, 323 Ill. App. at 374; Beatrice Creamery Co. v. Fisher, 291 Ill. App. 495, 497, 10 N.E.2d 220 (1937).
[*P26] Accordingly, we find that whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier is a question of fact, “dependent upon the nature of the business in which [it is] engaged, and [is] to be determined from a consideration of all of the evidence.” Beatrice Creamery Co., 291 Ill. App. at 497. In its order, the circuit court noted that questions of fact remained regarding whether Grafton Zipline is a common carrier. [**14] We agree and find this so with regard to the certified question. To determine whether the exculpatory clause is unenforceable on the basis that Grafton Zipline is a common carrier “charged with a duty of public service” the court must necessarily determine disputed factual issues. The court must determine whether Grafton Zipline had control and regulation of the passengers’ conduct and of the operation of the carriage (see Rathbun, 299 Ill. at 567 (evidence that deceased contracted car by private contract and had control of car and driver revealed defendant was not common carrier but was liable only as private carrier for ordinary negligence)); whether the plaintiff actively participated in the transportation and contributed to her own safety (Tolman, 38 Ill. 2d at 525-26 (because escalator allowed the plaintiff to actively participate in the transportation and allowed control over safety, escalator not common carrier); whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (see Hamer, 402 Ill. App. 3d at 43-44 (exculpatory clause enforceable where plaintiff could simply have refused to join the segway tour)); and whether Grafton Zipline made a profession to carry all who applied for carriage (see Browne v. SCR Medical Transportation Services, Inc., 356 Ill. App. 3d 642, 647, 826 N.E.2d 1030, 292 Ill. Dec. 594 (2005) (because medical transport van served only those individuals [**15] who met its eligibility requirements, could decline to serve anyone based on numerous factors such as location and availability of medical transport vans, made no profession to carry all who apply for carriage, and was not bound to serve every person who may apply, medical transport van was not a common carrier)). To answer the certified question before the circuit court has heard evidence on these matters would be premature. Thus, we decline to answer the certified question, and we remand the cause for further proceedings consistent with this order. See Dowd & Dowd, Ltd. v. Gleason, 181 Ill. 2d 460, 477, 693 N.E.2d 358, 230 Ill. Dec. 229 (1998).
[*P28] For the reasons stated, we decline to answer the certified question as its ultimate disposition depends on the resolution of multiple factual predicates. We remand the cause to the Madison County circuit court for further proceedings.
[*P29] Certified question not answered; cause remanded.
Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff, v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, and Corporate Challenge, Inc., d/b/a Adventure Más, Defendants.
Case No. 5:14-cv-200
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF VERMONT
July 20, 2015, Decided
July 21, 2015, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Amended by Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94592 (D. Vt., July 21, 2015)
CORE TERMS: arbitration, customer, ticket, adventure, arbitration clause, motorcycle, mutuality, summary judgment, exculpatory, zip-line, participating, wire, zip, guy, ski area–, arbitration provision, public policy, general public, ski, website, unconscionability, enforceability, unconscionable, recreational, arbitrate, sport, void, cable, enforceable, adhesion
COUNSEL: [*1] For Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff: Daniel L. Burchard, Esq., Thomas E. McCormick, McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard, P.C., Burlington, VT.
For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Defendant: Andrew A. Beerworth, Esq., Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.
For Corporate Challenge, Inc., doing business as Adventure Mas, Defendant: Heather Z. Cooper, Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.
For ENE Evaluator, ENE Evaluator: Michael J. Marks, Esq., MarksPowers LLP, Middlebury, VT.
For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Cross Claimant: Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.
For Corporate Challenge, Inc., Cross Defendant: Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.
JUDGES: Geoffrey W. Crawford, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Geoffrey W. Crawford
OPINION AND ORDER RE: DEFENDANT’S AND PLAINTIFF’S MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docs. 44, 46 & 52)
Plaintiff Joseph Littlejohn was severely injured while participating in an adventure zip-line course at Magic Mountain Ski Area in Londondeffy, Vermont on October 5, 2013. He claims that defendants negligently designed, constructed, and operated the course, leading to the [*2] accident which caused his injuries. Both Littlejohn and defendant TimberQuest Park at Magic, LLC (TimberQuest) have filed motions for summary judgment, seeking a determination regarding the enforceability of a liability waiver and arbitration provision signed by Littlejohn prior to participating in the course.
The following facts are undisputed for the purposes of summary judgment, except where otherwise noted. On October 5, 2013, Littlejohn was injured while traversing a self-guided aerial adventure course at Magic Mountain. At the time of his injury, Littlejohn was seventy-six years old. He had never participated in an adventure course before. Defendant TimberQuest operated the adventure course at the time of the incident. Defendant Corporate Challenge, Inc. d/b/a Adventure Mas designed and constructed the course.
The adventure course consists of a series of rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets and zip lines placed between elevated platforms constructed around trees and poles. Participants gradually gain elevation by climbing and traversing a series of uphill course elements and then return to the bottom of the course by sliding down a series of zip lines. Participants wear a [*3] climbing harness equipped with a “smart belay” system that is meant to keep them attached at all times to both a safety cable and a zip line cable. The “smart belay” system is intended to ensure that the participant is always attached to at least one of the cables.
The trees and poles which support the course platforms are stabilized by guy wires. These guy wires are anchored at one end to the tree or pole where a course platform is located and at the other end to another nearby tree or the ground.
On the day he visited, Littlejohn was equipped with a climbing harness and was instructed how to use the smart belay system’s dual carabiners. According to Littlejohn, he was not warned that there were guy wires on the course in addition to safety cables and zip line cables or that he should avoid clipping onto the guy wires.
Littlejohn climbed through the uphill course elements and began to descend on the zip lines. As he was preparing to descend one of the sections of the course, he mistook a guy wire for the zip line cable. He attached his smart belay to the guy wire and slid down the guy wire. At the bottom he ran into the tree which anchored the other end of the guy wire. He suffered severe [*4] injuries.
Littlejohn’s friend Miki Conn had purchased their tickets for the adventure course through TimberQuest’s website on September 12, 2013.
According to Littlejohn, TimberQuest’s website does not alert customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver prior to participating in the adventure course. Littlejohn alleges that neither Conn nor he was aware that they would have to sign a liability waiver until they arrived at TimberQuest three weeks later. At oral argument, counsel for both sides cleared up some confusion on this point: there is a notice on the website concerning the liability waiver, but it appears only at the point of purchase by the customer. A company other than TimberQuest provides the ticketing, reservation and credit card services. That company’s website includes a warning to customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver before they enter the course. Since Littlejohn’s counsel did not actually buy a ticket, he did not encounter this information in preparing his motion for summary judgment.
When they arrived at TimberQuest on October 5, Littlejohn and Conn were each presented with a document entitled “Release of Liability, Waiver [*5] of Claims, Indemnification, and Arbitration Agreement.” The agreement was presented to them in digital format on an electronic device and they were instructed to read and sign it electronically.
The agreement stated that the participant agreed to “waive all claims” and “assume all risks” arising from participating in programs at the adventure course, including claims arising from negligent acts or conduct of TimberQuest, and further agreed to release and indemnify TimberQuest from liability for any injury suffered by the participant while using the course. (Doc. 44-3 at 2.) Under the heading “Arbitration,” the agreement stated that:
The Participant … hereby agrees to submit any dispute arising from participation in the Programs, for which Participant intends to seek damages in excess of $75,000.00, to binding arbitration. . . . In the event that Participant . . . files a lawsuit in any court relating to, and/or arising from, Participant’s participation in the Programs, Participant . . . by signing this document, stipulate[s] to a cap on Participant’s damages of $75,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. As a threshold matter, the Panel, or the Court (if a lawsuit is filed), shall confirm whether [*6] the Waiver and Release contained in this Agreement are enforceable under applicable law. (Id.)
The agreement contains a severability clause stating that if any provision is invalidated, the remainder of the agreement will continue to be binding. Littlejohn signed the agreement prior to participating in the course.
On March 27, 2015, TimberQuest filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking a declaration that the $75,000 damages cap contained in the arbitration clause is enforceable against Littlejohn. (Doc. 44.) Littlejohn opposed the motion on the grounds that the damages cap violates public policy and is procedurally and substantively unconscionable. (Doc. 45.) Littlejohn filed a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking to have the waiver, assumption of risk, release and indemnity provisions of the agreement declared void and unenforceable as well. (Doc. 46.) In response, TimberQuest filed a cross-motion for summary judgment arguing that the agreement is enforceable and all of Littlejohn’s claims should be dismissed because he released TimberQuest from liability for negligence by signing the agreement. (Doc. 52.)
A. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate [*7] where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In considering a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
B. Enforceability of Provisions Regarding Waiver of Claims, Release, Assumption of Risks from Negligence, and Indemnity
The enforceability of a contract provision providing for the waiver of a customer’s claims for negligence arising out of recreational activities is a matter of Vermont law. It is governed by four Vermont Supreme Court cases which seek to define the circumstances under which a business may contract out of liability for its own negligent conduct.
The leading case remains Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (Vt. 1995), in which the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the exculpatory language in ski tickets issued by the Killington ski resort to its customers. The court reviewed the criteria announced by the California Supreme Court in Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963),1 and identified the longstanding rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises as the basis on which to strike the exculpatory provisions in the ticket. Dalury, 670 A.2d at 799. The decision [*8] recognized that the ski area–and not the skiers–had the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards and to reduce negligent conduct by its employees.
1 The Tunkl decision identified the following list of characteristics which may violate the public interest:
It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. Finally, [*9] as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.
Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46.
The Dalury decision did not depend upon a determination that skiing was an essential industry or service. “Whether or not [the ski resort] provide[s] an essential public service does not resolve the public policy question in the recreational sports context.” Id. Skiing is not like taking a cab or visiting the hospital–services for which there may be no substitute and which are necessary to everyday life. Rather, the decision rests upon two related principles: the business is open to the general public without regard to special training or ability and the premises owner is in the best position to assure the safety of visitors. These principles have remained unchanged in the cases which have followed Dalury.
The first was Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35, 37 (Vt. 1997), in which the exculpatory language used as a condition for entering an amateur ski race was not enforced for the same reasons the court had expressed two years before in Dalury. The dissent identified the fault line in the doctrine:
There is a significant difference between the expectations of the general [*10] public, which has a right to assume reasonable care on the part of the ski area operator, and a ski racer who consciously undertakes risks that he or she knows may strain or exceed the tolerance of any safety system.
Id. at 38 (Allen, C.J., dissenting). Over time this distinction between members of the general public and people engaging in high-risk sports would become more marked.
In Thompson v. Hi Tech Motor Sports, Inc., 183 Vt. 218, 945 A.2d 368, 372 (Vt. 2008), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of a liability waiver on public policy grounds.2 The case concerned a customer at a motorcycle dealership who was injured on her test ride. The court distinguished the policy concerns at issue in Dalury, explaining that “whereas public policy places the burden of maintaining safe premises on a landowner, public policy concerning motorcycle safety places the burden of safe driving on the operator of the motorcycle.” Id. The court also determined that motorcycle dealerships do not provide a necessary service. Id. at 373. In this respect, the case followed Dalury. In contrast to skiers, however, the customer operated the motorcycle on the public road. There were no business premises relevant to the case. The decision also compared motorcyclists to customers of skydive [*11] companies, underwater diving schools, and mountain guiding services–high-risk sports for people with special skills. Id. Further, unlike the ski area in Dalury, the motorcycle dealership only allowed licensed motorcycle drivers with sufficient experience and training to take its motorcycles out for a ride. Id.
2 Although the waiver provision was held not to be void on public policy grounds, the court concluded that the provision failed release the defendant from liability for negligence because the language was ambiguous. Id. at 375.
Finally, in Provoncha v. Vermont Motorcross Association, 185 Vt. 473, 974 A.2d 1261, 1267 (Vt. 2009), the exculpatory language for an off-road motorcycle racing club was enforced because the activities were “neither of great importance to the public nor open to the public at large.” The majority distinguished the case from Dalury because the premises where the accident occurred was a private racetrack open only to members of a small club of 300 members. Id. The general public was not permitted to ride. The decision also drew a parallel to the enforcement of similar provisions in cases involving parachute jumping, stock car racing, scuba diving, and mountaineering–all sports which were said not to be matters of legitimate public interest. Id.
All four [*12] cases call for a flexible case-specific analysis of the factors originally identified in the Dalury decision. Of these, the least significant is whether a recreational activity is necessary to society. Few of them are. Not surprisingly, skiing and motorcycle riding–the two activities which generated the four decisions–were both found to be inessential to daily life. The factors which were most consistently applied were whether the defendant was in control of the location where the injury occurred and whether these premises were open to the general public. When these factors are present–as in Dalury and Spencer–the exculpatory clauses are not enforced. When these factors are absent–as in Thompson and Provoncha–the exculpatory clauses are likely to be enforced.
The court is not persuaded by TimberQuest’s argument that the Dalury case is on its last legs and will not survive much longer. Although the result was different in Thompson and Provoncha, neither case suggested that any member of the Vermont Supreme Court sought to discard the rule announced in Dalury. Instead, the debate from both sides concerned the differences between activities open to the general public and the more risky [*13] pursuits of riding motorcycles, skydiving, scuba diving and mountaineering, all of which generally take place in settings that are not under the control of the business operators.
The remaining factors set out in Tunkl had no particular application in Dalury and the subsequent cases and have little in this case either. These include whether the activity is suitable for public regulation, whether the business enjoys unequal bargaining strength as a result of its essential nature, and whether the contract is one of adhesion. Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46. Although ski lifts are regulated, see 31 V.S.A. §§ 701-12, the downhill experience is not. Neither are rope courses or motorcycle races. Although a person who sought to negotiate the terms of his ski ticket or his adventure course ticket might not be admitted, in the absence of any necessity the customer can always walk away, which gives him or her some degree of economic strength. And all of the contracts involved in these cases–whether enforced or not–were preprinted contracts of adhesion which appeared on tickets and entrance forms.
Before leaving the Dalury factors, the court must consider one final factor which is heavily relied upon by the defendants. This factor arises from [*14] the language in Dalury that thousands of skiers visit Killington every day, 670 A.2d at 799, while only a few come to TimberQuest’s zip-line course. In the course of discovery, TimberQuest’s owner estimated that he has 1000 visitors a season–the number he put down on his worker’s compensation insurance application. (Doc. 52-6 at 3.) He does not actually have a real count. Assuming a 100-day season, this amounts to ten visitors each day or one or two visitors per hour. (The estimate may not be very reliable, but it is the only number in the record.) The defense argues that a small business which is open to the public should receive treatment which is different from a large business. Although the court has reviewed the language in the Dalury decision about the thousands of daily visitors, the court is not convinced that the size of the business alone plays a significant role in whether the exculpatory clause in the ticket should be enforced.
As this discussion indicates, the court is satisfied that attending a zip-line program is more like visiting a ski area than like taking part in a specialized high-risk sport which requires skill and experience. Like the ski area, the zip-line sells tickets to all [*15] comers (subject to age and weight restrictions not relevant here.) It requires no prior training. As an excerpt from the website furnished by defendant indicates, this is a recreational activity open to all without restriction:
TimberQuest is an exhilarating treetop adventure course for the entire family. We have over 20 zip lines and 75 challenges of varying difficulty. Challenges include rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets, and even a course for younger children. Customers are always clipped into a safety guide wire and friendly trained staff provide assistance from the ground. (Doc. 52-4 at 5.)
The course is designed and controlled by defendants. There is no indication in the record that anyone needs to learn to use the course beyond an initial training class offered at the park. (Doc. 52-4 at 14.) It is even more open to the public than skiing, which typically involves beginner’s lessons and some degree of acquired skill. The zip-line course requires no such training or skill.
This court’s decision to invalidate the exculpatory clause on public policy grounds falls within the principles laid down by the Vermont Supreme Court in Dalury and the later cases. It recognizes the longstanding [*16] rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises. It also recognizes the expectation that a recreational activity which is open to the general public will be reasonably safe for use by all users. In other words, the business cannot contract out of liability for negligence in the design, maintenance and operation of its business premises.
For these reasons, the court will not enforce the exculpatory language on the public policy grounds first identified in Dalury.
C. Assumption of Risk and Indemnity
Littlejohn seeks to invalidate the assumption-of-risk provision in the agreement. The court has already concluded that the first sentence of this provision, which states that by signing the agreement the participant agrees to assume all risks of participating in the adventure course including those caused by TimberQuest’s negligence, is invalid.
However, Littlejohn’s argument does not specifically address the second sentence of this provision, which states that “[t]he Participant … understand[s] that there are inherent risks of participating in the Programs and using the Equipment, which may be both foreseen and unforeseen and include serious physical injury and death.” (Doc. 44-3 [*17] at 2.) Under Vermont law, “a person who takes part in any sport accepts as a matter of law the dangers that inhere therein insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This defense remains viable even if the defendant’s exculpatory agreement is found to be void as contrary to public policy. Spencer, 702 A.2d at 38. This provision of the agreement remains valid and TimberQuest is free to assert assumption of risk as a defense.
There is no third-party claim against TimberQuest for indemnity. The court does not address this issue.
D. Enforceability of Arbitration Clause
After disposing of the exculpatory clause, the court considers the enforceability of the arbitration clause.
As drafted, the clause works in the following way: a claimant seeking damages in excess of $75,000 is required to proceed to binding arbitration. Claims of $75,000 or less are not subject to arbitration. The arbitration panel is composed of three members. Each side chooses one member. The two members then select the third, who must be “an officer or director of any entity that operates an aerial adventure park with zip lines in the United States.” (Doc. 52-4 at 31.) If the first two panel members cannot agree on a third, a judge within the District of Vermont shall appoint [*18] the third member “utilizing the selection criteria for the neutral as set forth above.” (Id.)
Littlejohn challenges this provision on the following grounds. First, he argues that the provision is procedurally unconscionable because it is contained in small print in a contract of adhesion that was presented to him well after he paid for his tickets. Second, he maintains that the arbitration clause is substantively unconscionable because the third arbitrator is required to be an officer or director of another company that operates a zip-line course, thus tilting the arbitration panel in favor of TimberQuest. Finally, he argues that the arbitration clause lacks mutuality because it has no application to a claim by TimberQuest against a customer.
The first issue is what law governs this dispute. Both the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, and the Vermont Arbitration Act, 12 V.S.A. §§ 5651-5681, apply to this arbitration agreement which was formed in Vermont and which the defendant seeks to enforce in Vermont. When the two statutes differ, the federal provision preempts state law. See David L. Threlkeld & Co., Inc. v. Metallgesellschaft Ltd. (London), 923 F.2d 245, 249-50 (2d Cir. 1991) (holding that FAA preempts VAA); Little v. Allstate Ins. Co., 167 Vt. 171, 705 A.2d 538, 540 (Vt. 1997) (same). The claims of unconscionability raised by Littlejohn, however, are matters arising under state [*19] substantive law and are enforced in the same way under either the federal or state arbitration acts. See 9 U.S.C. § 2 (stating agreements to arbitrate “shall be valid, in-evocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract”); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1746, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (explaining that final phrase of § 2 provides that agreements to arbitrate may be invalidated by generally applicable state-law contract defenses such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability). In considering issues of both procedural unconscionability relating to the form of the contract to arbitrate and substantive unconscionability relating to its content, the court is guided by Vermont decisional law where it is available.
Littlejohn’s claim of procedural unconscionability is unconvincing. Unlike the provisions at issue in Glassford v. BrickKicker, 191 Vt. 1, 35 A.3d 1044, 1053 (Vt. 2011), the arbitration provision is on the middle of the page, directly under the waiver provisions and is prefaced with a conspicuous header stating “Arbitration.” The print is normal-sized. The customer’s signature line is on the second page, giving him an opportunity to read the text before signing. Although the agreement was presented to Littlejohn as a preprinted contract with no real opportunity [*20] to negotiate the terms, he could have declined to participate in the course and requested his money back if he objected to the arbitration provision. This was not a contract for a necessary service such as home inspection where the weaker party was “at the mercy” of the drafter. See id. at 1052. As the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out, “unequal bargaining power alone will not nullify a contract.” Maglin v. Tschannerl, 174 Vt. 39, 800 A.2d 486, 490 (Vt. 2002).
Littlejohn also argues that the arbitration agreement was procedurally unconscionable because he was presented with it upon arrival at TimberQuest, more than three weeks after his companion paid for the tickets, and was not warned in advance that he would have to sign it. This argument was based on his attorney’s mistaken belief that the TimberQuest website did not warn customers prior to payment that they would be required to sign the agreement. However, at oral argument the parties agreed that on the payment page, under Terms and Conditions/Liability Waiver, the website displayed the following message: “All participants MUST sign a release and waiver of claims/indemnification agreement at check-in.” Customers were required to check a box stating “I agree” in order to purchase their [*21] tickets. This provided sufficient constructive warning to Littlejohn through his friend who actually bought the tickets that he would have to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. Further, this was not the first time that Littlejohn had encountered a recreational liability agreement. As he testified at his deposition, “[w]e did sign a release, but that’s standard to me” since he was often required to sign similar forms at ski areas. (Doc. 44-4 at 4.)
Turning to Littlejohn’s argument of substantive unconscionability, it is obvious that the requirement that the “neutral arbitrator” be drawn from the ranks of the zip-line industry is unfair. It is no more than a requirement that the arbitration be conducted among friends–or at least people who share the same concerns about defending against claims by injured customers. Courts have long refused to enforce arbitration clauses which call for the appointment of panel members who are likely to harbor a bias in favor of one side or another. See Halligan v. Piper Jaffray, Inc., 148 F.3d 197, 202 (2d. Cir. 1998) (discussing possibility of institutional bias due to industry influence over selection of arbitration panel); Rosenberg v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 995 F. Supp. 190, 209 (D. Mass. 1998) (listing cases). TimberQuest’s suggestion that a member of the same industry [*22] will be biased against TimberQuest because he or she will be a competitor willing to do harm to a rival company demonstrates only that the arbitration clause requires the choice of someone likely to hold some form of bias or self-interest–maybe for TimberQuest and maybe against.
The contract between the parties includes a severability clause: “To the extent that any portion of this Agreement is deemed to be invalid under the law of the applicable jurisdiction, the remaining portions of the Agreement shall remain binding and available for use by the Host and its counsel in any proceeding.” (Doc. 52-4 at 32.) Setting aside for a moment the one-sided nature of this clause–“available for use by the Host and its counsel”–the severability clause authorizes the court to reform the arbitration provision by striking the requirement that the neutral be drawn from the zip-line industry and providing for the more conventional selection of a genuinely neutral arbitrator by the other two panel members with provision for selection of a third by the court in the event of a deadlock.
The court will enforce the severability clause to strike the provision requiring the choice of a “neutral” arbitrator [*23] who is likely to hold a bias in favor of the zip-line industry. The remaining question is the issue of mutuality.
Some courts have found arbitration clauses in contracts of adhesion that required one party to go to arbitration but imposed no similar obligation on the other party to be unconscionable. See, e.g., Iberia Credit Bureau, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 379 F.3d 159, 170-71 (5th Cir. 2004) (holding arbitration clause in cellular telephone customer service agreement was unconscionable under Louisiana law because it required customer but not provider to arbitrate all claims); Abramson v. Juniper Networks, Inc., 115 Cal. App. 4th 638, 9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422, 437 (Cal. Ct. App. 2004) (“When only the weaker party’s claims are subject to arbitration, and there is no reasonable justification for that lack of symmetry, the agreement lacks the requisite degree of mutuality.”).
However, this appears to be a minority position. The Second Circuit has rejected the argument that an arbitration clause is void for lack of mutuality where it only requires one party to submit all claims to arbitration. In Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Distajo, 66 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 1995), the court held that an arbitration clause in a franchise agreement was not void for lack of mutuality under Connecticut law, even though the clause required the franchisees to submit all controversies to arbitration while reserving to the franchisor the right to seek summary eviction [*24] against the franchisees. The court explained that mutuality was “not an issue.” Id. at 451. Under modern contract law, the doctrine of “mutuality of obligation,” which requires that a contract be based on reciprocal promises, is no longer required so long as the agreement as a whole is supported by consideration. Id. (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 79 (1979)). The court rejected the idea that the arbitration clause must be considered as a separate contract within a contract, supported by its own consideration. Id. at 452. Likewise, the court held that the doctrine of “mutuality of remedy,” which provides that a “plaintiff shall not get specific enforcement unless the defendant could also have obtained it,” is also defunct and did not support the franchisees’ argument. Id. at 453 (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 363 cmt. c. (1979)). Because the agreement to arbitrate was part of a larger contract which was supported by consideration, it did not fail for lack of mutuality.
Other circuits have reached similar conclusions. See Soto v. State Indus. Prods., Inc., 642 F.3d 67, 77 (1st Cir. 2011) (applying Puerto Rico law); Harris v. Green Tree Fin. Corp., 183 F.3d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Pennsylvania law); Barker v. Golf U.S.A., Inc., 154 F.3d 788, 791 (8th Cir. 1998) (applying Oklahoma law); see also Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Najd, 294 F.3d 1104, 1108 (9th Cir. 2002) (applying California law and holding that employer’s promise to be bound by arbitration process was sufficient consideration for employee’s agreement [*25] to arbitrate); Michalski v. Circuit City Stores, Inc., 177 F.3d 634, 636 (7th Cir. 1999) (applying Wisconsin law and reaching same conclusion as Najd).
Vermont courts have not specifically addressed whether an arbitration clause may be void for lack of mutuality. Vermont contract law does not otherwise require parties to an agreement to have equivalent obligations for the agreement to be valid. See H.P. Hood & Sons v. Heins, 124 Vt. 331, 205 A.2d 561, 566 (Vt. 1964) (“[T]here is no requirement that the option of one promisor must be coextensive with the privilege of termination extended to the counter-promisor.”). “Even if one party has options not provided to the other party … the contract is not per se unsupported by consideration. Rather, a contract is incomplete only if one party’s obligations are so attenuated as to render consideration merely illusory.” Petition of Dep’t of Pub. Serv., 157 Vt. 120, 596 A.2d 1303, 1309 (Vt. 1991) (Morse, J., dissenting); Restatement (Second) of Contracts§ 79 (1981) (“If the requirement of consideration is met, there is no additional requirement of … ‘mutuality of obligation.'”). The FAA would preempt Vermont from imposing such a requirement only in the case of arbitration provisions. See AT&T Mobility LLC, 131 S. Ct. at 1741. Given that Vermont law strongly favors arbitration, Union Sch. Dist. No. 45 v. Wright & Morrissey, Inc., 183 Vt. 555, 945 A.2d 348, 354 (Vt. 2007), the court concludes that mutuality is not required in order for the arbitration provision to be enforceable.
Littlejohn argues that the agreement was unsupported [*26] by consideration because he was forced to sign it weeks after he had paid for the tickets. This argument is without merit. “[A]ny performance which is bargained for is consideration.” Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 72 (1981). TimberQuest’s performance in this case was allowing Littlejohn to use its adventure zip-line course. In exchange, Littlejohn’s friend paid for their tickets. Upon arrival at the park, he promised that he would submit his claims to arbitration or agree to limit his recovery in court to $75,000. As noted above, the payment page required Littlejohn to agree to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. “In other words, defendant’s offer of services did not extend to anyone who did not sign the Agreement.” Mero v. City Segway Tours of Washington DC, LLC, 962 F. Supp. 2d 92, 103 (D.D.C. 2013) (holding that liability waiver signed by plaintiff who paid for Segway tour in advance was supported by consideration in form of defendant’s provision of Segway and guided tour where confirmation email warned that he would have to sign liability waiver prior to tour). Thus, Littlejohn’s promise was supported by consideration.
As reformed by the court, the arbitration provision is valid. Under the agreement, there is no cap on damages if the participant chooses to go to arbitration. If [*27] the participant chooses to go to court, he or she agrees to seek $75,000 or less in damages. This court only has jurisdiction over a diversity case if the amount in controversy “exceeds the sum or value of $75,000.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). This provision is strictly construed, and does not extend jurisdiction to a claim for an even $75,000. Salis v. Am. Export Lines, 331 Fed. Appx. 811, 814 (2d Cir. 2009); Matherson v. Long Island State Park Comm’n, 442 F.2d 566, 568 (2d Cir. 1971). Thus, Littlejohn may not bring suit in this court. The court accordingly dismisses plaintiff’s negligence claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.
For the reasons stated above, defendant TimberQuest’s motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 44) is GRANTED. TimberQuest’s cross-motion for summary judgment dismissing all claims (Doc. 52) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 46) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The case is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.
Dated at Rutland, in the District of Vermont, this 20th day of July, 2015.
/s/ Geoffrey W. Crawford
Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge
United States District Court
C. Mcclure, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant.
CIVIL ACTION NO. H-13-1794
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS, HOUSTON DIVISION
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483
December 3, 2014, Decided
December 3, 2014, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: McClure v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25810 (S.D. Tex., Feb. 28, 2014)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Chase McClure, Misha McClure, Individually and as Guardian of Chase McClure, Plaintiffs: Brennen Dunn, LEAD ATTORNEY, Citizen Legal, PLLC, Houston, TX.
For Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant: John G Browning, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Dallas, TX.
JUDGES: Lee H. Rosenthal, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Lee H. Rosenthal
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION
This is a personal injury suit filed by Misha McClure for herself and on behalf of her minor son, who was injured in July 2012 in the childcare area at a Life Time Fitness center in Humble, Texas. Ms. McClure asserted negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims. Life Time Fitness moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims are barred by a release Ms. McClure signed when she joined the center. (Docket Entry No. 28).
Based on the pleadings, the motion and response, the parties’ submissions, and the applicable law, this court grants the motion in part and denies it in part. Specifically, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, common-law premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation, and denies [*2] the motion as to her gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims. The court grants Life Time Fitness’s summary judgment motion as to the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denies the motion. Finally, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim for fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s claims other than for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability, and otherwise denies the motion. The reasons for these rulings are explained below.
Ms. McClure went to the Life Time Fitness center in Humble on July 28, 2012 for a personal-training session. She left her two-year-old son at the childcare area in the center, telling a childcare employee her son’s age and explaining that it was his first time there. The employee told Ms. McClure that her son would be in an area for younger children. Thirty minutes later, a Life Time Fitness manager interrupted Ms. McClure’s training session to tell her that her son had been in an accident in the older children’s play area and that 911 had been called. Ms. McClure found her son with a Life Time Fitness childcare manager who was holding an ice [*3] pack on the child’s ear. When the ice pack was removed, Ms. McClure saw that the child was missing a piece of his ear. He received five stitches.
When Ms. McClure joined Life Time Fitness, she signed a Member Usage Agreement. The Member Usage Agreement contained sections headed “ASSUMPTION OF RISK” and “WAIVER OF LIABILITY.” The relevant parts read as follows:
ASSUMPTION OF RISK. I understand that there are inherent dangers, hazards, and risks of injury or damage in the use of Life Time’s premises, facilities, equipment, services, activities or products, whether available through membership dues or a separate fee.
I understand that the Risk and Injuries in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services (collectively, “Risks of Injury”) may be caused, in whole or in part, by the NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), Guest(s) and/or other persons. [I] FULLY UNDERSTAND, AND VOLUNTARILY AND WILLINGLY ASSUME, THE RISKS OF INJURY.
WAIVER OF LIABILITY. On behalf of myself and my spouse/partner, children/Minor Members, Other Members, Guests, parents, guardians, heirs, next of kin, personal representatives, heirs and assigns, I hereby voluntarily and forever release and discharge [*4] Life Time from, covenant and agree not to sue Life Time for, and waive, any claims, demands, actions, causes of action, debts, damages, losses, costs, fees, expenses or any other alleged liabilities or obligations of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown (collectively, “Claims”) for any Injuries to me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), or Guest(s) in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services which arise out of, result from, or are caused by any NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, any Minor Member(s), any Other Member(s), any Guest(s), and/or any other person . . . (collectively, “Negligence Claims”).
A. Negligence Claims. I understand that Negligence Claims include but are not limited to Life Time’s (1) negligent design, construction (including renovation and alteration), repair maintenance, operation, supervision, monitoring, or provision of Life Time Premises and Services; (2) negligent failure to warn of or remove a hazardous, unsafe, dangerous or defective condition; (3) negligent failure to provide or keep premises in a reasonably safe condition; (4) negligent provision or failure to provide emergency care; (5) negligent provision of services; and (6) negligent hiring, selection, [*5] training, instruction, certification, supervision or retention of employees, independent contractors or volunteers; or (7) other negligent act(s) or omission(s).
B. Life Time’s Fees and Costs. I specifically agree that, if I (on my own behalf or on behalf of another, including an estate) assert a Negligence Claim against Life Time and/or breach my agreement not to sue Life Time, I will pay all reasonable fees (including attorneys’ fees), costs and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).
The agreement also contained a section headed “PARENT OR GUARDIAN AGREEMENT.” This section stated:
If I am the parent or legal guardian of a Minor Member, I acknowledge and represent to Life Time that I have the right and authority to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of each Minor Member, including but not limited to the right and authority to execute this MUA on the Minor Member’s behalf. By signing this MUA, I am binding each of my Minor Member(s) to its terms, including but not limited to the ASSUMPTION OF RISK [and] WAIVER OF LIABILITY . . . [*6] provisions.
The following text appeared directly above the signature line:
I HAVE READ, UNDERSTOOD, RECEIVED A COPY OF, AND AGREE TO ALL TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS MUA, INCLUDING SPECIFICALLY THE ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND DEFENSE AND INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS UNDER WHICH I AM RELINQUISHING LEGAL RIGHTS.
Ms. McClure’s state-court petition alleged that Life Time Fitness negligently allowed her son to play in an area designated for older children. The petition alleged that in addition to the ear injury, which was treated with five stitches, the incident left him unable or unwilling to participate in certain activities and afraid to be in a new childcare facility. (Docket Entry No. 1, Ex. 2 at 2). Life Time Fitness did not file an answer within the period set by the Texas rules.
In April 2013, the state-court judge granted the McClures’ motion for a no-answer default judgment against Life Time Fitness. Life Time Fitness removed the lawsuit to federal court in June 2013 and challenged the service of process and the no-answer default judgment. This court vacated the state-court default judgment in February 2014, finding that the service was defective and that entry of the [*7] no-answer default judgment was therefore void. Life Time Fitness then filed an answer and counterclaimed against Ms. McClure for breach of the Member Usage Agreement. (Docket Entry No. 21).
Life Time Fitness has moved for summary judgment, contending that the McClures’ claims are barred by the release contained in the Member Usage Agreement and are unsupported by the evidence. Life Time Fitness also moved for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Ms. McClure contends that the release does not bar her claims, that the summary-judgment evidence supports recovery for both her and her son, and that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement. Each argument and response is analyzed below.
II. The Applicable Legal Standards
A. Summary Judgment
[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). [HN2] “The movant bears the burden of identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 261 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986)).
[HN3] If the burden of proof at trial lies with the nonmoving party, the movant may satisfy its initial burden by “‘showing’ [*8] — that is, pointing out to the district court — that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. While the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant’s case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). “A fact is ‘material’ if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Tex., 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant’s response.” United States v. $92,203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).
[HN4] When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party’s claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences [*9] in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008).
A. The Timeliness of the McClures’ Response to Life Time Fitness’s Summary Judgment Motion
Life Time Fitness argues that the court should disregard the McClures’ response to the summary judgment motion because it was filed after the deadline to respond and without leave of court. (Docket Entry No. 30 at 2). The summary judgment motion was filed on September 12, 2014. (Docket Entry No. 28). The response was filed on October 13, 2014, ten days after it was due. (Docket Entry No. 29). Because the delay was not extensive, there is no prejudice to Life Time Fitness. Because [HN5] a decision on the basis of default is disfavored, the court considers the McClures’ response on the merits.
B. The Waiver and Release
The waiver and release contained in the Member Usage Agreement stated that the signer waived any claims for injuries to herself or to her minor children resulting from Life Time Fitness’s negligence. (Docket Entry No. 28). [HN6] Texas imposes a fair notice requirement on preinjury releases. See Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508-09 (Tex. 1993). A release that fails to satisfy the fair notice requirement is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004). Fair notice requires (1) that a party [*10] seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. Id. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Id. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it. Id.; Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 508.
Ms. McClure agrees that the waiver and release provisions of the Member Usage Agreement meet the Texas fair notice requirements, but argues that the provisions do not cover her gross negligence claims. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 2). [HN7] Several Texas appellate courts have held that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims violate public policy. See Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, LLC, 402 S.W.3d 915, 924-25 (Tex. App. — Dallas 2013, no pet.); Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no writ); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1986, no writ); accord Memorial Med. Ctr. of East Texas v. Keszler, M.D., 943 S.W.2d 433 (Tex. 1997) (citing Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d at 576). Other Texas appellate courts have held that when a preinjury waiver releases claims for “negligence,” claims for gross negligence are not waived. See Del Carmen Canas v. Centerpoint Energy Res. Corp., 418 S.W.3d 312, 326-27 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.); [*11] Akin v. Bally Total Fitness Corp., No. 10-05-00280-CV, 2007 Tex. App. LEXIS 1218, 2007 WL 475406, at *3 (Tex. App. — Waco Feb. 14, 2007, pet. denied); Rosen v. Nat’l Hot Rod Ass’n, No. 14-94-00775-CV, 1995 Tex. App. LEXIS 3225, 1995 WL 755712, at *7 n. 1 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 21, 1995, writ denied). In Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., the Texas Court of Appeals for San Antonio held to the contrary, finding that the plaintiff’s preinjury waiver of negligence claims also barred its gross negligence claims. Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1994, writ denied); see also Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling USA, Inc., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied) (finding Newman persuasive). The court noted that the plaintiff had not raised the express negligence rule in its pleadings, and the court emphasized that its opinion did not address or take a position on whether a preinjury waiver of gross negligence claims violated public policy. Id.
The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue. The guidance the Texas appellate court case law provides, however, gives a reliable basis for making an Erie prediction about how the Supreme Court would rule if faced with the question. [HN8] “When making an Erie-guess in the absence of explicit guidance from the state courts, [this court] must attempt to predict state law, not to create or modify it.” Assoc. Inter. Ins. Co. v. Blythe, 286 F.3d 780, 783 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Based on the [HN9] Texas cases holding that waivers [*12] of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including [HN10] the premises liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.002(c)-(d), 101.058; State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 289 (Tex. 2006).
By contrast, Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees fall within the scope of the waiver and release. Summary judgment is granted on these claims but denied as to Ms. McClure’s gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims.
Life Time Fitness also argued that the child’s claims were barred by the waiver and release Ms. McClure signed. [HN11] A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries. See Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 757 F. Supp. 2d 658 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (making an Erie prediction); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 1993, no writ). The child’s claims are not barred on this [*13] basis.
B. The Sufficiency of the Evidence
Life Time Fitness also moves for summary judgment on the basis that there is no evidence to support either Ms. McClure’s or her child’s claims.
Life Time Fitness contends that the child, who was two years old at the time, was too young to rely on any statement made by Life Time Fitness and therefore cannot prevail on a negligent misrepresentation claim. (Docket Entry No. 23). In response, Ms. McClure argues that her own reliance should be imputed to her son. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 4-5). [HN12] Although one party’s knowledge of a misrepresentation may be imputed to another under certain circumstances, none of which are present here, Texas courts do not recognize a theory of imputed or vicarious reliance. Grant Thornton LLP v. Prospect High Income Fund, 314 S.W.3d 913, 924 (Tex. 2010) (in the context of an agency relationship). The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.
Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed [*14] an unreasonable risk of harm. The McClures did not specifically respond to the motion for summary judgment on these claims. (Docket Entry No. 29). In their pleadings, the McClures alleged that Life Time Fitness failed to provide a safe childcare area. (Docket Entry No. 23). The summary judgment evidence in the record is Ms. McClure’s affidavit and the Member Usage Agreement she signed. In her affidavit, Ms. McClure states that there was an injury involving her son and she was told by an unnamed employee that he was injured in a play area designated for children above his age. (Docket Entry No. 29, Ex. 2). Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.
C. Life Time Fitness’s Counterclaims
Life Time Fitness moves for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Life Time Fitness first argues that because Ms. McClure answered with only a general denial, the counterclaim allegations should be deemed admitted. (Docket Entry No. 28 at 8). [HN13] “General denials are uncommon in federal court because ‘situations in which the complaint can be completely controverted are [*15] quite rare.'” Mary Kay, Inc. v. Dunlap, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86499, 2012 WL 2358082, at *7 (N.D. Tex. June 21, 2012) (quoting 5 Wright & Miller § 1265, at 549). Life Time Fitness argues that by filing a general denial, Ms. McClure was “admitting the operative facts” of the counterclaim. Life Time Fitness seeks summary judgment on this basis.
[HN14] “As directed by Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], the answer should contain only two things: (1) a response (admitting, denying, or claiming insufficient knowledge) to the averments in the complaint; and (2) a statement of all affirmative defenses.” Software Publishers Ass’n v. Scott & Scott, LLP, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59814, 2007 WL 2325585, at *2 n. 4 (N.D. Tex. Aug.15, 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)-(c)). “A party that intends in good faith to deny all the allegations of a pleadings — including the jurisdictional grounds — may do so by a general denial.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(3). “A party that does not intend to deny all the allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those specifically admitted.” Id.
[HN15] “Granting summary judgment when a party fails to respond to the opposing party’s summary judgment motion is comparable to granting a default judgment.” Tolliver v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., No. 2:06-0904, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18839, 2008 WL 545018, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 25, 2008). “‘A party is not entitled to a default judgment as a matter of right, even where the defendant is technically [*16] in default.'” McCarty v. Zapata County, 243 F. App’x 792, 794 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Lewis v. Lynn, 236 F.3d 766, 767 (5th Cir. 2001)). Default judgment is a drastic remedy that should be granted only in extreme situations. Warren v. Johnson, 244 F. App’x 570, 571 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citing Lewis, 236 F.3d at 767). Life Time Fitness has not shown such an extreme situation. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim will be considered on the merits.
The Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed when she joined Life Time Fitness contained a clause headed “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.” This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.
As discussed above, although Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute are not barred by the waiver and release, her remaining claims are barred. Ms. McClure asserted claims against Life Time Fitness for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, [*17] and common law premises liability to invitees, despite agreeing that she would not do so. Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability. Life Time Fitness is not entitled to any fees incurred in defending against the child’s claims, which were not waived by the Member Use Agreement. Nor is Life Time Fitness entitled to any fees incurred to defend against Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability. The only fees at issue are those that Life Time Fitness would have incurred had Ms. McClure asserted only the claims waived by the release.
Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life [*18] Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.
SIGNED on December 3, 2014, at Houston, Texas.
/s/ Lee H. Rosenthal
Lee H. Rosenthal
United States District Judge
Campbell v. Derylo, 75 Cal. App. 4th 823; 89 Cal. Rptr. 2d 519; 1999 Cal. App. LEXIS 915; 99 Cal. Daily Op. Service 8401; 99 Daily Journal DAR 10709Posted: October 10, 2015
JENNIFER CAMPBELL, a Minor, etc., Plaintiff and Appellant, v. ERIC DERYLO, Defendant and Respondent.
COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT
75 Cal. App. 4th 823; 89 Cal. Rptr. 2d 519; 1999 Cal. App. LEXIS 915; 99 Cal. Daily Op. Service 8401; 99 Daily Journal DAR 10709
October 14, 1999, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Review Denied January 13, 2000, Reported at: 2000 Cal. LEXIS 132.
PRIOR HISTORY: APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of El Dorado County. Super. Ct. No. SV1129. Suzanne N. Kingsbury, Judge.
DISPOSITION: The judgment is reversed. Plaintiff shall recover costs.
COUNSEL: Law offices of Edwin E. Williams and Edwin E. Williams for Plaintiff and Appellant.
Caulfield, Davies & Donahue, James R. Donahue and Catherine A. Woodbridge for Defendant and Respondent.
JUDGES: Opinion by Callahan, J., with Kolkey, J., concurring. Blease, Acting P. J., concurred in the result.
OPINION BY: CALLAHAN
[*825] [**520] CALLAHAN, J.
Jamie Xelowski, as guardian ad litem of her daughter Jennifer Campbell, a minor, plaintiff, appeals from a judgment granting defendant summary judgment in this negligence action against defendant Eric Derylo. The trial court ruled that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk precluded plaintiff from recovering for injuries [**521] sustained when defendant’s runaway snowboard hit Jennifer in the back. We shall reverse the judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On January 29, 1994, Jennifer, then 11 years old, was skiing down the World Cup [***2] ski run at the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort when she stopped and removed her skis due to ice on the slope. She walked down the remainder of the hill and at the bottom sat down to put her skis back on. At this time defendant Derylo, then age 17, was snowboarding down the same run. He stopped approximately 100 yards from the bottom and removed his snowboard due to fatigue and ice on the slope. After he had removed his feet from the bindings, the snowboard slid out of his control and down the slope, hitting Jennifer in the lower back.
An El Dorado County ordinance, as well as the skier responsibility code posted at Heavenly Valley, require participants to wear a retention strap that attaches to the bindings of the board and is secured to the snowboarder’s leg or boot. For purposes of this motion, it is uncontested that defendant’s snowboard was not equipped with such a strap on the day of the accident.
[*826] Defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis of assumption of risk. The trial court granted the motion on the ground that the danger of being injured by runaway snowboards was inherent in the sport of skiing and there was no evidence of recklessness on the part of defendant. [***3] Plaintiff appeals.
(1) [HN1] On appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the reviewing court conducts a de novo examination of the record to determine whether the moving party was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law or whether genuine issues of material fact remain. ( [HN2] Krieger v. Nick Alexander Imports, Inc. (1991) 234 Cal. App. 3d 205, 212 [285 Cal. Rptr. 717].)
“We independently review the parties’ papers supporting and opposing the motion, using the same method of analysis as the trial court. . . . [HN3] The moving party bears the burden of proving that the claims of the adverse party are entirely without merit on any legal theory. . . . The opposition must demonstrate only the existence of at least one triable issue of fact . . ., and all doubts as to the propriety of granting the motion must be resolved in favor of the party opposing the motion.” ( Jackson v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. (1993) 16 Cal. App. 4th 1830, 1836 [20 Cal. Rptr. 2d 913], [***4] citations omitted.)
The trial court concluded that primary assumption of the risk barred plaintiff’s action because injury from runaway snowboards is an “everyday risk in the sport of skiing or snowboarding.” Plaintiff contends that primary assumption of risk does not bar this action because defendant’s use of a snowboard unequipped with a retention strap amounted to conduct outside the inherent nature of the sport.
(2a) In Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal. 4th 296 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] and its companion case Ford v. Gouin (1992) 3 Cal. 4th 339 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 30, 834 P.2d 724, 34 A.L.R.5th 769], the Supreme Court concluded that the [HN4] ordinary duty of care to avoid injury to others is modified by the doctrine of “primary assumption of risk.” Primary assumption of the risk negates duty and constitutes a complete bar to recovery. ( [HN5] Knight, supra, at pp. 309-310, 314-316.) Whether primary assumption of the risk applies depends on the nature [***5] of the sport or activity in question and the parties’ relationship to that activity. ( Id. at p. 313.) In the context of sports, the question turns on “whether a given injury is within the ‘inherent’ risk of the sport.” ( Staten v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal. App. 4th 1628, 1635 [53 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657].)
In Knight, a defendant carelessly knocked over a coparticipant and stepped [**522] on her hand during a touch football game. (3 Cal. 4th at pp. 300-301.) The [*827] conduct was deemed an inherent risk of the sport and therefore recovery was barred under primary assumption of risk. ( Id. at p. 321.) The court in Knight reasoned that “. . . vigorous participation in such sporting events likely would be chilled if legal liability were to be imposed on a participant on the basis of his or her ordinary careless conduct.” ( Id. at p. 318.)
In the context of skiing, courts have held that primary assumption of the risk applies to bar recovery for “. . . moguls on a ski run ( Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 315-316), trees bordering a ski run ( Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal. App. 3d 111 [266 Cal. Rptr. 749]), [***6] snow-covered stumps ( Wright v. Mt. Mansfield Lift (D.Vt. 1951) 96 F. Supp. 786), and numerous other conditions or obstacles such as variations in terrain, changes in surface or subsurface snow conditions, bare spots, other skiers, snow-making equipment, and myriad other hazards which must be considered inherent in the sport of skiing.” ( O’Donoghue v. Bear Mountain Ski Resort (1994) 30 Cal. App. 4th 188, 193 [35 Cal. Rptr. 2d 467].) A runaway snowboard resulting from ordinary skier carelessness would seem to fit within the realm of those risks inherent to the sport. 1
1 We quickly dismiss plaintiff’s contention that there is a triable issue over whether plaintiff and defendant were coparticipants. At Heavenly Valley Ski Resort, skiers and snowboarders share the same slope. Both parties were in a designated ski area; moreover, putting on and taking off equipment is an integral part of the sport. Skiing, like ice skating, is a sport which may be engaged in just as well alone as with others. There is no requirement that athletes be acquainted with each other or join together in order to be considered coparticipants within the meaning of Knight. (See Staten v. Superior Court, supra, 45 Cal. App. 4th at p. 1633 [figure skater assumes risk of collision with other skaters even when skating solo, where “proximity to one another created certain risks of collision”].)
[***7] Knight however does not grant unbridled legal immunity to all defendants participating in sporting activity. The Supreme Court has stated that [HN6] “. . . it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.” (3 Cal. 4th at pp. 315-316, italics added.) Thus, even though “defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself,” they may not increase the likelihood of injury above that which is inherent. ( Id. at p. 315.)
The principle is illustrated in the skiing context in Freeman v. Hale (1994) 30 Cal. App. 4th 1388, 1396 [36 Cal. Rptr. 2d 418]. In Freeman the defendant had consumed alcoholic beverages to the point of inebriation prior to skiing. While on the slopes defendant collided with plaintiff coparticipant, rendering her a quadriplegic. ( Id. at p. 1391.) The defendant claimed he was immune from liability because the plaintiff had assumed [***8] the risk of harm by participating in the sport. (Ibid.) The Fourth District reversed summary judgment for the defendant.
[*828] While conceding that inadvertent collisions are an inherent risk of skiing and therefore assumed by participants (30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 1395), Freeman pointed out that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, an activity not ordinarily associated with skiing, may have unnecessarily increased the risk of collision. Furthermore, “the increased risks presented by the consumption of alcohol are not inherent in the sport of skiing.” ( Id. at p. 1396.) A skier has a duty not to increase the risks of the sport beyond those inherent, and summary judgment is improper where the [**523] circumstances suggest that the defendant engaged in activity that increased the risk. ( Id. at p. 1397.)
In Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball (1997) 56 Cal. App. 4th 112, 123 [65 Cal. Rptr. 2d 105], the plaintiff was a spectator at a minor league baseball game. He was sitting in an uncovered section of the stadium when a foul ball struck him in the face. Immediately prior to being struck, the [***9] team’s mascot was behind the plaintiff and his tail was hitting the plaintiff on the head and shoulders. The plaintiff turned to see what the mascot was doing and as he was turning back around to face the field, a foul ball hit him. ( Id. at pp. 116-118.)
While agreeing that the risk of being hit with a foul ball was inherent in the sport of baseball and therefore assumed by spectators, the court, relying on Knight, held that the defendant had a duty not to increase the risk of a spectator being struck. ( Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball, supra, 56 Cal. App. 4th at p. 123.) Summary judgment was improper because, “. . . whether such antics [by the mascot] increased the inherent risk to plaintiff is an issue of fact to be resolved at trial.” (Ibid.; see also Branco v. Kearny Moto Park, Inc. (1995) 37 Cal. App. 4th 184, 193 [43 Cal. Rptr. 2d 392] [bicycle jump’s unsafe design may have increased risk to bicycle racers].)
Finally, in Yancey v. Superior Court (1994) 28 Cal. App. 4th 558 [33 Cal. Rptr. 2d 777], the court ruled that a participant in discus throwing owed a duty to a coparticipant [***10] to ascertain that the target area was clear before releasing the discus onto the playing field. In reversing summary judgment, the court found that the inherent risks of discus throwing do not include being injured by a discus thrown with no regard for its potential path. ( Id. at p. 566.)
(3a) Here, we are confronted with the question whether defendant’s use of a snowboard without a retention strap could be found by a jury to have [*829] increased the inherent risk of injury to coparticipants from a runaway snowboard. 2 The factual showing below demonstrates triable issues of fact.
2 At the hearing on the motion, plaintiff’s counsel listed four separate acts or omissions by defendant which he contended went beyond “ordinary careless conduct” and increased the inherent risk to Jennifer: (1) failure to wear a retention strap; (2) taking the board off on a steep slope without consideration for downhill skiers; (3) failure to move to the edge of the slope before removing his snowboard; and (4) failure to leave one foot in his snowboard and walk down the slope. This appeal focuses solely on the absence of a retention strap. We agree with plaintiff’s implicit concession that each of the other instances of misfeasance mentioned by counsel constitutes mere ordinary negligence which is not actionable under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk.
[***11] Both El Dorado County Ordinance No. 9.20.040, subdivision A6, and the skier responsibility code which was posted at Heavenly Valley Ski Resort, require the use of a retention strap. These safety regulations demonstrate a recognition that retention straps reduce the risk of injury from runaway ski equipment. As the declaration of plaintiff’s expert explains, this requirement is especially important when it comes to snowboards because, unlike skis which are equipped with automatic braking devices, snowboards have no built-in stopping mechanism. A jury could find that, by using a snowboard without the retention strap, in violation of the rules of the ski resort and a county ordinance, defendant unnecessarily increased the danger that his snowboard might escape his control and injure other participants such as plaintiff. The absence of a retention strap could therefore constitute conduct not inherent to the sport which increased the risk of injury. 3
3 We decline to address the issue of whether Evidence Code section 669, read in conjunction with El Dorado County Ordinance No. 9.20.040, subdivision A6, establishes an independent duty of care which overrides the primary assumption of risk doctrine. The Supreme Court granted review in Cheong v. Antablin (1997) 16 Cal. 4th 1063 [68 Cal. Rptr. 2d 859, 946 P.2d 817], purportedly to settle this question, but ended up avoiding it by concluding that the ordinance evinced “no clear intent to modify common law assumption of risk principles.” ( Id. at p. 1069.) As evidenced by the four separate concurring opinions in Cheong (including one by the author of the majority opinion, Justice Chin), there appears to be no clear consensus on the high court about this issue.
[***12] [**524] (2b) Our conclusion is consistent with the test advanced by Freeman to determine what risks are inherent in a sport: [HN7] “[C]onduct is totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport (and thus any risks resulting from that conduct are not inherent to the sport) if the prohibition of that conduct would neither deter vigorous participation in the sport nor otherwise fundamentally alter the nature of the sport.” (30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 1394.) Freeman found that “[t]he consumption of alcoholic beverages could be prohibited during or shortly before skiing without fundamentally altering the nature of the sport.” ( Id. at p. 1396.) The doctrine of primary assumption of risk was not an absolute bar to recovery because the risks associated with skiing while under the influence of alcohol are not inherent in the sport and thus not assumed by fellow participants.
[*830] In Lowe the court used similar reasoning, to conclude that “. . . the antics of the mascot are not an essential or integral part of the playing of a baseball [***13] game,” and “the game can be played in the absence of such antics.” (56 Cal. App. 4th at p. 123.)
Thus, “. . . the key inquiry here is whether the risk which led to plaintiff’s injury involved some feature or aspect of the game which is inevitable or unavoidable in the actual playing of the game.” ( Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball, supra, 56 Cal. App. 4th at p. 123.) (3b) Use of a mandatory retention strap would not impede or alter the sport of snowboarding. On the contrary, retention straps can be used “without fundamentally altering the nature of the sport.” ( Freeman v. Hale, supra, 30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 1396.) Furthermore, use of a retention strap would in no way chill or deter vigorous participation in skiing or snowboarding. ( Knight v. Jewitt, supra, 3 Cal. 4th at p. 317.)
Defendant claims that he was entitled to summary judgment in any event, because he would necessarily have removed the strap in order to walk down the slope. According to this argument, the board would have hit plaintiff regardless of whether it was equipped with a strap. Defendant is essentially arguing that proximate cause [***14] was lacking as a matter of law.
However, the declaration of plaintiff’s expert established that, used properly, the retention strap would have tethered defendant’s leg or boot to his snowboard. Defendant offered no evidence to refute the possibility that the strap would have provided him an opportunity to secure control of the board and prevent the accident. The record therefore presents a triable issue as to whether defendant’s use of a snowboard without a retention strap was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Since all inferences in a summary judgment dispute are to be drawn in favor of the party opposing the motion ( Tully v. World Savings & Loan Assn. (1997) 56 Cal. App. 4th 654, 660 [65 Cal. Rptr. 2d 545]), defendant did not eliminate proximate cause as a triable issue.
We conclude that defendant owed a duty of care not to increase the risks of skiing beyond those inherent to the sport. The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is not an absolute bar to recovery on these facts, because the lack of a retention strap could be found by a jury to have increased the risk of harm to plaintiff beyond what was inherent in the sport of skiing. Defendant [***15] also did not establish as a matter of law that the lack of a retention strap was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Accordingly, summary judgment was improperly granted.
[*831] [**525] DISPOSITION
The judgment is reversed. Plaintiff shall recover costs.
Kolkey, J., concurred. Blease, Acting P. J., concurred in the result.
Respondent’s petition for review by the Supreme Court was denied January 13, 2000. Kennard, J., and Chin, J., were of the opinion that the petition should be granted.