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Colorado Supreme Court Determines that a Piece of Playground Equipment on School Property Is Not Protected by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act

Colorado Supreme Court Determines that a Piece of Playground Equipment on School Property Is Not Protected by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, Sports Litigation Alert Vol. 14, Iss. 13

In St. Vrain Valley Sch. Dist. RE-1J v. A.R.L., 2014 CO 33; 325 P.3d 1014; 2014 Colo. LEXIS 362, the plaintiff was playing on a piece of school equipment called a zip line when she fell and fractured her wrist. The court described the playground equipment as an apparatus. The defendants, who included the principal of the school where the playground was located, filed a motion to dismiss based on C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) stating the court lacked jurisdiction based on the Colorado Governmental Immunities Act, (CGIA).

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The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to defeat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality.

Tour of the Canyonlands was an 18-mile mountain bike race near Moab, Utah. Six miles of the course were on roads. The course was an open course meaning, there might be automobile traffic on the roads; the roads would not be closed to traffic.
Two plaintiffs’ struck a truck on the road, killing one of the mountain bikers.

Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., et. al., 575 F.3d 1120; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17822

State: Utah, United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Robert J. Milne, an individual; Timothy K. Sorrow, individually and as personal representative on behalf of his deceased son, Samuel B. Hall,

Defendant: USA Cycling Inc., a Colorado corporation, d/b/a National Off-road Bicycle Association; Cycle Cyndicate Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death

Defendant Defenses: release, failure to state a claim to prove gross negligence

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2009

This is an attempt to recover damages by parents for the injuries they suffer when a son is hurt or dies. It probably involves as many emotional issues as it does legal ones such as how and why did my son die, why didn’t they do more to keep my son alive and possibly even some desire to protect others from the same
fate.

Two mountain bikers entered the Tour of the Canyonlands mountain bike race. Both had entered the race before and were classified as expert racers. They both signed a release prior to the race and had been told the first six miles of the course would be an open course.

An “open course” is one that is not closed to automobile traffic. Cycling on an “open course,” whether on a mountain bike or road bike, you will be encountering cars and be passed by cars. Approximately 25% of all mountain bike races are open course and a majority of road bike races in the US.

The race organizers had put up signs before the racing telling motorists that there was going to be a race. The organizers had volunteers along the route and first aid people to assist riders. They had made the effort to notify all campers on the race route about the race. The defendant driving the truck involved in the collision stated he was not notified about the race, but other people camping with him stated they had been notified.

The accident occurred when one racer attempted to pass another racer on the open part of the course while passing the automobile coming from the opposite direction. The automobile was a Ford Excursion pulling a 30’ trailer. The mountain bikers tangled, and one of the plaintiffs’s crashed into the truck.

Mr. Konitshek testified that, when he saw the oncoming bikers, he veered as far right in his lane of travel as possible, and remained on the right side of the road the entire time. He was going about 5 miles per hour when one of the bikers hit his left sideview mirror, causing it to bang into his window and shatter.

Mr. Hall had attempted to pass both himself and Mr. Milne. Mr. Byrd was immediately behind Mr. Milne, so Mr. Hall passed him first. Mr. Byrd testified that Mr. Hall passed very closely and, because of his proximity and his speed–Mr. Hall was riding about 25 miles per hour at that time–Mr. Casey could feel the wind coming off him as he passed. Then, as Mr. Hall began to pass Mr. Milne, their handlebars locked together, causing them to veer left and strike Mr. Konitshek’s camper. It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at least one racer testified that he saw the trailer run over Mr. Hall.

The release stopped the claims based on simple negligence and wrongful death of the plaintiffs. That left the claims for gross negligence. The Federal District Court (trial court) dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because the plaintiff had not pled any facts to prove their claim of gross negligence.

On the plaintiff’s gross negligence claims, the court determined that the undisputed facts showed that defendants had taken a number of steps to protect the racers’ safety, and even if those steps were taken negligently, they were not grossly negligent.

There was also an issue of the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the trial court had prevented from testifying because the trial court found him to not have any experience as a mountain bike race expert.

The plaintiff’s appealed the trial court’s decision.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The appellate court had a long discussion on the courts process to dismiss cases based on motions for summary judgment. The court then started into the analysis of the facts in this case and how they applied to the law.

Gross negligence in Utah is a failure on the part of the defendant to observe even slight care. “Under Utah law, “[g]ross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.” The plaintiff to prove the defendant was grossly negligent must proof “conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence.”

The facts argued by the plaintiff can then only be interpreted in one way for a court to determine gross negligence cannot be proved. However, even if there are different ways of viewing the facts, gross negligence claims can be beat if there is evidence the defendant did show care or was not lacking care.

However, appeals courts have affirmed grants of summary judgment on gross negligence claims where the undisputed evidence showed that the defendants took precautionary measures and did not ignore known and obvious risks.

In this case, the court could point out numerous instances where the defendant was not careless. “… the plaintiffs have fallen short of producing evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the defendants failed to exercise “even slight care” in organizing and administering this race.

The court also looked at the knowledge of the racers and the fact they assumed the risk of the sport and injuries they encountered.

Mountain bike racing is an inherently dangerous sport, so the defendants cannot be considered grossly negligent merely because they organized a race that placed the racers at risk of injury and even death. Rather, the court must look at the specific steps the defendants took to ensure the racers’ safety in order to determine whether a jury could decide that they
were grossly negligent.

Although the issue of assumption of the risk was reviewed by the court and it obviously factored into the court’s analysis, it was not stated by the court as a reason for its decision.

The plaintiff argued the driver’s statements showed the defendant not done anything. However, the court seemed to discount the driver’s statements and found everyone else did know about the race. A defendant in the case looking not to lose a lawsuit would be more inclined to state he had not been notified.

Mr. Konitshek claimed that the organizers’ efforts to warn people in the area of the upcoming race were ineffective, because he did not know about the race until moments before the accident. Mr. Konitshek’s complaints about the sufficiency of the race organizers’ warnings do not rise to the level of creating a material issue of fact with regard to gross
negligence for two reasons. First, even if the race organizers’ warnings were imperfect, that does not negate the fact that they made rather substantial efforts to warn people, and their failure to reach every person in the area is insufficient to show gross negligence. Second, although Mr. Konitshek testified that he would have changed his plans if he had known about the race in advance, the plaintiffs presented no reason for this court to think that most drivers would change their plans to avoid a bicycle race on a 6-mile stretch of open road.

Utah requires a high disregard of safety issues to constitute gross negligence. Since automobile accidents were rare in mountain bike racing, this being the only one in the ten years of running this event, automobile accidents were not considered a serious threat to the participants. The issues were brought up by the plaintiff’s expert witness whom the court dismissed in one paragraph.

Thus, the organizers’ failure to shut down the road, mark and enforce a center line on the road, more closely monitor vehicular traffic, or more thoroughly warn other area drivers of the upcoming race cannot, as a matter of law, amount to gross negligence in light of the other safety steps taken by the organizers of this race.

Nor is gross negligence proved by 20/20 hindsight.

An examination of cases in other jurisdictions shows that courts have been reluctant to find that race organizers have been grossly negligent for failing to take every precaution that 20/20 hind-sight might counsel.

The court found the plaintiff’s had not presented evidence that could prove to a jury that the race organizers were grossly negligent and the actions of the race organizers in attending to the safety issues discounted or eliminated the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim.

We therefore agree with the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs in this case have failed to provide evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the race organizers were grossly negligent.

The court then went on to support the trial courts exclusion of the plaintiff’s expert witness because the expert witness did not have sufficient experience in mountain bike racing. 

There was a concurring opinion in this case. A concurring opinion is one where a justice sitting on the appeal agrees with the outcome of the decision but for a different reason than the majority of the justices. In this case, the concurring judge felt the plaintiff’s expert witness statements were enough to beat the gross negligence claim.

In this case, he would have excluded the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, but would have used his testimony where he stated the defendants exercised some degree of care for the participants as a reason to dismiss the gross negligence claim.

The dismissal of the claims of the plaintiff by the trial court was upheld.

So Now What?

I am seeing case after case where gross negligence claims are made to defeat a release. Twenty years ago, few cases pleaded a claim for gross negligence, and now every case does. As such part of your preparation for any activity, trip or program is to make sure you do not do anything that could support a gross negligence claim.

Gross negligence claims rarely proved at trial, extremely rare. As such their main reason they are pled is to get passed the motion for summary judgment, which increases the cost of continuing the case substantially. Therefore, any settlement offer will be increased significantly. A gross negligence claim hanging over the head of a defendant is also a real threat as some insurance companies will not pay to defend such a claim judgment based on gross negligence are not dischargeable in Bankruptcy.

Planning what safety precautions you should undertake should first start with understanding what your industry does. Know how other races are put on and what precaution to take is the first step. Then looking at your course, your participants or your ability to respond, you should modify the safety program to meet those differences. 

Finally, have a release and fully inform every one of the risks. Most importantly inform them of all risks, maybe even repeatedly, that are different from everyone else or that substantially increase the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second most-used defense to negligence claims in recreation cases after a release. Always use both.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Own a Bicycle Retailer, enter to win a Free trip to Interbike

Interbike Innovation Awards
Win a trip to Interbike!
Nominate your store for the Interbike Innovation AwardsHave you grown your business with omnichannel implementation strategies? Used bike trade-in initiatives? Done an in-store remodel? If you have implemented these or any other innovative ideas and strategies to your business with positive results over the past 12 months, you are eligible for the 2017 Interbike Retailer Innovation Awards.

Retailers self-nominate using the form below, then ten winners will be chosen from individual retailer submissions by a group made up of executive staff from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, The Mann Group and Interbike. See full details here »

The ten winners will receive numerous prizes and valuable exposure tools including:

Round-trip domestic flight to Interbike 2017

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PR Toolkit to help promote the accomplishment in your local market including:

  • Pre-written press release
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  • Mention in press release announcing all winners
  • Store profile in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News
  • Recognition on-stage at Interbike Industry Breakfast
  • Opportunity to present their innovation in an exciting TedX format presentation on-stage in front of Interbike attendees

The deadline for retailer nominations is this Saturday, July 15.

ENTER NOW!

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Veloswap Exhibitor Registration is Now Open

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Registration Open!!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

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There’s no more captive audience for selling anything and everything related to bikes and sports gear than at VeloSwap—the world’s largest consumer bike swap and expo.

Register Here

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November 4, 2017

The National Western made us move our date, sorry about that. Have heard from many that the early November date is better, hope it is for you.

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New Website!

Did huge work on the website, check it out and let us know what you think. We hope you will find it easier to navigate and more informative.

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Does your brand want to do something special at VeloSwap this year? Give us a call to dscuss, we are looking for new activities and events to add.

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T.K., a minor, v. Boys & Girls Clubs of America, et. al. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87005

T.K., a minor, v. Boys & Girls Clubs of America, et. al. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87005

T.K., a minor, by and through his natural Father and Next Friend, Timothy Killings, and Timothy Killings, individually, Plaintiffs, v. Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Boys and Girls Club of Decatur, Inc., and Mary K. Paulin, Defendants.

Case No. 16-cv-03056

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE CENTRAL DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS, SPRINGFIELD DIVISION

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87005

June 6, 2017, Decided

June 7, 2017, E-Filed

CORE TERMS: trailer, willful, farm, wanton misconduct, res ipsa loquitur, negligence claims, pleaded, cognizable, exclusive control, wanton, medical expenses, supervision, pulled, negligence per se, public road, legal conclusions, pulling, seat, factual allegations, right to relief, conscious disregard, indifference, speculative, supervise, reckless, notice, owed, public highway, guidelines, transport

COUNSEL: [*1] For T.K., a Minor, By And Through His Natural Father and Next Friend, Timothy Killings, Timothy Killings, Plaintiffs: Christopher Ryan Dixon, THE DIXON INJURY FIRM, St Louis, MO.

For Boys & Girls Club of America, Boys and Girls Club of Decatur, Inc., Defendants: Randall A Mead, LEAD ATTORNEY, DRAKE NARUP & MEAD PC, Springfield, IL.

For Mary K Paulin, Defendant: Daniel R Price, LEAD ATTORNEY, WHAM & WHAM, Centralia, IL.

JUDGES: SUE E. MYERSCOUGH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: SUE E. MYERSCOUGH

OPINION

SUE E. MYERSCOUGH, U.S. District Judge:

Before the Court are Defendants Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Boys & Girls Club of Decatur, Inc.’s Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion to Strike Portions of Count I of the Second Amended Complaint (d/e 32) and Defendant Mary K. Paulin’s Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion to Strike Portions of Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint (d/e 33). The motion filed by Defendants Boys and Girls Club of Decatur, Inc. (Decatur Boys & Girls Club) and Boys & Girls Clubs of America (America Boys & Girls Club) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendant Paulin’s motion is DENIED. In the Second Amended Complaint, T.K., a [*2] minor, through his father, Timothy Killings, sufficiently pleads negligence and willful and wanton misconduct causes of action against all Defendants. In addition, Mr. Killings pleads cognizable claims for T.K.’s past and future medical expenses against all Defendants. However, the allegations of the Second Amended Complaint are not sufficient to render the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applicable against Decatur Boys & Girls Club or America Boys & Girls Club.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts come from Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint. The Court accepts them as true at the motion to dismiss stage. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008).

On July 17, 2015, T.K., a then-eight-year-old resident of California, was a member of Decatur Boys & Girls Club, a corporate citizen of Illinois and a licensed child-care facility. On that same date, Decatur Boys & Girls Club was operating a summer camp through its agents and employees, and T.K. was under the paid care and supervision of Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club. America Boys & Girls Club, a corporate citizen of Georgia, provides operating policies, procedures, rules, guidelines, and instructions regarding how Decatur Boys & Girls Club is to operate. Decatur [*3] Boys & Girls Club is required to follow these operating policies, procedures, rules, guidelines, and instructions.

On July 17, 2015, T.K. was taken from the premises of Decatur Boys & Girls Club in Decatur, Illinois, to property in Clinton, Illinois, owned by Defendant Paulin, an Illinois citizen. Neither Decatur Boys & Girls Club nor America Boys & Girls Club had permission to transport T.K. from Decatur to Defendant Paulin’s property in Clinton. Defendants,1 again without permission, put T.K. on a farm trailer owned by Defendant Paulin and located on Defendant Paulin’s property. The farm trailer was not designed or intended to transport people, and the trailer lacked guardrails, seats, seatbelts, and other equipment that might prevent people from falling off it. Defendant Paulin pulled the trailer, with T.K. and 15 to 20 additional children riding on it, onto a public highway with a tractor Defendant Paulin owned. The trailer was not being used in connection with a parade or a farm-related activity.

1 The use of “Defendants” in this Opinion will refer collectively to Decatur Boys & Girls Club, America Boys & Girls Club, and Mary K. Paulin.

While riding on the trailer, T.K. fell or jumped off the trailer or was pushed off. As a result, T.K. sustained injuries to his head, face, eyes, chest, neck, back, arms, lungs, hands, legs, [*4] and feet. T.K. underwent medical treatment for his injuries and will have to undergo additional treatment in the future. T.K’s father, Timothy Killings, a citizen of California, has incurred expenses related to his son’s medical care and will incur additional expenses in the future for his son’s future medical care.

On March 3, 2016, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint (d/e 1) against Defendants. Plaintiffs subsequently filed their First Amended Complaint (d/e 26) on May 23, 2016, and their Second Amended Complaint (d/e 31) on June 17, 2016. The Second Amended Complaint contains five counts. Counts 1 through 3 allege claims against Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club for, respectively, negligence, negligence based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and willful and wanton misconduct. Counts 4 and 5 allege negligence and willful and wanton misconduct claims, respectively, against Defendant Paulin.

On June 27, 2016, Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club filed their Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion to Strike Portions of Count I of the Second Amended Complaint, asking the Court to dismiss Counts 1 through 3 for failing to [*5] state cognizable claims or, in the alternative, to strike certain paragraphs of the Second Amended Complaint. On June 30, 2017, Defendant Paulin filed her Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion to Strike Portions of Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint, asking the Court to dismiss Counts 4 and 5 for failing to state cognizable claims or, in the alternative, to strike certain paragraphs of the Second Amended Complaint.

II. JURISDICTION

This Court has original jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ claims because no Plaintiff is a citizen of the same state as any Defendant and Plaintiffs are seeking damages in excess of $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1); McMillian v. Sheraton Chi. Hotel & Towers, 567 F.3d 839, 844 (7th Cir. 2009) (“When the jurisdictional threshold is uncontested, we generally will accept the plaintiff’s good faith allegation of the amount in controversy unless it appear[s] to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. LEGAL STANDARD

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). Plausibility means alleging factual content that allows a court to reasonably infer [*6] that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). A plaintiff’s complaint must suggest a right to relief, “raising that possibility above a speculative level.” Kubiak v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 476, 480 (7th Cir. 2016). “The required level of factual specificity rises with the complexity of the claim.” McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616-17 (7th Cir. 2011).

When faced with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court “accept[s] as true all of the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Roberts v. City of Chicago, 817 F.3d 561, 564 (7th Cir. 2016). “[L]egal conclusions and conclusory allegations merely reciting the elements of the claim are not entitled to this presumption of truth.” McCauley, 671 F.3d at 616. Further, the Court is “not obliged to ignore any facts set forth in the complaint that undermine the plaintiff’s claim.” R.J.R. Servs., Inc. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 895 F.2d 279, 281 (7th Cir. 1989). The Court may “strike from a pleading . . . any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(f).

IV. ANALYSIS

A. Count I and Count IV Sufficiently Plead Negligence and Medical Expense Claims Against All Defendants.

1. T.K. has pleaded cognizable negligence claims against all Defendants.

In a case where federal jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, “[s]tate substantive law applies, but federal procedural rules govern.” Doermer v. Callen, 847 F.3d 522, 529 (7th Cir. 2017). “To state a claim for negligence under Illinois law, a plaintiff must plead [*7] that the defendant owed plaintiff a duty, it breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused plaintiff’s injury.” Allstate Indem. Co. v. ADT LLC, 110 F. Supp. 3d 856, 862-63 (N.D. Ill. 2015) (citing Simpkins v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2012 IL 110662, 965 N.E.2d 1092, 1097, 358 Ill. Dec. 613 (Ill. 2012). In Illinois, “every person owes to all other persons a duty to exercise ordinary care to guard against injury which naturally flows as a reasonably probable and foreseeable consequence of his act.” Jane Doe-3 v. McLean Cnty. Unit Dist. No. 5 Bd. of Dirs., 2012 IL 112479, 973 N.E.2d 880, 890, 362 Ill. Dec. 484 (Ill. 2012). Whether this duty arises in a particular context depends on “the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of the injury, the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury, and the consequences of placing the burden on defendants.” Id. A child’s caretaker has a duty to protect the child from harm. Ryan v. Yarbrough, 355 Ill. App. 3d 342, 823 N.E.2d 259, 262, 291 Ill. Dec. 249 (Ill. App. Ct. 2005). Whether a duty exists is a question of law to be decided by the Court. Simpkins, 965 N.E.2d at 1096.

In support of his negligence claims against America Boys & Girls Club and Decatur Boys & Girls Club, T.K.2 alleges that he was a member of Decatur Boys & Girls Club and was entrusted to the care of both organizations on July 17, 2015. Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 15-16. America Boys & Girls Club and Decatur Boys & Girls Club agreed to accept the “care, custody, and control” of T.K. for the purpose of providing child care. Id. ¶ 16. T.K. also alleges [*8] that on July 17, 2015, the relationship between him and America Boys & Girls Club and Decatur Boys & Girls Club imposed on the two organizations a duty of care to adequately supervise him and protect him from harm, any unreasonable risk of harm, dangerous instrumentalities, and dangerous conditions. Id. ¶¶ 42-43.

2 Plaintiffs do not separate T.K’s claims from Mr. Killings’ claims in the Second Amended Complaint. To avoid confusion, the Court will address the allegations of the Second Amended Complaint as those of T.K. when analyzing T.K’s claims and as those of Mr. Killings when analyzing Mr. Killings’ claims.

Further, according to T.K., America Boys & Girls Club and Decatur Boys & Girls Club breached the duty of care they owed him in several ways, including by (1) negligently supervising him, (2) allowing and causing him to be placed on a farm trailer that was not designed for transporting children and was therefore dangerous and not reasonably safe for him, (3) failing to warn or failing to adequately warn him of the potential for injury before putting him on the trailer, (4) failing to properly supervise the minors they placed on the trailer, and (5) failing to provide enough staff members to monitor the children they placed on the trailer. Id. ¶ 45. With respect to America Boys & Girls Club, T.K. further alleges that it failed to properly train Decatur Boys & Girls Club on the operating policies, procedures, rules, guidelines, and instructions of America Boys & Girls Club and [*9] that it failed to supervise Decatur Boys & Girls Club to ensure that the operating policies, procedures, rules, guidelines, and instructions were followed. Id. ¶¶ 46-47. In addition, T.K. claims that the actions of America Boys & Girls Club and Decatur Boys & Girls Club proximately caused his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 33-39, 49.

In support of his negligence claim against Defendant Paulin, T.K. alleges that on July 17, 2015, Defendant Paulin put him on the farm trailer even though Defendant Paulin did not have the requisite permission to give him a ride on the trailer. Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 21, 23. Defendant Paulin towed the trailer, while T.K. and 15 to 20 additional children were on board, with a tractor onto a public highway. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. According to T.K., Defendant Paulin owed him a duty of care to protect him from any unreasonable risk of harm and breached that duty by (1) allowing and causing him to be placed on a farm trailer that was not designed for transporting children and was therefore dangerous and not reasonably safe for him; (2) failing to warn him of the potential for injury before putting him on the trailer and pulling the trailer onto a public highway; (3) failing to warn [*10] him that the trailer was dangerous and not reasonably safe given that the trailer had no railings, barriers, walls, or seats; and (4) creating a dangerous condition by placing him on the trailer and pulling it onto a public highway. Id. ¶¶ 72-73. In addition, T.K. alleges that the actions of Defendant Paulin proximately caused his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 33-39, 75.

Based on these allegations, T.K. has sufficiently pleaded negligence claims against Decatur Boys & Girls Club, America Boys & Girls Club, and Defendant Paulin. The allegations in Count I and Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint give Defendants notice of the basis for T.K.’s negligence claims against them and are sufficient to establish that T.K. has a plausible, as opposed to speculative, right to relief against Defendants. This is all that is required of a plaintiff under the federal notice pleading regime. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 547.

Defendants do not seem to dispute such a finding. Indeed, their arguments for the dismissal of Count I and Count IV focus on the allegations in the Second Amended Complaint relating to an alleged violation of 625 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/11-1408, a provision of the Illinois Vehicle Code, and claims that their alleged statutory violations constitute [*11] negligence per se. See Mot. to Dismiss (d/e 32), at 1-2; Memorandum of Law (d/e 21), at 4-6; Mot. to Dismiss (d/e 33), at 1-2; Memorandum of Law (d/e 34), at 1-2. Defendants are correct that Illinois does not recognize statutory violations as negligence per se. See Kalata v. Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc., 144 Ill. 2d 425, 581 N.E.2d 656, 661, 163 Ill. Dec. 502 (Ill. 1991) (“A violation of a statute or ordinance designed to protect human life or property is prima facie evidence of negligence. . . . The violation does not constitute negligence per se, however, and therefore the defendant may prevail by showing that he acted reasonably under the circumstances.”). But the inclusion of allegations regarding violations of 625 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/11-1408 and negligence per se do not require the dismissal of Count I or Count IV. As the Court has explained above, T.K. has sufficiently pleaded negligence claims against Defendants without the allegations relating to statutory violations. Cf. Bartholet v. Reishauer A.G. (Zurich), 953 F.2d 1073, 1078 (7th Cir. 1992) (“[T]he complaint need not identify a legal theory, and specifying an incorrect theory is not fatal.”).

2. Timothy Killings has pleaded cognizable medical expense claims against all Defendants.

Just because T.K. has cognizable negligence claims against Defendants does not mean that Timothy Killings, T.K.’s father, also has such claims. To state a [*12] negligence cause of action, Mr. Killings must plead enough facts to make it plausible that he was harmed as a proximate result of Defendants’ breach of a duty they owed to him. Allstate, 110 F. Supp. 3d at 862-63. Mr. Killings has failed to meet his burden. The fact that Defendants were responsible for T.K.’s well-being on July 17, 2015, does not mean that Defendants had any duty to Mr. Killings. See Bruntjen v. Bethalto Pizza, LLC, 2014 IL App (5th) 120245, 385 Ill. Dec. 215, 18 N.E.3d 215, 231 (Ill. App. Ct. 2014) (“The criterion in a duty analysis is whether a plaintiff and a defendant stood in such a relationship to each other that the law imposed an obligation upon the defendant to act for the protection of the plaintiff.”). It was T.K., not Mr. Killings, who was placed on an unsafe farm trailer and pulled onto a public road. Defendants therefore had a duty to exercise ordinary care to prevent injury to T.K., not Mr. Killings. Further, Mr. Killings does not claim that he was physically injured as a result of Defendants’ negligence; his only claimed injury is the money he has spent and the money he will spend in the future for T.K.’s past and future medical treatment. See Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 38-39. In short, Mr. Killings has not met the pleading requirements for a negligence claim against any Defendant.

But just because Mr. [*13] Killings has not pleaded cognizable negligence claims against Defendants does not mean that he has pleaded no cognizable claims against them. In Illinois, parents have a cause of action against a tortfeasor who injures their child and causes them to incur medical expenses. Pirrello v. Maryville Acad., Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 133964, 386 Ill. Dec. 108, 19 N.E.3d 1261, 1264 (Ill. App. Ct. 2014). The claim is not one for damages stemming from the child’s physical injury, but one founded on the parents’ liability for the minor’s medical expenses under the Illinois Family Expense Act. Id.; see also 750 Ill. Comp. Stat. 65/15(a)(1) (obligating parents to pay for the “expenses of the family”). T.K. has pleaded cognizable negligence claims against Defendants. Mr. Killings alleges that he has been saddled with bills stemming from T.K.’s medical care, some of which he has paid, and that he will incur additional medical bills in the future as a result of the injuries T.K. suffered on account of Defendants’ negligence. Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 38-39. Mr. Killings is the father of T.K., a minor, and is required by law to pay for T.K.’s medical expenses, Mr. Killings has adequately pleaded claims against Defendants for the recovery of the amounts paid or to be paid for T.K.’s past and future medical expenses stemming from Defendants’ negligence.

One [*14] final point merits a brief discussion. In the Second Amended Complaint, Mr. Killings alleges that he has suffered, as a result of T.K.’s injuries, “loss of aid, comfort, society, companionship, pleasure, and the family relationship.” Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶ 40. However, in Illinois, a parent may not “recover for loss of the society and companionship of a child who is nonfatally injured.” Vitro v. Mihelcic, 209 Ill. 2d 76, 806 N.E.2d 632, 633, 282 Ill. Dec. 335 (Ill. 2004). Therefore, Mr. Killings has no valid claim for loss of society and companionship in this case.

3. The Court strikes paragraph 27 from Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint.

As an alternative to the dismissal of Count I of the Second Amended Complaint, Defendants Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club ask the Court to strike paragraphs 50 through 55 of the Complaint. Mot. to Dismiss (d/e 32), at 2. Similarly, Defendant Paulin asks the Court, as an alternative to the dismissal of Count IV, to strike paragraphs 76 through 81 of the Second Amended Complaint. Mot. to Dismiss (d/e 33), at 1-2. According to Defendants, the Court should strike these paragraphs because they are ultimately used to claim that Defendants’ alleged statutory violations constitute negligence per se.

Additionally, Defendants [*15] Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club request that the Court strike paragraph 27 from the Second Amended Complaint for being duplicative of paragraph 25 and strike paragraphs 42, 43, 44, 48, 68, 69, and 70 because those paragraphs are legal conclusions. Mot. to Dismiss (d/e 32), at 4. But even assuming that the aforementioned paragraphs are legal conclusions, as opposed to factual allegations, that is no reason to strike them from the Second Amended Complaint. Although Plaintiffs are required to plead facts that indicate they have a plausible, as opposed to a speculative, right to relief, see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, they are not prohibited from also pleading legal conclusions that might help to provide Defendants with notice of the claims brought against them or provide context for the factual allegations. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Riley, 199 F.R.D. 276, 278 (N.D. Ill. 2001) (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989)) (noting that “legal conclusions are an integral part of the federal notice pleading regime” and that Rule 8(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires parties to respond to all allegations contained within a pleading, including legal conclusions). Therefore, the Court strikes only paragraph 27 of the Second Amended Complaint, as it is duplicative of paragraph 25.

B. The Allegations of Plaintiffs’ Second Amended [*16] Complaint Are Insufficient to Render the Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur Applicable Against Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club.

Res ipsa loquitur is a rule of evidence applicable to a negligence claim, not a distinct theory of recovery. Rice v. Burnley, 230 Ill. App. 3d 987, 596 N.E.2d 105, 108, 172 Ill. Dec. 826 (Ill. App. Ct. 1992). Res ipsa loquitur allows “proof of negligence by circumstantial evidence when the direct evidence concerning cause of injury is primarily within the knowledge and control of the defendant.” Metz v. Cent. Ill. Elec. & Gas Co., 32 Ill. 2d 446, 207 N.E.2d 305, 307 (Ill. 1965). The doctrine “is meant to bridge an evidentiary gap when an injury could not have happened but for the defendant’s negligence.” Buechel v. United States, 746 F.3d 753, 765 (7th Cir. 2014). Accordingly, res ipsa loquitur applies only when the facts “admit of the single inference that the accident would not have happened unless the defendant had been negligent.” Britton v. Univ. of Chi. Hosps., 382 Ill. App. 3d 1009, 889 N.E.2d 706, 709, 321 Ill. Dec. 441 (Ill. App. Ct. 2008). Whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies is a question of law to be determined by the Court. Imig v. Beck, 115 Ill. 2d 18, 503 N.E.2d 324, 329, 104 Ill. Dec. 767 (Ill. 1986).

Under Illinois law, a plaintiff bringing a negligence claim based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur must plead that he was injured “in an occurrence that ordinarily does not happen in the absence of negligence” and that it was caused “by an agency or instrumentality within the defendant’s exclusive control.” Avalos-Landeros v. United States, 50 F. Supp. 3d 921, 927 (N.D. Ill. 2014) (citing Heastie v. Roberts, 226 Ill. 2d 515, 877 N.E.2d 1064, 1076, 315 Ill. Dec. 735 (Ill. 2007)). Although, in the past, [*17] a plaintiff had to allege that the “the injury occurred under circumstances indicating that it was not due to any voluntary act or neglect on the part of the plaintiff,” this requirement was removed due to the adoption of comparative fault principles in Illinois. Heastie, 877 N.E.2d at 1076. With respect to the requirement of “exclusive control,” a defendant’s control over the instrumentality “at the time of the alleged negligence is not defeated by lack of control at the time of the injury.” Darrough v. Glendale Heights Cmty. Hosp., 234 Ill. App. 3d 1055, 600 N.E.2d 1248, 1252-53, 175 Ill. Dec. 790 (Ill. App. Ct. 1992). Indeed, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur can be appropriate if the instrument that caused the injury was in the defendant’s exclusive control “at a time prior to the injury and there is no change in conditions or intervening act that could reasonably have caused the event resulting in the injury.” Id. at 1253.

T.K. alleges that “a minor child under the care and supervision of a registered, licensed professional child care facility does not ordinarily sustain serious injuries when properly supervised in the absence of negligence.” Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶ 60. Further, T.K. claims that at the time he sustained his injuries, the farm trailer that injured him was under the exclusive control of Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys [*18] & Girls Club. Id. ¶ 61. These allegations are not sufficient to render the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applicable here. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545 (noting that “a formulaic recitation of a cause of action’s elements” will not withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss). And although the Second Amended Complaint contains numerous factual allegations regarding the incident in which T.K. was injured, those allegations do not indicate a plausible right to relief for T.K. under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Because the facts pleaded in Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint provide no support for the second prong in the res ipsa loquitur analysis–whether an injury was caused by an object within the defendant’s exclusive control–the Court’s res ipsa loquitur analysis will begin and end with that prong. Even assuming that the incident in which T.K. was injured was one that does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence, T.K.’s account of the circumstances surrounding the accident indicate that it was Defendant Paulin, not Decatur Boys & Girls Club or America Boys & Girls Club, who had exclusive control of the farm trailer. According to the Second Amended Complaint, the farm trailer that injured T.K. was owned [*19] by Defendant Paulin and located on Defendant Paulin’s property. Defendant Paulin was the one who pulled the trailer onto a public road with T.K. and several other minor children on board. Defendant Paulin owned the tractor with which the trailer was pulled. Although T.K. claims that Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club were responsible for placing him on the farm trailer, he makes the same allegation with respect to Defendant Paulin. See Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 22-23. In short, there is nothing in the Second Amended Complaint to support T.K.’s allegation that Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club were in exclusive control of the farm trailer at any time.

Based on this analysis, the Court has determined that the factual allegations of the Second Amended Complaint are not sufficient to render the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applicable. In doing so, the Court again notes that res ipsa loquitur is an evidentiary rule, not a distinct theory of recovery. If facts uncovered through the discovery process sufficiently support the application of res ipsa loquitur against any Defendant, the Court will allow T.K. to rely on the doctrine at the summary judgment [*20] stage and will allow the trier of fact to consider and apply the doctrine as to that Defendant.

C. Count III and Count V Sufficiently Plead Willful and Wanton Misconduct Claims Against the Defendants.

To state a claim under Illinois law for willful and wanton misconduct, a plaintiff must plead facts establishing the elements of a negligence claim–duty, breach, proximate causation, and harm–and “either a deliberate intention to harm or an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the welfare of the plaintiff.” Kirwan v. Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protections Dist., 349 Ill. App. 3d 150, 811 N.E.2d 1259, 1263, 285 Ill. Dec. 380 (Ill. App. Ct. 2004) (quoting Adkins v. Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Ctr., 129 Ill. 2d 497, 544 N.E.2d 733, 743, 136 Ill. Dec. 47 (Ill. 1989)). As noted above, T.K. has sufficiently pleaded negligence causes of action against all Defendants. T.K. has incorporated the allegations comprising his negligence claims into his willful and wanton misconduct claims against Defendants. Therefore, to state claims for willful and wanton misconduct against Defendants, T.K. need only additionally allege either intentional or reckless willful and wanton misconduct committed by Defendants. Reckless willful and wanton misconduct is conduct committed with an utter indifference of or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. Kirwan, 811 N.E.2d at 1263. To meet this standard, the defendant “must be conscious of his conduct, [*21] and, though having no intent to injure, must be conscious, from his knowledge of the surrounding circumstances and existing conditions, that his conduct will naturally and probably result in injury.” Id.

In the Second Amended Complaint, T.K. alleges that on July 17, 2015, Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club placed him and 15 to 20 other minors on an unsafe farm trailer with no guardrails, sidewalls, barriers, or seats while providing inadequate supervision. Sec. Am. Complaint, ¶¶ 22, 65. T.K. further alleges that the trailer was not designed to transport people. Id. ¶ 24. T.K claims that Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club failed to take necessary safety precautions and operated their summer camp recklessly or with gross negligence. Id. ¶¶ 64, 68. According to T.K., the actions and inaction of Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club were “willful, wanton, grossly negligent, careless, [and] reckless” and “showed an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of [T.K.].” Id. ¶ 70.

T.K. also includes several allegations in Count III about what Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club “knew or should have [*22] known.” Specifically, according to T.K., Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club knew or should have known that the farm trailer was unreasonably dangerous, that additional supervision was required for the 15 to 20 children riding on the farm trailer, and that there was no way for the children to be properly seated on the farm trailer. Id. ¶¶ 66-68. Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club also knew or should have known that placing children on the farm trailer and pulling it with a tractor without proper supervision posed a high probability of serious physical harm to T.K. Id. ¶ 69.

With respect to Defendant Paulin, T.K. alleges that Defendant Paulin placed T.K. on a farm trailer that was not designed or intended to transport people and had no guardrails, seats, or seat belts to prevent people from falling off it. Id. ¶¶ 23, 25-26. Further, T.K. claims that Defendant Paulin had no intention of making sure that T.K. was safe when she placed him on the farm trailer and pulled it onto a public road. Id. ¶ 83. T.K. also claims that Defendant Paulin failed to take necessary safety precautions. Id. ¶ 85. Defendant Paulin’s conduct, according to T.K., was “willful, [*23] wanton, grossly negligent, careless, [and] reckless” and showed a “conscious disregard for the safety of [T.K.].” Id. ¶ 87.

As with Decatur Boys & Girls Club and America Boys & Girls Club, T.K. includes allegations in the Second Amended Complaint regarding what Defendant Paulin “knew or should have known.” Specifically, T.K. alleges that Defendant Paulin knew or should have known that the farm trailer was unreasonably dangerous, that pulling children onto a public road while on the trailer was unreasonably dangerous, and that placing children on the farm trailer and pulling the trailer onto a public roadway without proper supervision posed a high probability of serious physical harm or death. Id. ¶¶ 83-84, 86.

T.K.’s allegations are sufficient to plead willful and wanton misconduct claims against Defendants. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a pleading include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 8(a)(2). A plaintiff need not plead enough facts to show that he is likely to prevail on his claim; rather, he is required only to include enough facts to raise his claim from speculative to plausible. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The allegations set forth [*24] above are sufficient to make it plausible that Defendants committed willful and wanton misconduct when they put T.K. on an unsafe farm trailer not designed for transporting people, failed to take necessary safety precautions, and either failed to properly supervise T.K. or pulled the trailer, with T.K. on it, onto a public road. See Worthem v. Gillette Co., 774 F. Supp. 514, 517 (N.D. Ill. 1991) (holding that the plaintiff had sufficiently pleaded willful and wanton misconduct claims where she alleged that “willful and wanton acts or omissions [were] committed or omitted with conscious indifference to existing circumstances and conditions” and went on to “enumerate specific instances of willful and wanton conduct”).

Although T.K.’s “knew or should have known” allegations against Defendants may have been insufficient to meet his pleading burden with respect to willful and wanton misconduct claims, see id. (admitting that the court “might agree” with the defendant’s arguments that “knew or should have known” allegations are mere negligence allegations insufficient to merit punitive damages), T.K. does not rely solely on these allegations in his willful and wanton misconduct claims against Defendants. Indeed, as the Court has noted above, Count III [*25] and Count V of the Second Amended Complaint, which incorporate the allegations from the counts preceding them, contain specific factual allegations regarding the actions Defendants took. Further, the Court does not view T.K.’s “knew or should have known” allegations as completely irrelevant to a willful and wanton misconduct claim under Illinois law, which holds that willful and wanton misconduct can be found where there is a failure to discover a danger through carelessness when it could have been discovered through the exercise of ordinary care. Ziarko v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 161 Ill. 2d 267, 641 N.E.2d 402, 406, 204 Ill. Dec. 178 (Ill. 1994).

The fact that T.K. bases his willful and wanton claims on the same facts as his negligence claims is of no concern. Under Illinois law, “[t]he same acts by a defendant, if sufficiently egregious, can constitute both negligence and willful and wanton conduct.” Bastian v. TPI Corp., 663 F. Supp. 474, 476 (N.D. Ill. 1987) (citing Smith v. Seiber, 127 Ill. App. 3d 950, 469 N.E.2d 231, 235, 82 Ill. Dec. 697 (Ill. App. Ct. 1984). Therefore, “one can plead the same facts in two counts, one characterizing them as negligence and the other as willful and wanton conduct, if the same facts could support both theories.” Bastian, 663 F. Supp. at 476 (citing O’Brien v. Twp. High Sch. Dist. 214, 83 Ill. 2d 462, 415 N.E.2d 1015, 1018, 47 Ill. Dec. 702 (Ill. 1980).

V. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, Defendants Boys & Girls Club of America and Boys & Girls Club of Decatur, Inc.’s Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion [*26] to Strike Portions of Count I of the Second Amended Complaint (d/e 32) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Count II of Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. Further, the Court STRIKES paragraph 27 of Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint as duplicative. Defendant Mary K. Paulin’s Combined Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Alternative Rule 12(f) Motion to Strike Portions of Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint (d/e 33) is DENIED. Pursuant to Rule 12(a)(4)(A) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants have 14 days from the date they receive a copy of this Order to file an answer to Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint.

ENTER: June 6, 2017.

/s/ Sue E. Myerscough

SUE E. MYERSCOUGH

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Teton Valley’s Tin Cup Challenge and support the American Avalanche

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Summer is here in the Tetons! While there is still some snow to be enjoyed up in the mountains, the valleys are green and lush with runoff from prolific snowfall during the 2016/17 winter. I hope you’re enjoying some summery weather wherever you are as well.

COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF TETON VALLEY’S TIN CUP CHALLENGE

TinCupChallenge_Color-10.pngThis summer the AAA is participating in Teton Valley’s Tin Cup Challenge. This innovative philanthropic program hosted by the Community Foundation of Teton Valley (CFTV) supports nonprofit organizations in Teton Valley, Idaho. As a nonprofit organization based in Victor, Idaho, we are excited to join our local community in participating for the first time ever this summer!

During a 9-week charitable giving period, donors can give to the AAA through the Tin Cup Challenge (www.tincupchallenge.org). At the end of the giving period CFTV will pass along all funds raised for the AAA, plus a matching grant based upon how much has been donated to the AAA through Tin Cup (typically about another 50% of total funds raised for the AAA, i.e. if the AAA raises $1,000 through Tin Cup, we receive ~$1,500!).

In addition to the charitable giving period, the Community Foundation hosts a Tin Cup Challenge Event Day with a variety of fun and competitive runs and walks to celebrate engagement with and support of Teton Valley nonprofit organizations. Yes, I will be running this summer… and if you’re around Teton Valley on Saturday, July 15th you should come join the festivities too.

MAGNIFY YOUR AAA SUPPORT – GIVE THROUGH TIN CUP BY JULY 21!

James, we are asking you to support the AAA through the Tin Cup Challenge this summer. Why, you ask?? This is an opportunity to support an organization you believe in and make your donation go ~50% further. The AAA has accomplished some great things in recent years:

· Developing and launching the new AAA Pro Training Program in the US for greater consistency in professional level avalanche training.

· Publishing a new volume of The Snowy Torrents – the first new volume of this valuable series in twenty years!

· Completing a new revision to Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observation Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States (SWAG).

· Supporting regional snow and avalanche workshops through the AAA Pro Development Workshop Grant program – thirteen events with attendees from at least fifteen states and Canada during the 2016/17 season.

· Funding snow and avalanche research by graduate students and practitioners.

· Refreshing the look and feel of The Avalanche Review so that its exterior mirrors the professional, high quality content you find in each and every issue four times per winter.

· Maintaining and continuing to evolve www.avalanche.org to connect the public to avalanche forecasts, education, and resources in the United States.

And we want to keep doing more for avalanche professionals and the entire avalanche industry! All donations to the AAA through the Tin Cup Challenge will go directly to supporting AAA operations that have made the above accomplishments happen. To be a part of the Tin Cup Challenge, you must contribute by 5pm (MDT) on July 21st.

DONATE ONLINE by clicking on the “Give Online” link at www.tincupchallenge.org and selecting American Avalanche Association as the recipient of your donation (you can support countless other Teton Valley nonprofits through one convenient checkout here too). Your donation will only count towards the AAA’s Tin Cup matching grant if it is made directly through the Community Foundation of Teton Valley.

We need and value your support. Please help us continue to provide programs and services that benefit avalanche professionals and the avalanche industry in the United States.

Sincerely,

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Jaime Musnicki, Executive Director

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P.O. Box 248 * Victor, Idaho 83455 * Phone: (307) 699- 2049

aaa * www.americanavalancheassociation.org

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