James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., Appellee (Defendant).
SUPREME COURT OF WYOMING
996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21
February 14, 2000, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County. The Honorable Nicholas G. Kalokathis, Judge.
COUNSEL: Representing Appellants: Robert A. Hampe, Cheyenne, Wyoming (Withdrew pursuant to an Order of Suspension Upon Consent entered in the Wyoming Supreme Court on June 18, 1999.)
Representing Appellee: John I. Henley of Vlastos, Brooks, Henley & Drell, P.C., Casper, Wyoming.
JUDGES: Before LEHMAN, C.J., and THOMAS, MACY, GOLDEN, and TAYLOR, * JJ.
* Retired November 2, 1998.
OPINION BY: THOMAS
[*1132] THOMAS, Justice.
The only issue in this case is whether a waiver of liability in a contract between S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C. (S.M.A.R.T.) and James Massengill (Massengill) is enforceable under the standards adopted in Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057 (Wyo. 1986) and followed in later cases. Massengill was using a lat-pull-down machine at S.M.A.R.T. when a pin used to secure the weights fell out. Apparently the pin did not fit properly in the machine, and when the pin fell out, Massengill fell over backwards injuring his wrist. In various statements of the [*1133] issues, Massengill attacks the validity of the waiver of liability on the grounds [**2] that it violated public policy; the business of S.M.A.R.T. is suitable for public regulation; the use of the premises at the time of injury by Massengill is not material; the question of duty is one that must be determined by a trier of fact; and S.M.A.R.T. owed a statutory duty to Massengill which invalidates the waiver. Our review of the record and legal precedent in Wyoming persuades us that the district court ruled correctly that there is no genuine issue of material fact in this case, and S.M.A.R.T. is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is affirmed.
In the Appellants’ Supreme Court Brief, filed on behalf of James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill (collectively the Massengills), these issues are stated:
Did the district court error [sic] in validating the “waiver of liability” in the “sports specific training and advanced rehab agreement and release["] due to the fact that:
(A) The release violated public policy,
(B) The business operated by appellee is suitable for public regulation, and
(C) Plaintiff J. Massengill was engaged in non therapeutic activities on the premises of [**3] the medical clinic has no bearing on whether the release should be validated or not?
Is the duty issue in this case purely a question of law where the basic facts are undisputed or is the duty issue one which can only be determined by the trier of fact?
Did appellee owe a statutory duty of care to appellant which would invalidate the waiver incorporated in the sports specific training and advanced rehabilitation agreement & release?
In the Brief of Appellee S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., the issues are stated in this way:
Was the waiver of liability executed by the Appellants valid[?]
(i) Was the Appellee’s waiver language inclusive and unambiguous as required by prior Wyoming Supreme Court case law; [or]
(ii) Is the waiver language of the Appellee contrary to public policy[?]
One evening James Massengill engaged in a conversation at a Cheyenne drugstore with the equity owner of S.M.A.R.T., a physician in Cheyenne. Massengill knew that S.M.A.R.T. had a weight room, and had seen recent advertisements to the effect that the facility offered personal trainers to assist members. In the course of a brief [**4] conversation, Massengill mentioned his interest in S.M.A.R.T.’s facilities, and the physician suggested he come over and try it out. A month or two following the conversation, Massengill went to S.M.A.R.T. and toured the facilities. The purpose of his initial visit was to assure himself that the equipment met his need, which was to get in better condition.
After he had been shown the facilities and the equipment, Massengill was given a Sports Specific Training and Advanced Rehabilitation Agreement and Release (Agreement and Release) to take home and review. Three days later, both Massengill and his wife executed the Agreement and Release, and they began using the facilities. Massengill was present at S.M.A.R.T. almost every day, and he had been using the lat-pull-down machine for nearly a month prior to his injury. He had not asked any questions about using the machine because he had used one previously. On March 13, 1996, Massengill was warming up on the machine, and he noticed that the pin holding the weights was shaped like a “T” rather than the longer “I” usually used. When Massengill pulled the bar down, the pin holding the weights popped out, and he fell over backwards, hitting [**5] his left hand and injuring his wrist.
On May 29, 1997, the Massengills filed their Complaint for Negligence and Damages. The first count of the Complaint for Negligence and Damages was couched in terms of alleged negligence causing injury to James Massengill, and the second count was couched in terms of recovery by Kaylea Massengill [*1134] for loss of consortium based upon her husband’s injuries. Various procedural steps, including discovery, followed the Answer by S.M.A.R.T., which included the affirmative defense of waiver and the affirmative defense that Kaylea Massengill’s claims were derivative of James Massengill’s claim. On October 3, 1997, there was filed by facsimile a Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment accompanied by a Memorandum in Support of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Additional procedural steps ensued, and on February 2, 1998, the district court entered an Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
The district court ruled that the exculpatory clause, including the release and waiver, was not ambiguous and was enforceable. Since the premise for the grant of the summary judgment by the district court was the language contained in the Agreement [**6] and Release, the district court ruled implicitly that any other issues of fact, genuine or not, were not material. The Massengills have appealed from the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
In Mercado v. Trujillo, 980 P.2d 824, 825-26 (Wyo. 1999), we summarized our rules with respect to review of summary judgments:
“‘When [HN1] a motion for summary judgment is before the supreme court, we have exactly the same duty as the district judge; and, if there is a complete record before us, we have exactly the same material as did he. We must follow the same standards. The propriety of granting a motion for summary judgment depends upon the correctness of a court’s dual findings that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This court looks at the record from the viewpoint most favorable to the party opposing the motion, giving to him all favorable inferences to be drawn from the facts contained in affidavits, depositions and other proper material appearing in the record.'” Reno Livestock Corporation v. Sun Oil Company (Delaware), Wyo., 638 P.2d 147, 150 (1981). [**7] See also, Blackmore v. Davis Oil Company, Wyo., 671 P.2d 334, 336 (1983).
“A [HN2] summary judgment should only be granted where it is clear that there are no issues of material facts involved and that an inquiry into the facts is unnecessary to clarify the application of law. Johnson v. Soulis, Wyo., 542 P.2d 867 (1975). A material fact is one which has legal significance. Johnson v. Soulis, supra. It is a fact which would establish a defense. Wood v. Trenchard, Wyo.[,] 550 P.2d 490 (1976). [HN3] After the movant establishes a prima facie case the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party who must show a genuine issue of material fact, Gennings v. First Nat’l Bank of Thermopolis, Wyo., 654 P.2d 154 (1982), or come forward with competent evidence of specific facts countering the facts presented by the movant. Matter of the Estate of Brosius, Wyo., 683 P.2d 663 (1984). The burden is then on the nonmoving party to show specific facts as opposed to general allegations. 10 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil § 2727, p. 538. The material presented must be admissible evidence [**8] at trial. Conclusory statements are not admissible. Bancroft v. Jagusch, Wyo., 611 P.2d 819 (1980). We give the party defending the motion the benefit of any reasonable doubt.” Roth v. First Security Bank of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Wyo., 684 P.2d 93, 95 (1984).
Nowotny v. L & B Contract Industries, 933 P.2d 452, 455 (Wyo.1997) (quoting Thomas by Thomas v. South Cheyenne Water and Sewer Dist., 702 P.2d 1303, 1304 (Wyo.1985)).
More specifically and succinctly, with respect to this case, when review is sought of a summary judgment this Court must determine that there is no genuine issue of a material fact and the party prevailing in the district court is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Utilization of summary judgment serves the purpose of eliminating formal trials where only questions of law are involved. [HN4] In accomplishing the review of a summary judgment resting upon a question [*1135] of law, our review is de novo and affords no deference to the district court’s ruling on that question. E.g., Roberts v. Klinkosh, 986 P.2d 153, 156 (Wyo. 1999); Gray v. Norwest Bank Wyoming, N.A., 984 P.2d 1088, 1091 (Wyo. 1999); [**9] Ahrenholtz v. Time Ins. Co., 968 P.2d 946, 949 (Wyo. 1998).
Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T. and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T. It continues with this language:
1. Any member using S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS facility shall undertake any and all risks. The member shall also be liable for any and all risks. S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS shall not be liable for any injuries or damage to any member, or the property of the member, or be subject to any claim, demand, injury or damages whatsoever, including, without limitation, those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents. The member, for himself/herself and on behalf of his/her executors, administrators, heirs, assigns, and assignees and successors, does hereby expressly forever [**10] waive, release and discharge S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its owners, officers, employees, agents, assigners and successors from all such claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions or causes of action.
The language of the Agreement and Release is broad, and specifically releases S.M.A.R.T. from claims and actions for negligence. Indeed, the Massengills do not assert that the agreement does not apply to this action; instead, their contention is that the agreement is not enforceable. In the absence of any genuine issue of a material fact with respect to the language of the Agreement and Release, the issue is a pure question of law with respect to whether the district court invoked and correctly applied the pertinent rules of law.
In Shepard v. Top Hat Land & Cattle Co., 560 P.2d 730, 732 (Wyo. 1977), the applicable rule was summarized:
[HN5] If the language of the contract is plain and unequivocal that language is controlling and the interpretation of the contractual provisions is for the court to make as a matter of law. The meaning of the instrument is to be deduced only from its language if the terms are plain and unambiguous. Mauch v. Ballou, Wyo., 499 P.2d 591 (1972); [**11] Craig v. Gudim, Wyo., 488 P.2d 316 (1971); Chandler-Simpson, Inc. v. Gorrell, Wyo., 464 P.2d 849 (1970); Flora Construction Company v. Bridger Valley Electric Association, Inc., Wyo., 355 P.2d 884 (1960); Barlow v. Makeeff, 74 Wyo. 171, 284 P.2d 1093 (1955).
This rule first was alluded to by this Court in Horvath v. Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Co., 58 Wyo. 211, 230, 131 P.2d 315, 321 (1942), and it has been consistently applied over the years, appearing most recently in Saulcy Land Co. v. Jones, 983 P.2d 1200, 1202 (Wyo. 1999).
[HN6] Exculpatory clauses or releases are contractual in nature, and we interpret them using traditional contract principles and considering the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1065 (Wyo. 1988); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 712 (Wyo. 1987); Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1059; Kelliher v. Herman, 701 P.2d 1157, 1159 (Wyo. 1985). The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A. [**12] R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.” And, just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”
The Massengills endeavor to avoid the release and waiver articulated in the Agreement and Release by arguing that it is not valid as a matter of public policy because the business of S.M.A.R.T. is appropriate for [*1136] public regulation, and the nature of the use of the equipment by Massengill is not material to the public policy or public regulation determination. We said in Fremont Homes, Inc. v. Elmer, 974 P.2d 952, 956 (Wyo. 1999):
[HN7] In Wyoming, a contract limiting liability for negligence may be enforced only if it does not contravene public policy. Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1059-60 (Wyo.1986); Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987); Brittain v. Booth, 601 P.2d 532, 535 (Wyo.1979). [**13]
In Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060, this Court adopted from Colorado a four-part test for evaluating a negligence exculpatory clause. [HN8] The factors the court considers are: “(1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” A comparison of Massengill’s claim with these factors leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the district court’s decision was correct as a matter of law.
We said in Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066, “[ [HN9] a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.” We then adopted from California [HN10] a definition of a release agreement affecting the public interest, giving rise to a public duty, which is that 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 [**14] 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 * * *. 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.” (Emphasis added and footnotes omitted.) Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 6 A.L.R.3d 693 (1963).
Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. We also adopted a [HN11] list of examples of services which are typically subject to public regulation and which demand a public duty or are considered essential. The list includes common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066.
Schutkowski was a case involving a sky diving injury, and we held that [HN12] a private recreational business does not qualify as one that owes a special duty to the public nor are its services of a special, highly [**15] necessary nature. Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060. The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential, and there was no greater duty to the public than existed in Schutkowski, Boehm or Milligan. The district court in its Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment cites and relies upon decisions from other jurisdictions which have held that [HN13] exculpatory clauses in health club contracts do not violate public policy. Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 926 (Minn. 1982); Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (1995). We are persuaded that the approach of the courts in Minnesota and Washington is the correct rule.
Massengill further maintains that he joined S.M.A.R.T. pursuant to a doctor’s order, and as such was receiving an essential service; therefore, S.M.A.R.T. owed him a public duty that is subject to regulation. A casual conversation, at a drugstore one evening, with the doctor/equity [**16] owner of the S.M.A.R.T. facility hardly qualifies as a prescription. The doctor was not Massengill’s treating physician nor was he acting in that capacity; he engaged in the conversation as the owner of the facility and not a physician. Moreover, the record is devoid of evidence showing that on the day he was injured, Massengill was engaging in a rehabilitation program. He admitted joining S.M.A.R.T. to [*1137] get into better physical condition. That was the purpose of his membership at S.M.A.R.T., and it qualifies as a recreational activity and not a practical necessity. Based on Massengill’s own testimony, his membership was purely recreational and not pursuant to a doctor’s order. There is no genuine issue of material fact as to the purpose or nature of Massengill’s use of the S.M.A.R.T. facility that needs to be resolved.
The third factor in the Schutkowski test is whether the contract was fairly entered into. Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining [**17] strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.” Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1066. Similar to the releases in Milligan, which involved an optional ski race, and Schutkowski, which involved sky diving, no evidence suggests that Massengill was unfairly pressured into signing the agreement or was deprived of the opportunity to understand its implications. In fact, after Massengill initially toured the facilities, he was given the Agreement and Release to take with him, which he filled out at home and returned three days later.
In determining that the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment should be considered under principles of contract law, we held that the last factor of the Schutkowski test is satisfied in this case. The intent of the parties was clearly expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [HN14] We interpret exculpatory clauses or releases using traditional contract principles, and consider the meaning of the document as a whole. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1067. Just as in Boehm, 748 P.2d at 712, “[a] plain reading of the language in the context of the [**18] entire membership application evidences no other rational purpose for which it could have been intended.”
In a further effort to avoid the Agreement and Release, the Massengills present an argument that the Recreation Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123 (Lexis 1999), creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity. The Massengills rely upon Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), and the distinction drawn in that case between primary assumption of risk and secondary assumption of risk. The thrust of this rather convoluted argument is that, if the conduct of the defendant comes within the category of secondary assumption of risk, a statutory duty is created by the language that preserves actions based on negligence. The Massengills then contend that the Agreement and Release cannot be enforced because it is contrary to the statutory duty. No authority is cited for that precise proposition, and we are satisfied that [HN15] the Recreation Safety Act does not foreclose [**19] the invocation of a contractual release or waiver for negligent conduct that is not released by the assignment of the inherent risk to the person participating in the sport or recreational opportunity under the statute. Indeed, the limited reach of the statute would suggest that a contractual release in addition to the statute would be prudent.
With respect to the claim of Kaylea Massengill for loss of consortium, her cause of action was included in the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. She executed the same Agreement and Release that James Massengill signed. Furthermore, her claim for loss of consortium was derivative of James Massengill’s claim for injuries, and it fails when his claim fails. Verschoor v. Mountain West Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 907 P.2d 1293, 1301 (Wyo. 1995); Boehm, 748 P.2d at 708.
The only pertinent issue in this case was whether the exculpatory clause should be held to violate public policy and not enforced for that reason. The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally [**20] thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order. The case [*1138] is correctly resolved as a matter of law under principles relating to contract, and the contractual language being clear and unambiguous, there are no genuine issues of material fact. The case is controlled by Schutkowski and the later cases that followed it. We affirm the district court’s Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
Court Of Appeals Of Indiana
931 N.E.2d 933; 2010 Ind. App. LEXIS 1501
August 16, 2010, Decided
August 16, 2010, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]
APPEAL FROM THE WHITLEY CIRCUIT COURT. The Honorable James R. Heuer, Judge. Cause No. 92C01-0809-CT-652.
COUNSEL: ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: SARAH E. RESER, Glaser & Ebbs, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: CARRIE KOONTZ GAINES, Kopka, Pinkus Dolin & Eads, L.L.C., Mishawaka, Indiana.
JUDGES: ROBB, Judge. FRIEDLANDER, J., and KIRSCH, J., concur.
OPINION BY: ROBB
[*934] OPINION – FOR PUBLICATION
Case Summary and Issue
Teresa Perry appeals the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Whitley County 4-H Clubs, Inc. (the “4-H Club”) on Perry’s negligence complaint for personal injuries suffered during a horse competition sponsored by the 4-H Club. For our review, Perry raises two issues, which we consolidate and restate as whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment based on the Indiana Equine Activity Statute. Concluding there is no genuine issue of material fact and the Equine Activity Statute bars Perry’s claim for injuries resulting from inherent risks of equine activities, we affirm.
Facts and Procedural History
The undisputed facts and those most favorable to Perry as the non-movant are as follows. At all relevant times, Perry, an adult, was a member of the 4-H Clubs Equine Advisory [**2] Board, which provides guidance and instruction to children participating in the 4-H Club’s horse events, and was herself a regular participant in those [*935] events. Perry was also the owner of seven horses. In July 2007, the 4-H Club held horse practices and competitions at the Whitley County Fairgrounds as part of the Whitley County Fair. These events were generally held in the 4-H Club’s Horse Barn, but one event, the Large Animal Round Robin Competition, was held in the 4-H Club’s Show Barn, located next to the Horse Barn. The Horse Barn is over 100 feet wide but the Show Barn is approximately thirty-six feet wide along its shorter side. Horses were generally familiar with the Horse Barn but unfamiliar with the Show Barn, where they were “not allowed any other time” besides the Round Robin Competition. Appellant’s Appendix at 88. At all entrances to the Horse Barn, the 4-H Club had posted “Equine Activity warning signs” that were “clearly visible.” Id. at 18-19 (affidavit of Bill Leeuw, 4-H Club’s President of the Board).
On July 25, 2007, the Round Robin Competition was held. The Equine Advisory Board and volunteers selected the horses to be shown, and Perry herself selected one of those [**3] horses “at the last minute.” Id. at 93. Perry was present at the Round Robin Competition as an Equine Advisory Board member responsible for the safety of children handling the horses. As part of the event, seven horses were led from the Horse Barn into the Show Barn and lined up approximately two and one-half feet apart along the shorter side of the Show Barn. The horses were then turned over to children who did not normally handle horses but had experience handling animals such as pigs and cows and had received brief instruction on how to handle a horse. After one of the children finished leading a horse through a series of maneuvers, the child left the horse facing away from the center of the Show Barn, in the opposite direction from the neighboring horses and with its rear next to the head of a neighboring horse. The horse facing backwards began sniffing the rear of the neighboring horse, which pinned its ears against its head as a sign it was agitated. Perry realized this situation posed a danger to the child handling the horse facing backwards. Perry therefore approached the child and told the child to turn the horse around. As the child was doing so, the neighboring horse kicked [**4] Perry in the knee. Perry was thrown back and suffered personal injuries.
In September 2008, Perry filed a complaint against the 4-H Club alleging her injuries were caused by the 4-H Club’s negligence in “allowing horse activities to be conducted on premises unsuitable for such activities.” Id. at 6. As specifically argued by Perry at the summary judgment hearing, she alleged the 4-H Club was negligent in deciding to hold the Round Robin Competition in the Show Barn instead of the Horse Barn, as the smaller Show Barn “requires horses to be placed close together, increasing the chances that a child near the horse will be injured by one. It’s also an environment the horses aren’t familiar with, which makes it more likely that a horse will get spooked and kick someone.” Transcript at 4. Among the 4-H Club’s affirmative defenses, it alleged in its answer that Perry’s claim was barred by the Indiana Equine Activity Statute.
The 4-H Club filed a motion for summary judgment based in part on the Equine Activity Statute. Following a hearing, the trial court on January 27, 2010, issued its order granting summary judgment to the 4-H Club. The trial court found and concluded in relevant part:
14. [**5] The [4-H Club] was a sponsor of an equine activity when the accident occurred.
15. [Perry] was a participant in the equine activity in her capacity as a safe [*936] keeper when she approached the horses and was kicked.
16. The Equine Activities Act . . . is applicable to this case.
17. Being kicked by a horse is an inherent risk of equine activity.
18. There is no evidence in the designation of material facts that [the 4-H Club] committed an act or omission which constituted a reckless disregard for the safety of [Perry] or that any other conditions set in [Indiana Code section] 34-31-5-2 existed at the time of the accident.
Appellant’s App. at 5. Perry now appeals.
Discussion and Decision
I. Standard of Review
[HN1] We review a summary judgment order de novo. Tri-Etch, Inc. v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 909 N.E.2d 997, 1001 (Ind. 2009). In so doing, we stand in the same position as the trial court and must determine whether the designated evidence shows there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C); Dreaded, Inc. v. St. Paul Guardian Ins. Co., 904 N.E.2d 1267, 1269-70 (Ind. 2009). In making this determination, we construe [**6] the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all doubts as to the existence of a genuine factual issue against the moving party. N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v. Bloom, 847 N.E.2d 175, 180 (Ind. 2006). Our review of a summary judgment motion is limited to those materials designated by the parties to the trial court. Mangold ex rel. Mangold v. Ind. Dep’t of Natural Res., 756 N.E.2d 970, 973 (Ind. 2001). The movant has the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine factual dispute as to an outcome-determinative issue and only then must the non-movant come forward with evidence demonstrating genuine factual issues that should be resolved at trial. Jarboe v. Landmark Cmty. Newspapers of Ind., Inc., 644 N.E.2d 118, 123 (Ind. 1994).
Because this case turns on the proper application of the Equine Activity Statute, we also recite our well-established standard of review for interpretation of statutes:
[HN2] When courts set out to construe a statute, the goal is to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature. The first place courts look for evidence is the language of the statute itself, and courts strive to give the words their plain and ordinary meaning. [**7] We examine the statute as a whole and try to avoid excessive reliance on a strict literal meaning or the selective reading of individual words. We presume the legislature intended the language used in the statute to be applied logically, consistent with the statute’s underlying policy and goals, and not in a manner that would bring about an unjust or absurd result.
Cooper Indus., LLC v. City of South Bend, 899 N.E.2d 1274, 1283 (Ind. 2009) (citations omitted).
II. Equine Activity Statute
A. Warning Signs
Perry argues the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because there is a genuine issue of fact as to whether the 4-H Club complied with the warning sign requirements of the Equine Activity Statute. We address this sub-issue first because it bears on the threshold applicability of the Equine Activity Statute as a bar to Perry’s claim. See Ind. Code § 34-31-5-3(a) (providing [HN3] “[t]his chapter does not apply unless” equine activity sponsor has posted at least one complaint warning sign). In response to Perry’s argument, the 4-H Club initially [*937] contends Perry waived the argument by not raising it to the trial court prior to the summary judgment hearing. We disagree. In general, arguments [**8] by an appellant are waived if not presented to the trial court on summary judgment, see Cook v. Ford Motor Co., 913 N.E.2d 311, 322 n.5 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009), trans. denied, and summary judgment may not be reversed on the grounds of a genuine factual issue “unless the material fact and the evidence relevant thereto shall have been specifically designated to the trial court,” T.R. 56(H). However, Perry did argue at the summary judgment hearing that the evidence designated by the 4-H Club was insufficient to establish its compliance with the warning sign requirements of the Equine Activity Statute. Moreover, this issue was already before the trial court based upon the 4-H Club’s motion for summary judgment and designation of material facts.
Proceeding to Perry’s claim, [HN4] the Equine Activity Statute provides that an equine activity sponsor, as a condition precedent to immunity under the statute, must post and maintain a warning sign in at least one location “on the grounds or in the building that is the site of an equine activity.” Ind. Code § 34-31-5-3(a)I. The sign “must be placed in a clearly visible location in proximity to the equine activity,” and the warning must be printed in black [**9] letters at least one inch in height. Ind. Code § 34-31-5-3(b), (c). The warning must state: “Under Indiana law, an equine professional is not liable for an injury to, or the death of, a participant in equine activities resulting from the inherent risks of equine activities.” Ind. Code § 34-31-5-5.
The undisputed evidence is that the 4-H Club, on the day of the incident, maintained “Equine Activity warning signs” on all entrances to the Horse Barn, and the signs were “clearly visible.” Appellant’s App. at 18-19. The 4-H Club’s equine activities were regularly held inside the Horse Barn, except for the Round Robin Competition held in the Show Barn located next to the Horse Barn. Perry acknowledged in her deposition she had seen “those signs” on the Horse Barn, id. at 114, and did not designate any evidence the signs were absent on the day of the incident or lacked the specific warning required by Indiana Code section 34-31-5-5. Perry argues, in effect, that because the only photographs the 4-H Club properly designated to the trial court do not directly show the signs contained the specific warning required, 1 the 4-H Club did not meet its burden of making a prima facie case of compliance [**10] with the statute. We decline Perry’s invitation to, in effect, interpret the Equine Activity Statute to require an equine activity sponsor to submit such photographic or documentary evidence in order to support its claim of immunity. Rather, we conclude the affidavit the 4-H Club properly designated established its prima facie case that it maintained proper warning signs, such that the burden shifted to Perry to come forward with evidence the signs were deficient. Because she did not do so, there is no genuine issue of fact as to the warning signs, and the trial court [*938] properly concluded the Equine Activity Statute applies to this case.
1 The parties dispute, and it is unclear from the record, whether a photograph identified as Defendant’s Exhibit A at Perry’s deposition, and allegedly included along with the deposition in the 4-H Club’s designation of evidence, was actually part of the designated material submitted to the trial court. That photograph, unlike those included as the 4-H Club’s Exhibit C in support of summary judgment and to which the 4-H Club referred at the summary judgment hearing, shows a warning sign containing the text specified in Indiana Code section 34-31-5-5.
B. [**11] Inherent Risk of Equine Activities
Perry also argues the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because there is a genuine issue of fact as to whether her injuries resulted from an inherent risk of equine activities. The Equine Activity Statute provides:
[HN5] Subject to section 2 of this chapter, an equine activity sponsor or equine professional is not liable for:
(1) an injury to a participant; or
(2) the death of a participant;
resulting from an inherent risk of equine activities.
Ind. Code § 34-31-5-1(a). 2 [HN6] The definition of “inherent risks of equine activities” is:
the dangers or conditions that are an integral part of equine activities, including the following:
(1) The propensity of an equine to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around the equine.
(2) The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to such things as sound, sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, people, or other animals.
(3) Hazards such as surface and subsurface conditions.
(4) Collisions with other equines or objects.
(5) The potential of a participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury to the participant or others, such as failing to maintain control over the [**12] animal or not acting within the participant’s ability.
Ind. Code § 34-6-2-69. The Equine Activity Statute further provides:
[HN7] Section 1 of this chapter does not prevent or limit the liability of an equine activity sponsor . . .:
(A) provided equipment or tack that was faulty and that caused the injury; and
(B) knew or should have known that the equipment or tack was faulty;
(2) who provided the equine and failed to make reasonable and prudent efforts based on the participant’s representations of the participant’s ability to:
(A) determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity; and
(B) determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine;
(A) was in lawful possession and control of the land or facilities on which the participant sustained injuries; and
(B) knew or should have known of the dangerous latent condition that caused the injuries;
if warning signs concerning the latent dangerous condition were not conspicuously posted on the land or in the facilities;
(4) who committed an act or omission that:
(A) constitutes reckless disregard for the safety of the participant; and
(B) caused the injury; or
[*939] (5) who intentionally [**13] injured the participant.
Ind. Code § 34-31-5-2(b). As Indiana’s Equine Activity Statute has not previously been interpreted in any reported case, 3 we will cite for their persuasive value the decisions of other jurisdictions that have interpreted similar statutes.
2 “Equine activity,” pursuant to its statutory definition, includes among other things “[e]quine shows, fairs, competitions, performances, or parades that involve equines.” Ind. Code § 34-6-2-41(a). “Equine activity sponsor” means “a person who sponsors, organizes, or provides facilities for an equine activity.” Ind. Code § 34-6-2-42. Perry does not dispute that the 4-H Club qualifies as an equine activity sponsor.
3 In Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center, Inc., 852 N.E.2d 576 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), trans. denied, the only reported case citing the Equine Activity Statute, this court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on the alternative grounds of waiver and release of liability. Id. at 585. We concluded the waiver applied because the plaintiff’s fall from a horse that moved while the plaintiff was attempting to mount it resulted from a risk “inherent in the nature of the activity of horse riding.” Id. at 584. However, [**14] we did not explicitly base that conclusion upon the text of the Equine Activity Statute.
Perry’s argument is that a reasonable trier of fact could find the cause of her injury was not an inherent risk of equine activities, but negligence of the 4-H Club in staging the Round Robin Competition. Perry makes no argument that any of the exceptions to immunity spelled out in Indiana Code section 34-31-5-2(b) (“Section 2(b)”) — faulty equipment or tack, provision of the equine and failure to make reasonable and prudent efforts to match the participant to the particular equine and equine activity, a latent premises defect, reckless disregard, or intentional injury — apply in this case. Therefore, we must examine whether and to what extent, consistent with the Equine Activity Statute, an equine activity sponsor may be liable for simple negligence allegedly causing injury to a participant.
Initially we note that negligence of an equine activity sponsor neither is one of the exceptions to immunity listed in Section 2(b), nor is it included in the non-exclusive list of inherent risks of equine activity under Indiana Code section 34-6-2-69. Thus, Indiana’s Equine Activity Statute, like equine activity [**15] statutes in some states but unlike some others, is silent on the place of sponsor negligence in the overall scheme of equine liability. Compare Lawson v. Dutch Heritage Farms, Inc., 502 F.Supp.2d 698, 700 (N.D. Ohio 2007) (noting Ohio’s Equine Activity Liability Act, like some other states?, is “silent as to simple negligence as an inherent risk”) (quotation omitted); with Beattie v. Mickalich, 486 Mich. 1060, 1060 784 N.W.2d 38, 2010 Mich. LEXIS 1452, 2010 WL 2756979, at *1 (Mich., July 13, 2010) (per curiam) (Michigan’s Equine Activity Liability Act abolishes strict liability for equines but expressly provides liability is not limited “‘if the . . . person . . . [c]ommits a negligent act or omission that constitutes a proximate cause of the injury?” (quoting Mich. Comp. Laws § 691.1665)). Because it is as important to recognize what a statute does not say as what it does say, City of Evansville v. Zirkelbach, 662 N.E.2d 651, 654 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996), trans. denied, and [HN8] statutes granting immunity, being in derogation of the common law, are strictly construed, see Mullin v. Municipal City of South Bend, 639 N.E.2d 278, 281 (Ind. 1994), we conclude the Equine Activity Statute was not intended by the general assembly [**16] to abrogate the cause of action for common-law negligence of an equine activity sponsor. However, pursuant to the clear text of the statute, a negligence action is precluded if the injury resulted from an inherent risk of equine activities and the facts do not fit one of the exceptions to immunity provided by Section 2(b). Stated differently, if none of the Section 2(b) exceptions apply, then an equine activity sponsor is not liable for failing to use reasonable care to mitigate an already inherent risk of equine activities that ultimately resulted in a participant’s injury.
[*940] Turning to Perry’s claim, she was injured when unexpectedly kicked by a horse that became agitated during the 4-H Club’s Round Robin Competition. The horse became agitated because another horse was standing too close nearby and began sniffing its rear, and to remove the danger to the child handling the other horse, Perry intervened. The statutory definition of “inherent risks of equine activities” includes, without limitation, “[t]he unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to such things as sound, sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, people, or other animals,” and “[t]he propensity of an equine to behave in ways [**17] that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around the equine.” Ind. Code § 34-6-2-69. Such risks directly caused Perry’s injury, in that the horse kicked as part of an unpredictable reaction to the other horse nearby and, Perry alleges, the close quarters and unfamiliar environment of the Show Barn. See Kangas v. Perry, 2000 WI App 234, 239 Wis.2d 392, 620 N.W.2d 429, 433 (Wis. Ct. App. 2000) (based on Wisconsin’s similar definition of inherent risks, concluding “horses? propensity to move without warning is an inherent risk of equine activity contemplated by the statute”), review denied. We therefore conclude Perry’s injury resulted from inherent risks of equine activities within the meaning of the Equine Activity Statute.
Perry argues the likelihood of a horse becoming agitated and kicking, and a child becoming endangered and needing to be rescued by a supervisor such as Perry, were unreasonably increased by the 4-H Club’s decision to hold the Round Robin Competition in the Show Barn, a cramped space unfamiliar to the horses. Even if that is true, however, the 4-H Club’s conduct would have contributed to Perry’s injury only by heightening the already inherent risk that a horse might [**18] behave unpredictably and in an injury-causing manner. Thus, Perry’s argument that her injury resulted not from an inherent risk of equine activities, but from the 4-H Club’s negligence in its manner of staging the Round Robin Competition, amounts to hair splitting irrelevant to the Equine Activity Statute. As explained above, the statute does not require that an equine activity sponsor’s alleged negligence in no way contribute to the injury complained of. Rather, the Equine Activity Statute only requires that, in order for immunity to apply, the injury must have resulted from broad categories of risk deemed integral to equine activities, regardless of whether the sponsor was negligent. See Ind. Code §§ 34-6-2-69; 34-31-5-1.
Perry also relies on cases from other jurisdictions that, while involving similar statutes, are distinguishable on their facts. In Steeg v. Baskin Family Camps, Inc., 124 S.W.3d 633 (Tex. App. 2003), review dismissed, the court held summary judgment for the defendant improper where there was evidence the proximate causes of the rider’s fall included the saddle slipping and the defendant’s negligent failure to secure the saddle. Id. at 639-40. In Fielder v. Academy Riding Stables, 49 P.3d 349 (Colo. Ct. App. 2002), [**19] cert. denied, the court held the defendant was not entitled to immunity where the defendant’s wranglers negligently failed to remove a screaming child from a horse, an “obvious danger” the wranglers had notice of well before the horse bolted. Id. at 351-52. Here, by contrast, there is no evidence the 4-H Club ignored an obvious, imminent danger or that Perry’s injury directly resulted from anything other than unpredictable horse behavior.
In sum, the facts viewed most favorably to Perry as the party opposing summary judgment show her injury resulted from inherent risks of equine activities and the 4-H Club was negligent, if at all, only for [*941] failing to mitigate those inherent risks. Therefore, the trial court properly concluded the Equine Activity Statute bars Perry’s claim and properly granted summary judgment to the 4-H Club.
There are no genuine issues of material fact that the 4-H Club complied with the warning sign requirements of the Equine Activity Statute and that Perry’s injury resulted from inherent risks of equine activities. Therefore, Perry’s claim is barred by the Equine Activity Statute and the trial court properly granted summary judgment to the 4-H Club.
FRIEDLANDER, [**20] J., and KIRSCH, J., concur.
Burd v. KL Shangri-La Owners, 2003 OK CIV APP 31; 67 P.3d 927; 2002 Okla. Civ. App. LEXIS 143; 74 O.B.A.J. 1109Posted: June 9, 2014
Burd v. KL Shangri-La Owners, 2003 OK CIV APP 31; 67 P.3d 927; 2002 Okla. Civ. App. LEXIS 143; 74 O.B.A.J. 1109
Georgia N. Burd, Plaintiff/Appellant, vs. KL Shangri-La Owners, L.P., Highgate Hotels, Inc., and Highgate Holdings, Inc., all d/b/a Shangri-La Resort and John Doe 1-3, Defendants/Appellees.
Case No. 98,235
COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS OF OKLAHOMA, DIVISION TWO
2003 OK CIV APP 31; 67 P.3d 927; 2002 Okla. Civ. App. LEXIS 143; 74 O.B.A.J. 1109
December 23, 2002, Decided
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Released for Publication December 23, 2002. As Modified March 25, 2003.
PRIOR HISTORY: APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF DELAWARE COUNTY, OKLAHOMA. HONORABLE ROBERT G. HANEY, TRIAL JUDGE.
DISPOSITION: Trial court’s grant of summary judgment reversed, and case remanded for further proceedings.
COUNSEL: Andrew B. Morsman, ANDREW B. MORSMAN, P.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, For Plaintiff/Appellant.
Tracy Pierce Nester, LAW OFFICES OF LARRIET E. THOMAS, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, For Defendants/Appellees.
JUDGES: OPINION BY JERRY L. GOODMAN, JUDGE. COLBERT, P.J., and RAPP, J., concur.
OPINION BY: JERRY L. GOODMAN
[**928] OPINION BY JERRY L. GOODMAN, JUDGE:
[*1] This is Georgia N. Burd’s (Patron) appeal from the trial court’s August 19, 2002, order granting summary judgment to all defendants on Patron’s petition for damages from personal injuries suffered while on defendants’ premises. The appeal was assigned to the accelerated docket pursuant to Okla.Sup.Ct.R. 1.36, 12 O.S. 2001, ch. 15, app. 1. Based upon our review of the facts and applicable law, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
[*2] According to Patron’s petition, filed March 16, 2001, she was injured while on the premises owned by the above named corporate defendants (collectively, Shangri-La) on May 12, 1999. Patron was participating in [***2] a tennis tournament held at Shangri-La when she tripped over rolls of carpet stored next to the tennis court. The carpet rolls were hidden from plain view by hanging curtains. Shangri-La generally denied the allegations and raised the affirmative defenses of contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, failure to state a claim, and inadequate notice of a dangerous condition.
[*3] On May 9, 2002, Shangri-La filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion set out as evidentiary material a document executed by Patron and other members of her tennis league prior to the start of the tennis season. The document stated, in relevant part: 1
Waiver of Claims: . . . .
I agree; for myself, my executors, administrators, heirs and personal representatives; that all claims of any kind, nature [**929] and description are waived, including past, present and future claims, if any, for injuries sustained in traveling to or from, or participating in, local league play in a USTA/MVTA tennis league. I further agree to release any facility (including, but not limited to, private clubs or public parks), its officers or employees; and any personnel associated with the league itself (including officials, [***3] the district association, committees and employees; the USTA, its officers, committees and employees; and any sponsors of the local league). (Emphasis added.)
1 We note this document also serves as a roster sign up sheet and a promise to play by league rules and demonstrate good sportsmanship.
[*4] Shangri-La sought summary judgment on the basis of this exculpatory clause and also argued that it owed no duty to search for hidden traps or dangers on its premises to protect Patron, whom it characterized as a licensee upon the premises. Shangri-La introduced evidentiary material showing Patron was not registered as a guest at Shangri-La, and Shangri-La did not receive any remuneration for the use of its tennis facilities by Patron’s tennis league.
[*5] The trial court conducted a hearing July 3, 2002, and found as a matter of law:
that the document entitled “Missouri Valley Tennis Association Local League Player Waiver,” signed by Plaintiff, contains an exculpatory clause which is effective to relieve Defendants [***4] of and from any liability to Plaintiff for the injuries and damages alleged in this action.
The trial court then granted Shangri-La’s motion for summary judgment. Patron appeals. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.
[*6] As set out in Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, PP 8, 10, 912 P.2d 871, 874,
While these exculpatory promise-based obligations are generally enforceable, they are distasteful to the law. [HN1] For a validity test the exculpatory clause must pass a gauntlet of judicially-crafted hurdles: (1) their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages; (2) at the time the contract (containing the clause) was executed there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between the parties; and (3) enforcement of these clauses must never (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual rights vis-a-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy. (Italics in original) (emphasis added).
Further, [***5] [HN2]
A contractual provision which one party claims excuses it from liability for in futuro tortious acts or omissions must clearly and cogently (1) demonstrate an intent to relieve that person from fault and (2) describe the nature and extent of damages from which that party seeks to be relieved.
[*7] In the case in controversy, Patron testified that when she executed the waiver at the beginning of the tennis season, she had no idea she would be playing league tennis at Shangri-La. Also, to her knowledge, this was the first time her Tulsa-area team had played there, though Patron had personally played there before. Indeed, Patron stated she “absolutely [did] not” intend to release Shangri-La when she executed the waiver, because at the time of the execution, the league teams had not even been formed, much less had a schedule or location of games been published. Further, Patron had no idea that Shangri-La would maintain what is arguably a hidden danger on its premises and therefore could not “describe the nature and extent of damages from which” Shangri-La now seeks to be relieved. We hold, as a matter of law, that the general, non-specific release of “any facility” was insufficient [***6] under Schmidt to relieve Shangri-La from liability.
[*8] We are not persuaded by Shangri-La’s attempts to distinguish Schmidt. Indeed we find Schmidt‘s three-prong analysis to test the validity of an exculpatory contract to be directly on point. While it is true Schmidt did not directly rule on an example of an exculpatory contract, it did answer certified federal questions of law as to how this court should analyze such a contract. Using the Schmidt criteria, we find [**930] Patron could not contract away Shangri-La’s liability, because (1) Patron did not know she would be playing at Shangri-La; (2) the identity of the tortfeasor was not known to her at the time of the contract; (3) there was no intent, and thus no meeting of the minds, to exculpate Shangri-La, and (4) the language of the exculpatory contract is vague and ambiguous.
[*9] Nor are we persuaded by Shangri-La’s reliance on Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, 956 P.2d 156, decided one year after, and relying on, Schmidt. In the first instance, Shangri-La’s motion inaccurately sets out Manning‘s holding. Shangri-La declares Manning to stand for the proposition that Patron’s [***7] intent to execute a “waiver” is sufficient to relieve Shangri-La of liability. However, Manning holds as follows:
P7 The Oklahoma Supreme Court has long recognized that [HN3] exculpatory contracts, i.e., a contract to avoid liability for damages also known as a “waiver” or “release,” may be valid and enforceable. . . . That is to say, so long as (1) the intent to excuse one party from the consequences of his or her own negligence is expressed in clear, definite and unambiguous language . . . . (Emphasis added.)
[*10] Second, in Manning, a divided 2 Court of Civil Appeals Division I held an exculpatory contract signed or initialed by the plaintiff in 14 different places, after watching a video tape wherein an attorney explained in detail the consequences of the document that the plaintiff was about to sign which expressly named the defendant parachute instruction school, and which contained a release of liability, a covenant not to sue, an agreement to indemnify and hold harmless, and a paragraph describing in detail the risks being assumed by the plaintiff, was sufficient evidence of the plaintiff’s intent to absolve the school of liability.
2 The dissent in Manning noted that the record suggested the defendant parachute school may have recklessly packed plaintiff’s parachute, thus creating a jury question. A waiver should not, in the opinion of the dissenter, absolve a defendant from his reckless behavior.
[*11] [***8] In the case at bar, the general, nonspecific waiver signed by Patron is completely dissimilar to the detailed, explicit release in Manning. In the instant case, the identity of the possible tortfeasor is unclear, over broad, unnamed, and unknown. Further, the waiver fails to identify the risks being waived, the duration of the waiver, and is arguably ambiguous, given the fact that Patron’s signature could be construed as an acknowledgment of the rules of the tennis league, of the waiver of liability, or merely of an indication that she wished to be part of a particular tennis team. We therefore conclude the facts in the case on review are distinguishable from those of Manning, and decline Shangri-La’s invitation to affirm the trial court based upon Manning.
[*12] Because the trial court’s order clearly states the sole reason for its grant of summary judgment is the existence of the exculpatory clause which the trial court found as matter of law prevented Patron’s recovery, and because we have held such clause to be ineffective as to Shangri-La, we hold the trial court’s order must be reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. [***9] The order makes no mention of undisputed material facts, or other reasons that, as a matter of law, would support the grant of summary judgment. Nor do we address the issue of Patron’s status as a licensee or invitee, and the respective duties owed to her by Shangri-La, because this was not part of the trial court’s stated basis for granting summary judgment.
[*13] REVERSED AND REMANDED FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.
COLBERT, P.J., and RAPP, J., concur.
December 24, 2002
Parveen v. Tiki Tubing, LLC, 2011 1477 (La.App. 1 Cir. 03/23/12); 2012 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 115
Neelam Parveen, Individually and on Behalf of Mansoor Raja and their Minor Children Versus Tiki Tubing, LLC and Abc Insurance Company
NO. 2011 CA 1477
COURT OF APPEAL OF LOUISIANA, FIRST CIRCUIT
2011 1477 (La.App. 1 Cir. 03/23/12); 2012 La. App. Unpub. LEXIS 115
March 23, 2012, Judgment Rendered
NOTICE: NOT DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION.
PLEASE CONSULT THE LOUISIANA RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE FOR CITATION OF UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Writ denied by Parveen v. Tiki Tubing, LLC, 90 So. 3d 1063, 2012 La. LEXIS 1798 (La., June 15, 2012)
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
On Appeal from the 21st Judicial District Court, in and for the Parish of Livingston, State of Louisiana. District Court No. 128,216. The Honorable Elizabeth P. Wolfe, Judge Presiding.
COUNSEL: Nicholas M. Graphia, Monroe, La., Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellant, Neelam Parveen, individually and on behalf of Mansoor Raja and their minor children.
C. David Vasser, Jr., Baton Rouge, La., Counsel for Defendant/Appellee, Tiki Tubing, L.L.C.
JUDGES: BEFORE: CARTER, C.J., PARRO AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.
OPINION BY: CARTER
[Pg 2] CARTER, C.J.
The plaintiff appeals the summary judgment dismissing her suit for damages arising from the drowning death of her husband. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Tiki Tubing, L.L.C. (Tiki) is a commercial enterprise located on the banks of the Amite River. During peak summer months, Tiki employs 10-15 full time employees. For a fee, Tiki provides customers with parking, tube rental, a bus ride upstream, and a beach entry and exit on the river. The tubing route on the Amite River takes approximately four hours to complete. The Tiki website describes the Amite River as “smooth and slow moving and … 1 to 3 feet deep with a few deeper holes from [*2] 6 to 8 feet deep.” The website continues: “All bodies of water have some inherent risks. Tiki . . . and its affiliates assume no liability for personal injury or loss of personal property.” The tubers are grouped together at the Tiki hut and bused upstream to the ingress point on the river. At this point, the tubers select their tubes and enter the water.
According to John Fore, the managing member of Tiki, there are no warning signs posted at the hut or along the river. Tiki provides life jackets free of charge to customers; however, customers are not required to wear them. Neither Fore nor the Tiki employees were aware of any prior drowning on the tubing route. There are no lifeguards or rescuers on staff, and employees are not trained in water safety or in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Tiki employees do not travel the river with the tubers, and there is no emergency equipment along the river route or at the Tiki [Pg 3] facility. Tiki does hire off-duty Livingston Parish Deputies as independent contractors to assist with crowd control, public drinking, drugs, broken glass, and unlocking of cars. The deputies are not posted on the tubing route; they are not hired to handle medical [*3] emergencies.
On June 21, 2009, 37-year-old Mansoor Raja and two of his friends decided to tube the Amite River. Raja had never tubed before, and after reading about Tiki from its internet website, Raja, Akhlaq Akhtar, and Tariq Mehmood drove to the facility. The group was presented with a liability waiver at the hut, and Akhtar printed all three men’s names on the bottom of the sheet.1 Although Raja was with Akhtar when Akhtar completed the form, Raja did not read or sign the waiver. Akhtar remembered the men being given a document containing safety instructions and that this information also was posted on a board. According to Akhtar, all three men read the instructions, which specifically mentioned the availability of life jackets. Akhtar asked the other men if they needed life jackets, but the general consensus was that the water would not be deep enough and that the life jackets were not needed. The waiver sheet is the only “warning” at the Tiki facility.
1 The waiver is entitled “Participant’s Agreement, Release, and Assumption of Risk.” The bottom of the form has multiple lines upon which customers write their names.
The three men boarded the bus, rode upstream, retrieved their tubes, [*4] and entered the river. According to Akhtar, Raja and Mehmood were playing around and getting caught in trees in the water. Akhtar tried to rush the other two men along so that they would not get separated from the group. The water was shallow, and Raja and Mehmood were leaving their tubes and [Pg 4] swimming freely in the river. The three men continued in this fashion for 15 to 20 minutes.
On the river trip, Raja was “getting excited.” He would leave his tube, swim downstream with the current, then wait for his tube to float to him. Raja did this four or five times. The men stopped to take a photograph, after which Raja said he would swim just one more length. Suddenly, while swimming ahead of his tube, Raja disappeared under the water. Then, Mehmood began having trouble in the water. Akhtar floated toward his friends and was able to help Mehmood get hold of the tube and out of the water. Raja, however, panicked and was unable to grasp the tube. According to Akhtar, the water was “too far deep” and moving much faster underneath the surface. Akhtar did not leave his tube in an attempt to pull Raja from the water because, according to Akhtar, the water was too deep and the current would [*5] have pulled him under too. Akhtar explained: “If you go to somebody who’s drowning, he’ll take you with him even if you are [a] good swimmer….”
Other floaters, noticing the commotion, began calling for help; the authorities were alerted with a call to 911, and another tuber ran toward the ingress point where several employees were working to notify them that someone was “lost.” Christopher Seese, a teenage employee of Tiki, stated that he first thought someone had simply gotten off his tube and run off. Upon realizing there was a problem, three employees ran to the scene. Fifteen to twenty tubers were sitting on the beach, and several tubers were swimming around in the deeper area of the river. The employees immediately entered the river. It took Christopher five to ten minutes to [Pg 5] locate Raja in the eight-foot-deep pocket in the river by dragging his foot in the water. Raja’s body was resting against a submerged log. According to Christopher, the current in the pocket was no stronger than the rest of the river; however, the water was deeper. It was estimated that it took an additional three to four minutes to get Raja out of the water and onto the shore.
Raja was brought to [*6] the shore, and another tuber was the first to attempt CPR. Because he was on the opposite side of the river, Akhtar estimated that it took him ten minutes to get to Raja after he was pulled from the water. Upon reaching shore, Akhtar observed that the unidentified tuber was performing CPR incorrectly, so Akhtar took over.2 Akhtar blew air into Raja’s chest, and Tiki employee Jacob Bourgeois assisted with chest compressions. Ultimately, four different people performed chest compressions on Raja, assisting Akhtar with CPR until the rescue helicopter arrived. According to Akhtar, Raja’s pulse was restored and he was warm to the touch prior to the arrival of paramedics and being airlifted to a hospital. Raja’s death certificate indicates he died the next day, June 22, 2009.
2 Akhtar explained that he had received training in CPR during military service.
Raja’s surviving spouse, Neelam Parveen, filed this wrongful death and survival action for damages against Tiki and its insurer, alleging Tiki’s negligent acts and omissions were a proximate cause of Raja’s death. After answering the petition, Tiki filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging Tiki did not breach any legal duty to Raja. Subsequent [*7] to the filing of Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, but prior to the hearing on the motion, the trial court granted the plaintiff leave to file a supplemental and amending [Pg 6] petition for damages. Therein the plaintiff alleged that she was entitled to punitive damages under general maritime law in that Tiki’s conduct was grossly negligent, reckless, and wanton. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed an opposition to Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, with attachments thereto, as well as a supplemental opposition.
Following a hearing, the trial court granted Tiki’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s claims against Tiki were dismissed with prejudice. The plaintiff appeals, asserting several arguments in support of her position that summary judgment was improperly granted.
A motion for summary judgment is a procedural device used to avoid a full-scale trial when there is no genuine issue of material fact. All Crane Rental of Georgia, Inc. v. Vincent, 10-0116 (La. App. 1 Cir. 9/10/10), 47 So. 3d 1024, 1027, writ denied, 10-2227 (La. 11/19/10), 49 So. 3d 387. Summary judgment is properly granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions [*8] on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966B. Summary judgment is favored and designed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966A(2).
Appellate courts review evidence de novo under the same criteria that govern the trial court’s determination of whether summary judgment is appropriate. All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027. On a motion for summary judgment, the burden of proof is on the mover. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966C(2) [Pg 7]. If, however, the mover will not bear the burden of proof at trial on the matter that is before the court on the motion, the mover’s burden does not require that all essential elements of the adverse party’s claim, action, or defense be negated. Id. Instead, the mover must point out to the court that there is an absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the adverse party’s claim, action, or defense. Id. Thereafter, the adverse party must produce factual evidence sufficient to establish that he will be able to satisfy his evidentiary [*9] burden of proof at trial. Id. If the adverse party fails to meet this burden, there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the mover is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. Proc. Ann. art. 966C(2); All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027.
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter but, instead, to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact. All Crane, 47 So. 3d at 1027. A court cannot make credibility decisions on a motion for summary judgment. Id. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must assume that all of the witnesses are credible. Id. Factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be construed in favor of the party opposing the motion, and all doubt must be resolved in the opponent’s favor. Id. Whether a particular fact in dispute is “material” for summary judgment purposes is viewed in light of the substantive law applicable to the case. Richard v. Hall, 03-1488 (La. 4/23/04), 874 So. 2d 131, 137.
[Pg 8] DISCUSSION
The plaintiff advances several theories of recovery for the alleged negligence or gross negligence of Tiki. [*10] Broadly stated, the plaintiff maintains that Tiki had custody of the tubing route on the Amite River and, accordingly, that Tiki owed its patrons a duty to maintain the river so that its guests would not be injured by the river’s vices and defects, a duty to train Tiki employees in emergency rescue and life-saving procedures, and a duty to properly warn Tiki customers of the hazards associated with tubing on the Amite River. The plaintiff also alleges that once Tiki employees involved themselves in attempted life-saving procedures on Raja, those employees assumed a duty to perform those life-saving measures properly.
The elements of a cause of action in tort are fault, causation, and damage. Seals v. Morris, 410 So. 2d 715, 718 (La. 1981). The existence of a legal duty and a breach of that duty are prerequisites to any determination of fault. Id. Although the determination of whether to assign a legal duty is fact-specific, the issue of whether there is a duty ultimately is a question of law. Bowman v. City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge, 02-1376 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/9/03), 849 So. 2d 622, 627, writ denied, 03-1579 (La. 10/3/03), 855 So. 2d 315. The inquiry is whether the plaintiff [*11] has any law–statutory, jurisprudential, or arising from general principles of fault– to support her claim. Faucheaux v. Terrebonne Consol. Government, 615 So. 2d 289, 292 (La. 1993); Fredericks v. Daiquiris & Creams of Mandeville, L.L.C, 04-0567 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/24/05), 906 So. 2d 636, 639, writ denied, 05-1047 (La. 6/17/05), 904 So. 2d 706.
[Pg 9] Under Louisiana Civil Code article 2317, “[w]e are responsible, not only for the damage occasioned by our own act, but for that which is caused by the act of persons for whom we are answerable, or of the things which we have in our custody.” Louisiana Civil Code article 2317.1 modifies Article 2317 and provides in pertinent part:
[The] custodian of a thing is answerable for damage occasioned by its ruin, vice, or defect, only upon a showing that he knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice, or defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that he failed to exercise such reasonable care.
The plaintiff alleges that in accordance with Article 2317.1, Tiki, as custodian3 of the tubing route on the Amite River, owed a duty to its patrons [*12] to employ safety measures to prevent drowning and to discover any unreasonably dangerous condition and to either correct the condition or warn of its existence. In order to prevail on a claim of negligence under Articles 2317 and 2317.1, the plaintiff will have the ultimate burden at trial of proving by a preponderance of the evidence each of the following elements: (1) Tiki is the custodian of the portion of the Amite River that includes the tubing route; (2) that portion of the Amite River is defective and that the defect presented an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) Tiki knew or should have known of the defect; (4) the plaintiff was damaged by the defect; and (5) Tiki could have prevented the damage to the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable care, which Tiki failed to exercise. See Riggs v. Opelousas General Hosp. Trust Authority, 08-591 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/5/08), 997 So. 2d 814, 817. Failure to prove any one of these elements will defeat the [Pg 10] plaintiff’s claim and thus establish the defendant’s entitlement to summary judgment. See Grogan v. Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Inc., 07-1297 (La. App. 3 Cir. 4/16/08), 981 So. 2d 162, 165.
3 There are no allegations or evidence [*13] suggesting that Tiki owned the area of the river, or the land abutting that portion of the river, in which Raja drowned.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has instructed that determining who has custody of a thing is a fact-driven determination. Dupree v. City of New Orleans, 99-3651 (La. 8/31/00), 765 So. 2d 1002, 1009. Courts should consider: (1) whether the person bears such a relationship as to have the right of direction and control over the thing; and (2) what, if any, kind of benefit the person derives from the thing. Dupree, 765 So. 2d at 1009. “The person who has custody or garde of a thing is he who has the legal duty to prevent its vice or defect from harming another.” Id. at 1009. This court has held that a state-owned river cannot be in the custody of a landowner. See Tobey v. State, 454 So. 2d 144, 145 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1984) (a tubing accident did not result from any condition of the land).
Even if the plaintiff were to establish that material issues of fact remain in dispute regarding custody of the tubing route on the Amite River, the plaintiff also must prove that the portion of the Amite River at issue suffered from a vice or defect in order to recover damages under Articles 2317 [*14] and 2317.1. A defect is defined as a condition that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. Moory v. Allstate Ins. Co., 04-0319 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/11/05), 906 So. 2d 474, 480, writ denied, 05-0668 (La. 4/29/05), 901 So. 2d 1076. The record establishes that Raja drowned in an area of the river described as a drop or a deep pocket. This court has held that the “existence of a hole in a natural lake, that renders the depth of the lake deeper than other portions, would not, ipso facto, constitute a defective [Pg 11] condition.”4 Johnson v. City of Morgan City, 99-2968 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/22/00), 787 So. 2d 326, 330-31, writ denied, 01-0134 (La. 3/16/01), 787 So. 2d 315. Further, “variations in water depth within natural swimming areas are standard.” Johnson, 787 So. 2d at 330. Citing this court in Johnson, the Fourth Circuit has concluded that there is no distinction between a hole in a lake and a drop off in a river. Sevin v. Parish of Plaquemines, 04-1439 (La. App. 4 Cir. 4/27/05), 901 So. 2d 619, 623-24, writ denied, 05-1790 (La. 1/27/06), 922 So. 2d 550. The plaintiff fails to establish that the deeper pocket in this natural body of water constitutes a defect for purposes of Article 2317.1.
4 Moreover, [*15] not every defect gives rise to statutory liability under Articles 2317 and 2317.1. Ruschel v. St. Amant, 11-78 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/24/11), 66 So. 3d 1149, 1153. The defect must be of such a nature as to constitute a dangerous condition that reasonably would be expected to cause injury to a prudent person using ordinary care under the circumstances. Ruschel, 66 So. 3d at 1153.
The plaintiff argues that Tiki had a duty to provide an adequate and correct warning to customers regarding the dangers of tubing and the depth and current of the Amite River, and also had a duty to post lifeguards along the tubing route.5 Tubing has been defined as an activity that is obviously and inherently dangerous. See Tobey, 454 So. 2d at 146. Drowning because of currents is a natural and inevitable risk to swimmers in a natural body of water. See Hall v. Lemieux, 378 So. 2d 130, 132 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1979), [Pg 12] writ denied, 381 So. 2d 1220 (La. 1980). When a risk is obvious, there is no duty to warn or protect against it. Moory, 906 So. 2d at 478. Akhtar described Raja as “not a good swimmer.”6 Despite his limited swimming abilities and knowing that the water was over his head in parts, Raja voluntarily [*16] left his tube to swim freely in the river without a life jacket, allowing the current to carry him away from his tube.
5 Louisiana’s general negligence liability provision is found in Louisiana Civil Code article 2315. Louisiana courts have adopted a duty-risk analysis in determining whether to impose liability under Article 2315. Pinsonneault v. Merchants & Farmers Bank & Trust Co., 01-2217 (La. 4/3/02), 816 So. 2d 270, 275. In order for liability to attach under a duty-risk analysis, the plaintiff must prove five separate elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard of care (the duty element); (2) the defendant failed to conform his or her conduct to the appropriate standard of care (the breach of duty element); (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries (the cause-in-fact element); (4) the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries (the scope of protection element); and (5) actual damages (the damage element). Pinsonneault, 816 So. 2d at 275-76.
6 During the few times that Akhtar and Raja swam together in a pool, Raja would swim one pool length at a time, keeping [*17] his head out of the water the entire time. Raja would go in water over his head; however, he would hold onto a “pipe.”
Finally, citing to Harris v. Pizza Hut of La., Inc., 455 So. 2d 1364 (La. 1984), the plaintiff argues that Tiki assumed a duty when its employees attempted life-saving measures on Raja and then breached that duty by improperly performing CPR on Raja. In Harris, the supreme court held that a restaurant had a duty, once it hired a security guard, to have that guard protect patrons from the criminal activities of third persons in a reasonable and prudent manner. Id. at 1369. This court has recognized that the negligent breach of an assumed duty may create civil liability. McGowan v. Victory and Power Ministries, 99-0235 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/31/00), 757 So. 2d 912, 914. If a person voluntarily or gratuitously undertakes a task that he otherwise has no duty to perform, he must nevertheless perform that task in a reasonable or prudent manner. McGowan, 757 So. 2d at 914; see La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 2315.
Tiki employees acknowledged having no formal CPR training. Akhtar stated that he had been trained in CPR, and Akhtar was performing breathing assistance on Raja, while several [*18] others–including Tiki employees–assisted with chest compressions on Raja. The affidavit of the [Pg 13] plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Adam Broussard, set forth the CPR guidelines and concluded that, based on Jacob’s deposition, “the responders did not correctly perform CPR.” Dr. Broussard’s affidavit establishes that early CPR “performed correctly is the single most important intervention that can be performed in the field by a lay person.”
Raja was pulled from the water after being submerged for at least ten minutes. Akhtar stated that when Raja was brought up to the surface, he was not moving and not conscious. Akhtar began breathing into Raja with the assistance of four others, who took turns doing chest compressions. Akhtar observed that after the second person’s turn with chest compressions, Raja was warm to the touch and a pulse was discernible. Although Dr. Broussard’s affidavit establishes that CPR was performed improperly, his affidavit does not establish that the efforts of Tiki employees were unreasonable, imprudent, or, more importantly, a cause-in-fact of Raja’s death or that there was a reasonable probability that proper CPR would have been lifesaving in these circumstances.
The [*19] plaintiff failed to produce factual evidence sufficient to establish that she would be able to meet her burden at trial of proving by a preponderance of the evidence all of the elements of a cause of action in negligence or gross negligence. Despite not being a good swimmer, Raja willingly entered the river without a life jacket and chose to swim away from his tube. It was Raja’s own imprudent actions that led to his tragic death. See Sevin, 901 So. 2d at 624. For the above-stated reasons, we affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Tiki [Pg 14] Tubing, L.L.C, dismissing the suit filed against it by Neelam Parveen, individually and on behalf of Mansoor Raja and their minor children. Costs of this appeal are assessed to the plaintiff, Neelam Parveen.
Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206
Cari J. Wroblewski, Plaintiff, v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., Defendant.
Civil Action No. 12-0780
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206
August 22, 2013, Decided
August 22, 2013, Filed
COUNSEL: [*1] For CARI J. WROBLEWSKI, Plaintiff: Emmanuel J. Argentieri, LEAD ATTORNEY, Parker McCay, Mount Laurel, NJ; Gary F. Piserchia, PRO HAC VICE, Parker McCay P.A., Mt. Laurel, NJ.
For OHIOPYLE TRADING POST, INC., Defendant: P. Brennan Hart, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jeanette H. Ho, Pietragallo, Bosick & Gordon, Pittsburgh, PA; John R. Brumberg, Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, LLP, Pittsburgh, PA.
JUDGES: Mark R. Hornak, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Mark R. Hornak
Mark R. Hornak, United States District Judge
Cari Wroblewski brings suit against Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc. (“Ohiopyle”) alleging that she suffered injuries to her knee as a result of Defendant’s negligence and gross negligence when she was thrown from her raft during a white water rafting trip. Ohiopyle argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because (1) Plaintiff signed a Rental Agreement which contained a provision releasing Defendant from liability (“Release”) for the very claims made in this matter and (2) Defendant did not have a duty to protect Plaintiff from being thrown from a raft and striking a rock because these are inherent risks of white water rafting. These matters, having been fully briefed by the parties and oral [*2] argument having been presented, are ripe for disposition. For the reasons which follow, Ohiopyle’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.
Cari Wroblewski was 37 years old at the time of the incident that forms the basis of this lawsuit. Wroblewski Dep. 7:4-5. She holds an associate’s degree in business as well as a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Id. at 8:18-9:19. In April 2010, two months prior to the trip at issue in this case, Plaintiff went white water rafting on the Salt River in Arizona where she signed a rental agreement with a release and was informed that white water rafting could be dangerous and that she could fall out of the raft. Id. 16:21-17:7; 20:14-21:9.
One of Plaintiff’s friends, Steve Rose, made arrangements to rent equipment from Ohiopyle for a rafting trip on the Youghiogheny River with a group of their friends on June 11, 2010. ECF No. 21 ¶ 2; ECF No. 25 ¶ 2. Joel Means, one of the owners of Ohiopyle, testified in his deposition that the lower section of the Youghiogheny River is considered “the intermediate white water section of the River” and consists of Class I through Class III rapids with borderline Class IV at certain levels. Means Dep. 14:8-15:1. [*3] Plaintiff had been told, not by an Ohiopyle employee but most likely by one of her friends in the group, that the rapids on the river would be mild, level two and three rapids. Wroblewski Dep. 37:6-23. 1
1 “Q: What made you think before then that the rapids were levels two or three?
A: From what I had been told they were supposed to be rather mild rapids.
Q: Who told you that they were rather mild rapids?
A: I don’t recall.
Q: It wasn’t anyone from Ohiopyle Trading Post; was it?
Q: Was it one of the people in your group that went white water rafting that day?
A: Most likely.” Wroblewski Dep. 37:6-23.
On the morning of June 11, 2010, Means noticed that the river was “up and brown” from rain the night before, and that the water level had risen from 2.5 to 3.98 feet. Means Dep. 19:2-11. When the river’s water level reaches four (4) feet, rafters are required by state regulations to have an experienced guide accompany them on their rafting trip. 2 Id. 60:3-6. Ohiopyle is permitted to provide guided white water rafting tours when the level of the river is between four (4) and ten (10) feet. ECF No. 31. Means testified that the river level being of above average flow could make the rafting trip [*4] more difficult, but that the river is more dangerous at low levels than at high levels. Means Dep. 47:18-22.
2 At oral argument, Plaintiff’s counsel persistently argued not that the river level actually was four (4) feet at the time at issue, but that the Court should treat it as if it were. The Court knows of no record basis to do so.
Plaintiff and her friends traveled to the Youghiogheny River for the white water rafting trip on the morning of June 11, 2010. ECF No. 21 ¶ 1; ECF No. 25 ¶ 1. Upon arriving at the River, Plaintiff went to the bathroom for “quite a while” while the rest of her group started to get their rented equipment. ECF No. 25 at 2, ¶ 1; Wroblewski Dep. 31:8-19. Means informed the rest of Plaintiff’s group that the level of the river was above average flow that day and therefore the river that day was a “real white water river” and not a “float trip.” Means Dep. 16:16-17. Means told Steve Rose that if he and the others in the group no longer wished to rent equipment, Ohiopyle would provide the group with a guided whitewater rafting tour at a discounted rate of $40 per person rather than the usual price of $60 per person (a non-guided rafting trip costs about $20 per [*5] person). Id. 38:9-14; 46:21-47:8. Plaintiffs group declined the offer of a discounted guided rafting trip. Means also instructed his employees that day to “make sure [the group understood] what game they’re about to play,” in reference to the river. Id. 39:11-15. Presumably because she was in the bathroom, Plaintiff never heard from Means his advice as to the conditions of the river or offer of a guided tour. Wroblewski Dep. 32:2-12.
When Plaintiff was finished in the bathroom, she went to get her equipment from Ohiopyle and was “in a rush” because her friends had gotten a head start. ECF No. 25 at 2, ¶¶ 2-3; Wroblewski Dep. 31:8-19. An Ohiopyle employee handed Plaintiff a Rental Agreement and told her that she “needed to sign the form and meet up with [her] group because they were getting their gear.” ECF No. 25 at 2, ¶ 5; Wroblewski Dep. 76:6-21. Plaintiff testified that “[t]hey hurried me along” and she was not given an opportunity to read the Rental Agreement. Wroblewski Dep. 78:7; 76:22-23. She also testified that the Ohiopyle employee “didn’t ask me to read it, they just gave it to me and said please sign this and catch up with your group, they’re already getting their stuff.” [*6] Id. 78:3-13. Plaintiff signed Ohiopyle’s Rental Agreement which included a waiver and release of liability provision (“Release”). ECF No. 19-5. 3
3 Plaintiff was not the last person in her group to sign the Rental Agreement, as her signature is the second to last signature on the Rental Agreement. ECF No. 19-5.
After receiving her rafting equipment, Plaintiff and her group received a safety briefing by an Ohiopyle employee before being sent to the river to embark on their trip. ECF No. 25 ¶ 8; Wroblewski Dep. 32:13-16. In the safety briefing, Plaintiff was warned that white water rafting can be dangerous, and it was possible that participants could fall out of the raft. Wroblewski Dep. 33:6-12.
After rafting through the first set of river rapids, Plaintiff grew concerned that the rapids were not level two or three. Id. 37:6-10. Plaintiff stated that she was concerned that the river was more than she could handle, and that she considered getting off of the river but “[t]here was no place to get off.” Id. 40:5-16. Plaintiff did not express her concerns to any others on the rafting trip. Id. 40:10-1. Near the end of the whitewater rafting trip, Plaintiff was thrown from the raft. ECF No. [*7] 21 ¶ 5; ECF No. 25 ¶ 5; Wroblewski Dep. 41:12-20. According to Plaintiff, she was dragged under water and struck her knee on a rock, sustaining serious injuries. ECF No. 21 ¶ 6; ECF No. 25 ¶ 6; Wroblewski Dep. 41:21-42:1.
Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant in June 2012. ECF No. 1. Defendant moved for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 19, 20, 21. Plaintiff filed her response, ECF Nos. 24, 25, and Defendant filed a reply as well as a supplement. ECF Nos. 26, 27, 31. For the reasons discussed below, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.
Summary judgment is appropriate when “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); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The parties must support their position by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). In other words, summary judgment may be granted only if [*8] there exists no genuine issue of material fact that would permit a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
In reviewing the evidence, the court draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S. Ct. 2097, 147 L. Ed. 2d 105 (2000); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); Huston v. Procter & Gamble Paper Prod. Corp., 568 F.3d 100, 104 (3d Cir.2009) (citations omitted). It is not the court’s role to weigh the disputed evidence and decide which is more probative, or to make credibility determinations. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004); Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (1986). An issue is “genuine” if a reasonable jury could possibly hold in the non-movant’s favor with regard to that issue. See id. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a reasonable trier [*9] of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587; Huston, 568 F.3d at 104.
Ohiopyle advances two arguments in support of its summary judgment motion. First, Defendant submits that the Rental Agreement form signed by Plaintiff contained a valid and enforceable release of liability in favor of Defendant, releasing Defendant from liability for the very claims made in this matter. Secondly, Defendant argues that it did not have a duty to protect Plaintiff from being thrown from a raft and striking a rock because these are inherent risks of white water rafting, and this Defendant should not have any liability.
On June 11, 2010, prior to white water rafting, Plaintiff signed a two-page document that contains a release of liability and is titled “RENTAL AGREEMENT” in capital letters at the top of its first page. ECF No. 19-5. The top half of the first page is a form to be filled out with information relating to the primary renter and the white water rafting equipment to be rented. Id.
The bottom half of the first page begins with the header “TERMS AND CONDITIONS,” with thirteen (13) paragraphs listed in three columns [*10] under this header. Id. The actual language releasing Ohiopyle from liability regardless of its own negligence is listed as paragraph nine (9) in this section. Id. The font of the Release language is the same size as the other paragraphs listed under “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” but, unlike the other paragraphs, is written in all capital letters. Id. The exculpatory clause consequently falls on the bottom half of the front side of the first page, in both the left and middle columns and, by itself, makes up approximately half of the language listed under “TERMS AND CONDITIONS.” Id.
Paragraph nine (9) contains the following language:
9. READ CAREFULLY THE FOLLOWING WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY: HAVING RECEIVED A SAFETY TALK BY A MEMBER OP LESSOR’S STAFF, AND HAVING READ THE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE REVERSE SIDE HEREOF, LESSEE(S) HEREBY ACKNOWLEDGE THAT HE/SHE/THEY FULLY UNDERSTAND(S): (a) THAT OUTDOOR RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES HAVE INHERENT RISKS, DANGERS, AND HAZARDS, AND THAT SUCH EXISTS IN MY USE OF THE EQUIPMENT ABOVE DESCRIBED AND MY PARTICIPATION IN WHITE WATER RAFTING AND RELATED ACTIVITIES; (b) THAT MY PARTICIPATION IN SUCH ACTIVITIES AND/OR THE USE OF SUCH EQUIPMENT [*11] MAY RESULT IN INJURY OR ILLNESS, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, BODILY INJURY, DISEASE, STRAINS, FRACTURES, PARTIAL AND OR TOTAL PARALYSIS, DEATH, OR OTHER AILMENTS THAT COULD CAUSE SERIOUS DISABILITY; (c) THAT SAID RISKS AND DANGERS MAY BE CAUSED BY (i) THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE OWNERS, EMPLOYEES, OFFICERS, OR AGENTS OF LESSOR, (ii) THE NEGLIGENCE OF PARTICIPANTS, (iii) THE NEGLIGENCE OF OTHERS, (iv) ACCIDENTS, (v) BREACHES OF CONTRACT, AND (vi) THE FORCES OF NATURE OR OTHER CAUSES; (d) THAT RISKS AND DANGERS MAY ARISE FROM FORESEEABLE OR UNFORESEEABLE CAUSES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, GUIDE DECISION MAKING, INCLUDING THAT A GUIDE MAY MISJUDGE TERRAIN, WEATHER, TRAIL OR RIVER ROUTE LOCATION; WATER LEVEL; FALLING OUT OF OR DROWNING WHILE IN A RAFT, CANOE, OR KAYAK; AND SUCH OTHER RISKS, HAZARDS. AND DANGERS THAT ARE INTEGRAL TO RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES THAT TAKE PLACE IN A WILDERNESS, OUTDOOR OR RECREATIONAL ENVIRONMENT; AND (e) THAT BY MY PARTICIPATION IN THESE ACTIVITIES AND/OR USE OF THE EQUIPMENT ABOVE DESCRIBED, I HEREBY ASSUME ALL RISKS, DANGERS, AND RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY LOSSES AND/OR DANGERS, WHETHER CAUSED IN WHOLE OR IN PART BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER CONDUCT OF THE OWNERS, [*12] AGENTS, OR EMPLOYEES OF LESSOR OR ANY OTHER PERSON.
AND FURTHER, ON BEHALF OF MY PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVES, SUCCESSORS, HEIRS, AND ASSIGNS, I DO HEREBY VOLUNTARILY AGREE TO RELEASE, WAIVE, DISCHARGE, HOLD HARMLESS, DEFEND, AND INDEMNIFY LESSOR AND ITS OWNERS, AGENTS, OFFICERS, AND EMPLOYEES FROM ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, ACTIONS, OR LOSSES FOR BODILY INJURY, PROPERTY DAMAGE, WRONGFUL DEATH, LOSS OF SERVICES, OR OTHERWISE WHICH MAY ARISE OUT OF MY USE OF THE EQUIPMENT ABOVE DESCRIBED, OR MY PARTICIPATION IN ANY ACTIVITIES INVOLVING SAID EQUIPMENT. I SPECIFICALLY UNDERSTAND THAT I AM RELEASING, DISCHARGING, AND WAIVING ANY CLAIMS OR ACTIONS THAT I MAY HAVE PRESENTLY OR IN THE FUTURE FOR THE NEGLIGENT ACTS OR OTHER CONDUCT BY THE OWNERS, AGENTS, OFFICERS, OR EMPLOYEES OF LESSOR.
I HAVE READ THE ABOVE WAIVER AND RELEASE, AND, BY SIGNING THIS RENTAL AGREEMENT, AGREE THAT IT IS MY INTENTION TO EXEMPT AND RELIEVE LESSOR AND ITS OWNERS, AGENTS, OFFICERS, AND EMPLOYEES FROM LIABILITY FOR PERSONAL INJURY, PROPERTY DAMAGE, OR WRONGFUL DEATH CAUSED BY NEGLIGENCE OR ANY OTHER CAUSE.
At the end of the “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” section, at the beginning of the right column, is the following language:
IN WITNESS [*13] WEREOF, and intending to be legally bound hereby, the undersigned Lessee(s) hereby certify that he/she/they have read and understood the terms and conditions of this Rental Agreement, and has/have affixed his/her/their hand(s) and seal(s) hereto on the dated indicated.
Id. Directly underneath this language, and in the column next to the exculpatory clause, multiple lines were provided where Plaintiff and the members of her party signed their names. Id. Plaintiff’s signature is the second to last signature listed on the form. Id.
The second page of the Rental Agreement has two sections. Id. The first section includes the header “SAFETY PRECAUTIONS” and the second section is titled “RECOMMENDATIONS.” Id. Both sections list a number of precautions and recommendations for how white water rafters should conduct themselves while on the river. Id.
The Defendant argues that the Release contained in the Rental Agreement is valid and enforceable. ECF Nos. 19, 20, 26. Plaintiff on the other hand asserts that the Release is unenforceable because its language is not sufficiently conspicuous to alert a party that it serves to release Defendant from liability and that Plaintiff did not actually assent [*14] to the terms of the Rental Agreement. ECF No. 24. To support her contentions, Plaintiff points out that the document was titled “Rental Agreement” and therefore does not provide adequate notice to signors that it is a release of liability. Id. at 7-8. Furthermore, the exculpatory language is placed at the bottom left of the form and not directly above the signature line, is written in small font, and does not appear until paragraph 9 of the form. Id. Plaintiff also argues that no one specifically informed her that she was entering into a contract that would affect her legal rights, and that she was “rushed along” by Defendant’s employees. Id.
The parties agree that this Court must consider Pennsylvania law and apply it in this case. See Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Applying Pennsylvania law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained that:
It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent [*15] to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. . . . once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (citations omitted).
Plaintiff primarily relies on three release of liability cases to support her contention that the Release is in this instance unenforceable: Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 2006 PA Super 159, 902 A.2d 1266 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006); [*16] Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174 (Pa. 2010), and Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., No. 10-333, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). 4
4 Plaintiff does not argue that the release in this instance is facially invalid.
In Beck-Hummel, the plaintiff brought a negligence claim for injuries she received from colliding with a barrier wall while snow tubing at the defendant’s resort. 2006 PA Super 159, 902 A.2d 1266. There, the release was printed on the backside of a lift ticket that the plaintiff’s husband purchased and had given to plaintiff. Id. at 1267, 1270-71. The release contained hard to read and inconspicuous language, it did not require a signature or acknowledgment, and was printed on the portion of the ticket that would be folded out of sight of the user. Id. at 1269, 1273-1274. The record also revealed the lift ticket was not given to the Plaintiff directly by the operator. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that plaintiff’s assent to the terms of the disclaimer was not clearly established and therefore it could not hold as a matter of law that the release for snow tubing injuries was enforceable. Id. at 1275.
In Chepkevich, plaintiff skier, who had signed a release [*17] prior to skiing, asked a lift operator to stop a lift so that she and her 6-year-old nephew could board the lift. Although the lift operator agreed to do so, when the lift came behind the plaintiff and her nephew, the operator failed to stop the lift. The skier sued the ski resort for negligence for injuries she received as a result of falling from the ski lift. The release in this case was printed on a single page and titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY.” 2 A.3d at 1192. The language releasing liability was in the same font as the rest of the release, included the term “negligence”, and “specifically noted that riding the ski lift is a risky activity.” Id. The plaintiff argued that she did not read the exculpatory language nor did anyone orally inform her that she was entering into such an agreement. Id. at 1180-81. The court held that the release was valid, enforceable, and “clearly encompassed the risk at issue . . . [and] clearly spelled out the parties’ intention to release [defendant] from liability for injuries . . . regardless of any negligence on the part of the [defendant].” Id. at 1195. The court therefore upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Id.
Finally [*18] in Lin, the plaintiff sued for serious injuries sustained from skiing when she lost control and fell into a snow making machine that was not properly padded. The document containing the release provision was titled “EQUIPMENT RENTAL FORM AND RELEASE FROM LIABILITY.” 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648, at *2. On the front page of the release was a capitalized, blocked section in the center of the page, above the signature line, instructing the reader to “PLEASE READ THE AGREEMENT ON THE BACK OF THIS FORM BEFORE SIGNING. IT RELEASES U.S. FROM CERTAIN LIABILITY.” Id. Directly between the instruction to read the back of the release and the signature line was the following statement: “I, the undersigned, have carefully read and understood the Acceptance of Risk and Liability Release on the back of this paper.” Id. The exculpatory clause was located on the back of the form and stated multiple times that it was a release from liability. 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, [WL] at *2. The court found that even though the plaintiff had not read the release language, that she “was a voluntary signatory to a full-sized contract.” 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, [WL] at *5. The court held that the exculpatory clause was enforceable and granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. [*19] 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, [WL] at *9.
This case is not analogous to Beck-Hummel, as Plaintiff contends. Unlike Beck-Hummel, Plaintiff “was not a mere recipient of a release printed on a ticket, but was a voluntary signatory to a full-sized contract.” Lin, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648, at *5. Plaintiff signed the Rental Agreement herself, and her signature is immediately preceded by instructions guiding her to read the entirety of the form and confirming that she had done so. Moreover, Plaintiff was provided a full-sized contract in which the Release was set forth on its front side, as opposed to a small unreadable ticket that she did not sign and in which the operative language was written on the reverse side.
Moreover, the language of the Release, construed strictly against Defendant, plainly expresses the intention of the parties to release Defendant from liability for future injury. The paragraph mentions “negligence” five (5) times and that it is a release of liability three (3) times. ECF No. 19-5. 5 Specifically, the first sentence of paragraph 9 asks the signer to carefully read the “WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY.” Id.
5 In fact, exculpatory clauses may bar suits based on negligence even where the clause does not specifically [*20] mention the word “negligence” at all. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “It strains common sense to suggest that releases that fail to mention the word ‘negligence’ should consistently be interpreted as barring suits based on negligence claims, while a release that clearly states that suits are barred ‘regardless of negligence’ would not bar such suits.” Id.
Part of Plaintiff’s argument is that she was not personally informed by Ohiopyle of the elevated water level prior to her signing the Rental Agreement. However, the language of the Release explicitly warned of the same things that Defendant’s employees cautioned the rest of Plaintiff’s group. Specially, the Release warns of “bodily injury” from “risks and dangers [that] may arise from foreseeable or unforeseeable causes, including . . . water level” and “falling out of . . . a raft.” Id. Furthermore, the clause stated that by signing the agreement, the signor “assume[s] all risks, dangers, and responsibility for any losses and/or dangers.” Id. In fact, the clause even warns of “total paralysis” and “death.” Id. This paragraph goes on to explain that the signor “specifically understand[s] that I am releasing, discharging, and waiving any [*21] claims or actions that I may have presently or in the future for the negligent acts or other conduct by” the Defendant. Id. Furthermore, “it is my intention to exempt and relieve lessor . . . from liability for personal injury . . . caused by negligence.” Id. It is also important to note that prior to her trip to Ohiopyle, Plaintiff admittedly went white water rafting in Arizona where she signed a rental agreement with a release, and was informed that white water rafting could be dangerous and that she could fall out of the raft. Wroblewski Dep. 16:21-17:7; 20:14-21:9. Moreover, in Ohiopyle’s safety briefing, right before Plaintiff boarded the raft, Plaintiff and her group were warned that white water rafting can be dangerous, and it was possible that she could fall out of the raft. Id. 33:6-12.
The fact that the exculpatory language was contained in the bottom half of the first page, not listed until paragraph 9, and not directly above the signature line does not make it unenforceable, either generally or in this case. While the terms and conditions are in a slightly smaller font than the upper half of the form, they are still clearly readable. Moreover, paragraph 9 is the only paragraph [*22] written entirely in capital letters. Taken as a whole, using a strict (but common sense) interpretation, it is clear the form in question releases the Defendant from liability for injuries such as those sustained by Plaintiff, even if due to Defendant’s own negligence. 6
6 Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1442 (D. Colo. 1996) is factually similar to this case in that there, the defendant failed to personally inform plaintiff of heightened water level when the plaintiff took a white water rafting trip through defendant’s company. The Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area, a white water rafting regulatory group, recommended against any rafting when the water flow measured 4.0 feet high or more (the same cut-off measurement for rafts without guides at Ohiopyle). The defendant also had a company policy to not take people rafting when the water was four feet or higher. On the day in question, the river measured 3.8 feet but, similar to this case, the defendant did not inform the plaintiff that the water level was “high” that day. Plaintiff signed a release of liability agreement prior to the trip and was injured after being tossed into the river. The court held that the exculpatory portion [*23] of the release agreement was valid and granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s negligence claim. Id. at 1446.
Plaintiff contends that summary judgment is also improper because whether she knowingly signed the Rental Agreement and assented to its terms is a question of fact for the jury. ECF No. 24. Plaintiff argues that she did not read the Release and that employees of Defendant did not directly warn or advise her as to the conditions of the river or offer her a guided tour, nor did they orally inform her of what the form stated or ask her to read the form, and that they rushed and “hurried [her] along”, and therefore she did not assent to the terms of the agreement. Id.
Plaintiff voluntarily chose to engage in the sport of white water rafting purely for recreational purposes. Plaintiff signed the Release; she was not compelled, as a legal matter, to sign it, but chose to sign it so that she could go on the white water rafting trip with her group. See Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1197 (Pa. 2012) (“[R]ecreational sporting activities may be viewed differently in the context of exculpatory agreements, as each party is free to participate, or [*24] not, in the activity, and, therefore, is free to sign, or not, the release form.”); see also Chepkevich, 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174 (release enforceable even though plaintiff had not read agreement); Lin, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648 (same). There is no evidence that plaintiff sought to negotiate the terms of the Release or asked for additional time to read it, and to the extent she was “compelled” it was a compulsion arising solely from her personal desire to meet up with her group.
Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity. Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. Am. Empire Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 (Pa. 1983) (“[I]n the absence of proof of fraud, failure to read [the contract] is an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract or any provision thereof.”); see also Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention. [*25] . . . Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). 7
7 See also In re Greenfield Estate, 14 Pa. 489, 496 (Pa. 1850) (“[i]f a party, who can read . . . will not read a deed put before him for execution; or if, being unable to read, will not demand to have it read or explained to him, he is guilty of supine negligence, which . . . is not the subject of protection, either in equity or at law.”).
This rule has been applied time and again in the context of recreational activities in which a party signed a pre-injury release of liability. For instance, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed an order granting summary judgment in favor of the owner of a racetrack where the plaintiff had signed an agreement releasing all claims against the racetrack before he was injured. Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990). The Superior Court held that the signed release was enforceable even though plaintiff claimed that he had not read it, did not know that he was signing a release, and did not have time to read the document because of a long line of people behind [*26] him. Id. at 1383 (“His explanation that he did not read it does not, in the absence of fraud or a confidential relationship, extricate him from its operation.”). See also Lin, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648, at *6 (“[i]t is a well established rule under Pennsylvania law that failure to read a contract does not relieve a party of their obligation under such contract that they sign, and such parties will be bound by the agreement without regard to whether the terms were read and fully understood.”); Martinez v. Skirmish, U.S.A., Inc., No. 07-5003, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51628, 2009 WL 1676144, *7 (E.D. Pa. June 15, 2009) (release enforceable as to negligence for injury to plaintiff during paintball game, noting that plaintiff was accompanied by friends “who could have explained the Waiver & Release to him, if he had asked them to do so. . . . Consequently, [plaintiff's] failure to read that document cannot constitute a defense to the enforceability of the Waiver & Release.”); Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F. Supp. 1169, 1174-75 (E.D. Pa. 1990) (release that plaintiff signed before being injured while racing all-terrain vehicle was enforceable even though plaintiff failed to read it because “[t]o accept plaintiff’s [*27] argument that there is such a duty [on the part of the defendant] to inform in this case would essentially abrogate the law of Pennsylvania regarding plaintiff’s duty to read.”). 8
8 In Doe v. Cultural Care, Inc., No. 10-11426-DJC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28226, 2011 WL 1048624, at *4-5 (D. Mass. Mar. 17, 2011), the court held that a release signed by plaintiff was enforceable even if the defendant had rushed her. There, the court explained that
“[t]he fact that [plaintiff] did not take the time to read the terms and conditions of the Agreement because she felt hurried by [defendant] does not change the analysis. [Plaintiff] does not dispute that she executed the Agreement or that it contains the Release. She disputes that she agreed to the terms and conditions, that the Release discharges Defendants from liability or bars her claims since she had no knowledge of the Release and was rushed into executing the Agreement based on Defendants’ representations.”
Similar to the cases discussed above, Plaintiff voluntarily participated in the white water rafting trip. “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential [*28] services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191. Plaintiff could have requested additional time to read the agreement, or she could have chosen to not sign the Release and not go white water rafting. See Martinez, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51628, 2009 WL 1676144, at *7 (argument that plaintiff had no choice but to sign release because he had pre-paid for the paintball activity was unavailing for the reason that it was a recreational activity where participation was voluntary). Holding that Defendant had a duty to orally inform Plaintiff of what she was signing, or holding a release unenforceable because Plaintiff failed to read the contract containing a release of liability she signed because she felt rushed, would turn this rule on its head.
The Court considers, as it must, all of the relevant circumstances set out in the record, Lin, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136090, 2010 WL 5257648, at *6, and is unable to agree with Plaintiff that the Rental Agreement constituted (as a matter of law) an insufficient effort on the part of Ohiopyle to inform her of the fact that by signing that Agreement, she was giving up any right she might have to sue for damages arising from injuries caused even by negligence. In five [*29] (5) different places the Release mentions “negligence” and states that is a release of liability in three (3) places. ECF 19-5. Similar to Chepkevich, “[a]lthough the outcome in this case was certainly unfortunate, the risk was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release, which specifically noted” that white water rafting is a risky activity in which water levels can increase or decrease and that you can fall out of the raft. Chepkevich, 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1194. Furthermore, between her previous white water rafting trip in Arizona and the safety briefing she was admittedly provided by Ohiopyle, Plaintiff was aware that white water rafting was dangerous and that falling out of a raft was an actual danger of the activity. Moreover, Plaintiff’s argument that there is an issue of material fact as to whether she assented to the terms of the agreement because she felt “rushed” by Defendant, is insufficient to deem the agreement unenforceable in light of her duty under Pennsylvania law to read a contract.
The Release, even when construed against Defendant, clearly spelled out the parties’ intention [*30] to release Defendant from liability and encompassed the risk of varying water levels and falling out of the raft. Consequently, the Release meets the enforceability test under Pennsylvania law. Plaintiff brings a claim for negligence. Negligence is explicitly encompassed within the Release, and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. 9
9 Because the signed Rental Agreement precludes Plaintiff from bringing a claim of negligence against Defendant, the Court need not decide whether the incident at issue in this case was an inherent risk of white water rafting.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. An appropriate Order will issue.
/s/ Mark R. Hornak
Mark R. Hornak
United States District Judge
Dated: August 22, 2013
Son v. Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., et al., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67482
Miyoung Son and Youngkeun Son, Plaintiffs, v. Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., et al., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67482
September 5, 2008, Decided
September 5, 2008, Entered
COUNSEL: [*1] For Miyoung Son, Youngkeun Son, Plaintiffs: Alexander Rundlet, Victor Manuel Diaz, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, Podhurst Orseck, P.A., Miami, FL; Katherine Warthen Ezell, Robert C. Josefsberg, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg et al, Miami, FL; Gene Locks, Jonathan W. Miller, Locks Law Firm, Philadelphia, PA; Stephen J. Nolan, Stephen J Nolan Chartered, Baltimore, MD.
For Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., a Florida corporation, in its own right, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Destination Atlantis, doing business as Atlantis, Kerzner International North America, Inc., a Delaware corporation, in its own right, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Atlantis, doing business as Destination Atlantis, Kerzner International Limited, a company of the commonwealth of the Bahamas, in its own right, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Atlantis, doing business as Destination Atlantis, Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, a company of the commonwealth of the Bahamas, in its own right, as a subidiary of Kerzner International Limited, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Atlantis, doing business as Destination Atlantis, Island [*2] Hotel Company Limited, a company of the commonwealth of the Bahamas, in its own right, as subsidiary of Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Atlantis, doing business as Destination Atlantis, Paradise Island Limited, a company of the commonwealth of the Bahamas, in its own right, as a subsidiary of Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, doing business as Paradise Island, doing business as Atlantis, doing business as Destination Atlantis, Defendants: Bruce Scott Liebman, Michelle Ioanna Bougdanos, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Akerman Senterfitt & Eidson, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
JUDGES: KENNETH A. MARRA, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: KENNETH A. MARRA
OPINION AND ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS
THIS CAUSE comes before the Court on Defendants Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., Kerzner International North America, Inc., Kerzner International Limited, Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, and Paradise Island Limited’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Complaint (DE 15), filed November 12, 2007. The motion is now fully briefed and is ripe for review. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on this matter on June 19, 2008. The Court has carefully [*3] considered the motion and the record and is otherwise fully advised in the premises.
On August 17, 2007, Plaintiffs Miyoung Son (“Mrs. Son”) and Youngkeun Son (“Mr. Son”) ( together, “Plaintiffs”) filed a four-count Complaint (DE 1) against Defendants Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., Kerzner International North America, Inc., Kerzner International Limited, Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, Paradise Island Limited, 1 Nassau Cruses, Limited (“Nassau Cruses”), Robert Brown, Rodger Munroe, and Silvin Brown (together, “Defendants”), asserting claims of negligence and loss of consortium against all Defendants. The facts, as alleged in the Complaint and adduced at the evidentiary hearing, are as follows: Mr. and Mrs. Son, residents of Maryland, purchased a vacation package from the Kerzner Defendants for a four-night stay at the Atlantis Resort in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas in July 2005. (Compl. PP 3, 15.) The vacation was to last from August 17 to August 21, 2005. Plaintiffs were to be accompanied by their two children, Mrs. Son’s sister and brother-in-law, their three children, and a nanny. (Compl. P 15.) While in the Bahamas, Plaintiffs [*4] booked an excursion through Atlantis’s Tour and Excursions Center. (Compl. P 17.) While on the excursion, Mrs. Son received severe and extensive injuries as a result of being pulled through the churning propellers of the excursion boat. (Compl. PP 20-21.)
1 The Court will refer to the moving parties, Kerzner International Resorts, Inc., Kerzner International North America, Inc., Kerzner International Limited, Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, and Paradise Island Limited, collectively as the “Kerzner Defendants.”
Findings of Fact
1. After booking the trip, Plaintiffs received from the Kerzner Defendants a package in the mail containing information about the trip; however, the package did not contain any mention that Plaintiffs would be expected to sign a forum selection clause or choice of law clause upon check-in at the Atlantis Resort. (Pl. Ex. 1; Def. Ex. 5.)
2. On July 24, Mrs. Son received two e-mails from the Kerzner Defendants with additional information about her upcoming trip – one regarding her booking, and one regarding her sister’s family’s booking. (Pl. Ex. 3, 4; Def. Ex. 3, 4.)
3. Mrs. Son testified that she did not open the e-mails prior to [*5] departing for the Bahamas because she did not recognize the sender. Mrs. Son also testified that she did not open the e-mails and read the attached documents until very recently, but she admitted that she did receive the e-mails prior to her trip.
4. One of the documents contained in each e-mail that Mrs. Son received after making the booking stated as follows:
During guest registration at Atlantis, Paradise Island you will be asked to sign a form agreeing to the following terms related to any claims you may have as a result of your stay at the resort: I agree that any claim I may have against Atlantis, Ocean Club, or any of their officers, directors, employees or related or affiliated companies, including, without limitation, Kerzner International Limited, Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, Paradise Enterprises Limited, Paradise Island Limited and Paradise Beach Inn Limited resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever. The [*6] foregoing shall apply to all persons accompanying me, and I represent that I have the authority to sign this document on their behalf.
(Pl. Ex. 3, 4; Def. Ex. 3, 4.)
5. Mrs. Son testified that she did not know she would have to sign such a document upon arrival.
6. Upon arrival, Mr. Son completed the check-in process. (Pl. Ex. 2; Def. Ex. 1.) Mr. Son signed a form on his own behalf “and the members of [his] family group or others listed below” (including Mrs. Son) which contained the following language:
I agree that any claims I may have against the Resort Parties resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of the Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever.
(Pl. Ex. 2; Def. Ex. 1.) Mr. Son stated that the check-in process lasted approximately two to three minutes, that he was asked to sign several forms, and that he did not read the forms. Mr. Son said that the resort’s front desk staff did not explain the contents of the forms. Mr. Son further stated that he did not intend to sign a forum selection clause, [*7] nor was he authorized to sign one on his wife’s behalf. However, Mr. Son did not state that his wife had affirmatively told him not to sign any documents regarding her legal rights.
7. Mrs. Son testified that she did not authorize her husband to sign a forum selection clause, but Mrs. Son also did not state that she told her husband he was not to sign any legal documents on her behalf. Mrs. Son testified that she did authorize her husband to complete all necessary check in procedures on her behalf.
8. Plaintiffs previously visited the Atlantis Resort in December 2001. When completing check-in formalities in 2001, Mr. Son signed a form that states as follows:
I agree that any claim I may have against Atlantis, Ocean Club, or any of their officers, directors, employees or related or affiliated companies, including, without limitation, Sun International Hotels Limited, Sun International Bahamas Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, Paradise Enterprises Limited, Paradise Island Limited and Paradise Beach Inn Limited resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, irrevocably [*8] agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever. The foregoing shall apply to all persons accompanying me and I represent that I have the authority to sign this document on their behalf.
Standard of Review
In the Eleventh Circuit, a motion to dismiss on the basis of a forum selection clause is brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as a motion to dismiss for improper venue. Lipcon v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, 148 F.3d 1285, 1290 (11th Cir. 1998). Forum selection clauses are “prima facie valid and should be enforced unless enforcement is shown by the resisting party to be ‘unreasonable’ under the circumstances.” M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972). The Court may make any findings of fact necessary to resolve a motion to dismiss for improper venue, so long as the resolution of factual disputes is not an adjudication on the merits of a case. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 2008 WL 2469405 at *5 (11th Cir. 2008). Determining the reasonableness of a forum selection clause is a fact-specific inquiry to be made on a case-by-case basis. [*9] Shankles v. Costa Armatori, S.P.A., 722 F.2d 861, 864 (1st Cir. 1983).
Because the Court is sitting in diversity, Florida substantive law applies. See, e.g., Admiral Ins. Co. v. Feit Management Co., 321 F.3d 1326, 1328 (11th Cir. 2003) (“Sitting in diversity, we apply the substantive law of the forum state unless federal constitutional or statutory law compels a contrary result.”).
A forum selection clause will be held “unreasonable” in only four circumstances: 1.) when the formation of the clause was induced by fraud or overreaching; 2.) when the plaintiff would be deprived of her day in court because of inconvenience or unfairness; 3.) when the chosen law would deprive the plaintiff of a remedy, or 4.) when enforcement of the provisions would contravene public policy. Lipcon, 148 F.3d at 1292; see also Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 594-95, 111 S. Ct. 1522, 113 L. Ed. 2d 622 (1988). Some courts have also made prior notice of the clause an element to consider in determining reasonableness. See, e.g., Sun Trust Bank v. Sun International Hotels, Ltd., 184 F. Supp. 2d 1246, 1258 (S.D. Fla. 2001); Corna v. American Hawaii Cruises, Inc., 794 F. Supp. 1005, 1012 (D. Haw. 1992). 2 Here, Plaintiffs [*10] argue that the forum selection clause was formed by fraud and overreaching, that Plaintiffs will be deprived of their day in court if they have to sue in the Bahamas, that Bahamian law is fundamentally unfair, and that enforcement of the forum selection clause would contravene public policy. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.
2 In Shute, the Supreme Court did not state that lack of notice of the forum selection clause was grounds for finding that the clause was unreasonable. In fact, the Court stated that it would not “address the question of whether respondents had sufficient notice of the forum clause before entering the contract for passage” because the respondents had conceded that they had sufficient notice. Shute, 499 U.S. at 590. However, the Supreme Court found notice relevant insofar as the Court found a party’s right to reject the contract “with impunity” essential to its enforceability. Id. at 595. Thus, notice is a relevant inquiry when considering a forum selection clause to determine whether the party could walk away from the contract with a minimal penalty. In Corna, for instance, the Court found that two to three days notice of the forum selection [*11] clause insufficient, because the plaintiffs would have forfeited the entire ticket price for their trip if they had canceled the trip upon first learning of the forum selection clause. Corna, 794 F. Supp. at 1011-1012; cf. Elliott v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 231 F. Supp. 2d 555, 561 (S.D. Tex. 2002) (enforcing forum selection clause where cancellation at time notice of clause received by passenger would have resulted in refund of only 50% of purchase price).
Fraud and Overreaching
Plaintiffs argue that the formation of the agreement including the forum selection provision was “induced by fraud and overreaching.” (Pl. Resp. 9.) Plaintiffs claim that they “never received . . . any notice of a forum selection clause prior to arriving at the hotel in the Bahamas.” (Id.) Plaintiffs do not argue bad faith on the Kerzner Defendants part, and their sole argument regarding fraud and overreaching relates to notice. Plaintiffs also do not argue that the forum selection clause was hidden on the forms they signed. Instead, they argue that they did not receive notice of the clause prior to their arrival in the Bahamas, so they could not cancel “with impunity.” Further, they argue that the short check-in [*12] time period effectively deprived Mr. Son of the ability to read and comprehend the rights he was surrendering when he signed the document. (See Pl. Resp. 9-10.)
A non-negotiated contract containing a forum selection clause may be enforceable, so long as the contract was formed under “reasonable” circumstances. Shute, 499 U.S. at 593-94. In particular, the clause must be reasonably communicated to the consumer such that the consumer knows that the contract contains terms and conditions which affect the consumer’s legal rights. Shankles, 722 F.2d at 864.
With respect to the time for check-in, a perusal of the “Acknowledgment, Agreement, and Release” form shows that the clause is not hidden in any way. The page contains seven paragraphs regarding limitations on liability, choice of law, and other legal provisions. (Pl. Ex. 2; Def. Ex. 1.) While the forum selection provision is not written in a larger font, in bold font, or italicized, it is still easily readable and is set off in its own paragraph in the middle of the front side of the form. Further, the form is marked at the very top “READ BEFORE SIGNING.” Thus, the Court finds that the form clearly and unmistakably conveys that it contains [*13] terms affecting the consumer’s legal rights. The clause is not hidden among other, non-legal provisions, nor is the clause physically disguised. The fact that Mr. Son chose not to read the form that is clearly marked “read before signing” does not excuse Plaintiffs from their contractual obligation. See, e.g., Coleman v. Prudential Bache Securities, Inc., 802 F.2d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir. 1986) (“[A]bsent a showing of fraud or mental incompetence, a person who signs a contact cannot avoid her obligations under it by showing that she did not read what she signed.”). The check-in process was doubtless hurried, but the Court finds that Mr. Son was not rushed through the process so as to prevent him from taking as much time as he needed or desired to review the document thoroughly. Mr. Son made a conscious choice – he chose to sign the form without reading it in order to speed the check-in process along. This willful ignorance cannot be used to invalidate an otherwise binding provision.
Plaintiffs then argue that they did not receive notice of the forum selection clause prior to their arrival at the Atlantis resort, such that they could not reject the provision “with impunity.” In Sun Trust [*14] Bank, under similar facts, the court concluded that the same forum selection clause disputed in this case was unenforceable because the plaintiffs did not have an “objectively reasonable opportunity to consider and reject” the clause. Sun Trust Bank, 184 F. Supp. 2d at 1261. The court was presented with “undisputed” evidence that the “forum-selection clause was presented to [plaintiff] for the first time upon arrival in the Bahamas.” Id.
Contrary to Plaintiffs assertions, this case is distinct, and Sun Trust Bank is inapplicable. First, Plaintiffs had both visited the Atlantis resort in 2001, and Mr. Son signed a nearly identical forum selection provision upon arriving at the resort in 2001. Having previously signed a nearly identical forum selection provision in 2001, it is reasonable to expect that Plaintiffs would be asked to sign a similar provision on their return visit. In Horberg v. Kerzner Resorts International Ltd., No. 07-20250-CIV-UNGARO, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97693, slip op. at 5-6 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 6, 2007), the court enforced the same forum selection clause disputed in this case on the basis that the plaintiffs had visited the Atlantis resort on previous occasions and thus “had a reasonable opportunity [*15] to consider and reject the forum selection clause.”
Also making this case distinct from Sun Trust Bank is the fact that the Kerzner Defendants provided Plaintiffs with prior notice that they would be asked to sign a form requiring all suits brought against the Kerzner Defendants be brought in the Bahamas. Plaintiffs concede that Mrs. Son received two e-mails on July 24, 2005, that contained an attachment titled “Terms and Conditions.” (Pl. Ex. 4, 5.) In the section labeled “Atlantis Registration,” the attachment explained that all guests would be asked to sign a forum selection clause upon check-in.
Mrs. Son testified that she did not remember receiving these e-mails from the Kerzner Defendants, and Mrs. Son also testified that she did not open e-mails from unrecognized senders because of the threat of computer viruses. Mrs. Son further testified that she did not expect to receive e-mails regarding her Atlantis resort trip. However, Mrs. Son received these e-mails the very same day that she booked her trip, and both e-mails had “Travel Plan” in the subject line with a reservation number. Logic would dictate that Mrs. Son must have provided her e-mail address over the phone when making [*16] the reservation since she received e-mails regarding her booking shortly thereafter. Thus, while the Court finds Mrs. Son’s testimony credible, the Court does not agree that her decision not to read the e-mails was reasonable. 3 Mrs. Son chose not to read the e-mails, but the e-mails provided sufficient notice of the forum selection and choice of law clauses her family would be required to sign upon arrival at the Atlantis Resort.
3 At the hearing, Plaintiffs’ counsel consistently averred that Plaintiffs did not have a “duty” to open the e-mails they received regarding their trip but that Plaintiff had a “duty” to open packages sent to her through the U.S. Mail. However, the Court fails to see how Plaintiffs make this distinction. Plaintiffs have not identified a specific duty that Plaintiffs might have had to open regular mail versus e-mail. Plaintiffs’ could have decided not to open the package received through the U.S. Mail as freely as they decided not to open the e-mails. The Court cannot conceive of a “duty” to open a letter any more than it can conceive of a “duty” to open an e-mail. Plaintiffs’ bear the risk that they will lose valuable information or documentation when they [*17] choose not to receive a letter, e-mail, or any other form of communication. Plaintiffs weighed the risk of losing vital information against the risk of receiving a computer virus when deciding not to open the e-mails, just as Plaintiffs weighed the risk of losing vital information against the risk of receiving anthrax powder when deciding to open the mailed package. The Kerzner Defendants’ should not be held liable because Plaintiffs’ risk calculus led them not to open the documentation.
Finally, Plaintiffs argued at the hearing that Mrs. Son did not sign the forum selection clause, nor did she grant her husband authority to sign away her legal rights. Thus, Plaintiffs claim, the forum selection clause could not apply to Mrs. Son. The Court disagrees. First, Mrs. Son admitted that she granted her husband authority to complete all procedures necessary to check-in to the Atlantis Resort. Thus, Mr. Son had “implied authority” to sign the forum selection clause on Mrs. Son’s behalf, because it was necessary for Mr. Son to sign the clause to complete check-in. 4 Alternatively, by signing the form which clearly stated he had the authority to bind everyone in his party, Mr. Son acted with “apparent [*18] authority,” because the Atlantis Resort reasonably believed his representations that he had the authority to bind Mrs. Son. 5
4 The Restatement (Third) of Agency defines “implied authority” as either (1) the authority “to do what is necessary, usual, and proper to accomplish or perform an agent’s express responsibilities or (2) to act in a manner which an agent believes the principal wishes the agent to act based on the agent’s reasonable interpretation of the principal’s manifestation in light of the principal’s objectives and other facts known to the agent.” Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.01 cmnt. b (2006).
5 “Apparent authority is the power held by an agent or other actor to affect a principal’s legal relations with third parties when a third party reasonably believes the actor has the authority to act on behalf of the princpal and that belief is traceable to the principal’s manifestations.” Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.03.
The parties did not brief the issue of agency, but the parties proceeded to argue the issue of agency at the hearing. In Florida, the rule of lex loci contractus determines the law to be applied when determining an issue of contract law. See Sturiano v. Brooks, 523 So. 2d 1126 (Fla. 1988). [*19] Because the contract was executed in the Bahamas, Bahamian law would apply to whether Mr. Son was acting as Mrs. Son’s agent and whether she was bound by Mr. Son’s signature. The parties, however, have not provided any evidence of (nor can the Court determine on its own initiative) the scope of Bahamian agency law. The Court has turned to the Restatement (Third) of Agency as a general guideline, not as an authoritative source on the law of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Moreover, a party need not sign a forum selection clause to be bound by the terms of the clause; a party can be bound if it is “closely related” to the dispute. Hugel v. Corporation of Lloyd’s, 999 F.2d 206, 209-10 (7th Cir. 1993); see also E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. v. Rhone Poulenc Fiber and Resin Intermediaries, S.A.S., 269 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2001); Manetti-Farrow, Inc. v. Gucci America, Inc., 858 F.2d 509, 514 n.5 (9th Cir. 1988). Mrs. Son is at the center of this dispute (indeed, the parties are arguing over who is responsible for her injuries) and is thus “closely related.” Therefore, she can be bound to the terms of the clause whether she actually signed it or not. Again, the Court has explained that [*20] she received all the notice to which she was entitled under the law, and she should have been aware that agreeing to a forum selection clause was part of the check-in process.
In sum, the Kerzner Defendants’ burden in this situation was only to provide reasonable notice to Plaintiffs, which the Kerzner Defendants achieved. Once the Kerzner Defendants sent Plaintiffs notice of the forum selection clause, it was Plaintiffs’ decision as to whether they read the notification. The Court rejects Plaintiffs’ argument that Defendants somehow needed to do more. Plaintiffs chose not to read the notice, and the consequences are theirs to bear. Thus, the forum selection clause will not be invalidated on this ground.
Deprivation of Day in Court and Fundamental Unfairness
Plaintiffs argue that they will be “effectively deprived of their day in court” because of the “inconvenience” of litigating in the Bahamas and because of the fundamental unfairness of Bahamian law. (Pl. Resp. 10.) First, Plaintiffs claim that Mrs. Son cannot return to the Bahamas because of the “great mental and emotional anguish” she would suffer if she was forced to return there. Mrs. Son testified that she did not want to return [*21] to the Bahamas; however, she admitted that her doctors have never stated that she is physically or mentally incapable of returning. Instead, her prohibition on travel to the Bahamas appears self-imposed and, as a result, not a persuasive justification to invalidate the forum selection clause.
Likewise, Plaintiffs claim they are “financially unable to pursue litigation in the Bahamas, where contingent fees are prohibited.” (Pl. Resp. 11.) This argument is also unavailing. The Court cannot give substantial weight to fact that contingency fee arrangements are not available in foreign forums. Magnin v. Teledyne Continental Motors, 91 F.3d 1424, 1430 (11th Cir. 1996). As the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stated, “If the lack of a contingent-fee system were held determinative, then a case could almost never be dismissed because contingency fees are not allowed in most foreign forums.” Coakes v. Arabian American Oil Co., 831 F.2d 572, 576 (5th Cir. 1987) (discussing contingency fee arrangements as part of forum non conveniens analysis).
Plaintiffs argue that “enforcement of the provisions of the Release would contravene a strong public policy, because enforcement of the forum [*22] selection clause would imply enforcement of the entire Release.” (Pl. Resp. 11.) Plaintiffs, however, have provided no cases to suggest that enforcement of the forum selection clause by this Court would compel a Bahamian court to enforce the release of liability. The Court thus finds this argument lacks merit.
Discouraging Legitimate Claims
Finally, Plaintiffs argue that Defendants “set the Bahamas as the forum ‘as a means of discouraging [hotel guests] from pursuing legitimate claims.'” (Pl. Resp. 12.) Plaintiffs point to a case in which the Kerzner Defendants chose to litigate in New Jersey state court, Paradise Enterprises Ltd. v. Sapir, 356 N.J. Super. 96, 811 A.2d 516 (N.J. Super. Ct. 2002), to show that the Kerzner Defendants can indeed litigate in U.S. forums. Plaintiffs claim that the fact that the Kerzner Defendants will litigate in New Jersey when they so choose shows bad faith selecting the Bahamas to litigate these claims. The Court also finds this argument unpersuasive. As the Supreme Court held in Shute, where the defendant selected a Florida forum, “[a]ny suggestion of such a bad-faith motive is belied by two facts: Petitioner has its principal place of business in Florida, and many of its [*23] cruises depart from and return to Florida ports.” Here, the Kerzner Defendants, who run a resort in the Bahamas, elected a Bahamian forum to litigate disputes arising out of visitors to the Bahamian resort who are injured while staying in the Bahamas. Had Defendants selected a trial court in Thailand to settle tort claims arising out of resort stays in the Bahamas, one could make a colorable argument that the selected forum was unrelated to the dispute and selected to discourage individuals from bringing legitimate claims. Where the defendant operates a business in the selected forum and the actions that would give rise to litigation would also occur in the selected forum, the Court cannot conclude that the defendant acted in bad faith.
Accordingly, the Court finds that the forum selection clause is enforceable, and this case shall be dismissed subject to Plaintiff’s ability to refile the action in the Supreme Court of the Bahamas.
Forum Non Conveniens
Alternatively, the Court believes that this action should be dismissed on the basis of the doctrine of forum non conveniens. The federal doctrine of forum non conveniens allows the Court to use its inherent power to dismiss an action because [*24] of the inconvenience of the plaintiff’s chosen forum. Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 506-07, 67 S. Ct. 839, 91 L. Ed. 1055 (1947). Under the doctrine, dismissal is “appropriate where trial in the plaintiff’s chosen forum imposes a heavy burden on the defendant or the court, and where the plaintiff is unable to offer any specific reasons of convenience supporting his choice.” Piper Aircraft v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 249, 102 S. Ct. 252, 70 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1981).
Analytically, the Court’s analysis falls into three stages. First, the Court must consider whether an “adequate alternative forum” exists which has jurisdiction over the case. La Seguridad v. Transytur Line, 707 F.2d 1304, 1307 (11th Cir. 1983). The Court must then consider whether private interest factors suggest that the Court should disturb the strong presumption in favor of a plaintiff’s choice of forum. Id. If the Court finds that the private interest factors are indeterminate, the Court must then proceed to consider whether considerations of public interest favor a trial in the foreign forum. Id. Dismissal is only warranted if these factors weigh heavily towards trial in the foreign forum. Piper Aircraft, 454 U.S. at 249. This strong presumption in favor of the plaintiff’s choice [*25] of forum is strongest when the plaintiff is a citizen or resident of the U.S. SME Racks, Inc. v. Sistemas Mecanicos Para Electronica, S.A., 382 F.3d 1097, 1102 (11th Cir. 2004).
Adequate Alternative Forum
An adequate alternative forum exists when the defendant is “amenable to process” in the foreign forum. Piper Aircraft, 454 U.S. at 254 n.22. The defendant bears the burden of establishing that its proposed forum is adequate and has jurisdiction over the case. La Seguridad, 707 F.2d at 1307. Here, all but two of the Defendants in this action are Bahamian citizens or corporations. (Compl. PP 4-14.) Defendants claim that they are “undoubtedly amenable to service of process in the Bahamas.” (Def. Mot. 15.) Likewise, Defendants have presented evidence that the Bahamian legal system recognizes negligence actions like Plaintiffs’ claims in the instant case. (Pyfrom Aff. P 10.) Thus, there is no indication that Bahamian courts would not afford Plaintiffs a remedy for their claims. Moreover, courts are loathe to hold that other forums are inadequate. See Leon v. Millon Air, Inc., 251 F.3d 1305, 1312 (11th Cir. 2001). Plaintiffs have not intimated that Bahamian courts would be inadequate. Thus, [*26] the Court finds that the Supreme Court of the Bahamas is an adequate alternative forum for the instant action.
Private Interest Factors
The Supreme Court has directed district courts to consider the “private interest of the litigant.” Gulf Oil, 330 U.S. at 508. Factors considered to be in a litigant’s private interest include the ease of access to sources of proof, availability of compulsory process for witnesses, cost of obtaining attendance of witnesses, ability to view the premises (if necessary), and “all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.” Id.
The Kerzner Defendants argue that “all of the documents related to Plaintiffs’ allegations in the Complaint are in The Bahamas.” (Def. Mot. 16.) The Kerzner Defendants do not state what documents are in the Bahamas, nor do they argue that such documents could not be brought to Florida in the event that trial was conducted here. Plaintiffs, meanwhile, have noted that they are already in possession of police and medical records from the Bahamas (see Childs Aff.), and such documents could easily be disclosed to Defendants during discovery. This factor weighs in Plaintiffs’ favor.
Notwithstanding [*27] the relative ease of access to documentary evidence, the ease of access to witnesses and the ability to compel attendance at trial is not as clear. Plaintiffs have only identified one Florida citizen witness – the corporate representative of Defendant Kerzner International Resorts, Inc. The remaining witnesses Plaintiffs seek to call are largely medical professionals from Maryland or Washington, D.C. (See Pl. Resp. 14-16.) Defendants, on the contrary, note that many prospective witnesses are located in the Bahamas: the staff at Doctors Hospital in Nassau, Bahamas, who initially treated Mrs. Son; representatives of Defendant Nassau Cruises, Ltd.; Defendants Robert Brown, Rodger Munroe, and Silvin Brown; as well as employees of the Atlantis Resort. (Def. Mot. 16.)
The Court recognizes that in Ward v. Kerzner International Hotels Ltd., Judge Jordan held that the fact that several witnesses resided in the Bahamas was insufficient to overcome the strong presumption in favor of the plaintiff. No. 03-23087-CIV, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11081, 2005 WL 2456191 at *3 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2005). In that case, like in Sun Trust Bank, a majority of the Bahamian witnesses were employees of the defendants who, defendants claimed, [*28] would appear voluntarily. Id.; see also Sun Trust Bank, 184 F. Supp. 2d at 1263-64. In Ward, only two Bahamian witnesses were not employed by the defendants. Ward, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11081, 2005 WL 2456191 at *3. By contrast, in this case, most of the relevant witnesses are not employees of the Kerzner Defendants. Some of the prospective witnesses are Defendants in this action, but this Court cannot effectively subpoena these foreign nationals residing in the Bahamas and compel them to appear before this Court. In fact, these Bahamian witnesses are the very witnesses that will describe the events leading to Mrs. Son’s injuries (i.e., the liability phase). The U.S. witnesses, who for the most part are medical professionals, will likely be used for the damages phase of trial. Looking at the quality of the proposed witnesses, rather than absolute numbers of potential witnesses, the Court finds that none of the most vital witnesses needed to resolve the issue of liability reside in Florida, and a substantial number of these witnesses reside in the Bahamas.
The Kerzner Defendants may be able to interview agents of Nassau Cruses, Ltd., or some of the other individual Defendants, but the Kerzner Defendants would be [*29] forced to present testimony at trial in Florida in the form of depositions or letters rogatory. Were this situation limited to a pair of witnesses whose testimony was not in controversy (as in Ward), the Kerzner Defendants would be expected to proceed using these devices. Where several of the Defendants are outside of the compulsory process of this Court and where those witnesses are the Kerzner Defendants’ main witnesses to challenge Plaintiffs’ claims of liability, as in this case, the Court believes that the Kerzner Defendants would be severely prejudiced in their ability to defend their case. As the Supreme Court explained in Gulf Oil, the doctrine of forum non conveniens should be applied to avoid these situations: “Certainly to fix the place of trial at a point where litigants cannot compel personal attendance and may be forced to try their cases on deposition, is to create a condition not satisfactory to court, jury or most litigants.” 330 U.S. at 511.
Moreover, Plaintiffs’ have not identified a single witness who would be available to testify if trial were held in Florida but would not be available to testify at trial in the Bahamas. As all but one of Plaintiffs’ witnesses are [*30] coming from locations outside of this district, all but one will have to travel. The Court believes that it would be equally feasible for Plaintiffs to arrange plane tickets and hotel stays in Nassau, Bahamas, as it would in West Palm Beach, Florida. These cities are roughly 200 miles apart, a relatively short distance considering that Plaintiffs will have to travel roughly 1,000 miles to reach either forum. While there may be some inconvenience for the one Florida witness to travel to the Bahamas, Plaintiffs cannot realistically contend that the inconvenience of traveling to Nassau would vary significantly from the inconvenience of traveling to West Palm Beach. See Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 226 F.3d 88, 107 (2d Cir. 2000) (“For any nonparty witnesses, the inconvenience of a trial in New York is not significantly more pronounced than the inconvenience of a trial in England.”).
Finally, it has been widely recognized that the inability to implead other parties directly involved in a controversy is a factor weighing heavily against the plaintiff’s choice of forum. See, e.g., Reid-Walen v. Hansen, 933 F.2d 1390, 1398 (8th Cir. 1991); Fitzgerald v. Texaco, Inc., 521 F.2d 448, 453 (2d Cir. 1975). [*31] In this case, like in Piper Aircraft, the joinder of Nassau Cruises, Ltd., Robert Brown, Rodger Munroe, and Silvin Brown is “crucial to the presentation” of the Kerzner Defendants’ case. 454 U.S. at 259. Plaintiffs want to show that Nassau Cruises and these individuals are the agents of the Kerzner Defendants and that the Kerzner Defendants are vicariously liable for her injuries. Without the ability to join this corporation and these individuals meaningfully to this case, the Kerzner Defendants would be forced to defend claims of vicarious liability with limited benefit of evidence from the persons actually involved in the incident giving rise to the claim. The Court finds this burden to be substantial. 6 Conversely, the Court can find no substantial burden on Plaintiffs (other than a financial burden from Plaintiffs’ inability to retain counsel on a contingency fee basis) from having to litigate their dispute in the Bahamas.
6 Unlike all of the cases involving injuries at resorts cited by Plaintiffs, this case is distinct because it involves an injury allegedly caused by third parties. In every other case, the plaintiff alleged that the resort was directly liable for negligence. Here, [*32] Plaintiffs do not argue direct negligence by the Kerzner Defendants, and the Kerzner Defendants can only defend their own case by compelling the attendance of the alleged direct tortfeasors. While these tortfeasors are nominally part of this lawsuit and have been served, their appearance in Court cannot be guaranteed.
After considering the private interest factors, the Court finds that they weigh substantially against Plaintiffs’ selection of the Southern District of Florida as their forum. The Court will now consider the public interest factors.
Public Interest Factors
In Gulf Oil, the Supreme Court described the considerations of public interest that district courts should consider on a motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens:
Administrative difficulties follow for courts when litigation is piled up in congested centers instead of being handled at its origin. Jury duty is a burden that ought not to be imposed upon the people of a community which has no relation to the litigation. In cases which touch the affairs of many persons, there is reason for holding the trial in their view and reach rather than in remote parts of the country where they can learn of it by report only. There [*33] is a local interest in having localized controversies decided at home. There is an appropriateness, too, in having the trial of a diversity case in a forum that is at home with the state law that must govern the case, rather than having a court in some other forum untangle problems in conflict of laws, and in law foreign to itself.
Gulf Oil, 330 U.S. at 508-09. Additionally, the Court must weigh the interest of the United States in providing a U.S. forum for its citizens with the interest of the Bahamas in adjudicating a dispute that occurred in its territory. See SME Racks, 382 F.3d at 1104.
While the Court begins with the proposition that Plaintiffs (both U.S. citizens) should not be ousted from a U.S. forum, the Court finds that the public interest factors also weigh heavily in favor of trial in the Bahamas. First, in SME Racks, the court made clear that the “United States has a strong interest in providing a forum for its citizens’ grievances against an allegedly predatory foreign business that actively solicited business and caused harm within the home forum.” 382 F.3d at 1104 (emphasis added). In SME Racks, a U.S. plaintiff brought an action against a Spanish company for breach [*34] of contract and various torts in Florida. Id. at 1099. The contract was negotiated and executed in Spain, but the alleged breach and torts allegedly occurred in Florida as the plaintiff claimed it received a shipment of defective goods in Florida. Id. This case is distinguishable from SME Racks, because the “harm” did not occur in Florida (or even in the U.S.). Instead, Plaintiffs are suing (with one exception) Bahamian companies and individuals for conduct which occurred entirely within the Bahamas. Unlike SME Racks, the presumption in favor of Plaintiffs’ choice of forum here is not as strong because of the attenuated connection of this forum with the events giving rise to the claims. See, e.g., J.C. Renfroe & Sons, Inc. v. Renfroe Japan Co., Ltd., 515 F. Supp. 2d 1258, 1274 (M.D. Fla. 2007); see also Iragorri v. United Technologies Corp., 274 F.3d 65, 73 (2d Cir. 2001) (en banc) (holding that a U.S. plaintiff’s choice of forum is not automatically granted greater deference unless the choice was motivated by “legitimate reasons”).
The parties have not addressed any administrative difficulties with pursuing this case in the Bahamas, other than the fact that contingency fee agreements [*35] for Plaintiffs’ counsel are not permitted in the Bahamas. 7 This factor, as the Court has already explained, receives no consideration. The Court also agrees with Plaintiffs that a view of the site of Mrs. Son’s accident is meaningless because the “shifting sands are no longer as they were at the time of the accident.” (Pl. Resp. 14.) The remaining factors, nonetheless, weigh heavily for the Kerzner Defendants.
7 The Court notes the logic of Chierchia v. Treasure Cay Services, 738 F. Supp. 1386 (S.D. Fla. 1990), where Judge King held that “a forum in which the personal injury action arose would present a better administrative choice than one which experiences one of the busiest criminal dockets in the U.S.” Id. at 1389.
A jury composed of residents of Palm Beach County, Florida, has a minimal (if any) interest in adjudicating a dispute between citizens of Maryland and (with one exception) citizens of the Bahamas for acts that occurred in the Bahamas. As explained in Gulf Oil, the people of Florida have no relation to this case, and thus they should not bear the burden of serving on a jury to settle a dispute between Maryland residents and Bahamian corporations for activities in Bahamian [*36] territory. In contrast, the Bahamas has an interest in settling a dispute between its citizens and foreigners for activity that happened within its sovereign territory. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas has the strongest interest in protecting tourists and visitors from the conduct of its own citizens. See, e.g., Calvo v. Sol Melia, S.A., 761 So. 2d 461, 464 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2000). While the State of Florida has an interest in protecting its citizens, Plaintiffs (as well as countless other visitors to the Atlantis resort) are not citizens of Florida and they have not presented a persuasive argument for needing the protection of Florida’s laws. 8
8 An argument could be made that the United States has an interest in protecting its citizens from harm abroad. Nevertheless, the Court feels that the interests of the Bahamas are stronger, because the events giving rise to the cause of action occurred in the Bahamas and because Defendants are Bahamian nationals. Further, Plaintiffs traveled to the Bahamas on their own volition and only after the fact seek the protection of U.S. courts.
Plus, Bahamian law will most likely govern this dispute. 9 While this Court is capable of applying Bahamian [*37] law, and the Bahamas is a common law country much like our own, the Court would be forced to rely on expert testimony and evidence provided by the parties as to the substance of Bahamian law, which would add substantially to the administrative burden of having trial in this forum. “The public interest factors point towards dismissal where the court would be required to ‘untangle problems in conflict of laws, and in law foreign to itself.'” Piper Aircraft, 454 U.S. at 251 (quoting Gulf Oil, 330 U.S. at 509).
9 In Florida, courts apply the “significant relationship test” to determine the substantive law applied to personal injury actions. Bishop v. Florida Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999, 1001 (Fla. 1980). While not dispositive, the law of the state where both the injury and the conduct causing the injury occurred is, in most instances, the law to be applied. Id. Since Mrs. Son’s accident occurred in the Bahamas, the Court finds it likely that Bahamian law will apply, at least in part, to this dispute. Notably, none of the other factors Florida courts consider (residence, nationality or place of incorporation of the parties and the place where the relationship between the parties is [*38] centered) indicate that Florida law should apply. Again, these factors would suggest either Bahamian law or Maryland law should be applied.
Accordingly, the Court finds that the public interest factors also weigh in favor of dismissal of this action.
Reinstatement of Suit
The Court must ultimately determine whether Plaintiffs can reinstate their lawsuit in the alternative forum without undue prejudice or inconvenience. See Leon, 251 F.3d at 1310-11. As the Court has already explained, the inconvenience of traveling from Maryland to West Palm Beach, Florida, is no greater than the inconvenience of traveling from Maryland to Nassau, Bahamas. The distance between these locations is practically the same. In addition, Plaintiffs will not be prejudiced by dismissal, as Defendants are all subject to the jurisdiction of Bahamian courts. (Def. Mot. 19.) The statute of limitations will expire in August 2008, but Defendants have agreed to waive any statute of limitations defenses they might have under Bahamian law. (Id. at 19 n.12.) The Court, therefore, dismisses this action subject to these representations.
It is hereby ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the Kerzner Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss [*39] (DE 15) is GRANTED IN PART as follows:
1. The Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) is DENIED. (See DE 31.)
2. The Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3) is GRANTED.
3. The Motion to Dismiss on the basis of the doctrine of forum non conveniens is GRANTED.
4. The Kerzner Defendants are deemed to have waived any statute of limitations and personal jurisdiction defenses they might otherwise raise in the Supreme Court of the Bahamas.
5. This case is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for Plaintiff to refile in the Supreme Court of the Bahamas.
DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers at West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, Florida, this 5th day of September, 2008.
/s/ Kenneth A. Marra
KENNETH A. MARRA
United States District Judge
River Riders, Inc., and Matthew Knott, v. The Honorable Thomas W. Steptoe, et al, 223 W. Va. 240; 672 S.E.2d 376; 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 116; 2009 AMC 2157Posted: May 12, 2014
River Riders, Inc., and Matthew Knott, v. The Honorable Thomas W. Steptoe, et al, 223 W. Va. 240; 672 S.E.2d 376; 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 116; 2009 AMC 2157
River Riders, Inc., and Matthew Knott, Petitioners v. The Honorable Thomas W. Steptoe, all Plaintiffs in the Christopher et al v. River Riders, Inc., Civil Action No. 06-C-328, And All Plaintiffs in Freeman Civil Action NO. 06-C-325, Respondents
223 W. Va. 240; 672 S.E.2d 376; 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 116; 2009 AMC 2157
October 28, 2008, Submitted
December 10, 2008, Filed
[**378] [*242] BY THE COURT
1. “In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal’s order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal’s order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal’s order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.” Syllabus Point 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W. Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996).
2. [***2] “In determining whether to grant a rule to show cause in prohibition when a court is not acting in excess of its jurisdiction, this Court will look to the adequacy of other available remedies such as appeal and to the over-all economy of effort and money among litigants, lawyers and courts; however, this Court will use prohibition in this discretionary way to correct only substantial, clear-cut, legal errors plainly in contravention of a clear statutory, constitutional, or common law mandate which may be resolved independently of any disputed facts and only in cases where there is a high probability that the trial will be completely reversed if the error is not corrected in advance.” Syllabus Point 2, State ex rel. Tucker County Solid Waste Authority v. West Virginia Division of Labor, 222 W. Va. 588, 668 S.E.2d 217, 2008 WL 2523591 (W. Va. 2008).
3. “In the absence of compelling evidence of irremediable prejudice, a writ of prohibition will not lie to bar trial based upon a judge’s pretrial ruling on a matter of evidentiary admissibility.” Syllabus Point 3, State ex rel. Shelton v. Burnside, 212 W. Va. 514, 575 S.E.2d 124 (2002).
4. “A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of [***3] discretion by a [**379] [*243] trial court.” Syllabus Point 4, State ex rel. Shelton v. Burnside 212 W. Va. 514, 575 S.E.2d 124 (2002).
5. “A party seeking to petition this Court for an extraordinary writ based upon a non-appealable interlocutory decision of a trial court, must request the trial court set out in an order findings of fact and conclusions of law that support and form the basis of its decision. In making the request to the trial court, counsel must inform the trial court specifically that the request is being made because counsel intends to seek an extraordinary writ to challenge the court’s ruling. When such a request is made, trial courts are obligated to enter an order containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. Absent a request by the complaining party, a trial court is under no duty to set out findings of fact and conclusions of law in non-appealable interlocutory orders.” Syllabus Point 6, State ex rel. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Gaughan, 203 W. Va. 358, 508 S.E.2d 75 (1998).
6. Federal admiralty law governs a tort action if the wrong occurred on navigable waters, and if the incident involved had the potential to disrupt maritime activity and the general character of the activity [***4] giving rise to the incident had a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
7. “[A] party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1333(1) over a tort claim must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity. A court applying the location test must determine whether the tort occurred on navigable water or whether injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable water. 46 U.S.C. App. §740. The connection test raises two issues. A court, first, must ‘assess the general features of the type of incident involved,’ 497 U.S., at 363, 110 S.Ct., at 2896, to determine whether the incident has ‘a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce,’ id., at 364, n. 2, 110 S.Ct., at 2896, n. 2. Second, a court must determine whether ‘the general character’ of the ‘activity giving rise to the incident’ shows a ‘substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.’ Id., at 365, 364, and n. 2, 110 S.Ct., at 2897, 2896, and n. 2.” Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company, 513 U.S. 527, 534, 115 S.Ct. 1043, 1048, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1024 (1995).
8. The activity of whitewater rafting does not constitute traditional maritime activity [***5] and is therefore not governed by federal admiralty law.
COUNSEL: For Petitioners: Robert P. Martin, Esq., Justin C. Taylor, Esq., Jared M. Tully, Esq., Bailey & Wyant, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia; Michael A. Barcott, Esq., Holmes Weddle & Barcott, P.C., Seattle, Washington.
For Kathy L. Freeman, Respondent: Stephen G. Skinner, Esq., Laura C. Davis, Esq., Skinner Law Firm, Charles Town, West Virginia.
For The Christopher Plaintiffs, Respondent: Michael P. Smith, Esq., Salsbury, Clements, Beckman, Marder & Adkins, LLC, Baltimore, Maryland; Mark Jenkinson, Esq., Burke, Schultz, Harman, and Jenkinson, Martinsburg, West Virginia.
JUDGES: JUSTICE BENJAMIN delivered the Opinion of the Court. CHIEF JUSTICE MAYNARD concurs and reserves the right to file a concurring opinion. JUSTICE ALBRIGHT not participating. SENIOR STATUS JUSTICE McHUGH sitting by temporary assignment.
OPINION BY: BENJAMIN
Petition for a Writ of Prohibition
WRIT GRANTED AS MOULDED
BENJAMIN, Justice: 1
1 Pursuant to an administrative order entered on September 11, 2008, the Honorable Thomas E. McHugh, Senior Status Justice, was assigned to sit as a member of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia commencing September 12, 2008, and continuing until [***6] the Chief Justice determines that assistance is no longer necessary, in light of the illness of Justice Joseph P. Albright.
Petitioners, River Riders, Inc. and Matthew Knott, seek a writ of prohibition to vacate three pre-trial orders of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County that (1) excluded from the forthcoming trial the Release and Assumption of Risk Agreements that had been signed by fourteen plaintiffs prior to embarking on a whitewater rafting expedition provided by the Petitioners; (2) ruled that the rafting incident was governed by [**380] [*244] general maritime law, thus, precluding assumption of the risk as a defense; and (3) consolidated the civil action of the personal representative of the estate of the decedent with the civil action brought by thirteen injured persons. After careful consideration of the memoranda 2 and arguments in this proceeding, as well as the pertinent legal authorities, we grant the writ sought only to the extent of vacating the circuit court’s ruling finding that the rafting incident is governed by maritime law.
2 We wish to acknowledge the participation of the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters amicus curiae in support of Petitioners and appreciate their [***7] participation in this action.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
This original proceeding in prohibition arose out of a commercial whitewater rafting accident on the Shenandoah River in Jefferson County, West Virginia, which resulted in the death of one person and injuries to thirteen others, all paying participants in a rafting expedition taken with River Riders, Inc., a licensed commercial whitewater outfitter. 3 As a result of the accident, two separate lawsuits against River Riders ensued. The first action was filed by Kathy L. Freeman [hereinafter referred to as the "Freeman plaintiff"], as personal representative of the estate of her husband, the decedent, Roger Freeman. 4 The second action was filed by the thirteen injured persons and seven of their spouses [hereinafter collectively referred to as the "Christopher plaintiffs"] who claimed loss of consortium. 5
3 The accident, which occurred on September 30, 2004, involved four inflatable rafts which dumped Roger Freeman and thirteen of the Christopher plaintiffs into the Shenandoah River, causing Mr. Freeman to drown, and causing various personal injuries to the others. All but two of the fourteen were management employees of Kaiser [***8] Permanente of suburban Washington, D.C. It is claimed that on this particular day, the level of water on the Shenandoah River was approximately 12.5 feet, compared to a normal average level of 2 to 4 feet during that time of year.
4 The Freeman lawsuit also names Matthew Knott, owner of River Riders, as a defendant. Mr. Knott is also alleged to have been a commercial whitewater guide who guided one of the rafts on the ill-fated expedition and who served as the trip’s leader.
5 In the second of the complaints, Timothy Friddle, husband of Cristina Renee Friddle, is named as a plaintiff. They claim “loss of consortium and services, and interference with and injury to their marital relationship.” Timothy Friddle is not, however, named as a spouse and as plaintiff in the Memorandum which these plaintiffs filed with this Court in this proceeding. The Petitioners represent that Mr. Friddle has been voluntarily dismissed from the action.
Prior to embarking on the rafting expedition, Roger Freeman and each of the injured Christopher plaintiffs signed a “Release, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement” [hereinafter sometimes referred to as "Release Agreement"] provided to them by River Riders. [***9] In that agreement, each signatory (1) acknowledged that he or she had requested to be allowed to participate in whitewater rafting provided by River Riders; and expressed his or her understanding, among other things, that “[whitewater rafting] activities and services pose substantial risks of injury or death. . . as the result of exposure; . . . or being in whitewater rivers and streams; . . . the negligence, gross negligence, or bad judgment by [the signatory], River Riders, Inc., or other participants; the failure or misuse of equipment; . . . and other known and foreseeable risks of [whitewater rafting].” (Emphasis in original). The signatories to the Release Agreement also agreed, in part, that:
In consideration of and as partial payment for being allowed to participate in [whitewater rafting] provided by River Riders, Inc., I ASSUME, to the greatest extent permitted by law, all of the risks, whether or not specifically identified herein, of all the activities in which I participate and services I use [whitewater rafting]; I RELEASE River Riders, Inc. from any and all liability, including, but not limited to, liability arising from negligence, gross negligence, willful and wanton [***10] and intentional conduct; . . .
[**381] [*245] The Freeman plaintiff and the Christopher plaintiffs contend that River Riders failed to meet the statutory “standard of care” expected of members of the whitewater guide profession in direct violation of the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act, W. Va. Code §20-3B-3(b) (1987). 6 In both actions, they assert that running a raft trip on September 30, 2004, simply was not reasonable under the circumstances, and that the expected standard of care would have obligated River Riders to cancel or reschedule the whitewater expedition on that day because of the river’s high and turbulent waters caused by a recent hurricane that had swept through the area. 7 Specifically, Respondents argue that River Riders was negligent and careless and failed to conform to the standard of care by failing to call off or postpone the trip until conditions were safe to go out on the river, by failing to recognize that the operating capabilities of its rafts with the inexperienced customers would be unsafe and hazardous in high, swift and rough water conditions; and by wrongfully electing to navigate the Shenandoah River and in particular the Shenandoah Staircase. 8
6 In 1987, [***11] the Legislature enacted the Whitewater Responsibility Act, codified as W. Va. Code §§20-3B-1 et seq.(1987). Therein, [HN1] the Legislature stated that it “recognizes that there are inherent risks in the recreational activities provided by commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides which should be understood by each participant. It is essentially impossible for commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides to eliminate these risks. It is the purpose of this article to define those areas of responsibility and affirmative acts for which commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides are liable for loss, damage or injury.” W. Va. Code §20-3B-1.
The Act [HN2] declares that “[n]o licensed commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide acting in the course of his employment is liable to a participant for damages or injuries to such participant unless such damage or injury was directly caused by failure of the commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide to comply with duties placed on him by article two of this chapter, by the rules of the commercial whitewater advisory board, or by the duties placed on such [***12] commercial whitewater outfitters or commercial whitewater guide by the provisions of this article.” W. Va. Code §20-3B-5(a).
Among the duties imposed by the Whitewater Responsibility Act upon all commercial whitewater guides providing services for whitewater expeditions in this state is that they “while providing such services, conform to the standard of care expected of members of their profession.” W. Va. Code §20-3B-3(b).
7 The Freeman plaintiff represents to the Court that the liability issues are exactly the same in both cases.
8 The wrongful death complaint filed by the Freeman plaintiff contains two separate counts: one for negligence, gross negligence, reckless and wanton conduct; the other for negligence per se. Citing fifteen alleged acts or omissions, Count One alleges that the duties owed by River Riders to Mr. Freeman included the duty to conform to the standard of care expected of members of their profession, the duty to conform to safety and other requirements set forth in the West Virginia Code, the duty to conform to rules promulgated by the commercial whitewater advisory board, and the duty not to act in a reckless or wanton manner. Count Two alleges two additional acts [***13] or omissions constituting negligence per se, including citations by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resource for failure to mark a commercial water craft and failure to have a valid CPR card as required by W. Va. Code §20-2-23a (1999) and 58 C.S.R. 12 (2008).
The complaint filed by the Christopher plaintiffs contains twenty counts, seven of which assert loss of consortium claims. The remaining thirteen counts are negligence claims under general maritime law, one for each injured plaintiff.
Prior to the forthcoming trial in this matter, the Freeman plaintiff filed a Motion in Limine to exclude the Release Agreement 9 that had been signed by Mr. Freeman. On January 30, 2008, the circuit court, in finding that the issues at trial on liability were whether the defendants met the standard of care required under the Whitewater Responsibility Act, entered an order granting the Motion in Limine prohibiting the defendants from introducing the Release Agreement, making any reference to it, or eliciting any information regarding it at trial. The circuit court based it ruling on the language of W. Va. Code §20-3B-3(b), and on this Court’s prior decision in Murphy v. North American River Runners, Inc., 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504 (1991) [***14] 10 and on Johnson v. New [**382] [*246] River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., 313 F.Supp.2d. 621 (S.D. W.Va. 2004).
9 The Freeman Plaintiff also filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings which the circuit court denied.
10 In Murphy, this Court held that generally, [HN3] in the absence of an applicable statute, a plaintiff who expressly and, under the circumstances, clearly agrees to accept a risk of harm arising from a defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct may not recover for such harm, unless the agreement is invalid as contrary to public policy. 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504.
Thereafter, on April 15, 2008, the circuit court likewise granted a Motion in Limine Regarding Release and Assumption of the Risk filed by the Christopher plaintiffs, which excluded the release agreement from trial. The circuit court, finding that maritime law governed the case, held that assumption of the risk was not an available defense. Specifically, the court held:
Second, this Court is of the opinion that assumption of the risk is not an available defense in this maritime action. Because the incident occurred on the Shenandoah River, a navigable body of water, it is governed by general maritime law. Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206, 116 S. Ct. 619, 133 L. Ed. 2d 578 (1996). [***15] Assumption of the risk is not a defense in admiralty or maritime law. DeSole v. United States, 947 F.2d 1169, 1175 (4th Cir. 1991). In fact, “[t]he tenants of admiralty law, which are expressly designed to promote uniformity, do not permit assumption of risk in cases of person [sic] injury whether in commercial or recreational situation.” Id. The foundation of this principle has been recognized for more than 70 years. In The Arizona v. Anelich, Justice Harlan F. Stone, stated in support of his position that assumption of the risk was not a proper defense in cases of unseaworthiness, “No American case appears to have recognized assumption of risk as a defense by such a suit.” 298 U.S. 110, 122, 56 S. Ct. 707, 80 L. Ed. 1075 (1936). Accordingly, Defendant is prohibited from asserting the defense of assumption of the risk or making any argument in support of this defense at trial.
To the left of the judge’s signature on the order, there appeared a stamped “Note to Counsel”, which reads, “[t]he court has received no pleadings in opposition to this motion during the time period contemplated by trial court rule 22 order.” Subsequent to the circuit court’s ruling on those issues, Petitioners filed a Motion for Relief from [***16] the circuit court’s order on April 23, 2008, to clarify that it had in fact filed a response to plaintiffs’ motion in limine, but that it was untimely filed due to excusable neglect. 11 Petitioners urged the circuit court to consider its reply.
11 Petitioners contended that the mailing, rather than faxing, of their responses to the motion on the last day of filing was a clerical error that should not result in completely ignoring their response to the motion, which resulted in the exclusion of a recognized common law defense in West Virginia, among other findings.
In a third order entered on May 19, 2008, the circuit court granted the Christopher plaintiffs’ motion to consolidate their case with the case of the Freeman plaintiff under Case No. 06-C-328. In granting the motion, the circuit court considered the four factors set forth in Syllabus Point 2, State ex rel. Appalachian Power Company v. Ranson, 190 W. Va. 429, 438 S.E.2d 609 (1993) in exercising its discretion when deciding issues of consolidation under Rule 42(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. The circuit court expressly declined Petitioner’s request to bifurcate the cases on the issue of damages, stating that [***17] “the issue of liability and damages are intertwined and not reasonably susceptible of being bifurcated.”
Following the entry of the third order, Petitioners invoked the original jurisdiction of this Court in prohibition seeking a writ to vacate the three circuit court orders of January 30, 2008, April 15, 2008, and May 19, 2008. Petitioners assert that the circuit court’s rulings are incorrect for several reasons: (1) the Release Agreements are admissible as evidence because they contain warnings of the inherent risks of participating in whitewater rafting, and to the extent the Agreements contain inadmissible or unenforceable provisions, those provisions could be redacted therefrom; (2) maritime jurisdiction does not extend to this whitewater rafting case on the Shenandoah River because the Whitewater Responsibility Act is controlling, as the Shenandoah River is not a navigable waterway since it cannot be used for [**383] [*247] commercial shipping; (3) the circuit court failed to make any findings of fact regarding the navigability of the Shenandoah River; (4) assumption of the risk would be an available defense of the actions pursuant to controlling West Virginia law; (5) mandating the application [***18] of maritime law negates the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act, and deprives the defendants of the defense of assumption of the risk, thus rendering all whitewater outfitters uninsurable and crippling a vital State industry; and (6) consolidating the two cases for trial will cause unfair prejudice and insure juror confusion as a result of the intertwining of unrelated legal, factual and damage issues in that one case is a wrongful death case, and the others are personal injury cases. Specifically, Petitioners claim that the circuit court’s consolidation of the two cases will result in the application of maritime law to both actions, prohibiting the defense of assumption of the risk in both.
Conversely, the Christopher plaintiffs argue (1) that maritime law applies because the tort they complain of has a nexus to traditional maritime activity, and because the Shenandoah River is a navigable waterway; (2) that since there is no well- developed substantive maritime law of the issue of whitewater rafting safety, maritime law permits the circuit court to properly look to the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act for guidance 12 and (3) that “[b]ecause there is no federal statute [***19] stating otherwise, the duty under maritime law is the same duty established under West Virginia’s Whitewater Responsibility Act – that commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides ‘conform to the standard of care expected of members of their profession.’ W. Va. Code §20-3B-3.” It appears that the only facet of maritime law that the Respondents wish to have applied to this case is that assumption of the risk is not a defense.
12 Citing Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490, 2007 WL 1879172 (S.D. Fla. 2007)(unpublished opinion); Smith v. Haggerty, 169 F.Supp.2d 376 (E.D.Pa. 2001); and Coastal Fuels Marketing, Inc. v. Florida Exp. Shipping Co., Inc., 207 F.3d 1247, 1251 (11th Cir. 2000).
STANDARD OF ISSUANCE OF WRIT OF PROHIBITION
[HN4] The standard for the issuance of a writ of prohibition is set forth in W. Va. Code §53-1-1 (1882): “The writ of prohibition shall lie as a matter of right in all cases of usurpation and abuse of power, when the inferior court has not jurisdiction of the subject matter in controversy, or having such jurisdiction, exceeds its legitimate powers.” In syllabus point 4 of State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W. Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996) we [***20] held:
[HN5] In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal’s order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal’s order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal’s order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.
Id., Syl. Pt. 4.
This Court has stated that “. . . [HN6] prohibition. . . against judges [***21] [is a] drastic and extraordinary remed[y] . . . As [an] extraordinary remed[y], [it is] reserved for really extraordinary causes.” State ex rel. United States Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Canady, 194 W. Va. 431, 436, 460 S.E.2d 677, 682 (1995)(citations omitted); State ex rel. Tucker County Solid Waste Authority v. West Virginia Division of Labor, 222 W. Va. 588, 668 S.E.2d 217, [**384] [*248] 2008 WL 2523591 (W. Va. 2008). Thus, we have held that:
[HN7] In determining whether to grant a rule to show cause in prohibition when a court is not acting in excess of its jurisdiction, this Court will look to the adequacy of other available remedies such as appeal and to the over-all economy of effort and money among litigants, lawyers and courts; however, this Court will use prohibition in this discretionary way to correct only substantial, clear-cut, legal errors plainly in contravention of a clear statutory, constitutional, or common law mandate which may be resolved independently of any disputed facts and only in cases where there is a high probability that the trial will be completely reversed if the error is not corrected in advance.
Id. at Syl. Pt. 2 (citing Syllabus Point 1, Hinkle v. Black, 164 W. Va. 112, 262 S.E.2d 744 (1979)).
In [***22] syllabus point 3, State ex rel. Shelton v. Burnside, 212 W. Va. 514, 575 S.E.2d 124 (2002), this Court recognized “[i]n [HN8] the absence of compelling evidence of irremediable prejudice, a writ of prohibition will not lie to bar trial based upon a judge’s pretrial ruling on a matter of evidentiary admissibility.” (quoting Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. Williams v. Narick, 164 W. Va. 632, 264 S.E.2d 851 (1980)). “A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court.” Syl. Pt. 4, 212 W. Va. 514, 575 S.E.2d 124. “The writ does not lie to correct ‘mere errors’ and . . . it cannot serve as a substitute for appeal, writ of error or certiorari.” Narick, 164 W. Va. at 635, 264 S.E.2d at 854.
This Court further stated in Burnside that:
[t]here is a practical reason for not allowing challenges, by use of the writ of prohibition, to every pre-trial discretionary evidentiary ruling made by trial courts. Such use of the writ would effectively delay trials interminably while parties rushed to this Court for relief every time they disagree with a pre-trial ruling. The fact remains that “[t]he piecemeal challenge of discretionary rulings through writs of prohibition [***23] does not facilitate the orderly administration of justice.” Woodall, 156 W. Va. at 713, 195 S.E.2d at 721. Said another way, “writs of prohibition should not be issued nor used for the purpose of appealing cases upon the installment plan.” Wimberly v. Imel, 1961 OK CR 25, 358 P.2d 231, 232 (Okla. Crim. App., 1961).
212 W. Va. at 519, 575 S.E.2d at 129. Guided by these principles, we proceed to consider the parties’ arguments.
Petitioners raise questions regarding three pretrial rulings made by the circuit court on two motions in limine and one motion to consolidate. We note as a preliminary matter that it is this Court’s general practice and procedure to decline to consider rulings on motions in limine. This Court has recognized that “[t]hese [HN9] motions necessarily involve the exercise of discretion, and the correctness of discretionary rulings should ordinarily be challenged at a time when the entire record is available to an appellate court. The piecemeal challenge of discretionary rulings through writs of prohibition does not facilitate the orderly administration of justice.” Woodall v. Laurita, 156 W. Va. 707, 713, 195 S.E.2d 717, 720-21 (1973). Thus, in the absence of jurisdictional [***24] defect, the administration of justice is not well served by challenges to discretionary rulings of an interlocutory nature. These matters are best saved for appeal. State ex rel. Allen v. Bedell, 193 W. Va. at 37, 454 S.E.2d at 82 (Cleckley, J. concurring). As Justice Cleckley cautioned in his concurrence in State ex rel. Allen v. Bedell:
[HN10] Mere doubt as to the correctness of a trial court’s ruling on a motion in limine regarding an evidentiary issue is an insufficient basis to invoke this Court’s writ power. To justify this extraordinary remedy, the petitioner has the burden of showing that the lower court’s jurisdictional usurpation was clear and indisputable and, because there is no adequate relief at law, the extraordinary writ provides the only available and adequate remedy. Thus, writs of prohibition, as well as writs of [**385] [*249] mandamus and habeas corpus, should not be permitted when the error is correctable by appeal.
193 W. Va. at 37, 454 S.E.2d at 82.
This Court has, on limited occasions, considered challenges from evidentiary rulings in unique circumstances where the matter at issue rose to a level of considerable importance and compelling urgency. 13 In reviewing the claims asserted [***25] by Petitioners herein, which allege that the circuit court, by virtue of a motion in limine, made jurisdictional rulings that serve to have a significant and lasting negative impact on the question of liability for an important segment of business within this State, we find it appropriate to accept this matter for consideration at this stage in the proceedings. 14
13 See State ex rel. Foster v. Luff, 164 W. Va. 413, 419, 264 S.E.2d 477, 481 (1980)(prohibition granted where trial court abused discretion in failing to authorize expenditure of adequate funds to allow defense to secure experts); State ex rel. Register-Herald v. Canterbury, 192 W. Va. 18, 449 S.E.2d 272 (1994)(prohibition granted to reverse order constituting prior restraint against newspaper); State ex rel. Tyler v. MacQueen, 191 W. Va. 597, 447 S.E.2d 289 (1994)(prohibition used to review disqualification of prosecutor’s office); State ex rel. Leach v. Schlaegel, 191 W. Va. 538, 447 S.E.2d 1 (1994)(prohibition granted to prevent relitigation of case which was foreclosed because of collateral estoppel); State ex rel. DeFrances v. Bedell, 191 W. Va. 513, 446 S.E.2d 906 (1994)(prohibition used to review decision on lawyer’s [***26] disqualification).
14 Respondents contend that the circuit court’s order of April 15, 2008, cannot be challenged by the Petitioners, or is not before this Court in this extraordinary proceeding, because the Petitioners did not timely oppose the Christopher plaintiffs’ motion in limine asking the circuit court to find that maritime law governed the case. Petitioners admit that a scheduling order required them to file their response to the motion in limine by April 10, 2008, but that through “clerical error” their response was mailed, not faxed, to the clerk and the court on April 10, 2008. Five days later, on April 15, 2008, the circuit court, having not received the mailed response, entered an order granting the motion. To the left of the judge’s signature on the order, there appears a stamped “Note to Counsel”, which reads, “[t]he court has received no pleadings in opposition to this motion during the time period contemplated by trial court rule 22 order.” Petitioners contend that the mailing, rather than faxing, of their responses to the motion on the last day of filing was a clerical error that should not result in completely ignoring their response to the motion, which resulted in [***27] the exclusion of a recognized common law defense in West Virginia, among other findings.
Rule 6(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [HN11] provides, in part, that “[w]hen . . . by order of court an act is required or allowed to be done at or within a specified time . . . the court for cause shown may at any time in its discretion . . . (2) upon motion made after the expiration of the specified period permit the act to be done when the failure to act was the result of excusable neglect. . .” In Pritt v. Vickers, 214 W. Va. 221, 227, 588 S.E.2d 210, 216 (2003), the Court approvingly quotes this statement in 3 Moore’s Federal Practice §16.14: “[a] trial court may modify or amend a scheduling order only when ‘good cause’is shown and the court grants leave to modify.” See also Walker v. Option One Mortgage Corporation, 220 W. Va. 660, 665, 649 S.E.2d 233, 238 (2007)(trial courts should not permit parties to obtain extensions absent a showing of good cause). The record before us does not reveal that Petitioners filed a motion with the circuit court after the April 10, 2008, deadline to permit the belated filing of their response. If they did not, we cannot condone their failure, and [***28] their argument that this Court should, nevertheless, hear their argument that the circuit court incorrectly concluded that maritime law applies and that assumption of the risk is not a defense under that law. We will, however, consider the circuit court’s order of April 15, 2008, in this regard because it raises questions of whether the circuit court has jurisdiction of the subject matter in controversy. Issues of jurisdiction may be raised by this Court sua sponte. Ray v. Ray, 216 W. Va. 11, 13, 602 S.E.2d 454, 456 (2004). Also, “[t]his Court may, sua sponte, in the interest of justice, notice plain error.” Syl. Pt.1, Cartwright v. McComas, 223 W. Va. 161, 672 S.E.2d 297, 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 81, 2008 WL 4867068 (W. Va. 2008).
Having made the determination to consider this matter, we limit our review herein to the specific jurisdictional issue of the circuit court’s finding that the rafting incident is governed by maritime law. We decline to address on a writ of prohibition the other issues presented regarding the exclusion of the Releases signed by the plaintiffs and the circuit court’s consolidation of the two cases, to the extent that the circuit court’s rulings were discretionary. As stated above, this Court’s general rule provides that [***29] [HN12] prohibition is ordinarily inappropriate in matters involving a trial court’s pretrial ruling on the admissibility of evidence. State ex rel. Shelton v. Burnside, 212 W. Va. at 518, 575 S.E.2d at 128. Furthermore, “[a] [HN13] decision by a trial court to consolidate civil actions on [**386] [*250] any or all matters in issue under Rule 42(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure will be deferentially reviewed under an abuse of discretionary standard.” State ex rel. Appalachian Power Company v. MacQueen, III, 198 W. Va. 1, 4, 479 S.E.2d 300, 303 (1996).
[HN14] A trial court, pursuant to provisions of Rule 42, has a wide discretionary power to consolidate civil actions for joint hearing or trial and the action of a trial court in consolidating civil actions for a joint hearing or trial will not be reversed in the absence of a clear showing of abuse of such discretion and in the absence of a clear showing of prejudice to any one or more of the parties to civil actions which have been so consolidated.
Syl. Pt. 1, Holland v. Joyce, 155 W. Va. 535, 185 S.E.2d 505 (1971); State ex rel. Appalachian Power Company v. MacQueen, III, 198 W. Va. 1, 4, 479 S.E.2d 300, 303 (1996).
Herein, Respondents allege that the instant [***30] petition should not be considered because Petitioners never requested that the circuit court set forth a detailed order including findings of fact and conclusions of law that support and form the basis of its decision, or informed the circuit court that it intended to seek an extraordinary writ to challenge the court’s ruling. We held in State ex rel. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Gaughan, 203 W. Va. 358, 367, 508 S.E.2d 75, 84:
[HN15] A party seeking to petition this Court for an extraordinary writ based upon a non-appealable interlocutory decision of a trial court, must request the trial court set out in an order findings of fact and conclusions of law that support and form the basis of its decision. In making the request to the trial court, counsel must inform the trial court specifically that the request is being made because counsel intends to seek an extraordinary writ to challenge the court’s ruling. When such a request is made, trial courts are obligated to enter an order containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. Absent a request by the complaining party, a trial court is under no duty to set out findings of fact and conclusions of law in non-appealable interlocutory orders.
Syl. Pt. [***31] 6, 203 W. Va. 358, 508 S.E.2d 75.
While we recognize that there is generally a duty on the part of a party petitioning this Court for an extraordinary writ based upon a non-appealable interlocutory decision of a trial court to make a request that the trial court set forth findings of fact and conclusions of law prior to seeking prohibition, we will proceed to consider the maritime issue before us since it concerns a distinct issue of law involving the interpretation and application of a federal statute which may be resolved on the pleadings, orders and arguments before us. This Court has, on prior occasions, recognized that [HN16] when we are able to resolve issues before the Court without a detailed order, it is not necessary to remand for the circuit court to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law. See, e.g., Pruitt v. W. Va. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 222 W. Va. 290, 664 S.E.2d 175 (2008)(citing Fayette County National Bank v. Lilly, 199 W. Va. 349, 484 S.E.2d 232 (1997))(this Court is able to resolve issues before us without a detailed order and thus have no reason to remand for the circuit court to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law). See also Toth v. Board of Parks and Recreation Com’rs, 215 W. Va. 51, 55, 593 S.E.2d 576, 580 (2003); [***32] Ward v. Cliver, 212 W. Va. 653, 656, 575 S.E.2d 263, 266 (2002). [HN17] Based upon the jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court and the statutory laws of the State of West Virginia, we find, as a matter of law, that the activity of whitewater rafting does not invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction.
The question of whether or not the rafting accident on September 30, 2004, is governed by general maritime law presents a federal admiralty jurisdictional question. 15 Herein, [**387] [*251] the circuit court concluded that because the incident occurred on the Shenandoah River, a navigable body of water, it is governed by general maritime law. The circuit court order cites to the decision Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206, 116 S.Ct. 619, 623, 133 L. Ed. 2d 578 (1996), as support for its ruling.
15 [HN18] The United States Constitution provides in relevant part that “[t]he judicial Power shall extend. . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. . .” U.S. Const. Art. III, §2, cl. 1. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C.A. §1333(1948 and 1949), “[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of: (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in [***33] all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” The United States Supreme Court interpreted this section in Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207, 222, 106 S.Ct. 2485, 2494, 91 L. Ed. 2d 174 (1986) stating:
[HN19] the “savings to suitors” clause . . . allows litigants to bring in personam maritime actions in state courts. See Judiciary Act of 1789, §9, 1 Stat. 76 (“savings to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it”); 28 U.S.C. §1333 . . . See also Madruga v. Superior Court, 346 U.S. 556, 560, n. 12, 74 S.Ct. 298, 300, n. 12, 98 L.Ed. 290 (1954) . . . The “savings to suitors” clause leaves state courts competent to adjudicate maritime causes of action in proceedings in personam and means that “a state, ‘having concurrent jurisdiction, is free to adopt such remedies, and to attach to them such incidents, as it sees fit’ so long as it does not attempt to [give in rem remedies or] make changes in the ‘substantive maritime law.'” [citations omitted]. Stated another way, the “savings to suitors” clause allows state courts to entertain in personam maritime causes of action, but in such cases the extent to which state [***34] law may be used to remedy maritime injuries is constrained by a so-called “reverse-Erie” doctrine which requires that the substantive remedies afforded by the States conform to governing federal maritime standards.
477 U.S. at 222, 106 S.Ct. at 2494. See also Wright, Miller, Cooper, 14A Fed. Prac. & Proc. Juris.3d §3672, and Am.Jur.2d Admiralty §108.
Yamaha, 516 U.S. 199, 116 S.Ct. 619, 133 L. Ed. 2d 578, involved a collision between a twelve-year-old on a rented jet-ski and another recreational vehicle in territorial waters of the United States off a hotel frontage in Puerto Rico. The Yamaha Court found that because the case involved a watercraft collision on navigable waters, it fell within admiralty’s domain. 516 U.S. at 206, 116 S.Ct. at 623. The Yamaha Court then cited to its other previous decisions in Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 361-367, 110 S.Ct. 2892, 2895-2898, 111 L. Ed. 2d 292 (1990), and Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668, 677, 102 S.Ct. 2654, 2659, 73 L. Ed. 2d 300 (1982), which set forth [HN20] the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction test for tort claims. “The test ‘comprises two functional inquiries: first, the traditional “situs” analysis determining whether the tort was committed or the alleged injury occurred on navigable [***35] waters, and second, the more recently developed “nexus” analysis determining whether the alleged tort bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities.” Sisson, 497 U.S. at 361-367, 110 S.Ct. at 2895-2898.
Subsequently, in Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534, 115 S.Ct. 1043, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1024 (1995), the Supreme Court stated:
After Sisson, then, [HN21] a party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1333(1) over a tort claim must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity. A court applying the location test must determine whether the tort occurred on navigable water or whether injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable water. 46 U.S.C. App. §740. The connection test raises two issues. A court, first, must “assess the general features of the type of incident involved,” 497 U.S., at 363, 110 S.Ct., at 2896, to determine whether the incident has “a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce,” id., at 364, n. 2, 110 S.Ct., at 2896, n. 2. Second, a court must determine whether “the general character” of the “activity giving rise to the incident” shows a “substantial relationship to [***36] traditional maritime activity.” Id., at 365, 364, and n. 2, 110 S.Ct., at 2897, 2896, and n. 2.
513 U.S. 527, 534, 115 S.Ct. 1043, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1024. Thus, according to Grubart, federal admiralty law governs a tort action if the wrong occurred on navigable waters, and if the incident involved had the potential to disrupt maritime activity and the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident had a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. 16
16 The Fourth Circuit has recognized the Grubart jurisdictional test. See Brock v. Lewis, 86 F.3d 1148 (4th Cir. 1996)(unpublished opinion). Other publications that provide discussion of the criteria for determining admiralty jurisdiction include:1 The Law of Maritime Personal Injuries §10.1 (5th ed.)(2007)(stating that “[t]here is no doubt that [HN22] under the current law recreational boating activities that give rise to personal injuries or death fall within admiralty jurisdiction if they satisfy the locus and nexus criteria for admiralty tort jurisdiction.”; See also Wright, Miller, Cooper, 14A Fed. Prac. & Proc. Juris.3d §3676; Admiralty Jurisdiction: Maritime Nature of Torts – Modern Cases, 80 A.L.R. Fed. 105 (2008).
[**388] [*252] Based upon the United [***37] States Supreme Court’s holding in Grubart, [HN23] in order for the circuit court to find that general maritime law applies, it should have properly determined whether the rafting mishap and ensuing tort claims arising therefrom satisfied both prerequisite conditions of 1) location on the navigable waters and 2) connection with maritime activity. Failing to conduct such an analysis, the circuit court’s order of April 15, 2008, concluded, in a single sentence, that “because the incident occurred on the Shenandoah River, a navigable body of water, it is governed by general maritime law.” From its order, the circuit court appears to have only considered the first prong of the Grubart test in arriving at its conclusion that maritime law applied. 17
17 It is not necessary for this Court to discuss the propriety of the circuit court’s findings regarding the location requirement to the extent that we find that the second part of the Grubart test is not satisfied. [HN24] A party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1333(1) over a tort claim must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity. With that said, we note that the circuit court provided [***38] no standards whereby it determined that the Shenandoah River is in fact a navigable river, and no facts to which it applied standards to make that determination. Based on the limited set of facts we have reviewed herein, we question how a river with average relevant depths of two feet that was used for whitewater rafting purposes could possibly be considered a navigable waterway for purposes of maritime jurisdiction.
In addition to determining whether the incident occurred on navigable waters, the circuit court should have also analyzed whether the incident constituted “a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and that it had a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity” in order to satisfy the second nexus criterion. Applying the second prong of the Grubart test to the circumstances of the instant case, we find that [HN25] the activity of whitewater rafting does not constitute traditional maritime activity and is therefore not governed by maritime law.
First, given the fact that the Shenandoah River maintains average depths of two feet, 18 it is hard to envision how the act of whitewater rafting could have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce, to [***39] the extent that this area was unlikely a highly traveled thoroughfare over which trade and travel is conducted. 19 However, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the incident that occurred during this whitewater rafting trip had a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce, it still did not bear a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
18 This fact was represented by both the Petitioners and the Respondents.
19 See Grubart, 115 S.Ct. at 1051 (the relevant inquiry is whether the general features of the mishap place it within a class of incidents that pose more than a fanciful risk to commercial shipping.)
The cases before us involve an unfortunate incident that occurred during the course of a recreational outing on a river that was unusually swollen with flood waters resulting from a hurricane. They do not concern piloting, shipping, or navigational error, or other aspects of traditional maritime activity. Foster v. Peddicord, 826 F.2d 1370, 1376 (4th Cir. 1987). The requisite maritime connection is therefore missing.
It is particularly relevant that there is no existing federal or state precedent applying admiralty jurisdiction to the activity of whitewater [***40] rafting. Perhaps this is because the very nature of the activity of whitewater rafting is not the customary mode of travel or transportation with which maritime law has ever been concerned. Whitewater rafting is a recreational activity where participants seek the adventure of paddling a rubber raft in rapidly moving whitewater streams and rivers. Such use of streams and rivers carrying people, not as traveling passengers, but rather as participants seeking adventure, makes it difficult to conceive that whitewater rafting bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. For these reasons, we conclude that the circuit court committed clear error in determining [**389] [*253] that maritime law applies to the instant cases.
Accordingly, we grant the writ sought only to the extent of vacating the circuit court’s ruling finding that the rafting incident is governed by maritime law. We remand this matter to the circuit court for entry of an order consistent with this opinion.
Writ granted as moulded.