Release signed previously for different event by same defendant used to defeat claim at new event in Georgia

Georgia Recreational Use Statute also stops claims for slip and fall by spectator at event.

Shields v. RDM, LLC, 355 Ga. App. 409, 844 S.E.2d 297 (Ga. App. 2020)

State: Georgia: Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Kimberly and James Shields

Defendant: RDM, LLC d/b/a Georgia All Stars

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and loss of consortium, and seeking attorney fees, litigation costs, and damages

Defendant Defenses: Release and Recreational Use Statute

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

A mother watching her daughter perform in a gym tripped and fell breaking here leg stepping off mats. The gym raised the defenses of release, which the mother had signed at a previous event and the Georgia Recreational Use statute to successfully stop the claims of the mother.

Facts

…the record shows that Georgia All Stars offers tumbling instruction and provides competitive all-star cheerleading team programs in its Roswell, Georgia gym.3 On the day in question, November 19, 2015, Georgia All Stars hosted an exhibition of participants’ routines for parents to view in the practice area of the gym. And for this exhibition, the concrete gymnasium floor was covered with purple practice mats, and at least two vendors were there to promote their goods or services.

The Shieldses’ daughter was a participant in Special Twist, which is a “special needs all star cheer and dance team.” Special Twist is not part of the Georgia All Stars facility or teams, but is instead an independent 501 (3) (c) organization that, under previous ownership, had been permitted to practice in the Georgia All Stars facility with volunteer coaches and leadership. Georgia All Stars then adopted and continued the agreement, and Special Twist is charged nothing to use the facilities. Special Twist members were invited to participate in the exhibition on the night in question.

That evening, Special Twist performed an hour later than scheduled, and due to the number of people in attendance and the resulting crowd in the gym, spectators whose children had yet to perform were asked to wait outside. So, when Kimberly was eventually permitted inside the gym to watch Special Twist, she and “about a hundred [other] people” were “crammed into a corner” and stood to watch the performance.

When Special Twist finished performing, the coach took the members to watch other teams perform from the sidelines; but Kimberly and her daughter could not stay for the entire program due to another obligation they had early the next morning. As a result, Kimberly went to look for her daughter, who at the time was less than five feet tall. And as she was walking toward her daughter’s team, while attempting to look over other people and navigating through the crowd, Kimberly suddenly fell from the mats at a distance of what she described as two feet onto the concrete floor.

The area where Kimberly fell had not been marked off physically with rope, tape, or cones. And after she fell, a Georgia All Stars employee came over to assist Kimberly and called for an ambulance because she was unable to get up on her own. Then, at the hospital, Kimberly was diagnosed with four breaks between her leg and ankle that required surgery and many months of recovery.

Kimberly was familiar with the layout of the gym and the use of the purple mats because she watched her daughter perform or practice there on at least ten other occasions. But on the night in question, she noticed the mats were stacked in ways she had never seen before, and so she was not expecting the drop off where she fell. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that Georgia All Stars had parents sign releases containing warnings about potential hazards in the gym, and verbal warnings were given at the evening’s exhibition.

Prior to her daughter’s participation in a daily, one-week-long camp at the Georgia All Stars gym, Kimberly signed a medical-release form on July 30, 2015.5 In doing so, Kimberly understood that the medical release applied to her and her daughter, and that the document applied to her and her daughter’s participation in events at the gym.

The mother and her husband sued the gym for negligence and loss of consortium.

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

The court started out by reviewing the requirements for a contract to be effective under Georgia law.

The first step is to decide whether the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous. If so, the contract is enforced according to its plain terms, and the contract alone is looked to for meaning. Second, if the language of the contract is ambiguous in some respect, the rules of contract construction must be applied by the court to resolve the ambiguity. And finally, if ambiguity remains after applying the rules of construction, the issue of what the ambiguous language means and what the parties intended must be resolved by a jury.10

The court then looked at the four issues under Georgia’s law for a release to be valid.

Suffice it to say, the cardinal rule of contract construction is to “ascertain the intention of the parties, as set out in the language of the contract.” Additionally, it is the “paramount public policy of this state that courts will not lightly interfere with the freedom of parties to contract.” And a contracting party may “waive or renounce that which the law has established in his or her favor, when it does not thereby injure others or affect the public interest.” Finally, exculpatory clauses in Georgia are “valid and binding, and are not void as against public policy when a business relieves itself from its own negligence.”

In this case the court found the release was valid. The plaintiff then argued the release was only valid for the camp the defendant’s daughter had participated in where the release was signed. However, the court noted there was nothing in the release that limited its application to a specific event or a date certain.

In this case, although Kimberly argues that the medical-release form was only applicable to her daughter’s participation in a temporary camp program, nothing in the language of the release limits it to any specific program, event, or time period. Indeed, the plain language of the release states that it is applicable to “the activities that I or my child engage in while on the premises or under the auspices of GA,” “all of the risks, known and unknown, connected with GA related activities,” and “participation in GA-related activities.”

Always remember, there is no reason to limit the time frame of your release, doing so simply puts an end to your defenses when there is no t need to do so.

Find the release valid for a different time and location then the plaintiff argued the court then looked at whether the Georgia Recreational Use Act, OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq applied.

Recreational Use Statutes were created by legislatures to encourage land owners to open their land to other for recreational purposes. In general, the use must be free, or with no benefit to the land owner and for recreational purposes. Under Georgia’s law that meant:

(1) the nature of the activity that constitutes the use of the property in which people have been invited to engage, and (2) the nature of the property that people have been invited to use.” In other words, “the first asks whether the activity in which the public was invited to engage was of a kind that qualifies as recreational under the Act, and the second asks whether at the relevant time the property was of a sort that is used primarily for recreational purposes or primarily for commercial activity.”

Here, watching a child’s gymnastic routine was considered recreational by the court. There was also no fee charged by the defendant for the children to use the facility or for the parent to watch the child perform.

The plaintiffs argued that since there were vendors at the event, the defendant received a benefit for the use of the facility. The court looked at Georgia Supreme Court decisions over the type of charge and determined:

“[i]t is not the law—and we have never said that it was—that inviting people to use recreational property for recreational activities could still fail to qualify for immunity under the Act solely because the landowner had some sort of subjective profit motive in doing so.” Instead, the relevant question is whether “the landowner actually invited people onto the property (directly or indirectly) to do something ‘recreational,’ or whether people have instead been allowed onto the property to engage in commercial activity.” And in this case, the evidence shows that “both the nature of the activity and the nature of the property at the time of the [gymnastics exhibition] were purely recreational.”

Although the defendant may or may not have made some type of money from the vendors. There was no payment by the defendant to the facility to be there. There was no requirement that a purchase had to be made from a vendor or the vendors received any benefit from the exhibition. In fact, the court summed up its analysis of the facts in the case as:

To put it plainly, this case is the poster child for immunity under the RPA, and the trial court did not err in concluding that the Shieldses’ claims were barred under the statute.

The court stated both defenses would have stopped the claims of the plaintiffs. In fact, the court used an analysis I have never seen to describe the situation.

If the medical-release form is the belt of Georgia All Stars’s defense to this lawsuit, the protections afforded to property owners by the Recreational Property Act are its suspenders.

So Now What?

Too many times I see releases that have an ending date or a date when the release is no longer valid. Just the opposite needs to be made clear. That the release is valid for longer than one year. Many times, showing valid releases signed each year by the plaintiff is proof that the plaintiff knew and understood what they were signing, the risks and each release was another bar to the plaintiffs’ claims.

Do not limit the value of your release by putting a date on the release ending its effectiveness.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at Jim@Rec-Law.us

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

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Georgia Recreational Use Statutes

Georgia Recreational Use Statutes

§ 51-3-20. Purpose of article    1

51-3-21. Definitions    1

51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally    1

51-3-23. Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation    1

51-3-24. Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation    2

51-3-25. Certain liability not limited    2

51-3-26. Construction of article    2

§ 51-3-20. Purpose of article

The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.” GA. Code 51-3-20 Purpose of article (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-21. Definitions

As used in this article, the term:

(1) “Charge” means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.

(2) “Land” means land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty.

(3) “Owner” means the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, or a person in control of the premises.

(4) “Recreational purpose” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, aviation activities, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites.

History:

Amended by 2014 Ga. Laws 658, §2, eff. 10/1/2014.

GA. Code 51-3-21 Definitions (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.

GA. Code 51-3-22 Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-23. Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

(2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or

(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

GA. Code 51-3-23 Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-24. Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation

Unless otherwise agreed in writing, Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 shall be deemed applicable to the duties and liability of an owner of land leased to the state or any subdivision thereof for recreational purposes.

GA. Code 51-3-24 Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-25. Certain liability not limited

Nothing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists:

(1) For willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity; or

(2) On a date when the owner of land charges any individual who lawfully enters such land for recreational use and any individual is injured in connection with the recreational use for which the charge was made, provided that, in the case of land leased to the state or a subdivision thereof, any consideration received by the owner for the lease shall not be deemed a charge within the meaning of this Code section.

History:

Amended by 2018 Ga. Laws 554, §1, eff. 7/1/2018.

GA. Code 51-3-25 Certain liability not limited (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

51-3-26. Construction of article

Nothing in this article shall be construed to:

(1) Create a duty of care or ground of liability for injury to persons or property; or

(2) Relieve any person using the land of another for recreational purposes from any obligation which he may have in the absence of this article to exercise care in his use of the land and in his activities thereon or from the legal consequences of failure to employ such care.

GA. Code 51-3-26 Construction of article (Georgia Code (2022 Edition))

Creation Date 11/10/22 File Name Georgia Recreational Use Statutes.docx
Save Date 11/10/22 File Location D:\1. Legal\1.2.1 Laws\Recreational Use\Georgia Recreational Use Statutes.docx

Shields v. RDM, LLC, 355 Ga.App. 409, 844 S.E.2d 297 (Ga. App. 2020)

Shields v. RDM, LLC, 355 Ga.App. 409, 844 S.E.2d 297 (Ga. App. 2020)

355 Ga.App. 409
844 S.E.2d 297

SHIELDS et al.
v.
RDM, LLC .

A20A0465

Court of Appeals of Georgia.

June 5, 2020

Costyn Law, Joseph M. Costyn, Zachary B. Johnson, for appellants.

Freeman Mathis & Gary, Wayne S. Melnick, Jason A. Kamp, for appellee.

Dillard, Presiding Judge.

Kimberly and James Shields appeal from the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to RDM, LLC d/b/a Georgia All Stars on claims based on personal injuries Kimberly sustained during an event at Georgia All Stars’s facility. Specifically, the Shieldses argue that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Georgia All Stars and, in doing so, finding that their claims were barred by the terms of a medical release form signed by Kimberly and the Georgia Recreational Property Act (”RPA”).1 For the reasons set forth infra , we affirm.

Viewed de novo in the light most favorable to the Shieldses (i.e. , the nonmoving parties),2 the record shows that Georgia All Stars offers tumbling instruction and provides competitive all-star cheerleading team programs in its Roswell, Georgia gym.3 On the day in question, November 19, 2015, Georgia All Stars hosted an exhibition of participants’ routines for parents to view in the practice area of the gym. And for this exhibition, the concrete gymnasium floor was covered with purple practice mats, and at least two vendors were there to promote their goods or services.

The Shieldses’ daughter was a participant in Special Twist, which is a “special needs all star cheer and dance team.” Special Twist is not part of the Georgia All Stars facility or teams, but is instead an independent 501 (3) (c) organization that, under previous ownership, had been permitted to practice in the Georgia All Stars facility with volunteer coaches and leadership. Georgia All Stars then adopted and continued the agreement, and Special Twist is charged nothing to use the facilities. Special Twist members were invited to participate in the exhibition on the night in question.

That evening, Special Twist performed an hour later than scheduled, and due to the number of people in attendance and the resulting crowd in the gym, spectators whose children had yet to perform were asked to wait outside. So, when Kimberly was eventually permitted inside the gym to watch Special Twist, she and “about a hundred [other] people” were “crammed into a corner” and stood to watch the performance.

When Special Twist finished performing, the coach took the members to watch other teams perform from the sidelines; but Kimberly and her daughter could not stay for the entire program due to another obligation they had early the next morning. As a result, Kimberly went to look for her daughter, who at the time was less than five feet tall. And as she was walking toward her daughter’s team, while attempting to look over other people and navigating through the crowd, Kimberly suddenly fell from the mats at a distance of what she described as two feet onto the concrete floor.

The area where Kimberly fell had not been marked off physically with rope, tape, or cones. And after she fell, a Georgia All Stars employee came over to assist Kimberly and called for an ambulance because she was unable to get up on her own. Then, at the hospital, Kimberly was diagnosed with four breaks between her leg and ankle that required surgery and many months of recovery.

Kimberly was familiar with the layout of the gym and the use of the purple mats because she watched her daughter perform or practice there on at least ten other occasions. But on the night in question, she noticed the mats were stacked in ways she had never seen before, and so she was not expecting the drop off where she fell. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that Georgia All Stars had parents sign releases containing warnings about potential hazards in the gym, and verbal warnings were given at the evening’s exhibition.

The Shieldses later filed suit against Georgia All Stars on October 4, 2017, asserting claims of simple negligence and loss of consortium, and seeking attorney fees, litigation costs, and damages. Georgia All Stars answered and filed a counterclaim against the Shieldses for breach of contract based on a medical release Kimberly signed some months prior to the incident in question. Georgia All Stars later moved for summary judgment on the Shieldses’ claims, contending that (1) Kimberly contractually released it, barring her claims of negligence, and (2) the claims were also barred by the Recreational Property Act.4 As a result, Georgia All Stars likewise argued that the Shieldses’ derivative claims should be dismissed. The trial court agreed that the Shieldses’ claims were barred by the medical release and the Recreational Property Act, granting summary judgment in favor of Georgia All Stars. This appeal follows.

1. For starters, the Shieldses argue that the trial court erred by concluding their claims were barred by a medical-release form Kimberly signed months prior to the night of the exhibition. We disagree.

Prior to her daughter’s participation in a daily, one-week-long camp at the Georgia All Stars gym, Kimberly signed a medical-release form on July 30, 2015.5 In doing so, Kimberly understood that the medical release applied to her and her daughter, and that the document applied to her and her daughter’s participation in events at the gym.

The medical release provides, in relevant part:

In consideration of the services of Georgia All-Star Cheerleading, Inc., its owners, agents, officers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on their behalf (hereinafter collectively referred to as ”GA”), I hereby agree to release, discharge, and hold harmless GA on behalf of myself, my children, my parents, my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estates as follows:

1. I understand and acknowledge that the activities that I or my child engage in while on the premises or under the auspices of GA pose known and unknown risks which could result in injury, paralysis, death, emotional distress, or damage to me, my child, to property, or to third parties. The following describes some, but not all of those risks:

Cheerleading and gymnastics, including performances of stunts and use of trampolines, entail certain risks that simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity. Without a certain degree of risk, cheerleading students would not improve their skills and the enjoyment of the sport would be diminished. Cheerleading and gymnastics expose participants to the usual risk of cuts and bruises, and other more serious risks as well. Participants often fall, sprain or break wrists and ankles, and can suffer more serious injuries. Traveling to and from shows, meets and exhibitions, raises the possibilities of any manner of transportation accidents. In any event, if you or your child is injured, medical assistance may be required which you must pay for yourself.

2. I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks, known and unknown, connected with GA related activities, including, but not limited to performance of stunts and the use of trampolines. …

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to hold harmless and indemnify GA from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions or rights of action, which are related to, arise out of, or are in any way connected with my child’s participation in GA-related activities.

In considering the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Georgia All Stars, we note that summary adjudication is only proper when “there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”6 And we review a grant or denial of summary judgment de novo , viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.7 Furthermore, the party opposing summary judgment is “not required to produce evidence demanding judgment for it, but is only required to present evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact.”8

Here, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Georgia All Stars was based, in part, on the medical release signed by Kimberly. The construction of this contract is, of course, “a question of law for the court”9 that involves three steps:

The first step is to decide whether the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous. If so, the contract is enforced according to its plain terms, and the contract alone is looked to for meaning. Second, if the language of the contract is ambiguous in some respect, the rules of contract construction must be applied by the court to resolve the ambiguity. And finally, if ambiguity remains after applying the rules of construction, the issue of what the ambiguous language means and what the parties intended must be resolved by a jury.10

Suffice it to say, the cardinal rule of contract construction is to “ascertain the intention of the parties, as set out in the language of the contract.”11 Additionally, it is the “paramount public policy of this state that courts will not lightly interfere with the freedom of parties to contract.”12 And a contracting party may “waive or renounce that which the law has established in his or her favor, when it does not thereby injure others or affect the public interest.”13 Finally, exculpatory clauses in Georgia are “valid and binding, and are not void as against public policy when a business relieves itself from its own negligence.”14

In this case, although Kimberly argues that the medical-release form was only applicable to her daughter’s participation in a temporary camp program, nothing in the language of the release limits it to any specific program, event, or time period. Indeed, the plain language of the release states that it is applicable to “the activities that I or my child engage in while on the premises or under the auspices of GA,” “all of the risks, known and unknown, connected with GA related activities,” and “participation in GA-related activities.” Accordingly, the trial court properly granted summary judgment to Georgia All Stars on the ground that the medical-release form signed by Kimberly barred the claim for negligence related to her fall inside the gym during her daughter’s participation in an exhibition.15 Likewise, the trial court also properly granted summary judgment on the derivative claims for loss of consortium and damages.16

2. If the medical-release form is the belt of Georgia All Stars’s defense to this lawsuit, the protections afforded to property owners by the Recreational Property Act are its suspenders. Indeed, the trial court correctly determined that the Shieldses’ claims are also foreclosed by the RPA,17 whose codified purpose is “to encourage both public and private landowners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability.”18

To that end, the RPA provides, inter alia , that

[e]xcept as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby … [a]ssume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.19

The RPA defines “charge” to mean “the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.”20 So, in order to determine whether immunity is available to a property owner under the RPA, a court must make a determination “of the true scope and nature of the landowner’s invitation to use its property.”21 And in making this determination, the analysis is “properly informed” by “two related considerations: (1) the nature of the activity that constitutes the use of the property in which people have been invited to engage, and (2) the nature of the property that people have been invited to use.”22 In other words, “the first asks whether the activity in which the public was invited to engage was of a kind that qualifies as recreational under the Act, and the second asks whether at the relevant time the property was of a sort that is used primarily for recreational purposes or primarily for commercial activity.”23

Here, the Shieldses do not dispute that the activity in question—attending a free exhibition of cheerleading participants’ routines—was “recreational” within the meaning of the RPA. Instead, they maintain that “a material question of fact exists [as] to the purpose behind [Georgia All Stars’s] allowance of [their] daughter’s use of its facility, which relates directly to whether the operation of [the] gym constitutes a commercial or recreational venture.” This argument is a nonstarter.

There is no evidence or suggestion that Georgia All Stars charged an admission price or fee to attend the exhibition in question. To the contrary, the evidence shows that Georgia All Stars did not charge the members of Special Twist anything to use the facilities for practice at any time.24 And the presence of vendors at the exhibition does not change our conclusion. Indeed, as our Supreme Court recently explained in Mercer University v. Stofer ,25 “[i]t is not the law—and we have never said that it was—that inviting people to use recreational property for recreational activities could still fail to qualify for immunity under the Act solely because the landowner had some sort of subjective profit motive in doing so.”26 Instead, the relevant question is whether “the landowner actually invited people onto the property (directly or indirectly) to do something ‘recreational,’ or whether people have instead been allowed onto the property to engage in commercial activity.”27 And in this case, the evidence shows that “both the nature of the activity and the nature of the property at the time of the [gymnastics exhibition] were purely recreational.”28 There is no evidence that any attendees were required to make purchases from the vendors, that the exhibition was held for the benefit of the vendors, or that Georgia All Stars in any way profited from vendor sales.29 To put it plainly, this case is the poster child for immunity under the RPA, and the trial court did not err in concluding that the Shieldses’ claims were barred under the statute.

For all these reasons, we affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Georgia All Stars.

Judgment affirmed.

Rickman and Brown, JJ., concur.

——–

Notes:

1
See OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq.

2
See, e.g. , Gayle v. Frank Callen Boys and Girls Club, Inc. , 322 Ga. App. 412, 412, 745 S.E.2d 695 (2013) (“A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant of summary judgment, and we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.” (punctuation omitted)).

3 Georgia All Stars rents the gymnasium space and is an “owner” within the meaning of the Recreational Property Act. See OCGA § 51-3-21 (3) (defining “Owner” as the “possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, or a person in control of the premises”).

4
See OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq.

5 Although the deposition transcripts in the appellate record indicate that various exhibits were identified and used during the depositions, including the relevant medical-release form, no exhibits were included with these depositions. Nevertheless, Kimberly read the relevant language contained in the medical-release form into the record during her deposition testimony, and Georgia All Stars included a scanned photograph of what it purports to be the medical-release form with the same language in one of its pleadings below. And because it is undisputed that the form exists and was signed by Kimberly, we will consider the language as reflected by what is in the record before us.

6
Sadlowski v. Beacon Mgmt. Servs., Inc. , 348 Ga. App. 585, 587-88, 824 S.E.2d 42 (2019) (punctuation omitted); accord
Navy Fed. Credit Union v. McCrea , 337 Ga. App. 103, 105, 786 S.E.2d 707 (2016).

7
Sadlowski , 348 Ga. App. at 588, 824 S.E.2d 42 ; McCrea , 337 Ga. App. at 105, 786 S.E.2d 707.

8
Montgomery Cty. v. Hamilton , 337 Ga. App. 500, 502-03, 788 S.E.2d 89 (2016) (punctuation omitted); accord
Sadlowski , 348 Ga. App. at 588, 824 S.E.2d 42.

9
Bd. of Cm’rs of Crisp Cty. v. City Cm’rs of the City of Cordele , 315 Ga. App. 696, 699, 727 S.E.2d 524 (2012) ; accord
Shelnutt v. Mayor of Savannah , 349 Ga. App. 499, 505 (3), 826 S.E.2d 379 (2019).

10
Bd. of Cm’rs of Crisp Cty. , 315 Ga. App. at 699, 727 S.E.2d 524 (punctuation and footnotes omitted); accord
Y.C. Dev. Inc. v. Norton , 344 Ga. App. 69, 73 (1), 806 S.E.2d 662 (2017).

11
Stanley v. Gov’t Emps. Ins. Co. , 344 Ga. App. 342, 344 (1), 810 S.E.2d 179 (2018) (punctuation omitted); see also
Yash Sols., LLC v. New York Glob. Consultants Corp. , 352 Ga. App. 127, 140 (2) (b), 834 S.E.2d 126 (2019) (same).

12
2010-1 SFG Venture LLC v. Lee Bank & Trust Co. , 332 Ga. App. 894, 897 (1) (a), 775 S.E.2d 243 (2015) (punctuation omitted); accord
Neighborhood Assistance Corp. v. Dixon , 265 Ga. App. 255, 256 (1), 593 S.E.2d 717 (2004) ; My Fair Lady of Ga. v. Harris , 185 Ga. App. 459, 460, 364 S.E.2d 580 (1987).

13
2010-1 SFG Venture LLC , 332 Ga. App. at 897 (1) (a), 775 S.E.2d 243 (punctuation omitted); accord
Dixon , 265 Ga. App. at 256 (1), 593 S.E.2d 717 ; Harris , 185 Ga. App. at 460, 364 S.E.2d 580.

14
2010-1 SFG Venture LLC , 332 Ga. App. at 897 (1) (a), 775 S.E.2d 243 (punctuation omitted); accord
Dixon , 265 Ga. App. at 256 (1), 593 S.E.2d 717 ; Harris , 185 Ga. App. at 460, 364 S.E.2d 580.

15
See
Lovelace v. Figure Salon, Inc. , 179 Ga. App. 51, 53 (1), 345 S.E.2d 139 (1986) (holding that trial court properly granted summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims for personal injury due to alleged negligence when plaintiff signed a release in which she assumed the risk of injury and the defendant disclaimed any liability, and in which the plaintiff agreed not to file suit against the defendant for any injuries she might incur). Cf.
Harris , 185 Ga. App. at 461, 364 S.E.2d 580 (“Under this factual predicate, where a cause of action is based on the alleged negligence of the club, and there being a valid contractual waiver and release for any action arising out of [the plaintiff’s] use of the facilities, which sounded in negligence, the trial court erred in denying [the defendant’s] motion for summary judgment.”).

16
See
Lovelace , 179 Ga. App. at 53 (3), 345 S.E.2d 139 (“The right of the husband to recover for loss of consortium being dependent upon the right of the wife to recover, the court did not err in granting summary judgment to defendant as to the husband’s cause of action.”).

17
See OCGA § 51-3-20 et seq.

18
S. Gwinnett Athletic Ass’n Inc. v. Nash , 220 Ga. App. 116, 117 (1), 469 S.E.2d 276 (1996) ; accord
Gwinnett Cty., Ga. v. Ashby , 354 Ga.App. ––––, ––––, 842 S.E.2d 70, 73 (2020) ; see OCGA § 51-3-20 (“The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.”).

19 OCGA § 51-3-23 (3) (emphasis supplied).

20 OCGA § 51-3-21 (1).

21
Mercer Univ. v. Stofer , 306 Ga. 191, 191, 830 S.E.2d 169 (2019).

22
Id. at 191, 830 S.E.2d 169.

23
Id. at 196 (2), 830 S.E.2d 169.

24
See
Nash , 220 Ga. App. at 117-18 (1), 469 S.E.2d 276 (“In the current case, the Association charges a little league registration fee, although this fee is waived as to any child in need of free service. The fee covers expenses such as uniforms for the children, umpires, lights, water and sanitation. Because the fee is needed to defray the costs of operating the league, and is not an admission price required for permission to enter onto the land, it is not a charge to the public as contemplated by the Act.”).

25 306 Ga. 191, 830 S.E.2d 169 (2019).

26
Id. at 200 (3), 830 S.E.2d 169 ; accord
Mercer Univ. v. Stofer , 354 Ga. App. 458, 461, 841 S.E.2d 224, 226 (1) (2020) (“Importantly, a landowner’s subjective profit motivations are irrelevant to the analysis.”).

27
Stofer , 306 Ga. at 196 (2), 830 S.E.2d 169.

28
Stofer , 354 Ga. App. at 461, 841 S.E.2d 224, 227-28 (1).

29
See id. at 462, 841 S.E.2d 224, 228 (1) (“To the extent that the concert series may have increased Mercer [University]’s name recognition and good will in the community, potential student interest in attending the university, or the likelihood that it would receive future grant funding, such speculative considerations and subjective motivations are not relevant to our analysis. Notably, there is no evidence that Mercer made a profit from the vendors, the sponsors, or … branded give-aways, nor is there evidence that it received a direct financial benefit from the concert series whatsoever. The fact that there might have been an indirect commercial benefit is not sufficient to create a factual question.” (citation omitted)).


Kentucky appellate court upholds the use of a release to stop claims from injuries using a zip line.

Plaintiff did not make very good arguments, and court pointed that out.

Bowling v. Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC (Ky. Ct. App. 2020)

State: Kentucky: Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Billy D. Bowling

Defendant: Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: (1) an employee of MCA negligently misrepresented that he could zip line despite being over the weight limit, (2) MCA was negligent in not lighting the course or landing area, and (3) the doctrine of equitable estoppel applies.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Release was sufficient to bar the claims of the plaintiff injured when arriving at the landing platform. More importantly, since the plaintiff did not argue any reasons why the release was invalid; the court really did not review the issues. Did the release the four requirements to be valid under Kentucky law, which it did? Case closed.

Facts

Facts are sparse, but then so is the legal arguments made by the plaintiff.

On June 10, 2017, Bowling went to MCA to zip line with his friends. Before engaging in the activity, Bowling signed a release of liability. Bowling injured his right ankle when approaching the landing platform.

The plaintiff then sued for negligence arguing “the zip lining course and landing ramp were unlit, which resulted in his injury.” There are also statements in the decision that there was a weight limit for people riding the zip line, but it was not a fact argued by the plaintiff.

The trial court granted the defendants motion for summary judgement, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

There were only two legal issues discussed by the appellate court. The first was whether the release was valid and stopped the plaintiff’s claims. Under Kentucky law, for a release to be valid.

…a preinjury release will be upheld only if (1) it explicitly expresses an intention to exonerate by using the word “negligence;” or (2) it clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release a party from liability for a personal injury caused by that party’s own conduct; or (3) protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract language; or (4) the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision. “Thus, an exculpatory clause must clearly set out the negligence for which liability is to be avoided.”

However, the plaintiff failed to argue that the release did not meet the Kentucky requirements. The plaintiff raised no arguments that the release was not valid so the appellate court properly accepted the trial courts decision that it was. “Bowling fails to assert why the agreement at issue is unenforceable.”

The next issue was even a shorter discussion. The plaintiff brought up on appeal the issue that the release was void based on an estoppel argument. However, since that argument had not been raised in the lower court, it could not be argued on appeal. “It is axiomatic that a party may not raise an issue for the first time on appeal.

There was also a dissent to the opinion. The dissent made several arguments that the case should be sent back because the allegations in the complaint rose to the level of willful and wanton actions, which would not be covered by the release.

The dissent also made an argument that the release did not fully tell the plaintiff of the possible risks.

The release uses only the word “negligence.” The release does specifically and explicitly release MCA from liability for ordinary negligence claims. The language of the release is specific as to its purpose to exonerate MCA from ordinary negligence liability only. The release specifically warns that zip line activity is dangerous, without any detailed explanation or discussion.

We are seeing more cases with this argument. That a release needs more than just the legal clause that releases the defendant from his or her own negligence. The release also needs to explain the dangers of the activity to the possible plaintiff.

The final argument seems to be an extension of the above argument, that the release needs to point out specific risks to the signor.

Additionally, Bowling alleges there was no lighting on the landing, which is also a disputed factual issue, which would make an inherently dangerous activity even more dangerous. If true, this would clearly be an enhancement to the danger of the activity that would require, at minimum, disclosure and perhaps a warning. The release makes no reference to the lack of lighting on the landing and its enhancement of the dangerous activity.

So Now What?

Looking at a dissenting opinion does not help much in learning current law. The defendant won. However, the dissenting opinion can be important in making sure your release is up to any possible future changes to the law.

If the dissenting judge has more judges join the court that agree or the dissenting judge convinces other judges that his opinion has some important points, the dissent could be a majority opinion in the future. A win now, might not be a win in the future if your release is written to meet the needs of the law today and the possible changes in the law tomorrow.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at Jim@Rec-Law.us

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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Bowling v. Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC (Ky. Ct. App. 2020)

BILLY D. BOWLING APPELLANT
v.
MAMMOTH CAVE ADVENTURES, LLC APPELLEE

NO. 2019-CA-000822-MR

Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Appeals

APRIL 24, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

APPEAL FROM BARREN CIRCUIT COURT
HONORABLE JOHN T. ALEXANDER, JUDGE
ACTION NO. 18-CI-00357

OPINION
AFFIRMING

** ** ** ** **

BEFORE: DIXON, GOODWINE, AND TAYLOR, JUDGES.

GOODWINE, JUDGE: Billy D. Bowling (“Bowling”) appeals the Barren Circuit Court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC (“MCA”). The circuit court found the exculpatory agreement between the parties was enforceable. On appeal, Bowling argues material facts precluded summary judgment. After careful review of the record, finding no error, we affirm.

On June 10, 2017, Bowling went to MCA to zip line with his friends. Before engaging in the activity, Bowling signed a release of liability. Bowling injured his right ankle when approaching the landing platform.

On June 8, 2018, Bowling filed suit against MCA in Barren Circuit Court alleging he was injured as a result of MCA’s negligence. He asserted the zip lining course and landing ramp were unlit, which resulted in his injury.

MCA moved for summary judgment, arguing the release of liability was an enforceable exculpatory agreement under Hargis v. Baize, 168 S.W.3d 36 (Ky. 2005). Because the agreement was enforceable, MCA was not liable for any alleged negligent conduct.

The circuit court heard MCA’s motion on February 25, 2019. On April 18, 2019, the circuit court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of MCA. The circuit court examined the release of liability, which provides:

RELEASE OF LIABILITY

In consideration of being given the opportunity to participate in the zip line activities of Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC, I, on behalf of myself, my personal representatives, assigns, heirs and next of kin, do hereby state as follows:

1. I acknowledge that participating in the zip line activity is dangerous. I understand the nature and rigors of the activity and the risk involved in participation.

2. I wish to participate in the zip line activities and as a result, I fully accept and assume all the risks and dangers involved in said activity and accept responsibility for all injuries, losses, costs and damages I incur as a result of the participation in the activity and I release and discharge and covenant not to sue the Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC, for any liability, claims, damages, demands or losses which I has [sic] been caused by or alleged to have been caused by the actions or negligence of Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC, and I will indemnify and save and hold it harmless from any litigation expenses, attorney fees, liabilities, damages or costs, it may incur as a result of any claim of mine to the fullness [sic] extent permitted by law.

3. I understand that I have released Mammoth Cave Adventures, LLC, and I have signed this document freely and without any inducement or assurance of any kind.

The circuit court applied the following four factors in determining the agreement was enforceable:

Specifically, a preinjury release will be upheld only if (1) it explicitly expresses an intention to exonerate by using the word “negligence;” or (2) it clearly and specifically indicates an intent to release a party from liability for a personal injury caused by that party’s own conduct; or (3) protection against negligence is the only reasonable construction of the contract language; or (4) the hazard experienced was clearly within the contemplation of the provision. “Thus, an exculpatory clause must clearly set out the negligence for which liability is to be avoided.”

Id. at 47 (citations omitted).

Bowling subsequently filed a motion to alter, amend, or vacate, which the circuit court denied. This appeal followed.

“Appellate review of a summary judgment involves only legal questions and a determination of whether a disputed material issue of fact exists. So we operate under a de novo standard of review with no need to defer to the trial court’s decision.” Shelton v. Kentucky Easter Seals Soc’y, Inc., 413 S.W.3d 901, 905 (Ky. 2013) (citations omitted).

On appeal, Bowling does not contest the circuit court’s determination that the release of liability was enforceable under Hargis. Instead, he argues: (1) an employee of MCA negligently misrepresented that he could zip line despite being over the weight limit, (2) MCA was negligent in not lighting the course or landing area, and (3) the doctrine of equitable estoppel applies.

First, we address Bowling’s negligence arguments. By signing the release of liability, Bowling surrendered his “right to prosecute a cause of action” against MCA. Waddle v. Galen of Kentucky, Inc., 131 S.W.3d 361, 364 (Ky. App. 2004) (citation omitted). Although exculpatory agreements “are disfavored and are strictly construed against the parties relying upon them,” Bowling fails to assert why the agreement at issue is unenforceable. Hargis, 168 S.W.3d at 47 (citations omitted). He does not contest the circuit court’s thorough analysis under Hargis and does not raise a public policy argument under Miller as Next Friend of E.M. v. House of Boom Kentucky, LLC, 575 S.W.3d 656, 660 (Ky. 2019). Instead, Bowling asks this Court to consider whether MCA acted negligently. Bowling signed an exculpatory agreement agreeing not to sue MCA for any damages caused by its alleged negligence, which the circuit court found enforceable. Bowling has no factual basis for his claim against MCA as a matter of law because he signed an enforceable exculpatory agreement. As such, because this agreement cut off Bowling’s right to sue for the injuries he sustained, his allegation that MCA acted negligently does not amount to a genuine issue of material fact to survive summary judgment.

Furthermore, we decline to address Bowling’s equitable estoppel argument. Not only is it conclusory, he also failed to raise the argument before the circuit court. “It is axiomatic that a party may not raise an issue for the first time on appeal.” Sunrise Children’s Services, Inc. v. Kentucky Unemployment Insurance Commission, 515 S.W.3d 186, 192 (Ky. App. 2016) (citation omitted). “As this Court has stated on numerous occasions, ‘appellants will not be permitted to feed one can of worms to the trial judge and another to the appellate court.'” Elery v. Commonwealth, 368 S.W.3d 78, 97 (Ky. 2012) (quoting Kennedy v. Commonwealth, 544 S.W.2d 219, 222 (Ky. 1976), overruled on other grounds by Wilburn v. Commonwealth, 312 S.W.3d 321 (Ky. 2010)). As this argument is not properly before us and Bowling does not request review for palpable error under Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (“CR”) 61.02, we decline to address this argument.

For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the summary judgment of the Barren Circuit Court.

DIXON, JUDGE, CONCURS.

TAYLOR, JUDGE, DISSENTS AND FILES A SEPARATE OPINION.

TAYLOR, JUDGE, DISSENTING. Respectfully, I dissent.

I must disagree with the majority and the trial court that the release form signed by Bowling satisfies all of the factors in Hargis, 168 S.W.3d 36. The release uses only the word “negligence.” The release does specifically and explicitly release MCA from liability for ordinary negligence claims. The language of the release is specific as to its purpose to exonerate MCA from ordinary negligence liability only. The release specifically warns that zip line activity is dangerous, without any detailed explanation or discussion. However, importantly for the claims in this case, there is no language that releases MCA from conduct that would constitute gross negligence under Kentucky law.

Bowling claims that an employee of MCA told him immediately prior to getting on the zip line that there was a weight limit, although it was not disclosed to Bowling before signing the release nor was it set out in the release.

This is a relevant disputed material issue of fact in my opinion. Additionally, Bowling alleges there was no lighting on the landing, which is also a disputed factual issue, which would make an inherently dangerous activity even more dangerous. If true, this would clearly be an enhancement to the danger of the activity that would require, at minimum, disclosure and perhaps a warning. The release makes no reference to the lack of lighting on the landing and its enhancement of the dangerous activity.

A weight limit for participants (and allowing overweight participants to access the zip line) and no lighting in the landing area could be construed as willful or wanton conduct for which a party may not contract away liability through a generic release, without full disclosure in my opinion. This type of release is disfavored under Kentucky law and requires a strict construction of the agreement against MCA that precludes summary judgment in this case. See Hargis, 168 S.W.3d at 47. These material issues of fact as disputed by the parties can only be resolved by a trier of fact and are not appropriately resolved by summary judgment. If the jury determines that MCA’s conduct was grossly negligent, the release would be unenforceable as to this conduct. Of course, under comparative negligence, the jury could also consider Bowling’s conduct in contributing to his injuries.

BRIEF FOR APPELLANT:

Michael L. Harris
Columbia, Kentucky

BRIEF FOR APPELLEE:

David E. Crittenden
Robert D. Bobrow
Louisville, Kentucky


Interesting CA case on sheriff’s failure to start SAR & run SAR

County lost appeal because employees’ actions were out of line and the deceased, at least from the facts presented could have easily been found before he died.

Arista v. Cnty. of Riverside (Cal. App. 2021)

State: California; Court of Appeal of the State of California Fourth Appellate District Division Two

Plaintiff: Christyna Arista

Defendant: County of Riverside

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful death, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress

Defendant Defenses: Government Code section 8453, which provides public employees are not liable for the failure to provide sufficient police protection; section 820.2, which provides that public employees are not liable for injuries that result from acts or omissions stemming from discretionary decisions; Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), which provides that emergency rescue personnel are not liable for injuries caused by actions taken within the scope of their employment, unless the actions were done in bad faith or with gross negligence

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2021

Summary

A lawsuit was filed against Riverside County Sheriff’s department for negligent Search and Rescue training and procedures. The trial court granted the Counties motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s appealed. The case was sent back by Appellate Court for trial. The deceased died of hypothermia and was easily found by friends of the deceased. Sheriff’s department assumed deceased was having an affair and did not search for him.

Facts

On March 1, at 3:00 p.m., when Marin [deceased] failed to return home, Wife called and texted Marin’s cell phone every 15 minutes but received no answer until 5:14 p.m. when Marin answered Wife’s call. Marin said he had fallen from his bicycle and suffered an injury. Marin seemed confused and disoriented but said that, said that, prior to the fall, he had reached Santiago Peak and was on his way home. At 5:32 p.m., Wife began calling various agencies, e.g., a ranger station, but was unable to reach anyone. At 5:36 p.m., Wife called 911 and the operator advised her to wait at home. At 6:30 p.m., Corona Police arrived at Wife’s home, and Wife explained that Marin was injured, on his way down from Santiago Peak, and lightly dressed.

At 8:00 p.m., Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Zaborowski2 arrived at the Family’s home. At that point, deputies had already checked trailheads in the CNF, traveled along access roads looking for Marin, pinged Marin’s cell phone, and contacted civilian volunteers to tell them “to be ‘on alert’ for a potential call to assist.” Wife provided Zaborowski with the same information she provided the Corona Police. Zaborowski told Wife that the ping of Marin’s phone showed he was in the area of Santiago Peak. Zaborowski also said Verizon service employees were in the area of Santiago Peak and had been asked to “be vigilant for Marin’s location.”

Lieutenant Hall (Hall) was the Sheriff’s Department’s Incident Commander for the search for Marin. Hall stayed at his home during the search. He was not trained in search and rescue. Hall did not consider the risks that Marin faced from the weather. Hall did not know Santiago Peak has an elevation of 5,689 feet. Hall was unaware that the trail Marin had planned to use has an elevation of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Hall did not know what, if any, equipment Marin had with him for cold weather.

At 10:00 p.m., Detective Holder arrived at the Family’s home. While at the residence, Holder spoke to Zaborowski. Holder said “he [(Holder)] was ‘not sure what we’re doing here,’ that Marin was ‘probably just running around on his wife’ and was ‘just covering his tracks,’ suggesting that Marin was not missing, but instead involved in some adulterous affair.” Holder informed Wife that the Sheriff’s Department was suspending its search for the night and would resume searching in the morning. Wife asked Holder, ” ‘[W]hat are the chances he [Marin] dies of hypothermia?’ ” because the temperatures at Santiago Peak were expected to be in the mid-30s to mid-40s. “Holder replied that Marin was ‘a grown man’ and that ‘he can survive the night.’ ” Holder further said “that ‘if it was a child, [he] would send a helicopter out there right now.’ ”

After being told that the search was suspended for the night, Wife organized relatives to perform their own search. Unidentified County personnel asked Wife not to initiate her own search because the County would conduct the search. Nevertheless, Wife and six relatives began searching for Marin, on foot, at 3:45 a.m. Pat Killiam who is a mountain biker and search and rescue volunteer “had heard about the ‘missing biker,’ ” and began his own search for Marin using a motorcycle on the access roads. Killiam found Marin’s body on a maintained fire access road. The precise time that Killiam found Marin is not alleged in the TAC. Marin died of hypothermia due to being exposed to cold environmental temperatures.

The County’s Sheriff’s Department has an Off-Highway Vehicle Enforcement unit (ROVE) that is equipped with all-terrain vehicles that have lights. The vehicles can operate in the mud at night. ROVE was not dispatched to search for Marin. Because Marin was on a maintained fire access road, he could have been rescued by people using all-terrain vehicles.

The real basis of the claims of the plaintiff were summed up by the Appellant court in this statement.

In the Family’s wrongful death cause of action, it alleged the following: The Sheriff’s Department assumed the responsibility of searching for Marin by starting the search and telling Wife not to conduct her own search. The Family alleged that it relied upon the County to rescue Marin after the County assumed control of the search and rescue. In taking responsibility for the search, the Sheriff’s Department owed a duty to conduct the search with reasonable care.

The County should not have assigned Hall to be the incident commander for the search because Hall lacked search and rescue training. Hall acted with reckless disregard for life by managing the search from his living room. The County’s employees acted with bad faith and gross negligence by (1) failing to contact people who had knowledge of the trails and service roads in the CNF; (2) failing to deploy the ROVE team on the night of March 1; and (3) failing to consult a medical professional with knowledge of hypothermia regarding Marin’s possible injuries and the risk of hypothermia.

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

After reviewing the procedural issues on appeal, the court looked at the arguments. The first was whether or not the County had immunity from suit for its rescue personnel under several California statutes.

Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), provides, “[N]either a public entity nor emergency rescue personnel shall be liable for any injury caused by an action taken by the emergency rescue personnel acting within the scope of their employment to provide emergency services, unless the action taken was performed in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner.”

The family, the plaintiff’s, argued there could not be any immunity because the actions of the individuals were grossly negligent. The Appellate court agreed that if the actions of the county personnel were found to be grossly negligent, then the individuals were not protected by the statute.

Gross negligence if plead and proved supersedes an immunity statute in California. Unless the statute provides immunity to the entire claim, the statute does not provide immunity: “…it is an error to grant summary judgment unless the defense is “a complete defense to the entire action.”

Knowing that based on the clothing and the weather conditions, there was a good chance that the deceased would die of hypothermia, failure to start a search by the sheriff’s department employee could be considered gross negligence.

I suspect that these factors were made more apparent when the deceased was so easily found by the family members when they searched.

The next immunity statute was Section 845, which was created to give law enforcement wide range in making budgetary decisions. Meaning how many law enforcement personnel were hired and deployed to certain areas within a community could not be subject to judicial scrutiny.

Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a police department or otherwise to provide police protection service or, if police protection service is provided, for failure to provide sufficient police protection service

No budgetary decisions were made in deciding not to rescue the deceased. The lawsuit was not over whether or not enough SAR personnel were sent to the scene, the lawsuit was based on negligence in handling the entire incident.

The Family is not suing the County for budgetary or political decisions. The Family is suing due to the alleged negligence of particular County employees. The County asserts the Family’s lawsuit is partially based upon a failure to provide adequate search and rescue training to its Sheriff’s Department personnel.

The final immunity is usually the broadest and provides the most protection to state and local governments. The actions of an employee of a local, state or federal government are discretionary. As long as the decisions of the employee are not arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable, the decision will be upheld.

The appellate court did not rule the actions of the sheriff departments employees were not discretionary, only that the county, if relying on that defense must show that each of the decisions made by the employee was discretionary. The appellate court in this case increased the burden on the county to prove immunity in this case.

If the County seeks to have every material search decision Hall made protected under section 820.2 then it needs to provide evidence of what material decisions were made, provide evidence of the discretion exercised in making those decisions, and provide argument as to why each of those decisions is deserving of immunity under section 820.2. Without that information, it was not proper to grant summary judgment pursuant to the discretionary decision immunity (§ 820.2) because the County only addressed a portion of the Family’s allegations.

The motion for summary judgment granted for the County by the trial court was overruled, and the case was sent back for further adjudication.

So Now What?

Most states have various forms of immunity to protect state and county employees from lawsuits over the discretionary parts of their job. Governments would never accomplish anything if every time they did something a citizen did not like, the citizen sued them. Most Search and Rescue litigation is avoided or dismissed quickly because of this.

Here, the county’s overt actions in responding to the family as well as how easily the victim was eventually found, give credence to the claims of the family. Suggesting a mountain biker was not missing but having an affair may be a common issue in the minds of law enforcement, but expressing it or placing it in the paperwork is just stupid.

This decision seems to be a stretch, though based on the facts it does not seem to be out of line. What it is, is an example of doing dumb things, treating people badly or making a judge made can still make you lose no matter how strong the law is on your side.

Don’t do stupid things, treat people right, do your job and when in doubt, try to help would have prevented this lawsuit and probably this death.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at Jim@Rec-Law.us

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


Arista v. Cnty. of Riverside (Cal. App. 2021)

Arista v. Cnty. of Riverside (Cal. App. 2021)

CHRISTYNA ARISTA, Individually and as Successor in Interest, etc. et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
COUNTY OF RIVERSIDE, Defendant and Respondent.

E074815

COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT DIVISION TWO

April 14, 2021

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

(Super.Ct.No. RIC1502475)

OPINION

APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County. Daniel A. Ottolia, Judge. Reversed.

Tiedt & Hurd, John E. Tiedt and Marc S. Hurd for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Disenhouse Law, Bruce E. Disenhouse; Arias & Lockwood and Christopher D. Lockwood for Defendant and Respondent.

In a third amended complaint plaintiff and appellant Christyna Arista and her children (collectively, the Family) sued defendant and respondent County of Riverside (the County) for wrongful death, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.1 The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County. The Family contends the trial court erred by granting summary judgment. We reverse the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. THIRD AMENDED COMPLAINT

The facts in this subsection are taken from the third amended complaint (TAC). Christyna Arista (Wife) was married to Andres Marin (Marin), and he is the father of her children. On March 1, 2014, at approximately 6:30 a.m., Marin left home, in Corona, for a bicycle ride to Santiago Peak in the Cleveland National Forest (the CNF). The ride would be approximately 55 miles, and Marin was expected to return home by 2:00 p.m. On March 1, the temperature in Corona was 50 to 60 degrees with periodic light drizzle. For the bicycle ride, Marin was wearing knee-length bicycle shorts, a bicycle jersey, calf-length socks, bicycle gloves, shoes, and a helmet. Marin carried $10, water, snacks, and his cell phone.

On March 1, at 3:00 p.m., when Marin failed to return home, Wife called and texted Marin’s cell phone every 15 minutes but received no answer until 5:14 p.m. when Marin answered Wife’s call. Marin said he had fallen from his bicycle and suffered an injury. Marin seemed confused and disoriented but said that, prior to the fall, he had reached Santiago Peak and was on his way home. At 5:32 p.m., Wife began calling various agencies, e.g., a ranger station, but was unable to reach anyone. At 5:36 p.m., Wife called 911 and the operator advised her to wait at home. At 6:30 p.m., Corona Police arrived at Wife’s home, and Wife explained that Marin was injured, on his way down from Santiago Peak, and lightly dressed.

At 8:00 p.m., Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Zaborowski2 arrived at the Family’s home. At that point, deputies had already checked trailheads in the CNF, traveled along access roads looking for Marin, pinged Marin’s cell phone, and contacted civilian volunteers to tell them “to be ‘on alert’ for a potential call to assist.” Wife provided Zaborowski with the same information she provided the Corona Police. Zaborowski told Wife that the ping of Marin’s phone showed he was in the area of Santiago Peak. Zaborowski also said Verizon service employees were in the area of Santiago Peak and had been asked to “be vigilant for Marin’s location.”

Lieutenant Hall (Hall) was the Sheriff’s Department’s Incident Commander for the search for Marin. Hall stayed at his home during the search. He was not trained in search and rescue. Hall did not consider the risks that Marin faced from the weather. Hall did not know Santiago Peak has an elevation of 5,689 feet. Hall was unaware that the trail Marin had planned to use has an elevation of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Hall did not know what, if any, equipment Marin had with him for cold weather.

At 10:00 p.m., Detective Holder arrived at the Family’s home. While at the residence, Holder spoke to Zaborowski. Holder said “he [(Holder)] was ‘not sure what we’re doing here,’ that Marin was ‘probably just running around on his wife’ and was ‘just covering his tracks,’ suggesting that Marin was not missing, but instead involved in some adulterous affair.” Holder informed Wife that the Sheriff’s Department was suspending its search for the night and would resume searching in the morning. Wife asked Holder, ” ‘[W]hat are the chances he [Marin] dies of hypothermia?’ ” because the temperatures at Santiago Peak were expected to be in the mid-30s to mid-40s. “Holder replied that Marin was ‘a grown man’ and that ‘he can survive the night.’ ” Holder further said “that ‘if it was a child, [he] would send a helicopter out there right now.’ “

After being told that the search was suspended for the night, Wife organized relatives to perform their own search. Unidentified County personnel asked Wife not to initiate her own search because the County would conduct the search. Nevertheless, Wife and six relatives began searching for Marin, on foot, at 3:45 a.m. Pat Killiam who is a mountain biker and search and rescue volunteer “had heard about the ‘missing biker,’ ” and began his own search for Marin using a motorcycle on the access roads. Killiam found Marin’s body on a maintained fire access road. The precise time that Killiam found Marin is not alleged in the TAC. Marin died of hypothermia due to being exposed to cold environmental temperatures.

The County’s Sheriff’s Department has an Off-Highway Vehicle Enforcement unit (ROVE) that is equipped with all-terrain vehicles that have lights. The vehicles can operate in the mud at night. ROVE was not dispatched to search for Marin. Because Marin was on a maintained fire access road, he could have been rescued by people using all-terrain vehicles.

In the Family’s wrongful death cause of action, it alleged the following: The Sheriff’s Department assumed the responsibility of searching for Marin by starting the search and telling Wife not to conduct her own search. The Family alleged that it relied upon the County to rescue Marin after the County assumed control of the search and rescue. In taking responsibility for the search, the Sheriff’s Department owed a duty to conduct the search with reasonable care.

The County should not have assigned Hall to be the incident commander for the search because Hall lacked search and rescue training. Hall acted with reckless disregard for life by managing the search from his living room. The County’s employees acted with bad faith and gross negligence by (1) failing to contact people who had knowledge of the trails and service roads in the CNF; (2) failing to deploy the ROVE team on the night of March 1; and (3) failing to consult a medical professional with knowledge of hypothermia regarding Marin’s possible injuries and the risk of hypothermia. The Family’s causes of action for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress are based on the same conduct/omissions as the wrongful death cause of action.

B. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

The County moved for summary judgment. In its presentation of the facts, the County asserted that, on the evening of March 1, 2014, “it was raining and there was a thick cloud cover and fog in the [CNF].” The County asserted the weather “made it too dangerous to fly” a helicopter to search for Marin. The County also asserted the weather conditions and risks of landslides made it too dangerous for rescuers to search on the ground.

The County asserted that the Family did not cite a statute to support direct liability on the part of the County, which meant the Family was relying on respondeat superior liability. The County asserted that its employees’ decision to suspend the search for the night was objectively reasonable and fell within the standard of reasonable care.

Next, the County asserted three separate immunities applied. First, the County cited Government Code section 8453, which provides public employees are not liable for the failure to provide sufficient police protection. The County asserted section 845 made it immune from the allegation that it “should have provided more or different training.”

Second, the County cited section 820.2, which provides that public employees are not liable for injuries that result from acts or omissions stemming from discretionary decisions. The County argued, “The undisputed evidence shows that a discretionary decision was made, based on all of the available evidence, and after considering the risks to [Marin], the weather and the trail conditions, the conflicting cell phone location information, and all the other information . . . , not to risk rescue personnel by a further nighttime search, but to wait until morning.”

Third, the County cited Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), which provides that emergency rescue personnel are not liable for injuries caused by actions taken within the scope of their employment, unless the actions were done in bad faith or with gross negligence. The County asserted, “The undisputed evidence . . . shows no gross negligence and no bad faith in deciding to wait until morning to do additional searches of the forest. Rather, the undisputed evidence shows an objectively reasonable decision, based on all of the available evidence, not to expose searchers to the high risks of a night time [sic] search under those weather conditions when decedent’s location was only vaguely known.”

C. OPPOSITION

The Family opposed the County’s motion for summary judgment. The Family asserted there is a triable issue of material fact regarding whether the Sheriff’s Department’s employees’ conduct/omissions constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. The Family asserted the following constituted gross negligence: failing to set up a command post in the CNF; failing to establish a search area; not having a deputy trained in search and rescue evaluate the trail and road conditions; not contacting the ROVE team in a timely manner; having Hall command the search from his living room; and failing to consult with a medical professional regarding Marin’s injuries and risk of hypothermia.

The Family asserted the immunity for failing to provide sufficient police protection (§ 845) is meant to protect budgetary and policy decisions, not negligence by a particular law enforcement officer. As to the immunity for discretionary decisions (§ 820.2), the Family asserted (1) the County was liable for the negligent way in which it handled the search prior to deciding to suspend the search for the night; and (2) immunity for discretionary decisions applies to operational and policy decisions not to decisions such as Hall’s decision to suspend the search.

In regard to immunity for rescue personnel (Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.107, subd. (b)), the Family asserted there were triable issues of fact regarding whether County personnel acted in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner. As to bad faith, the Family pointed to Holder’s comments that Marin was likely having an affair. In regard to gross negligence, the Family pointed to a declaration by Richard B. Goodman, who was the Search and Rescue Resource Officer for the New Mexico State Police from 1994 to 2002, reflecting that the Sheriff’s Department’s actions were “an extreme departure from what a reasonable . . . law enforcement [officer] assuming search and rescue activities would do in the same or similar circumstances.”

D. HEARING

The trial court found there were triable issues of fact regarding “whether the County breached the duty to rescue that it undertook.” The court determined that the County was immune from liability because Hall exercised discretion when deciding to suspend the search for the night (§ 820.2). The trial court said it was familiar with the trails leading up to Santiago Peak, and that “deputies have an incredibly difficult job. They have to consider so many factors.” The trial court said to the Family’s counsel, “I’d invite you to go on a ride-along, if you never have, just to find out what a deputy’s job is like.” The trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment.

DISCUSSION

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“A motion for summary judgment should be granted if the submitted papers show that ‘there is no triable issue as to any material fact,’ and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. [Citation.] A defendant meets his burden of showing that a cause of action has no merit if he shows that one or more of the elements of the cause of action cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense. [Citation.] Once the defendant has met that burden, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that a triable issue of material fact exists.” (Claudio v. Regents of the University of California (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 224, 229.)

“In reviewing a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the reviewing court makes ‘ “an independent assessment of the correctness of the trial court’s ruling, applying the same legal standard as the trial court in determining whether there are any genuine issues of material fact or whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. [Citations.]” ‘ [Citation.] [¶] ‘On review of a summary judgment, the appellant has the burden of showing error, even if he did not bear the burden in the trial court.’ ” (Bains v. Moores (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 445, 454-455.)

B. HARMLESS ERROR4

In the trial court, the County made 55 objections to the Family’s evidence. At the hearing, the trial court said, “The Court is overruling all evidentiary objections by both plaintiffs and defendants in this matter.” In its respondent’s brief, the County contends the trial court erred by overruling its objections to the declarations of Richard B. Goodman, who was the Search and Rescue Resource Officer for the New Mexico State Police from 1994 to 2002, and to Ken Zafren, M.D., who is an emergency physician with expertise in hypothermia.

Our understanding of the County’s argument is as follows: If the Family is correct that the trial court erred in its analysis of the summary judgment motion, then those errors are harmless. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 906 [respondents can argue error within a prejudice analysis].) The errors are harmless because if the trial court had sustained the County’s objections to Goodman’s and Zafren’s declarations then it is probable summary judgment would have been granted because there would not be a triable issue of material fact. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 475 [“a different result would have been probable if such error . . . had not occurred”].) The County’s argument is not persuasive because we do not need to consider the Family’s evidence due to the County failing to meet its burden to show the causes of action have no merit.

In a motion for summary judgment, the moving party, in this case the County, bears the burden of demonstrating the causes of action lack merit. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) In the County’s motion for summary judgment, it asserted the Family’s causes of action had no merit because the County’s employees’ decision to suspend the search was objectively reasonable. The County’s argument fails to specifically address the other allegations in the Family’s TAC, such as Hall’s alleged negligence in conducting the search from his living room. In the TAC, within the wrongful death cause of action, the Family alleged, “It is a reckless disregard for life for Lt. Hall to manage a wilderness search from a home living room.” Other allegations in the Family’s TAC were that the County acted with gross negligence by (1) not involving personnel who knew the CNF, (2) not deploying the ROVE team on the night of March 1, and (3) not consulting a medical professional regarding hypothermia and Marin’s possible injuries.

The County focused only on the decision to suspend the search for the night, but the Family is also suing due to the manner in which the search was conducted prior to the search being suspended. In the motion for summary judgment, the County failed to address all of the Family’s allegations of gross negligence. Thus, the County did not meet its burden of demonstrating the causes of action lack merit. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2) [defendant bears the burden of establishing the “cause of action has no merit”].)

Because the County did not meet its burden to establish that the causes of action lack merit, the burden did not shift to the Family to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) Therefore, any error related to rulings on the County’s evidentiary objections is irrelevant in that the Family’s evidence need not be considered. Accordingly, we are not persuaded by the County’s assertion that any error alleged by the Family can be found harmless.

Next, on appeal, the County renews its objections to Goodman’s and Zafren’s declarations. (Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 534 [renewed objections on appeal when the trial court failed to rule on the objections]; Valentine v. Plum Healthcare Group, LLC (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 1076, 1089 [same].) The County asserts that the Family relies almost exclusively on Goodman’s and Zafren’s declarations in the Family’s appellants’ opening brief, so if the declarations are inadmissible then the Family’s appellate argument fails. It is unnecessary to rule upon the County’s renewed objections because Goodman’s and Zafren’s declarations are not relevant to resolving the alleged errors relating to the immunity defenses. Accordingly, we will not rule upon the County’s renewed objections.

C. IMMUNITY FOR RESCUE PERSONNEL

The Family contends the immunity for rescue personnel (Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.107, subd. (b)) does not support a grant of summary judgment.

Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), provides, “[N]either a public entity nor emergency rescue personnel shall be liable for any injury caused by an action taken by the emergency rescue personnel acting within the scope of their employment to provide emergency services, unless the action taken was performed in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner.”

In the wrongful death cause of action, the Family alleged, “Further, the [County] knew that the injured Marin was going to be left in predicted cold temperatures that could expose him to hypothermic conditions and jeopardize his life, but through gross negligence, the [County] let Marin die on [its] watch.” As explained ante, the County did not establish that the Family’s cause of action lacks merit. Therefore, at this stage of the proceedings, there is merit to the Family’s gross negligence allegations.

If we assume, without deciding, that Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), applies in this case, it would not support a grant of summary judgment because, at this stage, it does not provide a complete defense given the gross negligence allegations. (See Mallard Creek Industries v. Morgan (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 426, 438 [it is error to grant summary judgment unless the defense is “a complete defense to the entire action”].) Accordingly, summary judgment could not be granted on the basis of the immunity afforded rescue personnel (Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.107, subd. (b)).

D. IMMUNITY FOR FAILING TO PROVIDE SUFFICIENT POLICE PROTECTION

The Family contends the immunity for failing to provide sufficient police protection does not apply in this case.

Section 845 provides, in relevant part, “Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a police department or otherwise to provide police protection service or, if police protection service is provided, for failure to provide sufficient police protection service.” Section 845 “was designed to prevent political decisions of policy-making officials of government from being second-guessed by judges and juries in personal injury litigation. [Citation.] In other words, essentially budgetary decisions of these officials were not to be subject to judicial review in tort litigation.” (Mann v. State of California (1977) 70 Cal.App.3d 773, 778-779, fn. omitted.) “Thus, section 845 was not intended to provide immunity against a particular police officer’s negligence in the performance of his duty in a particular situation.” (Wallace v. City of Los Angeles (1993) 12 Cal.App.4th 1385, 1402.)

The Family is not suing the County for budgetary or political decisions. The Family is suing due to the alleged negligence of particular County employees. The County asserts the Family’s lawsuit is partially based upon a failure to provide adequate search and rescue training to its Sheriff’s Department personnel. However, the County cites to the Family’s appellants’ opening brief, not the TAC or the Family’s opposition to the summary judgment motion, to support its argument. In the TAC, the Family alleges the County had the ROVE team and if it had been utilized, then it “would have located Marin on the Evening of March 1, 2014.” The Family specifically alleges, “The COUNTY failed to deploy trained personal [sic] to manage . . . critical decisions concerning Mr. Marin.” In our reading of the TAC, the Family is not asserting that the County failed to train its personnel, but rather that the County was negligent in failing to deploy the trained personnel it had.

The County asserts that the failure to deploy the ROVE team is protected under section 845. In support of that argument, the County cites Hartzler v. City of San Jose (1975) 46 Cal.App.3d 6. In that case, the victim called the police and said her estranged husband was coming to her residence to kill her. The police told the victim to call them back when her husband was at the house. Forty-five minutes later, the victim’s husband stabbed her to death. The police arrived after the victim died. The appellate court explained that the wrongful death cause of action failed because the police had immunity under section 845. (Hartzler, at p. 8.) The appellate court explained that the exception to section 845 is when there is a “voluntary assumption by the public entity . . . . Even though there is initially no liability on the part of the government for its acts or omissions, once it undertakes action on behalf of a member of the public, and thereby induces that individual’s reliance, it is then held to the same standard of care as a private person or organization.” (Hartzler, at p. 9.) The appellate court concluded that the plaintiff failed to plead facts supporting a special relationship between the victim and the police. (Id. at p. 10.)

In other words, Hartzler established that section 845 provides immunity when the complaint concerns a general failure of policing, i.e., the police should have come to my aid but they did not come, but section 845 does not provide immunity when the complaint concerns the manner in which police executed a particular undertaking after a special relationship has developed. (See Adams v. City of Fremont (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 243, 317 (dis. opn. of P.J. Kline) [” ‘where there exists a special relationship . . . liability may be imposed irrespective of the immunity granted by . . . section 845’ “], citing Hartzler v. City of San Jose, supra, 46 Cal.App.3d 6.) In the instant case, the Family is complaining that the County had a special relationship with Marin and that the County was negligent in searching for Marin. Therefore, the County’s reliance on Hartzler is misplaced.

E. IMMUNITY FOR DISCRETIONARY DECISIONS

The Family contends the trial court erred in granting summary judgment based upon the immunity afforded to governmental discretionary decisions (§ 820.2).

Section 820.2 provides, “[A] public employee is not liable for an injury resulting from his act or omission where the act or omission was the result of the exercise of the discretion vested in him, whether or not such discretion be abused.” “Discretion” is not to be read literally because nearly every act involves some discretionary choice ” ‘ “even if it involve[s] only the driving of a nail.” ‘ ” (Johnson v. State (1968) 69 Cal.2d 782, 787-790.) In eschewing a literal approach to the term “discretion,” concentration has been placed on policy, in particular, “whether the agency in a particular case should have immunity.” (Id. at pp. 789-790.)

Policy decisions made by the legislative and executive branches are subject to immunity because review of those decisions “would place the court in the unseemly position of determining the propriety of decisions expressly entrusted to a coordinate branch of government.” (Johnson v. State, supra, 69 Cal.2d at p. 793.) As an example, judicial immunity applies to the California Division of Juvenile Justice’s “determination of whether to place a youth on parole” because that decision involves “the resolution of policy considerations, entrusted by statute to a coordinate branch of government, that compels immunity from judicial reexamination.” (Id at p. 795, fn. omitted.) By contrast, judicial immunity does not apply to the “determination as to whether to warn the foster parents [of a juvenile parolee] of latent dangers facing them” because “to the extent that a parole officer consciously considers pros and cons in deciding what information, if any, should be given, he makes such a determination at the lowest, ministerial rung of official action. Judicial abstinence from ruling upon whether negligence contributed to this decision would therefore be unjustified; coupled with the administrative laxness that caused the loss in the first instance, it would only result in the failure of governmental institutions to serve the injured individual.” (Id. at pp. 795-796.)

In the County’s points and authorities in support of its motion for summary judgment, it asserted Hall made a discretionary decision in deciding to suspend the search for the night. The County did not cite specific evidence to support its assertion that a discretionary decision was made; rather, the County wrote that the evidence was “addressed above.” We infer the County was referring to the “facts” section of its points and authorities.

In the “facts” section, the County wrote, “[Hall] discussed and evaluated all the available information and weighed the risks and benefits of a night time [sic] search. [Citations.] Lt. Hall was aware of the risks of [Marin] freezing to death [citation] but Lt. Hall and his supervisor Chief Deputy Alm made a discretionary risk/benefit decision that the risks to search personnel of a further night search outweighed the potential of locating [Marin] in the dark and they make a discretionary decision not to conduct additional searches in the [CNF] until morning. [Citation.] The factors they considered included: [¶] 1. The rain and thick fog . . . [¶] 2. [Marin’s] location was only vaguely known . . . [¶] 3. Visibility was extremely limited . . . [¶] 4. The rain and fog made the trail dangerous . . . [¶] 5. County employees were not familiar with the area . . . .”

The County’s argument in the points and authorities is focused on the decision to suspend the search, but the Family’s lawsuit is not solely focused on the decision to suspend the search. The Family is also suing due to manner in which the search was conducted prior to the search being suspended. For example, the Family complains of not involving personnel who knew the CNF and not deploying the ROVE team on the night of March 1.

In the County’s brief to this court, the County takes the position that every decision involved in the search was a discretionary decision and that all of those discretionary decisions deserve immunity. The County does not direct this court to evidence indicating what decisions Hall made during the search, or to evidence that Hall weighed and balanced particular factors in making those decisions. Additionally, the County fails to explain why every decision Hall made during the search process is deserving of immunity under section 820.2. (See Johnson v. State, supra, 69 Cal.2d at pp. 789-790 [“discretionary decision” is not meant literally; whether immunity applies is a policy question].)

If the County seeks to have every material search decision Hall made protected under section 820.2 then it needs to provide evidence of what material decisions were made, provide evidence of the discretion exercised in making those decisions, and provide argument as to why each of those decisions is deserving of immunity under section 820.2. Without that information, it was not proper to grant summary judgment pursuant to the discretionary decision immunity (§ 820.2) because the County only addressed a portion of the Family’s allegations. (See Mallard Creek Industries v. Morgan, supra, 56 Cal.App.4th at p. 438 [it is error to grant summary judgment unless the defense is “a complete defense to the entire action”].)

F. CONCLUSION

In sum, it has not been shown that the causes of action lack merit and the County failed to demonstrate that it has a complete defense to the entire TAC. Therefore, we conclude the trial court erred and the grant of summary judgment must be reversed.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is reversed. The trial court is directed to vacate its order granting summary judgment. Appellants are awarded their costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(1).)

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS

MILLER
J.

We concur:

McKINSTER
Acting P. J.

FIELDS
J.

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Footnotes:

1. This court previously issued an opinion in this case reversing the trial court’s sustaining of the County’s demurrer to the Family’s second amended complaint. (Arista v. County of Riverside (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 1051.)

2. In the TAC, the deputy’s last name is spelled Zaborowski. In the motion for summary judgment, the deputy’s last name is spelled Zabrowski. In a declaration by Lieutenant Hall, the deputy’s name is spelled different ways including Zaborwski. We use the Zaborowski spelling because that is the spelling used in Deputy Zaborowski’s declaration.

3. All subsequent statutory references will be to the Government Code unless otherwise indicated.

4. A harmless error analysis typically follows a finding of error. In this case, we begin with the County’s assertion that the trial court’s error is harmless because the triable issue of material fact matter discussed as part the harmless error analysis will simplify our discussion post of the Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), immunity.

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Ski Area not liable when skiers leave the ski run and collide with snow making equipment in Michigan.

Litigation ensued because an important term in the Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act was not defined in the act. What is a ski run?

Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

State: Michigan; Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: Cheryle A. Round, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Charles R. Round

Defendant: Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, Schuss Mountain

Plaintiff Claims: negligence action, alleging that defendant failed to comply with duties imposed under the SASA

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant ski area

Year: 2022

Summary

Lawsuit against a ski area was based on a term in the statute that was not defined, forcing the court to define the term. What is a ski run? The decedent skied into snow making equipment and died. If on the ski run, the equipment must be marked. The equipment was not marked. The court also ruled over and embankment, not on snow and 15-25 feet from the edge of the run, the snow making equipment was not on the ski run.

Facts

On December 21, 2019, plaintiff’s decedent, Charles R. Round, died after allegedly sustaining fatal injuries when he collided with snow-making equipment at Schuss Mountain, a ski area owned and operated by defendant. At the time, Round was participating in an event called the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade whereby volunteer skiers ski down an unlit hill-known as Kingdom Come-at night while carrying lighted torches, eventually getting to the bottom of the hill to light the ski resort’s Christmas tree. Round was leading the parade of skiers-as he had for several years-when he suddenly veered to his left and skied beyond the edge of the ski run. A ski lift was located on the edge of the ski run and, underneath the ski lift, were four permanent snow-making machines installed at various points up the hill. At about the half-way point of the ski hill, Round crossed into this area, collided with a snow-making machine, and sustained severe injuries that proved fatal.

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

Pursuant to Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act, a ski area is not liable for injuries to its patrons for collisions with snow making equipment if the snow making equipment is “properly marked or plainly visible.”

§ 408.342. Duties of skier in ski area; acceptance of dangers.

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

The plaintiff argued the snow making equipment was not marked and had to be marked because it was located on the ski run. The defendant argued that the snow making equipment was not on the ski run. Ski run is not defined by the Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act. The Michigan Appellate Court then had to use the plain meeting of the terms to derive a definition.

At minimum, the plain meaning of the phrase “ski run” for purposes of the SASA must include a path or route expected to be used for skiing down a hill. Indeed, ski runs are named, designed, constructed, groomed, and designated as the route skiers are to use for skiing down a particular hill. As this Court similarly noted in Rhoda v O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals: “Although the SASA does not define the terms ‘run,’ ‘slope’ or ‘trail,’ the plain, ordinary and common meanings of these terms encompass the paths a skier or snowboarder takes to get down a hill, including those paths designed and constructed by the ski operator for precisely that purpose.”

The court then went into the depositions presented by the defendant, witnesses who described the location of the snow making equipment when the deceased hit it.

The decedent was found 22′ off the run, over an embankment under the snow gun. It took several repetitions to move the deceased in a toboggan from where he was back up to the ski run.

The court reasoned if the snow gun which the deceased collided with was located on the trail, the other skiers following him would have hit the snow gun also.

The Appellate court sent the case back to the trail court with an order to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case.

So Now What?

Short and sweet, but educational because of the issues the statute left out. Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act is a combination of a skier safety act and a tramway act. Consequently, it is quite long with little have much to do with how the ski area is to operate. The act has definitions but most deal with the structure of the tramway issues.

When one term, as in this case ski run is used to defined part of a statute, that term needs to be defined, or we end up in a position like this, litigation to define what is a ski run.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

CHERYLE A. ROUND, as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF CHARLES R. ROUND, Plaintiff/Counterdefendant-Appellee,
v.
TRINIDAD RESORT & CLUB, LLC,Defendant/Counterplaintiff-Appellant.

No. 357849

Court of Appeals of Michigan

September 15, 2022

UNPUBLISHED

Antrim County Circuit Court LC No. 20-009218-NO

Before: Cavanagh, P.J., and Garrett and Yates, JJ.

Per Curiam

Defendant appeals by leave granted[1] an order denying its motion for summary disposition which asserted that it was entitled to immunity under Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., because plaintiff could not demonstrate noncompliance with a statutory duty; the snow-making equipment that plaintiff’s decedent collided with was not located on the ski run so a warning sign was not required. We agree and reverse.

On December 21, 2019, plaintiff’s decedent, Charles R. Round, died after allegedly sustaining fatal injuries when he collided with snow-making equipment at Schuss Mountain, a ski area owned and operated by defendant. At the time, Round was participating in an event called the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade whereby volunteer skiers ski down an unlit hill-known as Kingdom Come-at night while carrying lighted torches, eventually getting to the bottom of the hill to light the ski resort’s Christmas tree. Round was leading the parade of skiers-as he had for several years-when he suddenly veered to his left and skied beyond the edge of the ski run. A ski lift was located on the edge of the ski run and, underneath the ski lift, were four permanent snow-making machines installed at various points up the hill. At about the half-way point of the ski hill, Round crossed into this area, collided with a snow-making machine, and sustained severe injuries that proved fatal.

On June 24, 2020, Round’s wife, Cheryle A. Round, filed this negligence action, alleging that defendant failed to comply with duties imposed under the SASA, including by:

a. Failing to ensure that the snow-making equipment was properly marked or plainly visible to skiers;

b. Failing to properly light the ski area during the event;

c. Failing to mark the snow-making machine with a visible sign or other warning device to warn approaching skiers;

d. Failing to construct or maintain physical barriers to prevent skiers from colliding with the snow-making machine; and

e. Failing to install protective padding around the snow-making machine to prevent serious injuries from collisions.

In response to plaintiff’s complaint, defendant asserted affirmative defenses, including that it was immune and plaintiff’s claim was barred by the SASA. Defendant also filed a counterclaim alleging breach of contract, indemnification, and other claims based on the release Round had signed.

On November 2, 2020, plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(9) and (C)(10) as to defendant’s defense of immunity under the SASA. Plaintiff argued that her decedent collided with a snow-making machine that was neither properly marked nor plainly visible during the nighttime event; thus, the SASA did not presume-as set forth under MCL 408.342(2)-that her decedent assumed the risk of being injured in this situation. Defendant responded to plaintiff’s motion arguing, in relevant part, that plaintiff’s decedent assumed the risk of skiing in the event and signed a release to that effect. But, further, defendant owed no duty to mark or make plainly visible the snow-making machine at issue because it was 10 feet tall and was not located on the ski run.

On January 4, 2021, the trial court rendered its decision and order granting plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition holding, in relevant part, that “the injury causing hazard (e.g. the snow-making equipment) was neither properly marked nor plainly visible, [and thus], the Decedent cannot be said to have assumed the inherent risk of the hazard and recovery is not precluded by SASA.”

Defendant filed its application for leave to appeal the trial court’s order which was denied “for failure to persuade the Court of the need for immediate appellate review.” See Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered May 18, 2021 (Docket No. 356123).

On April 27, 2021, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8), and (C)(10), arguing that defendant strictly complied with its duties mandated by the SASA. And contrary to plaintiff’s claims, defendant had no duty under the SASA to light, mark, or pad the snow-making machine at issue because it is undisputed that (1) the ski run was not open to the public when plaintiff’s decedent was fatally injured, (2) the snow-making machine extended more than six feet above the snow surface; it was ten feet above the snow surface, and (3) the snow-making machine was located off of the ski run; it was nine feet away from the groomed edge of the ski run known as Kingdom Come. Moreover, plaintiff’s decedent breached his duties under the SASA to “maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.” MCL 408.341(1). The video evidence showed that plaintiff’s decedent abruptly departed from the ski run without effort to correct his course before striking the snow-making machine. Defendant supported its motion with numerous exhibits, including deposition testimony transcripts, affidavits, an incident report, and photographs.

Plaintiff responded to defendant’s motion for summary disposition arguing, in relevant part, that the trial court already decided that plaintiff’s decedent did not assume the risk in this case, and thus, defendant was not entitled to immunity under the SASA. Further, plaintiff argued, (1) the ski run was open to the public when this incident occurred, (2) the snow-making machine was less than 6 feet above the snow surface when plaintiff’s expert, Stanley Gale, performed a site visit on March 6, 2021, and (3) the snow-making machine was located on the skiable portion of the trail, as Gale also determined, but, in any case, “it is the snow-making operations that must be located on the ski run-not the snow-making equipment itself.” Plaintiff supported her response with exhibits, including Gale’s investigative report.

Defendant replied to plaintiff’s response to its motion for summary disposition, arguing that (1) the ski run was not open to the public at the time of the accident, a fact supported by the deposition testimony of witnesses, the incident report, and even the deposition testimony of plaintiff’s purported expert, Stanley Gale; (2) the snow-making machine extended more than six feet above the snow surface at the time of the accident and Gale’s measurement using only his ski to gauge the distance more than one year after the accident was incompetent to refute defendant’s evidence; and (3) the snow-making machine was not located on the ski run, as even plaintiff’s decedent’s wife, son, and daughter admitted, and as testified to by other witnesses. Defendant supported its response with exhibits, including deposition testimony transcripts.

On June 1, 2021, the trial court heard oral argument on defendant’s motion and the parties argued consistently with their briefs. On June 27, 2021, the trial court entered an order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition, holding that (1) whether the ski run was open to the public at the time of the accident is irrelevant but, in any case, was a question of fact for the jury considering that not just employees participated in the event; (2) whether the height of the snow-making machine at issue was six feet above the snow surface was a question of fact for the jury because plaintiff’s expert found it to be less than six feet and the machine had been manipulated; and (3) whether the snow-making equipment was located on the ski run was a question of fact for the jury because plaintiff’s expert stated that it was on a skiable portion of the trail. The court did not address defendant’s claim that plaintiff’s decedent breached his duties under MCL 408.341(1) of the SASA to “maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.” Accordingly, the court concluded that genuine issues of material fact existed that must be decided by a jury, and thus, defendant’s motion was denied.

On July 16, 2021, defendant filed its application for leave to appeal arguing that preemptory reversal was required but, at minimum, leave to appeal should be granted. The snow-making equipment at issue in this case was not located on a ski run, and thus, defendant owed no duty to mark the snow-making equipment and cannot be held liable for plaintiff decedent’s accident. This Court granted leave to appeal. Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered September 1, 2021 (Docket No. 357849). On November 8, 2021, while this appeal was pending, plaintiff filed a motion to affirm which this Court denied. Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered November 24, 2021 (Docket No. 357849).

On appeal, defendant argues that it was entitled to summary disposition because the snow-making equipment at issue was not located on a ski run; thus, defendant had no duty to place a warning sign on that equipment and defendant cannot be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident. We agree.

A trial court’s decision on a motion for summary disposition is reviewed de novo. Hughes v Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 277 Mich.App. 268, 273; 744 N.W.2d 10 (2007). Defendant’s motion for summary disposition was brought under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (immunity), (C)(8) (failure to state a claim), and (C)(10) (no material factual issue), but was supported by numerous exhibits. Although the trial court did not indicate under which subrule it denied defendant’s motion, the court considered matters outside of the pleadings and so we review the motion as having been denied under MCR 2.116(C)(10). See id.; see also Patterson v Kleiman, 447 Mich. 429, 434; 526 N.W.2d 879 (1994).

Further, issues of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, Inc, 469 Mich. 20, 23; 664 N.W.2d 756 (2003). Our purpose in reviewing questions of statutory construction is to discern and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. Echelon Homes, LLC v Carter Lumber Co, 472 Mich. 192, 196; 694 N.W.2d 544 (2005). Our analysis begins by examining the plain language of the statute; if the language is unambiguous, no judicial construction is required or permitted and the statute must be enforced as written, giving its words their plain and ordinary meaning. Id. (citation omitted).

The SASA was enacted in 1962 “in an effort to provide some immunity for ski-area operators from personal-injury suits by injured skiers.” Anderson, 469 Mich. at 23. It delineates duties applicable to ski-area operators and to skiers. As to the duties imposed on skiers, and their acceptance of the associated risks of skiing, MCL 408.342 of the SASA provides, in part:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare sports; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

This provision has been referred to as an “assumption-of-risk provision,” and means that a skier has assumed the risk of being injured by these and similar dangers as inherent in the sport of skiing. Rusnak v Walker, 273 Mich.App. 299, 301, 304; 729 N.W.2d 542 (2007). Thus, when a skier’s injury arises from one of these dangers considered to be inherent in the sport of skiing, the ski-area operator is immune from liability unless the ski-area operator violated a specific duty imposed by the SASA that resulted in injury. Id. at 304-305, 313-314; see also Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich.App. 731, 742-744; 613 N.W.2d 383 (2000).

Relevant to this case is the immunity related to snow-making equipment. Under MCL 408.342(2), ski-area operators are immune from liability for collisions with snow-making equipment, if that equipment is “properly marked or plainly visible.” Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary disposition which addressed SASA’s immunity provision, MCL 408.342(2). Specifically, plaintiff argued that defendant was not entitled to immunity because plaintiff’s decedent did not assume the risk of skiing into the unmarked and not plainly visible snow-making equipment at issue in this case. The trial court agreed and granted plaintiff’s motion, holding that the snow-making equipment was neither properly marked nor plainly visible, and thus, plaintiff’s decedent cannot be charged with assuming this risk as inherent in the sport of skiing so liability was not precluded under the SASA.

Thereafter, defendant filed the motion for summary disposition at issue here, arguing that the snow-making equipment at issue in this case actually did not have to be “properly marked or plainly visible” because it was not on the ski run; rather, plaintiff’s decedent skied off of the ski run and into an area that was not meant for skiing where he collided with the snow-making equipment. In other words, defendant argued that it breached no duty imposed by the SASA with regard to the snow-making equipment, and thus, could not be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident.

The duty provision pertaining to snow-making equipment is codified in MCL 408.326a(b) and Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80(2). These provisions address the issue that was not decided by plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition, i.e., whether defendant, as the ski-area operator, had a duty to mark the snow-making equipment in this case. If SASA did not require marking this equipment with a warning sign or other device, defendant did not breach any statutory duty to plaintiff and summary disposition in favor of defendant would be appropriate.

MCL 408.326a provides in relevant part:

Each ski area operator shall, with respect to operation of a ski area, do all of the following:

* * *

(b) Mark with a visible sign or other warning device the location of any hydrant or similar fixture or equipment used in snow-making operations located on a ski run, as prescribed by rules promulgated [by the Ski Area Safety Board].

The corresponding administrative rule, Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80, prescribes the conditions under which snow-making equipment must be marked, stating:

(1) When a ski run, slope, or trail is open to the public, the ski area operator shall mark snowmaking devices as stated in this rule.

(2) A ski area operator shall mark the location of any hydrant, snow gun, or similar fixture or equipment which is used in snowmaking operations located on a ski run and which extends less than 6 feet above the snow surface with a caution sign that has contrasting colors. An orange marking disc, with a minimum diameter of 8 inches, may be used as a caution sign. One sign is adequate for all devices within an area 3 feet on either side of the sign and 10 feet in the downhill direction of the ski run from the sign.

The dispositive issue here is whether the snow-making equipment at issue was “located on a ski run,” as set forth in MCL 408.326a(b) and R 408.80(2).[2] We conclude that it was not. Accordingly, defendant was not in violation of the SASA, and thus, could not be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident.

The SASA does not define the phrase “ski run.” When a statute does not define a term, it is construed in accordance with its ordinary and generally accepted meaning. Popma v Auto Club Ins Ass’n, 446 Mich. 460, 470; 521 N.W.2d 831 (1994). At minimum, the plain meaning of the phrase “ski run” for purposes of the SASA must include a path or route expected to be used for skiing down a hill. Indeed, ski runs are named, designed, constructed, groomed, and designated as the route skiers are to use for skiing down a particular hill. As this Court similarly noted in Rhoda v O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued March 24, 2016 (Docket No. 321363), unpub op at 8: “Although the SASA does not define the terms ‘run,’ ‘slope’ or ‘trail,’ the plain, ordinary and common meanings of these terms encompass the paths a skier or snowboarder takes to get down a hill, including those paths designed and constructed by the ski operator for precisely that purpose.”[3]

In this case, no genuine issue of material fact exists-the snow-making equipment at issue was not located on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. The evidence presented by defendant in support of its argument included deposition testimony from witnesses. Plaintiff admitted during her deposition that she saw a video taken the night of the accident and she saw that her decedent actually veered the wrong way before striking the equipment-that had been in the same place for years-which was located off of the ski trail. Rick Van Tongeren, the snow sports school manager at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he watched a video taken the night of the incident and plaintiff’s decedent was skiing out of control in the wrong direction, i.e., not on the expected path, and was skiing very fast before the accident.

Mike Moreen, the director of the ski patrol at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade and was at the back of the lineup when he received a radio call from Fred Hunt that ski patrol was needed “skier’s left off of ski run about halfway down the hill.” When Moreen arrived to help Round, he saw that Round was “in a difficult location down off of the skiing surface, underneath the snow gun, underneath the structure, the stanchion of the snow gun . . . .” Moreen noted that they were “in deep snow” and “were off of the skiing surface quite a ways, several feet.” Round was down an embankment; about 10 to 15 feet away. And after they got Round on the toboggan to remove him from the accident site, “it probably took four or five repetitions to get him from the snow gun up to the skiing surface.”

Mark Durance, a member of the ski patrol at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade and was the second person from the last in the lineup. When the radio call came in, Durance followed Moreen to the accident site. Round was located about “ten feet or so off the ski run so it’s not a run.” Durance could not really determine Round’s condition “because he was so far off the existing run” that he could barely make observations. Ted Ewald, a ski instructor at Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade about 10 people from the front and he saw that “somebody went into the woods . . . .” But he did not see precisely what happened, the actual event; “I saw something in the woods when I skied by there.”

The evidence presented by defendant in support of its motion for summary disposition also included an incident report. The incident report included witness statements. One witness, Michael Casey, who was the third person from the front skiing in the parade, reported that he saw that Round-who was the leader of the parade-at one point seemed to be a lot further away than he should have been, indicating increased speed. He then saw Round “go off the ski hill into the woods.”

The incident report included a drawing of the snow-making machine at issue and depicted measurements taken the day after the accident. The drawing shows that the snow-making machine was located nine feet from the groomed trail; the machine sat between the groomed trail and trees, i.e., a “woods,” that was located 22 feet from the groomed trail; and the machine stood ten feet tall above the snow surface. The drafter of the drawing, Tom Murton, averred in an affidavit that he drew the diagram after the accident and the precise measurements were accurate. Murton also testified in a deposition about his investigation of the accident-including the measurements taken-that occurred the day after the accident. He testified that the snow-making equipment at issue is not part of Kingdom Come’s groomed ski surface or the ski run itself and had been in the same location permanently since at least the mid-1990s when he began working there. Photographs were also submitted in support of defendant’s motion for summary disposition and they show the scene of the accident, including the snow-making machine at issue, and it is clear that the machine was very close to the wooded area and not on the ski run known as Kingdom Come.

In opposition to defendant’s claim that it had no duty to mark the snow-making equipment at issue in this case because it was “not located on a ski run,” plaintiff argued that the machine was located on a skiable portion of the trail. Plaintiff supported that argument with a report from her purported expert, Gale, which stated that the snow-making machine was located on the skiable portion of the trail. But it is unclear as to what Gale considered a “skiable portion of the trail.” At issue here was the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Any area where there is snow is likely to be considered by some people as “skiable,” or able to be skied on-even areas that are not expected to be skied on and areas not designed or designated for skiing. We cannot agree with the trial court that Gale’s statement, alone-and which is unsupported by precise measurements or other evidence-is sufficient to establish a genuine issue of disputed fact that warrants a trial. The party filing a motion for summary disposition has the initial burden of supporting its position with documentary evidence and the party opposing that motion must then establish by evidentiary materials that a genuine issue of disputed fact exists. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich. 358, 362; 547 N.W.2d 314 (1996). Defendant provided a plethora of evidence establishing that plaintiff’s decedent did not encounter and collide with the snow-making equipment on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Gale’s claim that the snow-making equipment was located on a “skiable portion of the trail” is not sufficient to establish that it was “located on a ski run,” which would give rise to a duty for defendant to mark that equipment with a caution sign or other warning device.

And most obviously in this case, if the snow-making machine at issue was, in fact, located on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come-within the contemplation of R 408.80(2), other skiers in the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade would likely have collided with-or at least seen and avoided-that equipment. There is no such evidence. The SASA imposes certain and specific duties on ski-area operators, one of which is to mark the location of snow-making equipment “located on a ski run and which extends less than 6 feet above the snow surface . . . .” Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80(2); see also MCL 408.326a(b). Clearly, snow-making equipment that is located on a ski run and which extends more than 6 feet above the snow surface need not be marked. This balancing of responsibilities recognizes that skiers are charged with exercising care for their own safety by avoiding obvious hazards they might encounter skiing down a hill, and ski-area operators are charged with providing warnings when a hazard that a skier might encounter skiing down a hill is less likely to be obvious. A ski-area operator is not charged by law with the impossible task of making its ski runs or every allegedly “skiable” area at its facility “accident proof.” Ski-area operators are not absolute insurers of safety, particularly with regard to those skiers who intentionally or inadvertently ski off the path or route expected to be used for skiing down a particular hill. This conclusion is consistent with the SASA’s purpose of “promoting safety, reducing litigation and stabilizing the economic conditions in the ski resort industry,” Grieb v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 155 Mich.App. 484, 487; 400 N.W.2d 653 (1986), while at the same time ensures that ski-area operators stay vigilant and responsible for providing reasonably safe skiing conditions in the areas their patrons are invited, and expected, to ski.

In this case, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition because defendant had no duty under the SASA to mark the location of the snow-making equipment that plaintiff’s decedent collided with, allegedly causing his fatal injuries. There is no genuine issue of fact that the snow-making equipment was not located on the ski run, i.e., the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s decision. This matter is remanded to the trial court for entry of an order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and dismissing this case.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

———

Notes:

[1]
Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered September 1, 2021 (Docket No. 357849).

[2] To the extent plaintiff argues that it was the snow-making operations that must be on the ski run and not the snow-making equipment itself, we reject that argument as inconsistent with the plain language of MCL 408.326a(b) and R 408.80(2).

[3] Although not binding precedent, a court may consider unpublished opinions for their instructive or persuasive value. Cox v Hartman, 322 Mich.App. 292, 307; 911 N.W.2d 219 (2017).

———


Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

Round v. Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC (Mich. App. 2022)

CHERYLE A. ROUND, as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF CHARLES R. ROUND, Plaintiff/Counterdefendant-Appellee,
v.
TRINIDAD RESORT & CLUB, LLC,Defendant/Counterplaintiff-Appellant.

No. 357849

Court of Appeals of Michigan

September 15, 2022

UNPUBLISHED

Antrim County Circuit Court LC No. 20-009218-NO

Before: Cavanagh, P.J., and Garrett and Yates, JJ.

Per Curiam

Defendant appeals by leave granted[1] an order denying its motion for summary disposition which asserted that it was entitled to immunity under Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., because plaintiff could not demonstrate noncompliance with a statutory duty; the snow-making equipment that plaintiff’s decedent collided with was not located on the ski run so a warning sign was not required. We agree and reverse.

On December 21, 2019, plaintiff’s decedent, Charles R. Round, died after allegedly sustaining fatal injuries when he collided with snow-making equipment at Schuss Mountain, a ski area owned and operated by defendant. At the time, Round was participating in an event called the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade whereby volunteer skiers ski down an unlit hill-known as Kingdom Come-at night while carrying lighted torches, eventually getting to the bottom of the hill to light the ski resort’s Christmas tree. Round was leading the parade of skiers-as he had for several years-when he suddenly veered to his left and skied beyond the edge of the ski run. A ski lift was located on the edge of the ski run and, underneath the ski lift, were four permanent snow-making machines installed at various points up the hill. At about the half-way point of the ski hill, Round crossed into this area, collided with a snow-making machine, and sustained severe injuries that proved fatal.

On June 24, 2020, Round’s wife, Cheryle A. Round, filed this negligence action, alleging that defendant failed to comply with duties imposed under the SASA, including by:

a. Failing to ensure that the snow-making equipment was properly marked or plainly visible to skiers;

b. Failing to properly light the ski area during the event;

c. Failing to mark the snow-making machine with a visible sign or other warning device to warn approaching skiers;

d. Failing to construct or maintain physical barriers to prevent skiers from colliding with the snow-making machine; and

e. Failing to install protective padding around the snow-making machine to prevent serious injuries from collisions.

In response to plaintiff’s complaint, defendant asserted affirmative defenses, including that it was immune and plaintiff’s claim was barred by the SASA. Defendant also filed a counterclaim alleging breach of contract, indemnification, and other claims based on the release Round had signed.

On November 2, 2020, plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(9) and (C)(10) as to defendant’s defense of immunity under the SASA. Plaintiff argued that her decedent collided with a snow-making machine that was neither properly marked nor plainly visible during the nighttime event; thus, the SASA did not presume-as set forth under MCL 408.342(2)-that her decedent assumed the risk of being injured in this situation. Defendant responded to plaintiff’s motion arguing, in relevant part, that plaintiff’s decedent assumed the risk of skiing in the event and signed a release to that effect. But, further, defendant owed no duty to mark or make plainly visible the snow-making machine at issue because it was 10 feet tall and was not located on the ski run.

On January 4, 2021, the trial court rendered its decision and order granting plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition holding, in relevant part, that “the injury causing hazard (e.g. the snow-making equipment) was neither properly marked nor plainly visible, [and thus], the Decedent cannot be said to have assumed the inherent risk of the hazard and recovery is not precluded by SASA.”

Defendant filed its application for leave to appeal the trial court’s order which was denied “for failure to persuade the Court of the need for immediate appellate review.” See Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered May 18, 2021 (Docket No. 356123).

On April 27, 2021, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8), and (C)(10), arguing that defendant strictly complied with its duties mandated by the SASA. And contrary to plaintiff’s claims, defendant had no duty under the SASA to light, mark, or pad the snow-making machine at issue because it is undisputed that (1) the ski run was not open to the public when plaintiff’s decedent was fatally injured, (2) the snow-making machine extended more than six feet above the snow surface; it was ten feet above the snow surface, and (3) the snow-making machine was located off of the ski run; it was nine feet away from the groomed edge of the ski run known as Kingdom Come. Moreover, plaintiff’s decedent breached his duties under the SASA to “maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.” MCL 408.341(1). The video evidence showed that plaintiff’s decedent abruptly departed from the ski run without effort to correct his course before striking the snow-making machine. Defendant supported its motion with numerous exhibits, including deposition testimony transcripts, affidavits, an incident report, and photographs.

Plaintiff responded to defendant’s motion for summary disposition arguing, in relevant part, that the trial court already decided that plaintiff’s decedent did not assume the risk in this case, and thus, defendant was not entitled to immunity under the SASA. Further, plaintiff argued, (1) the ski run was open to the public when this incident occurred, (2) the snow-making machine was less than 6 feet above the snow surface when plaintiff’s expert, Stanley Gale, performed a site visit on March 6, 2021, and (3) the snow-making machine was located on the skiable portion of the trail, as Gale also determined, but, in any case, “it is the snow-making operations that must be located on the ski run-not the snow-making equipment itself.” Plaintiff supported her response with exhibits, including Gale’s investigative report.

Defendant replied to plaintiff’s response to its motion for summary disposition, arguing that (1) the ski run was not open to the public at the time of the accident, a fact supported by the deposition testimony of witnesses, the incident report, and even the deposition testimony of plaintiff’s purported expert, Stanley Gale; (2) the snow-making machine extended more than six feet above the snow surface at the time of the accident and Gale’s measurement using only his ski to gauge the distance more than one year after the accident was incompetent to refute defendant’s evidence; and (3) the snow-making machine was not located on the ski run, as even plaintiff’s decedent’s wife, son, and daughter admitted, and as testified to by other witnesses. Defendant supported its response with exhibits, including deposition testimony transcripts.

On June 1, 2021, the trial court heard oral argument on defendant’s motion and the parties argued consistently with their briefs. On June 27, 2021, the trial court entered an order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition, holding that (1) whether the ski run was open to the public at the time of the accident is irrelevant but, in any case, was a question of fact for the jury considering that not just employees participated in the event; (2) whether the height of the snow-making machine at issue was six feet above the snow surface was a question of fact for the jury because plaintiff’s expert found it to be less than six feet and the machine had been manipulated; and (3) whether the snow-making equipment was located on the ski run was a question of fact for the jury because plaintiff’s expert stated that it was on a skiable portion of the trail. The court did not address defendant’s claim that plaintiff’s decedent breached his duties under MCL 408.341(1) of the SASA to “maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.” Accordingly, the court concluded that genuine issues of material fact existed that must be decided by a jury, and thus, defendant’s motion was denied.

On July 16, 2021, defendant filed its application for leave to appeal arguing that preemptory reversal was required but, at minimum, leave to appeal should be granted. The snow-making equipment at issue in this case was not located on a ski run, and thus, defendant owed no duty to mark the snow-making equipment and cannot be held liable for plaintiff decedent’s accident. This Court granted leave to appeal. Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered September 1, 2021 (Docket No. 357849). On November 8, 2021, while this appeal was pending, plaintiff filed a motion to affirm which this Court denied. Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered November 24, 2021 (Docket No. 357849).

On appeal, defendant argues that it was entitled to summary disposition because the snow-making equipment at issue was not located on a ski run; thus, defendant had no duty to place a warning sign on that equipment and defendant cannot be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident. We agree.

A trial court’s decision on a motion for summary disposition is reviewed de novo. Hughes v Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 277 Mich.App. 268, 273; 744 N.W.2d 10 (2007). Defendant’s motion for summary disposition was brought under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (immunity), (C)(8) (failure to state a claim), and (C)(10) (no material factual issue), but was supported by numerous exhibits. Although the trial court did not indicate under which subrule it denied defendant’s motion, the court considered matters outside of the pleadings and so we review the motion as having been denied under MCR 2.116(C)(10). See id.; see also Patterson v Kleiman, 447 Mich. 429, 434; 526 N.W.2d 879 (1994).

Further, issues of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, Inc, 469 Mich. 20, 23; 664 N.W.2d 756 (2003). Our purpose in reviewing questions of statutory construction is to discern and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. Echelon Homes, LLC v Carter Lumber Co, 472 Mich. 192, 196; 694 N.W.2d 544 (2005). Our analysis begins by examining the plain language of the statute; if the language is unambiguous, no judicial construction is required or permitted and the statute must be enforced as written, giving its words their plain and ordinary meaning. Id. (citation omitted).

The SASA was enacted in 1962 “in an effort to provide some immunity for ski-area operators from personal-injury suits by injured skiers.” Anderson, 469 Mich. at 23. It delineates duties applicable to ski-area operators and to skiers. As to the duties imposed on skiers, and their acceptance of the associated risks of skiing, MCL 408.342 of the SASA provides, in part:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare sports; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

This provision has been referred to as an “assumption-of-risk provision,” and means that a skier has assumed the risk of being injured by these and similar dangers as inherent in the sport of skiing. Rusnak v Walker, 273 Mich.App. 299, 301, 304; 729 N.W.2d 542 (2007). Thus, when a skier’s injury arises from one of these dangers considered to be inherent in the sport of skiing, the ski-area operator is immune from liability unless the ski-area operator violated a specific duty imposed by the SASA that resulted in injury. Id. at 304-305, 313-314; see also Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich.App. 731, 742-744; 613 N.W.2d 383 (2000).

Relevant to this case is the immunity related to snow-making equipment. Under MCL 408.342(2), ski-area operators are immune from liability for collisions with snow-making equipment, if that equipment is “properly marked or plainly visible.” Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary disposition which addressed SASA’s immunity provision, MCL 408.342(2). Specifically, plaintiff argued that defendant was not entitled to immunity because plaintiff’s decedent did not assume the risk of skiing into the unmarked and not plainly visible snow-making equipment at issue in this case. The trial court agreed and granted plaintiff’s motion, holding that the snow-making equipment was neither properly marked nor plainly visible, and thus, plaintiff’s decedent cannot be charged with assuming this risk as inherent in the sport of skiing so liability was not precluded under the SASA.

Thereafter, defendant filed the motion for summary disposition at issue here, arguing that the snow-making equipment at issue in this case actually did not have to be “properly marked or plainly visible” because it was not on the ski run; rather, plaintiff’s decedent skied off of the ski run and into an area that was not meant for skiing where he collided with the snow-making equipment. In other words, defendant argued that it breached no duty imposed by the SASA with regard to the snow-making equipment, and thus, could not be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident.

The duty provision pertaining to snow-making equipment is codified in MCL 408.326a(b) and Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80(2). These provisions address the issue that was not decided by plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition, i.e., whether defendant, as the ski-area operator, had a duty to mark the snow-making equipment in this case. If SASA did not require marking this equipment with a warning sign or other device, defendant did not breach any statutory duty to plaintiff and summary disposition in favor of defendant would be appropriate.

MCL 408.326a provides in relevant part:

Each ski area operator shall, with respect to operation of a ski area, do all of the following:

* * *

(b) Mark with a visible sign or other warning device the location of any hydrant or similar fixture or equipment used in snow-making operations located on a ski run, as prescribed by rules promulgated [by the Ski Area Safety Board].

The corresponding administrative rule, Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80, prescribes the conditions under which snow-making equipment must be marked, stating:

(1) When a ski run, slope, or trail is open to the public, the ski area operator shall mark snowmaking devices as stated in this rule.

(2) A ski area operator shall mark the location of any hydrant, snow gun, or similar fixture or equipment which is used in snowmaking operations located on a ski run and which extends less than 6 feet above the snow surface with a caution sign that has contrasting colors. An orange marking disc, with a minimum diameter of 8 inches, may be used as a caution sign. One sign is adequate for all devices within an area 3 feet on either side of the sign and 10 feet in the downhill direction of the ski run from the sign.

The dispositive issue here is whether the snow-making equipment at issue was “located on a ski run,” as set forth in MCL 408.326a(b) and R 408.80(2).[2] We conclude that it was not. Accordingly, defendant was not in violation of the SASA, and thus, could not be held liable for plaintiff’s decedent’s accident.

The SASA does not define the phrase “ski run.” When a statute does not define a term, it is construed in accordance with its ordinary and generally accepted meaning. Popma v Auto Club Ins Ass’n, 446 Mich. 460, 470; 521 N.W.2d 831 (1994). At minimum, the plain meaning of the phrase “ski run” for purposes of the SASA must include a path or route expected to be used for skiing down a hill. Indeed, ski runs are named, designed, constructed, groomed, and designated as the route skiers are to use for skiing down a particular hill. As this Court similarly noted in Rhoda v O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued March 24, 2016 (Docket No. 321363), unpub op at 8: “Although the SASA does not define the terms ‘run,’ ‘slope’ or ‘trail,’ the plain, ordinary and common meanings of these terms encompass the paths a skier or snowboarder takes to get down a hill, including those paths designed and constructed by the ski operator for precisely that purpose.”[3]

In this case, no genuine issue of material fact exists-the snow-making equipment at issue was not located on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. The evidence presented by defendant in support of its argument included deposition testimony from witnesses. Plaintiff admitted during her deposition that she saw a video taken the night of the accident and she saw that her decedent actually veered the wrong way before striking the equipment-that had been in the same place for years-which was located off of the ski trail. Rick Van Tongeren, the snow sports school manager at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he watched a video taken the night of the incident and plaintiff’s decedent was skiing out of control in the wrong direction, i.e., not on the expected path, and was skiing very fast before the accident.

Mike Moreen, the director of the ski patrol at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade and was at the back of the lineup when he received a radio call from Fred Hunt that ski patrol was needed “skier’s left off of ski run about halfway down the hill.” When Moreen arrived to help Round, he saw that Round was “in a difficult location down off of the skiing surface, underneath the snow gun, underneath the structure, the stanchion of the snow gun . . . .” Moreen noted that they were “in deep snow” and “were off of the skiing surface quite a ways, several feet.” Round was down an embankment; about 10 to 15 feet away. And after they got Round on the toboggan to remove him from the accident site, “it probably took four or five repetitions to get him from the snow gun up to the skiing surface.”

Mark Durance, a member of the ski patrol at the Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade and was the second person from the last in the lineup. When the radio call came in, Durance followed Moreen to the accident site. Round was located about “ten feet or so off the ski run so it’s not a run.” Durance could not really determine Round’s condition “because he was so far off the existing run” that he could barely make observations. Ted Ewald, a ski instructor at Shanty Creek Resort, testified that he was skiing in the parade about 10 people from the front and he saw that “somebody went into the woods . . . .” But he did not see precisely what happened, the actual event; “I saw something in the woods when I skied by there.”

The evidence presented by defendant in support of its motion for summary disposition also included an incident report. The incident report included witness statements. One witness, Michael Casey, who was the third person from the front skiing in the parade, reported that he saw that Round-who was the leader of the parade-at one point seemed to be a lot further away than he should have been, indicating increased speed. He then saw Round “go off the ski hill into the woods.”

The incident report included a drawing of the snow-making machine at issue and depicted measurements taken the day after the accident. The drawing shows that the snow-making machine was located nine feet from the groomed trail; the machine sat between the groomed trail and trees, i.e., a “woods,” that was located 22 feet from the groomed trail; and the machine stood ten feet tall above the snow surface. The drafter of the drawing, Tom Murton, averred in an affidavit that he drew the diagram after the accident and the precise measurements were accurate. Murton also testified in a deposition about his investigation of the accident-including the measurements taken-that occurred the day after the accident. He testified that the snow-making equipment at issue is not part of Kingdom Come’s groomed ski surface or the ski run itself and had been in the same location permanently since at least the mid-1990s when he began working there. Photographs were also submitted in support of defendant’s motion for summary disposition and they show the scene of the accident, including the snow-making machine at issue, and it is clear that the machine was very close to the wooded area and not on the ski run known as Kingdom Come.

In opposition to defendant’s claim that it had no duty to mark the snow-making equipment at issue in this case because it was “not located on a ski run,” plaintiff argued that the machine was located on a skiable portion of the trail. Plaintiff supported that argument with a report from her purported expert, Gale, which stated that the snow-making machine was located on the skiable portion of the trail. But it is unclear as to what Gale considered a “skiable portion of the trail.” At issue here was the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Any area where there is snow is likely to be considered by some people as “skiable,” or able to be skied on-even areas that are not expected to be skied on and areas not designed or designated for skiing. We cannot agree with the trial court that Gale’s statement, alone-and which is unsupported by precise measurements or other evidence-is sufficient to establish a genuine issue of disputed fact that warrants a trial. The party filing a motion for summary disposition has the initial burden of supporting its position with documentary evidence and the party opposing that motion must then establish by evidentiary materials that a genuine issue of disputed fact exists. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich. 358, 362; 547 N.W.2d 314 (1996). Defendant provided a plethora of evidence establishing that plaintiff’s decedent did not encounter and collide with the snow-making equipment on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Gale’s claim that the snow-making equipment was located on a “skiable portion of the trail” is not sufficient to establish that it was “located on a ski run,” which would give rise to a duty for defendant to mark that equipment with a caution sign or other warning device.

And most obviously in this case, if the snow-making machine at issue was, in fact, located on the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come-within the contemplation of R 408.80(2), other skiers in the Tannenbaum Blitzen parade would likely have collided with-or at least seen and avoided-that equipment. There is no such evidence. The SASA imposes certain and specific duties on ski-area operators, one of which is to mark the location of snow-making equipment “located on a ski run and which extends less than 6 feet above the snow surface . . . .” Mich. Admin Code, R 408.80(2); see also MCL 408.326a(b). Clearly, snow-making equipment that is located on a ski run and which extends more than 6 feet above the snow surface need not be marked. This balancing of responsibilities recognizes that skiers are charged with exercising care for their own safety by avoiding obvious hazards they might encounter skiing down a hill, and ski-area operators are charged with providing warnings when a hazard that a skier might encounter skiing down a hill is less likely to be obvious. A ski-area operator is not charged by law with the impossible task of making its ski runs or every allegedly “skiable” area at its facility “accident proof.” Ski-area operators are not absolute insurers of safety, particularly with regard to those skiers who intentionally or inadvertently ski off the path or route expected to be used for skiing down a particular hill. This conclusion is consistent with the SASA’s purpose of “promoting safety, reducing litigation and stabilizing the economic conditions in the ski resort industry,” Grieb v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 155 Mich.App. 484, 487; 400 N.W.2d 653 (1986), while at the same time ensures that ski-area operators stay vigilant and responsible for providing reasonably safe skiing conditions in the areas their patrons are invited, and expected, to ski.

In this case, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition because defendant had no duty under the SASA to mark the location of the snow-making equipment that plaintiff’s decedent collided with, allegedly causing his fatal injuries. There is no genuine issue of fact that the snow-making equipment was not located on the ski run, i.e., the path or route expected to be used for skiing down Kingdom Come. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s decision. This matter is remanded to the trial court for entry of an order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and dismissing this case.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

———

Notes:

[1]
Round v Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered September 1, 2021 (Docket No. 357849).

[2] To the extent plaintiff argues that it was the snow-making operations that must be on the ski run and not the snow-making equipment itself, we reject that argument as inconsistent with the plain language of MCL 408.326a(b) and R 408.80(2).

[3] Although not binding precedent, a court may consider unpublished opinions for their instructive or persuasive value. Cox v Hartman, 322 Mich.App. 292, 307; 911 N.W.2d 219 (2017).

———


New Jersey Federal District Court decision attempts to narrow New Jersey law on releases by restricting the scope of the release.

NJ only allows releases to be interpreted narrowly and can only cover one issue.

Martin v. Hudson Farm Club, Inc. (D. N.J. 2021)

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: David Martin and Luisa Martin

Defendant: Hudson Farm Club, Inc.; Lukas Sparling; and Griffin & Howe, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Not stated specifically, obviously negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2021

Summary

The New Jersey appellate court found a release was void because it was written to cover a shooing event and NJ law does not allow releases to be interpreted broadly to cover the injury the plaintiff suffered, falling out of a trailer.

Facts

On September 19, 2017, Martin participated in a charitable clay shooting event at HFC in Andover, New Jersey. Upon arriving at HFC, Martin signed a Release and Hold Harmless Agreement (the “Release“), which consists of three “Sections” on a single page. (

The clay shooting event had multiple starting stations at which the charity participants would begin their shooting activities. While the charity participants at certain locations walked to those locations, others-including Martin- were transported to their starting location in wagons pulled by vehicles. Defendant Sparling drove the vehicle which pulled the wagon in which Martin rode. In route to the station, the tractor ascended an incline and, during the ascent, the vehicle stalled. While Sparling engaged the vehicles’ brakes, the vehicle and attached wagon began skidding backwards. Martin at some point during the descent leapt from the wagon and suffered injuries as a result.

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

The decision by the trial court came on a Motion for Summary Judgement. This case was brought in the Federal court system where decisions of the trial court are reported. State courts do not report decisions until they have been appealed to the appellate courts above the trial courts. Consequently, decisions by trial courts in the Federal system should be understood to be trial court decisions and in cases like these federal judges interpreting state law.

The defendant in this case filed a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the case based on the release. This decision then is based solely on the paperwork presented to the court without a trail or evidentiary hearings.

To start there were some evidentiary issues that the court pointed out as the plaintiff tried to wiggle out of prior sworn testimony. The plaintiff testified under oath at his deposition. After a deposition, you have the right to correct mistakes made by the court reporter during the deposition. A lot of time a lot of corrections are made to clean up testimony. In this case, fighting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff filed affidavits, sworn statements, there were contrary to his sworn testimony during his deposition.

At best, the testimony made during a deposition is used a trial to make the deponent look bad. The person on the stand says he saw ABC, and the opposing attorney asks if he remembers being deposed, and if he remembers stating he says XYZ. Either the person on the stand looks like a liar or wiggles he way out of the mess.

Here the judge just noticed the issue.

There can be no dispute that the Martin Affidavit attests to certain facts that are contrary to those which he testified under oath in prior sworn testimony. Martin’s deposition testimony clearly evidenced that he did not read the Release prior to signing the document…

Later, the judge closed the door on the plaintiff’s attempt to play the system by being deposed and stating one thing and then trying to change those sworn statements by providing affidavits that stated differently.

Martin cannot now-well after discovery closed and nearly two and half years after he was deposed-contradict his own testimony to give rise to a dispute of material fact in connection with the Parties’ competing motions. This is plainly improper, and the affidavit will be set aside as a sham affidavit.

The court then went into whether the release was valid under New Jersey law. New Jersey has a plain language statute, Plain Language Review Act (“PLRA”), N.J.S.A. 56:12, that applies to all consumer contracts. The statute has six factors the court must review to make sure the consumer contract does not violate the statute.

The statute sets forth six non-exclusive factors that a court “may consider” in its determination of whether a consumer contract is “clear, understandable and easily readable, ” including:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

The court found, other than the font size, that the release did not violate the plain language statute. However, the court found that since the plaintiff admitted he never read the release; the size of the font could not have any bearing on the legal issues.

New Jersey has a four-point test the release must meet to be valid.

…will be enforced if (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

The court started out reviewing why releases in these cases are such a problem in American law. US law in all fifty states requires business owners to keep their premises safe for their guests. Safe does not mean the elimination of the inherent risk of entering into a business or the open and obvious risk upon entering the premises. Nor is the business owner liable beyond the “ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.”

A release, therefore, waives the duties of a business owner to keep the premises safe. That bothers most courts hence you get the line “reviewed with enhanced scrutiny,” “views such exculpatory releases with disfavor,” “looked upon unfavorably” or “subject to close judicial scrutiny.” These are legal terms of art used to identify this chasm in the legal field. The duty of a business owner to keep the premises safe and ability for two parties to freely contract.

In this case, this issue allowed the court to look at the release only as to the risky activity, not broadly for any injury that could befall the plaintiff. As such, the release was for injury for engaging in shooting sports, not for riding on a trailer. The release is not reviewed broadly in New Jersey, thus the injury the plaintiff suffered since it was not from engaging in a shooting sports activity, was not covered.

By contrast, New Jersey courts will set aside exculpatory clauses where a potential claim arises from an activity that is not squarely within the ambit of the risky activity offered by an establishment.

The court further divided the risks in its analysis.

Here, the “inherent risky nature” of Defendants’ firearm business was immaterial to the injury Martin suffered. Martin’s injury occurred while he was being transported in a tractor-pulled wagon to his starting shooting location. The Release, while clearly referring to various elements of using a firearm-such as the “rental, instruction, [or] use . . . of firearms” and “discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition”- does not self-evidently concern transportation while on the property.

The court then went on and held that were so disputed material facts, facts that can only be decided by a jury, that summary judgement could not be granted. This issue came back to whether or not the plaintiff had time to review the release before signing.

The court then circled back around to the “time to sign” issues. The plaintiff stated:

However, Plaintiffs contend that Martin had a limited opportunity to review and consider the Release prior to assenting to its terms. When asked at his deposition why he failed to read the Release, Martin testified that “there was about twenty people in line behind me, and we were a press for time to get the events started.

The court felt that this situation created “procedural unconscionability” if the plaintiff felt rushed to sign the release. If a release is unconscionable, then it is void in New Jersey. This is the fourth test to determine if a release is valid under New Jersey law.

A long appellate court opinion to determine two legal arguments as to why a release would not stop the claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

New Jersey is sliding into one of those states where releases are difficult to write. Over a decade ago the court held a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue, and this decision is following down the path of narrowing what a release can accomplish.

The issue that is frustrating is whether or not the plaintiff had time to read the release before signing. The law consistently states if you signed the document you read the document.

To prevent this from happening in your business you should do several things. First make sure you tell everyone who may be attending your event, program or business that they must sign a release. Second, make sure you make the release available to everyone in advance. Put the release on your website and allow participants and guests to download the release in advance of attending. Third put language in the release that states the signor agrees they have had ample time to read and review the release, and they understand what they are signing and what the effects of their signing will be.

It is also interesting that after finding the release did not protect against the plaintiff’s claims because the release was too broad, it also developed the defense of unconscionability which also sent the release back to trial.

It is also interesting that because the plaintiff admitted to not reading the release, the court found this did not violate the New Jersey consumer contract law, and then later found because he said he had no time to read the release; it was improper to hold him to the release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Martin v. Hudson Farm Club, Inc. (D. N.J. 2021)

DAVID MARTIN and LUISA MARTIN, Plaintiffs,
v.
HUDSON FARM CLUB, INC.; LUKAS SPARLING; and GRIFFIN & HOWE, INC Defendants.

Civil Action No. 18-02511

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 31, 2021

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Stanley R. Chesler, United States District Judge

This matter comes before the Court on the motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants Hudson Farm Club (“HFC”) and Lukas Sparling (collectively, the “HFC Defendants”), and Defendant Griffin & Howe, Inc. (“G&H” and, collectively with the HFC Defendants, “Defendants”), respectively, as to certain affirmative defenses which Defendants have asserted, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and the motion filed by Plaintiffs David and Luisa Martin (“Plaintiffs”)[1] to strike those same affirmative defenses. As described, infra, the Court will convert Plaintiffs’ motion to strike into a competing motion for summary judgment concerning Defendants’ affirmative defenses. The Court has reviewed the papers submitted and proceeds to rule without oral argument, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment will be granted and Defendants’ motions for summary judgment will be denied.

I. Background[2]

On September 19, 2017, Martin participated in a charitable clay shooting event at HFC in Andover, New Jersey. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 1, 22-23; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 1; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 1.) Upon arriving at HFC, Martin signed a Release and Hold Harmless Agreement (the “Release”), which consists of three “Sections” on a single page. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 2; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 8; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 2.) Section I of the Release reads:

I HAVE BEEN ADVISED THAT THE RECREATIONAL USE OF FIREARMS IS AN INHERENTLY DANGEROUS ACTIVIT WHICH CAN AND DOES RESULT IN SERIOUS BODILY INJURY AND/OR DEATH ESPECIALLY IF SAFETY RULES ARE NOT OBEYED

In return for the use of the premises and equipment, I agree to indemnify, hold harmless and defend [G&H], [HFC] and [non-party] IAT Reinsurance Company Ltd. and its instructors, employees, directors, officers, agents, representatives, heirs, successors, and assigns from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, personal injury (including death), damages, costs, and expenses (including attorney’s fees), arising out of, related to, or connected with the rental of a firearm, instruction, use or discharge of firearms. I hereby further agree, on behalf of myself, executors and assigns, that I will not make any claim or institute any suit or action at law or in equity against [G&H], [HFC] and IAT Reinsurance Company Ltd. Related [sic] directly or indirectly to my use of the firearm referenced in this document or from my use or participation in any activity on this property. I expressly assume the risk of taking part in the activities on the premises, which include the discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition.

Section II is entitled “FIREARM RENTAL USE” and requires that the signatory attest that they are “not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3, ” concerning the purchase of firearms, and further requires that the signatory certify to other statements relevant to the individual’s rental of a firearm.[3] Section III is entitled “CONSENT FOR USE OF LIKENESS.” While Sections I and II bear Martin’s signature, Section III does not.

By his signature to Section I of the Release, Martin acknowledged that “[he] carefully read this agreement and fully underst[ood] its contents, ” (ii) that he was aware that the Release was an important legal document, and (iii) that he intended to be “fully bound by it.” (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶ 16; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 9; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 4.) Notwithstanding this, Martin testified that he signed the Release without reading it.[4] (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 5; Martin Dep. Tr. at 44:3-25.)

The clay shooting event had multiple starting stations at which the charity participants would begin their shooting activities. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 2; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 6.) While the charity participants at certain locations walked to those locations, others-including Martin- were transported to their starting location in wagons pulled by vehicles. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 26; HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 6.) Defendant Sparling drove the vehicle which pulled the wagon in which Martin rode. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 3; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 8.) In route to the station, the tractor ascended an incline and, during the ascent, the vehicle stalled. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10-11; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 9.) While Sparling engaged the vehicles’ brakes, the vehicle and attached wagon began skidding backwards. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 4; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 9.) Martin at some point during the descent leapt from the wagon and suffered injuries as a result. (HFC 56.1 Statement ¶ 5; G&H 56.1 Statement ¶ 10.)

II. Discussion

Defendants bring their motions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 seeking summary judgment as to their respective affirmative defenses of release and waiver as a result of the Release, while Plaintiffs’ motion is styled as a motion to strike those affirmative defenses. Notwithstanding that the Parties have pursued motions under different rules, those motions concern solely the validity of the Release.[5]

Rule 12(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, concerning a motion to strike, allows this Court to strike “any insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter” in a pleading. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). However, a motion to strike may be treated as a motion for partial summary judgment under Rule 56(d) when facts outside the pleadings are offered. See, e.g., United States v. Manzo, 182 F.Supp.2d 385, 395 n.6 (D.N.J. 2000) (“Because both parties refer to matters outside the pleadings and for the sake of consistency and clarity, the Court will generally treat the motion to strike as a motion for summary judgment.”); see also 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1380, at 647 (“[S]ome courts, when faced with affidavits on a Rule 12(f) motion to strike a defense, have treated the motion to strike as one for partial summary judgment.”).

In addition to the Parties’ initial submissions indicating their apparent understanding that they intended the Court to consider their motions on the evidentiary record established over the past three and a half years, the Court on October 1, 2021 ordered that the Parties comply with Rule 56(a) in setting forth that evidentiary record. In light of the facts presented in the various Rule 56.1 Statements and declarations and in consideration of the arguments set forth in the voluminous briefing before the Court, it makes little sense to treat Plaintiffs’ motion as a Rule 12(f) motion to strike a defense. Here, seeing no prejudice to Plaintiffs who have briefed the issue sufficiently and had the opportunity to proffer evidence in support of their arguments, the Court will exercise its discretion and consider Defendant’s Rule 12(f) motion to strike as a Rule 56(a) motion for partial summary judgment.

In evaluating the competing motions, the Court applies the well-established legal standard for summary judgment. Rule 56(a) provides that a “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (construing the similarly worded Rule 56(c), predecessor to the current summary judgment standard set forth in Rule 56(a)). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant, and it is material if, under the substantive law, it would affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court “must view the evidence ‘in the light most favorable to the opposing party.'” Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). It may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding same).

A. The Evidentiary Record Properly Before the Court.

Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party must establish the existence of a genuine issue as to a material fact to defeat the motion. Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co. v. Lacey Twp., 772 F.2d 1103, 1109 (3d Cir. 1985). To create a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party must come forward with sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial. Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001), overruled on other grounds by Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Cent. Pension Fund of the Int’l Union of Operating Eng’rs and Participating Emp’rs, 134 S.Ct. 773 (2014). The party opposing a motion for summary judgment cannot rest on mere allegations; instead, it must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990) (holding that “unsupported allegations in [a] memorandum and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment”).

1. The Court Will Disregard Plaintiffs’ Responses to Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements in Support of Defendants’ Respective Motions for Summary Judgement.

Rule 56(c)(1) expressly requires a party who asserts that a fact is genuinely disputed to support that assertion by:

(A) 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; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). If the non-movant fails to “properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party’s assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). In the District of New Jersey, Local Civil Rule 56.1 imposes an additional requirement on both movants and non-movants related to summary judgment motions. The party moving for summary judgment must file a statement which lists, in separately numbered paragraphs, material facts the movant asserts are not in dispute, with citations to the specific portions of the record supporting those factual assertions. In turn, the party opposing summary judgment “shall furnish, with its opposition papers, a responsive statement of material facts, addressing each paragraph of the movant’s statement, indicating agreement or disagreement and, if not agreed, stating each material fact in dispute and citing to the affidavits and other documents submitted in connection with the motion.” L. Civ. R. 56.1(a). Indeed, the local rule warns that “any material fact not disputed [in such a responsive statement] shall be deemed undisputed for purposes of the summary judgment motion.” Id.

On August 23, 2021, in connection with Plaintiffs’ Motion (ECF No. 124), Plaintiffs submitted, among other things, the certification of their counsel, Howard R. Engle. (ECF Nos. 124-1; 124-3.) Mr. Engle’s certification, which purported to be factual in nature, consisted of (i) facts not within his personal knowledge, (ii) legal arguments, and (iii) conclusions of law. (ECF No. 124-1.) Furthermore, in connection with Plaintiffs’ September 15, 2021 opposition to Defendants’ respective motions, Plaintiffs submitted “Certification[s] and Statement[s] of Undisputed Facts” by Mr. Engle. (ECF Nos. 129-1; 130-1.) These documents were far from the “responsive statement[s] of material facts” required pursuant to Local Rule 56.1(a).[6] Rather than “indicating agreement or disagreement” with “each paragraph” of Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements as required by the Rules, Plaintiffs proceeded to set forth dozens of their own purportedly “undisputed material facts.”[7] In light of these procedural improprieties, on October 1, 2021, the Court struck certain certifications which Plaintiffs submitted in support of their Motion and in Opposition to Defendants Motions and, to establish an orderly recounting of the material facts, ordered that Plaintiffs file: (i) a statement of material facts not in dispute in support of their motion, pursuant to Local Rule 56.1(a) and (ii) proper statements of material facts not in dispute in response to those submitted by Defendants in support of their respective motions. (ECF No. 138).

While Plaintiffs complied with the command to submit a Rule 56.1 statement in support of their motion, they again failed to submit responses to Defendants’ respective Rule 56.1 statements in a manner which complied with the Rules. Instead of making a submission consistent with the Rules, Plaintiffs again submitted statements of purported facts that are unmoored from and unresponsive to those statements which Defendants submitted. Plaintiffs have now twice failed to comply with Rule of Federal Civil Procedure 56.1 and Local Rule 56.1-including after the Court’s express order that Plaintiffs do so-by failing to address, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, the material facts as set forth in the Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements. Plaintiffs have provided no explanation for their repeated and continued violation of the Rules.

However, Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement in support of their motion-which Plaintiffs submitted pursuant to the Court’s October 1 Order-is sufficiently in conformance with Rule 56.1 to allow the Court to consider it in the evidentiary record. Accordingly, the Court will disregard their responses and will consider Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements in support of their respective motions as undisputed, except to the extent which Defendants’ Rule 56.1 Statements may be tension with Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement.

2. Martin’s September 16, 2021 Affidavit Will Be Set Aside Under the Sham Affidavit Doctrine.

In connection with the instant motions, Martin submits an affidavit (ECF Nos. 129-4; 130-4; 133-1; 134-1, the “Martin Affidavit”)[8] which Defendants ask the Court to set aside as a “sham affidavit” designed to defeat their motions for summary judgment. “[I]f it is clear that an affidavit is offered solely for the purpose of defeating summary judgment, it is proper for the trial judge to conclude that no reasonable jury could accord that affidavit evidentiary weight . . . .” Jiminez v. All Am. Rathskeller, Inc., 503 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (2007) (internal citations omitted). The timing of the affidavit, whether there is a plausible explanation for the contradictory statements, and whether there is independent evidence in the record supporting the affidavit, may be considered when determining whether an affidavit is a sham. See EBC, Inc. v. Clark Bldg. Sys., Inc., 618 F.3d 253, 268-69 (3d Cir. 2010).

There can be no dispute that the Martin Affidavit attests to certain facts that are contrary to those which he testified under oath in prior sworn testimony. Martin’s deposition testimony clearly evidences that he did not read the Release prior to signing the document:

[PLAINTIFFS’ COUNSEL]: Did you read it before you signed it?

[MARTIN]: No, I did not.

Q. [Counsel for HFC] Why didn’t you read it before you signed it?

A. There was about twenty people in line behind me and we were in a press for time to get the events started.

Q. So you didn’t know what you were signing? –

A. At the time I did not know what I was signing and until I just read it just now, I didn’t know what I signed.

Q. You always sign things without knowing what you signed?

A. From time to time apparently, yes.

Q. Well in this – –

A. In this instance, yes, I did not read it.

(Martin Dep. Tr. at 44:3-25.) Martin now certifies that “he did not read the release entirely before [he signed] it” and that he “tried to read [the Release]” prior to signing the document (Martin Aff. ¶¶ 16-17). Acknowledging that this recounting of the facts is at odds with his prior testimony, Martin goes so far as to assert that “[w]hile [during the deposition] I said I did not read it, what I meant was that I couldn’t read the whole thing carefully.” (Martin Aff. ¶ 19.) He further asserts that he “was able to skim it and did read what was big enough and what I could understand.” (Martin Aff. ¶ 20.) Counsels’ questions-including that which Martin’s own counsel posed-during Martin’s deposition were perfectly clear, as were his responses. He did not equivocate in his recollection of the facts and repeated it on multiple occasions during the deposition. This is not a discrepancy which merely relates to the weight of the evidence at issue, and instead is a direct contradiction of his prior testimony. Cf. Jiminez 503 F.3d at 254 (“[C]orroborating evidence may establish that the affidavit was ‘understandably’ mistaken, confused, or not in possession of all the facts during the previous deposition.”). Martin cannot now-well after discovery closed and nearly two and half years after he was deposed-contradict his own testimony to give rise to a dispute of material fact in connection with the Parties’ competing motions. This is plainly improper, and the affidavit will be set aside as a sham affidavit.[9]

3. Plaintiffs’ Submission of an Affidavit by a Forensic Document Examiner is Improper and Will Be Set Aside.

In a similar vein, Plaintiffs submit the affidavit of John Paul Osborn, a forensic document examiner, and accompanying exhibits demonstrating Osborn’s credentials in connection with the motions. (ECF Nos. 129-3; 130-3; 133-2; 134-2, the “Osborn Affidavit”.) This too will be excluded from the Court’s consideration in resolving these motions.

Pursuant to Rule 26(a)(2), “a party must make [expert] disclosures at the times . . . that the court orders.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(2)(D). The disclosures must contain: (i) a complete statement of all opinions the witness will express and the basis and reasons for them; (ii) the facts or data considered by the witness in forming them; (iii) any exhibits that will be used to summarize or support them; (iv) the witness’s qualifications, including a list of all publications authored in the previous 10 years; (v) a list of all other cases in which, during the previous 4 years, the witness testified as an expert at trial or by deposition; and (vi) a statement of the compensation to be paid for the study and testimony in the case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(2)(B). “Expert disclosure requirements are meant to ensure the playing field remains level, to afford the opposing party an opportunity to challenge the expert’s qualifications and opinions, and to avoid undue prejudice and surprise.” Bouder v. Prudential Fin., Inc., No. CIV.A.06-4359(DMC), 2010 WL 2026707, at *2 (D.N.J. May 21, 2010). Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure further provides that “[i]f a party fails to provide information or identify a witness as required by Rule 26(a) or (e), the party is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1).

In evaluating whether a non-disclosure warrants exclusion, the Third Circuit has identified four factors to consider: “(1) the prejudice or surprise of the party against whom the excluded evidence would have been admitted; (2) the ability of the party to cure the prejudice; (3) the extent to which allowing the evidence would disrupt the orderly and efficient trial of the case or other cases in the court; and (4) bad faith or willfulness in failing to comply with a court order or discovery obligation.” Nicholas v. Pa. State Univ., 227 F.3d 133, 148 (3d Cir.2000). The party who has failed to disclose information bears the burden to show that the non-disclosure was substantially justified or is harmless. See D&D Assocs., Inc. v. Bd. of Educ. of N. Plainfield, 2006 WL 1644742, at *4 (D.N.J. June 8, 2006). Ultimately, whether to exclude evidence is left to the trial court’s discretion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1)(A)-(C); Newman v. GHS Osteopathic, Inc., 60 F.3d 153, 156 (3d Cir.1995) (“[T]he imposition of sanctions under Rule 37 is a matter within the discretion of the trial court.”).

On June 25, 2020, Magistrate Judge Waldor entered an Order which granted Defendants’ Motion to Amend/Correct the Answer to the Amended Complaint regarding Defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to the Release. (ECF No. 82.) The Order further “permit any discovery necessary to explore” the defenses. (Id. at 7.) Plaintiffs subsequently retained Osborn on February 26, 2021. (Osborn Aff. at 24.) On June 21, 2021, the Parties reported in a letter to the Court that discovery concerning the Release had been completed. (ECF No. 118.)

Plaintiffs evidently contemplated prior to the June 21 submission that Osborn may proffer a report in connection with this action, yet openly represented to the Court in the June 21 Letter that discovery was complete. Plaintiffs offer no explanation as to why the Court should entertain this untimely submission, let alone do they demonstrate why this delinquency is substantially justified or harmless.

Upon consideration of the factors which the Third Circuit outlined in Nicholas, the Court finds that exclusion of the Osborn Affidavit is warranted. This last-minute disclosure is both prejudicial and a surprise. The Osborn Affidavit was not provided until Defendants were under a deadline to prepare and file their reply brief, and Defendants have had no opportunity to cross-examine the proffered expert’s credentials and statements. Furthermore, allowing Plaintiffs to rely upon the Osborn Affidavit would interfere with the pending motions, and Defendants would be unable to cure such prejudice without the reopening of expert discovery, thus expending additional time, resources and money and further delaying resolution of the motions. See, e.g., Brooks v. Price, 121 Fed.Appx. 961, 965 (3d Cir. 2005). Whether or not Plaintiffs acted in bad faith, these factors are sufficient to warrant the exclusion of the Osborn Affidavit.[10]

B. The Release Does Not Violate the New Jersey Plain Language Review Act

New Jersey sets forth certain guidelines regarding consumer contracts-such as the Release-under the Plain Language Review Act (“PLRA”), N.J.S.A. 56:12. Section 2 of the PLRA requires that a consumer contract “shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J.S.A. 56:12-2. The PLRA is designed so that consumer contracts “use plain language that is commonly understood by the wide swath of people who comprise the consuming public.” Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Florida, Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 321 (2019). “With such protections in place . . . ‘[a] party who enters into a contract in writing, without any fraud or imposition being practiced upon him, is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect.'” Id. (citing Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353 (1992) (internal citation omitted)).

According to the PLRA, “[a] creditor, seller, insurer or lessor who fails to comply with section 2 of this act shall be liable to a consumer who is a party to the consumer contract for actual damages sustained, if the violation caused the consumer to be substantially confused about the rights, obligations or remedies of the contract . . .” N.J.S.A. 56:12-3. The statute sets forth six non-exclusive factors that a court “may consider” in its determination of whether a consumer contract is “clear, understandable and easily readable, ” including:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J.S.A. 56:12-10. Furthermore, the PLRA provides that “[c]onditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.” Id. The Court maintains broad discretion in its determination of how much consideration should be given to the factors individually and collectively. Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Plaintiffs contend that the Release runs afoul of the PLRA in numerous ways and, accordingly, that the Release must be set aside on statutory grounds. Primary among these arguments is Plaintiffs’ contention that the font size in the Release does not meet the requirement that it be “in at least 10 point type.” (Pls.’ Mot at 16.)[11] Plaintiffs further allege that the Release is in violation of the PLRA because it contains: (i) confusing cross references; (ii) sentences of greater length than necessary; (iii) sentences with double negatives and exceptions to exceptions; (iv) sentences and sections that are in confusing or illogical order; (v) the use of words with obsolete meaning or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning; (vi) sections that are not logically divided and captioned; and (vii) conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement do not have equal prominence. (Pls.’ Mot. at 17.)

Apart from Plaintiffs’ challenge to the font size found within the relevant language of the Release, Plaintiffs’ complaints amount to a mere recitation of the PLRA factors and Plaintiffs fail to establish how these other factors weigh in their favor. Indeed, upon the Court’s review of the Release, it finds that none of these elements exist within the Release.[12]

Even accepting that the font size may be smaller than the 10-point font guideline outlined in the PLRA, the waiver provision in this case is no less prominent than the remainder of the agreement: The document itself is entitled “SHOOTING SCHOOL AT HUDSON FARM – RELEASE & HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT, ” the waiver provision constitutes Section I of the Release, critical elements of the waiver provision are bolded and capitalized, and the font size of the waiver provision is similar to the font used throughout the one-page document. The fact that the font size of the relevant language may be marginally smaller than the statutory guidelines does not violate the mandate that the Release be “simple, clear, understandable and easily readable.” See, e.g., Kang v. La Fitness, 2016 WL 7476354, at *10 (D.N.J. Dec. 29, 2016) (finding the waiver provision in the relevant exculpatory clause was no less prominent than the remainder of the agreement where the font throughout the document was “about size 8”).[13]

In any event, all of Plaintiffs’ complaints are academic: Martin could not have been confused by the Release because he never read it. Inherent in any violation of the PLRA is that a contract that is not “clear, understandable and easily readable” must “cause[]” a consumer’s “substantial confusion” regarding the contents of the contract. N.J.S.A. 56:12-3 (emphasis added); see, e.g., Sauro v. L.A. Fitness Int’l, LLC, No. 12-3682, 2013 WL 97880, at *12 (D.N.J. Feb. 13, 2013) (citing Bosland v. Warnock Dodge. Inc., 396 N.J.Super. 267, 279 (App. Div. 2007), aff’d on other grounds, 197 N.J. 543 (2009)) (“New Jersey courts have held that a . . . plaintiff must allege that she was ‘substantially confused’ about the contract’s terms, as ‘substantial confusion’ is ‘a requirement of the Plain Language Act.'”). Accordingly, the Release could not have served to “substantially confuse” Plaintiff, and his challenge under the PLRA must fail as a matter of law.

C. The Release is Unenforceable Against Plaintiffs.

As a general and long-standing matter, contracting parties are afforded the liberty to bind themselves as they see fit. See Twin City Pipe Line Co. v. Harding Glass Co., 283 U.S. 353, 356 (1931); Walters v. YMCA, 437 N.J.Super. 111, 117-18 (App. Div. 2014) (“The Court must give ‘due deference to the freedom to contract and the right of competent adults to bind themselves as they see fit.'”). However, certain categories of substantive contracts, including those that contain exculpatory clauses, are disfavored and thus have been subjected to close judicial scrutiny. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 303 (2010) (citing 11 Williston on Contracts, § 30:9, at 103-04). New Jersey courts have identified four considerations pertinent to the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement, advising that such an agreement:

will be enforced if (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. at 304 (quoting Gershon, Adm’x Ad Prosequendum for Est. of Pietroluongo v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J.Super. 237, 248 (App. Div. 2004)).[14]

1. The Release is Inimical to the Public Interest as Applied to Plaintiffs’ Claims

The common law imposes a duty of care on business owners to maintain a safe premises for their business invitees because the law recognizes that an owner is in the best position to prevent harm. Id. at 306 (“[B]usiness establishments in New Jersey have well-established duties of care to patrons that come upon their premises.”). In light of this duty, “[t]he law does not favor exculpatory agreements because they encourage a lack of care.” Gershon, 368 N.J.Super. At 247. But “public policy does not demand a per se ban against enforcement of an exculpatory agreement based on the mere existence of a duty recognized in the common law in respect of premises liability.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 306. “[T]he law recognizes that for certain activities conducted by operation of some types of business, particularly those that pose inherent risks to the participant, the business entity will not be held liable for injuries sustained so long as [the business] has acted in accordance with ‘the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.'” Id. at 307 (quoting Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 340-41 (2006)). For example, “[w]hen it comes to physical activities in the nature of sports-physical exertion associated with physical training, exercise, and the like-injuries are not an unexpected, unforeseeable result of such strenuous activity.” Id.

Defendants cite Justice LaVecchia’s dissent in Hojnowski to argue that “recreational activities such as skateboarding do not implicate the public interest” and therefore clay shooting- itself a recreational activity-cannot implicate the public interest. (HFC Opp. at 14-15.) Defendants’ position would result in a per se enforcement of unbounded waivers of liability in the context of recreational activities, which is plainly contrary to New Jersey jurisprudence. As the Stelluti court acknowledged, there remains a standard for liability even in contact recreational sports. Id. at 311 (“[T]here is also a limit to the protections that a private fitness center reasonably may exact from its patrons through the mechanism of an exculpatory agreement.”). In particular, Stelluti requires that business owners be held “to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their business.” Id. at 312.

The scope of the liability that may be waived in connection with recreational activities was explored in Walters. 437 N.J.Super. 111. There, the Appellate Division considered the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement where a patron at a fitness club sued the club for personal injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell on an allegedly negligently maintained stair tread leading to club’s pool. Id. at 118-19. The hold harmless provision within the patron’s membership agreement released the club for injuries sustained by the patron “WHILE ON ANY YMWCA PREMISES OR AS A RESULT OF A YMWCA SPONSORED ACTIVITIES [SIC].” Id. at 116 (emphasis in original). In refusing to enforce the broader clause of the exculpatory agreement-concerning injuries sustained “while on any YMWCA premises”-the Appellate Division found that “if applied literally, [the clause] would eviscerate the common law duty of care owed by defendant to its invitees, regardless of the nature of the business activity involved.” Id. at 118-19. This, the Walters panel continued, “would be inimical to the public interest because it would transfer the redress of civil wrongs from the responsible tortfeasor to either the innocent injured party or to society at large, in the form of taxpayer-supported institutions.” Id. at 119. While the court refused to enforce this broader reading of the exculpatory agreement, it still proceeded to consider whether the patron’s injury fell within the ambit of the narrower exculpatory clause. Id. at 120 (finding that an accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the pool did not occur while the plaintiff was “using the pool” and thus was not a “sponsored activit[y]” covered by the exculpatory agreement.).

Similar to the waiver at issue in Walters, if the terms of the Release are applied literally- to “any activity” on the property-Defendants would be released from any claim arising while an invitee was on the property “regardless of the nature of the business activity involved.” Id. at 118- 19.[15] Such a broad waiver of liability then constitutes an exculpatory agreement that is “inimical to the public interest.” Id. at 119.

While the literal reading of the Release cannot be sustained, Defendants are free to craft a release with regard “to a standard of care congruent with the nature of their business.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 312. To that end, other exculpatory clauses within the Release are tailored to the nature of Defendants’ business insofar as they limit the release to firearm-related activities. (See Release (“In return for the use of the premises and equipment, I agree to indemnify [Defendants] from and against any and all claims . . . arising out of, related to, or connected with the rental of a firearm, instruction, use or discharge of firearms;” “I hereby further agree . . . that I will not make any claim or institute any suit . . . directly or indirectly to my use of the firearm referenced in this document . . .;” or “I expressly assume the risk of taking part in the activities on the premises, which include the discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition.”).) The question thus becomes whether Martin’s injury occurred in connection with a firearm-related activity.[16]

New Jersey courts narrowly construe exculpatory waivers in light of Stelluti‘s admonition that they are disfavored. Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 328 (“Any ambiguities in language about the scope of an exculpatory agreement’s coverage, or doubts about its enforceability, should be resolved in favor of holding a tortfeasor accountable.”). Courts will enforce an exculpatory clause where a claim is “not an unexpected, unforeseeable result of” the risky activity offered by a facility. Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 307; see, e.g., Pulice v. Green Brook Sports, 2017 WL 3013086 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. July 17, 2017) (finding a fitness club’s release enforceable as to plaintiff when a ten-pound dumbbell fell on her face as her trainer handed it to her to perform an exercise); Skarbnik v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2021 WL 3923270, at *4 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 2, 2021) (upholding fitness club’s release where plaintiff slipped on sweat immediately following a hot yoga class, because sweat on the floor “was a natural consequence” of the activity); Kyung Pak v. N.J. Fitness Factory, Inc., No. A-5084-16T2, 2018 WL 1865462, at *1 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Apr. 19, 2018) (release enforced when a fitness club employee directed plaintiff to step onto a running treadmill during an exercise class); Kang, 2016 WL 7476354, at *10 (release enforced where plaintiff injured while using a fitness machine). By contrast, New Jersey courts will set aside exculpatory clauses where a potential claim arises from an activity that is not squarely within the ambit of the risky activity offered by an establishment. See, e.g., Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 111 (accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the facility’s pool not considered a “sponsored activity” subject to the release); Crossing-Lyons v. Towns Sports Int’l, Inc., 2017 WL 2953388, at *1 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. July 11, 2017) (release inapplicable where plaintiff tripped over a weight belt left on the floor, an “incident[] that could have occurred in any business setting”); see also Martinez-Santiago v. Public Storage, 38 F.Supp.3d 500 (D.N.J. 2014) (refusing to enforce exculpatory agreement where patron sustained slip-and-fall injuries on ice on a walkway at a self-storage facility).

Defendants contend that “transportation while at HFC” constitutes an activity associated with sporting clay shooting, and the injury occurred within the scope of the Release. (E.g. HFC Mot. at 14.) In making this argument, Defendants analogize sporting clay shooting to golf, with G&H contending that transportation by way of a tractor and wagon is “similar to a golf event” insofar as it was “necessary so that the participants could stagger their starting locations. ((G&H Mot. at 6.) (“To find that attending a sporting clay event does not include transportation from one station to the next is like finding that playing golf does not start until golfers tee off, ends as soon as they retrieve their balls from the cup, and does not begin again until they tee off, and so on. Sporting clay shooting, like playing golf, includes all of the activities associated with attendance at the event, including transportation throughout the course.”).) These arguments “ignore[] the cause of the accident.” Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 120. Here, the “inherent risky nature” of Defendants’ firearm business was immaterial to the injury Martin suffered. Martin’s injury occurred while he was being transported in a tractor-pulled wagon to his starting shooting location. The Release, while clearly referring to various elements of using a firearm-such as the “rental, instruction, [or] use . . . of firearms” and “discharge of firearms and firing of live ammunition”- does not self-evidently concern transportation while on the property.[17] Much like the Appellate Division’s refusal to consider “an accident resulting from slipping on the steps leading into the pool . . . covered under the ‘activities’ part of” the release clause in Walters, Plaintiffs claims do not arise in connection with the activities involved with using a firearm. 437 N.J.Super. at 111. Instead, Plaintiffs’ claims are more akin to a “garden variety” personal injury action. Id. Accordingly, the exculpatory clause of the Release is void and unenforceable as to Plaintiffs’ claims.[18]

2. Even if the Release Applied to the Wagon Ride, Disputes Over Material Facts Would Preclude Summary Judgment.

Even if the Court accepted that transportation to the shooting range is covered under the Release, the application of the final factor relevant to the enforcement of an exculpatory clause under New Jersey law-that the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable-gives rise to a dispute of material facts. Gershon, 368 N.J.Super. at 248. “Procedural unconscionability requires examination of ‘unfairness in the formation of the contract’ while substantive unconscionability considers whether the contract’s terms are ‘excessively disproportionate.” Marcinczyk v. State of New Jersey Police Training Com’n, 406 N.J.Super. 608 (2009). In ascertaining whether a contract is unconscionable, these substantive and procedural aspects are subjected to a sliding-scale analysis. Delta Funding Corp. v. Harris, 189 N.J. 28, 40 (2006).

Plaintiffs assert that the Release is substantively unconscionable insofar as it should “shock the Court’s conscience” that “Defendants sought to release themselves from all responsibility to paying guests at their business.” (Mot. at 31.) Courts routinely uphold exculpatory releases, particularly concerning recreational activities, and Plaintiffs offer no meaningful argument as to how the Release departs from other exculpatory releases in such a manner as to shock the conscience.

Similarly, many of Plaintiffs’ arguments underlying their claim of procedural unconscionability fall flat. As previously noted, the purpose of the PLRA is to enable the courts to “confidently state that, even in the consumer context, ‘[a] party who enters into a contract in writing, without any fraud or imposition being practiced upon him, is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect.'” Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Florida, Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 321, 199 A.3d 766 (2019). Among other things, Plaintiffs argue that (i) Martin’s “lack of education and sophistication rendered him unable” to enter into the release; (ii) the Release was not negotiated personally by Martin; and (iii) he lacked representation by counsel.[19] Setting aside the impracticalities that would result if the Court accepted Plaintiffs’ arguments, Plaintiffs’ primary authority in support of these arguments, O’Brien v. Star Gas Propane, L.P., 2006 WL 2008716 (App. Div. 2006), concerning whether a union-represented employee knowingly released certain discrimination claims against his employer, does not translate to the consumer contract context.[20]

However, Plaintiffs contend that Martin had a limited opportunity to review and consider the Release prior to assenting to its terms. When asked at his deposition why he failed to read the Release, Martin testified that “there was about twenty people in line behind me and we were n a press for time to get the events started.” (Martin Dep. Tr. 44:6-10.) And, when asked whether he saw any other individual sign the Release, Martin testified that “it was very, very rushed . . . [s]o there was no time, they was like — they were like ‘we need to get to the shooting location’ . . . .” (Martin Dep. Tr. 172:14-173:2.) At this juncture, even if the Release was enforceable as to Plaintiffs’ claims, there remains a question of material fact regarding whether Martin had a meaningful opportunity to review the agreement. See Delta Funding Corp., 189 N.J. at 40 (acknowledging that plaintiff alleged facts which suggested “a high level of procedural unconscionability” where signatory was “rushed” into signing the papers); Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408, 419 (1999) (considering whether plaintiff was “rushed into signing” an agreement in determining that the agreement was unconscionable).

III. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are entitled to summary judgment regarding Defendants’ affirmative defenses of release and waiver, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). Defendants’ motions for summary judgment regarding those same affirmative defenses are denied. An appropriate Order will issue.

———

Notes:

[1] Unless otherwise specified, references to “Martin” in this Opinion concern David Martin.

[2] As relevant to the instant motions, and as discussed further infra at Section II.A, the following papers and their attendant exhibits establish the evidentiary record:

• In connection with Plaintiffs’ Motion (“Pls.’ Mot.”) (ECF No. 124), Plaintiffs submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“Pls.’ 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 139), the HFC Defendants submitted a Response to Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement (“HFC’s 56.1 Response In Opp.”) (ECF No. 143), and the G&H Defendants submitted a Response to Plaintiffs’ Rule 56.1 Statement (“G&H’s 56.1 Response In Opp.”) (ECF No. 144).

• In connection with the HFC Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“HFC Mot.”) (ECF No. 122), the HFC Defendants submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“HFC’s 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 122-2).

• In connection with the G&H Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“G&H Mot.”) (ECF No. 123), the G&H Defendants submitted a Rule 56.1 Statement (“G&H’s 56.1 Statement”) (ECF No. 123-2).

[3] These include, among other things, that a signatory certify that he or she (1) has “never been convicted of a crime, ” (2) has “not consumed alcohol in the last 12 hours and [is] not under the influence of any prescription or other drug or substance that would affect my ability to safely handle a firearm, ” and (3) “know[s] of no reason(s) why [their] possession of a firearm would not be in the interest of public health, safety, or welfare.”

[4] In connection with the instant motions, Martin submits an affidavit attesting that he did in fact read the release. (See Affidavit of David Martin (ECF No. 129-4) ¶¶ 16-20). For the reasons discussed, infra at II.A.2, the affidavit and all attendant facts will be set aside as a sham affidavit.

[5] On July 1, 2021, Magistrate Judge Waldor adopted a briefing schedule proposed by the Parties and ordered that the Parties file “any motions regarding the Release and Hold Harmless Agreement” pursuant to that schedule. (ECF No. 124.)

[6] Indeed, the Rules do not contemplate that a nonmovant will submit a statement of “undisputed” material facts. Instead, the nonmovant may furnish a “supplemental statement of disputed material facts, ” to which the movant shall reply. L. R. 56.1(a)

[7] As just one example, Mr. Engle attests: “Certainly we know from Mr. Martin’s affidavit that he did not read Section 1 and instead skimmed over it precisely because it was ‘too small and dense.’ Whether this was a reasonable thing to do, given the fact that it was in 9-point font, is a jury question.” (ECF No. 129 ¶ 10.) Such a statement is far from an “undisputed fact, ” nor does it follow the plain requirements of Local Rule 56.1(a).

[8] While the Martin Affidavit was submitted on multiple occasions in connection with the various motions, each submission is identical and the Court will refer to it as a single document.

[9] Counsel for the HFC Defendants assert that Plaintiffs should be sanctioned for submitting this sham affidavit. (HFC Opp. at 7.) To the extent that this request is more than mere bluster, it must be made as its own motion and pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

[10] As the Court has concluded exclusion is proper, there is no need to reach Defendants’ substantive objections to the Osborn Report. In any event, for reasons discussed infra, the Court’s consideration of the Report’s contents would not change the conclusion that the Release did not violate the PLRA.

[11] Relying on the deposition testimony of Laurel Auriemma, G&H’s Compliance Officer, Plaintiffs contend that most of the text in Section 1 of the Release is 9-point Times New Roman, the sole exception being the statement “I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS AGREEMENT AND FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CONTENTS, ” found at the bottom of Section 1 of the Release, which Plaintiffs claim is in 8-point Times New Roman. (Pls.’ 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16.) Defendants object to these statements as mischaracterizations of Ms. Auriemma’s testimony, and instead (correctly) claim that Ms. Auriemma’s testimony concerned the font size of a Microsoft Word version of the Release she had in her possession- rather than the signed Release. (HFC’s 56.1 Response In Opp ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16; G&H 56.1 Response In Opp ¶¶ 12, 13, 15, 16.) While the record does not establish an undisputed determination of the relevant language’s font size, even when the Court credits Plaintiffs’ accounting of the facts, their challenge to the language under the PLRA fails for the reasons that follow.

[12] Plaintiffs also contend that “Mr. Martin’s affidavit alone creates several N.J.S.A. 56:12(1-6) issues of fact.” (Pls.’ Mot at 14.) For reasons previously discussed, the Court will not credit the Martin Affidavit. See supra at II.A.2.

[13] Plaintiffs’ reliance on Kernahan and Rockel v. Cherry Hill Dodge, 368 N.J.Super. 577 (App. Div. 2004), is misplaced. To the extent the court in Kernahan considered the 6.5-point font size of the relevant language in the 5-page contract, it was one of several factors-also including a “confusing sentence order” and “misleading caption”-weighing in favor of finding it unenforceable. 236 N.J. at 326. Furthermore, the Kernahan decision focused predominantly on the heightened requirements underlying the enforcement of arbitration provisions, an issue not present here. Id. at 301-326 (citing Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430 (2014)).

Meanwhile, while the court in Rockel acknowledged that “[t]he size of the print and the location of the arbitration provision in a contract has great relevance to any determination to compel arbitration, ” its decision relied largely on the presence of two conflicting arbitration provisions. 368 N.J.Super. at 585. Indeed, the court in Rockel did not consider any challenge to the language under the PLRA.

[14] The third factor is inapplicable here because Defendants are neither public utilities nor common carriers.

[15] To underscore this point, John Ursin, G&H’s attorney and a principal drafter of the Release, during his deposition was asked whether the language was meant to “include every possible accident on the activity.” (Ursin Dep. Tr. 27:15-23.) While he declared that this would be an “overstatement, ” he only offered the hypothetical the Release was not intended to disclaim liability “if . . . there was a plane crash on the property.” (Id.) To limit Defendants’ liabilities under the exculpatory to acts of god would “eviscerate” the duty of care they have to their patrons. Cf. Walters, 437 N.J.Super. at 118-19.

[16] Plaintiffs argue unconvincingly that, because the Release does not contain a severability clause, the Release must be voided as a whole. Here, striking the unenforceable portions of the Release still “leaves behind a clear residue that is manifestly consistent with the ‘central purpose’ of the contracting parties, and that is capable of enforcement.” Jacob v. Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, 128 N.J. 10, 33 (1992).

[17] Further to their proposed analogy between transportation during sporting clay shooting to the rental of golf carts in connection with a golf tournament, Defendants offer Post v. Belmont Country Club, Inc., 60 Mass.App.Ct. 645 (2004) as support for their argument that injuries during transportation should be covered within the Release. However, in Post, the relevant exculpatory clause in the golf membership handbook expressly included transportation on the golf court, id. at 646, and applied Massachusetts’ more permissive rules with respect to exculpatory agreements, id. at 651 (refusing to require “strict construction” of the relevant exculpatory clause when asked to apply other states’ rules of construction).

[18] Plaintiffs also argue, unpersuasively, that the Release violates Defendants’ statutory duties imposed upon them under New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, Title 2C Section 2C:58-3.1. Under 2C:58-3.1, a legal owner of a handgun, rifle or shotgun may temporarily transfer the firearm to a person who is 18 years of age or older, if the transfer is made upon a firing range “for the sole purpose of target practice, trap or skeet shooting, or competition upon that firing range.” Upon the transfer, “[t]he firearm shall be handled and used by the person to whom it is temporarily transferred only in the actual presence or under the direct supervision of the legal owner of the firearm.” Id. Plaintiffs make no claim that any injury was the result of a failure to supervise him upon the transfer of a firearm, and Martin has acknowledged that he was not in possession of a firearm during the wagon ride at issue. (Martin Dep. Tr. 51 5-12.)

[19] The Release, which Defendants presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, in a standardized printed form, and without opportunity for the Martin to negotiate, is a contract of adhesion. Gamble v. Connolly, 399 N.J.Super. 130, 142 (2007) (A contract of adhesion means “‘a contract where one party must accept or reject the contract.'”). However, “‘the determination that a contract is one of adhesion is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry into whether a contract…should be deemed unenforceable based on policy considerations.'” Id. “When making the determination that a contract of adhesion is unconscionable and unenforceable, [the court] consider[s], using a sliding scale analysis, the way in which the contract was formed and, further, whether enforcement of the contract implicates matters of public interest.” Stelluti, 203 N.J. at 301 (citing Delta Funding, 189 NJ. at 39-40).

[20] Plaintiffs also argue that the “language of the release was technical and cumbersome” and “[i]ts sentences were overly long and difficult to understand.” (Pls.’ Opp, to HFC Mot. at 24; Pls.’ Opp to G&H Mot. at 27.) These arguments fail for reasons already discussed. See supra at II.B.

———


Sometimes you can go too far and in this case Mountain Creek Ski Resort went stupid far.

In attempting to recover their defense costs and attorney’s fees based on a rental agreement, they court found the agreement was a contact of adhesion.

Vladichak v. Mountain Creek Ski Resort, Inc. (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2022)

State: New Jersey

Plaintiff: Andrea Vladichak

Defendant: Mountain Creek Ski Resort, Inc., and Michael Lavin

Defendant Lavin Claims: indemnity clause is ambiguous

Defendant Defenses: Indemnity Clause is valid

Holding: For the defendant Lavin & against Mountain Creek Ski Resort

Year: 2022

Summary

The ski area one the lawsuit when brought into a skier v. skier collision lawsuit. Afterwards, they attempted to sue the plaintiff in the skier v. skier case for their costs in defending based on the “indemnification” clause in the rental agreement he signed when the plaintiff rented ski equipment.

The court tore through the release holding for the original plaintiff. The court’s interpretation will not affect this case; however, the interpretation will have a negative bearing on any future case.

Facts

On December 21, 2017, plaintiff sustained personal injuries while skiing at a ski area owned and operated by Mountain Creek in Vernon Township, New Jersey. Plaintiff was struck from behind by Lavin, another skier. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging Mountain Creek and Lavin were negligent. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was independently negligent for failing to provide appropriate warnings to skiers, failing to appropriately designate the difficulty of ski trails, failing to provide skiers with appropriate information about trail conditions, failing to timely remove obvious manmade hazards, and/or otherwise failing to establish adequate procedures to provide a safe skiing environment. The complaint alleged Lavin was negligent for breaching his duty to others to ski in a reasonably safe manner by skiing in a reckless manner and/or intentionally colliding into plaintiff and causing her injuries.

Prior to the incident, Lavin signed an equipment rental agreement (Rental Agreement) and lift ticket agreement (Release Agreement) in which he agreed to defend and indemnify Mountain Creek from any claims related to his own conduct and use of the property’s equipment facilities. On August 7, 2019, Mountain Creek filed an answer and cross-claims seeking defense and indemnification from Lavin based on the executed Rental and Release Agreements. Mountain Creek previously tendered the defense to Lavin on July 16, 2019.

The co-defendant Lavin rented skis from the ski area Mountain Creek. The rental agreement included a release and an indemnification clause. Like 99% of the indemnification clauses in releases it was written badly, but Mountain Creek tried to sue Lavin for their costs in defending the lawsuit by the original plaintiff and lost!

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

Indemnification agreements are not understood by 95% of the outdoor industry. 99% of them when attempted to be used by the courts have been thrown out, but you still find the language in releases.

Get rid of that language, it does not work and only makes judges mad!

In this case, the indemnification language was in the rental agreement signed by the co-defendant when he rented skis. The language was the general “I don’t know what this means, but I’ll stick it in a release” language.

After the ski area had won its lawsuit, and the co-defendant had settled with the plaintiff, the ski area sued the co-defendant to recover their attorney fees and costs they spent in defending the lawsuit.

The court, in this case, started by looking at New Jersey state law covering indemnification agreements. Because they are such of a particular type of contracts, each state has evolved its own set of laws on how an indemnification agreement is going to be interpreted. New Jersey:

… indemnity provisions differ from provisions in a typical contract in one important aspect. If the meaning of an indemnity provision is ambiguous, the provision is ‘strictly construed against the indemnitee.

Meaning the courts interpreted the agreement strictly. “We have characterized this approach as a “bright line” rule requiring “explicit language” when “indemnification includes the negligence of the indemnitee.”

The court then looked at the indemnification language in the ski equipment rental agreement and said the language fails.

We agree with the motion judge that the indemnity provisions in the agreements are ambiguous as to claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence. Although the provisions reference Mountain Creek’s negligence in bold and capitalized letters, the language “arising out of or resulting from my conduct . . . whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part” is insufficient to meet the Azurak standard. One could reasonably interpret the provisions to require indemnification and defense of Mountain Creek for any claims of negligence against it caused by Lavin’s conduct even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault or to require Lavin to indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for separate claims of its own negligence.

The court then proceeded to destroy the entire idea that an indemnity agreement in this case would ever work.

An indemnitor may expect to indemnify and defend an indemnitee for claims caused by its negligent conduct when the indemnitee may also be at fault but may not expect to be solely responsible to indemnify and defend the indemnitee when the indemnitee has committed separate acts of negligence.

Simply stated the court found “The provisions at issue do not meet the bright line rule requiring “unequivocal terms” that the duty to indemnify extends to the indemnitee’s own negligence.”

The ski area then argued the New Jersey Skier Safety Act supported the indemnification. The court struck this down with one sentence.

This indemnification scheme is consistent with the Ski Act’s purpose to promote “the allocation of the risks and costs of skiing” as “an important matter of public policy.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(a). Moreover, in Stelluti, the Court considered that “some activities involve a risk of injury and thus require risk sharing between the participants and operators”

The court went into the entire issue of the release that contained the indemnification provision and found the release was a contract of adhesion.

As a threshold issue, we determine that the Release and Rental Agreements were contracts of adhesion. If a contract is characterized as a contract of adhesion, “nonenforcement of its terms may be justified on other than such traditional grounds as fraud, duress, mistake, or illegality.” An adhesion contract is one that “is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” “Although a contract of adhesion is not per se unenforceable, a [judge] may decline to enforce it if it is found to be unconscionable.”

The court reviewed under New Jersey law what a contract of adhesion was and how it was determined to be one.

When determining whether an adhesion contract is unconscionable, we evaluate four factors that “focus on procedural and substantive aspects of the contract to determine whether the contract is so oppressive, or inconsistent with the vindication of public policy, that it would be unconscionable to permit its enforcement.” Id. at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted) Those factors include “the subject matter of the contract, the parties’ relative bargaining positions, the degree of economic compulsion motivating the ‘adhering’ party, and the public interests affected by the contract.” The first three factors speak to procedural unconscionability, and the last factor speaks to substantive unconscionability. We consider these factors using a “sliding scale analysis.”

The court then applied the test for an adhesion contract to the rental agreement.

applying the four-factor test, the Release and Rental Agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. At the time of the incident, Lavin was twenty years old and a layperson without specialized knowledge of the law. He maintains he did not read the agreements before signing them despite having the opportunity to do so. Lavin also stated that he did not have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the agreement. However, Lavin was engaging in a recreational activity like the adhering party in Stelluti, and he was under no economic duress or obligation to consent to the agreements. Lavin could have chosen to take his business to another ski resort, rented skis from a different facility, or could have simply read the agreements or contemplated them before signing.

The court found the rental agreement was a contract of adhesion. However, in this situation it was not void on its face.

However, that creates a ruling that all other courts in New Jersey must rely upon in reviewing the rental agreement of Mountain Creek Ski Resort. By pushing the issue, they created a lower step for the plaintiff’s bar to overcome in the future.

So Now What?

If you have indemnification language in your release, and it was not written by me, have an attorney remove it. It is a waste of space on the paper and only can be used to make judges mad.

Indemnification agreements must be written in a special way to cover very specific circumstances that must be outlined in the agreement.

If you want to understand an indemnification agreement, read your automobile insurance policy. (Think about shrinking that to fit into your release…..)

That does not mean indemnification agreements in releases are all bad. They can be used, IF WRITTEN PROPERLY, to indemnify the outfitter for their actions if backed up by other documents or contracts. Meaning if you live in a state that charges for rescue, you can require your guests to indemnify you for any rescue costs you may incur on their behalf.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Vladichak v. Mountain Creek Ski Resort, Inc. (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2022)

ANDREA VLADICHAK, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
MOUNTAIN CREEK SKI RESORT, INC., Defendant-Appellant,

and MICHAEL LAVIN, Defendant-Respondent.

No. A-1367-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 13, 2022

This opinion shall not “constitute precedent or be binding upon any court .” Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.

Argued April 4, 2022

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0590-18.

Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for appellant (Hueston McNulty, PC, attorneys; Samuel J. McNulty, of counsel and on the briefs; Edward J. Turro, on the briefs).

Matthew E. Kennedy argued the cause for respondent Michael Lavin (Leary Bride Mergner & Bongiovanni, PA, attorneys; Matthew E. Kennedy, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Fasciale and Sumners.

PER CURIAM

Defendant Snow Creek, LLC d/b/a Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (Mountain Creek) appeals from a November 9, 2020 order denying its motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment to defendant Michael Lavin (Lavin) dismissing Mountain Creek’s cross-claims for defense costs and contractual indemnification. Judge David J. Weaver (motion judge) concluded in a thorough opinion that the contractual language was ambiguous and therefore Mountain Creek was not entitled to indemnification from Lavin or defense costs incurred to defend plaintiff’s allegations that Mountain Creek itself was negligent. We affirm.

On December 21, 2017, plaintiff sustained personal injuries while skiing at a ski area owned and operated by Mountain Creek in Vernon Township, New Jersey. Plaintiff was struck from behind by Lavin, another skier. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging Mountain Creek and Lavin were negligent. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was independently negligent for failing to provide appropriate warnings to skiers, failing to appropriately designate the difficulty of ski trails, failing to provide skiers with appropriate information about trail conditions, failing to timely remove obvious manmade hazards, and/or otherwise failing to establish adequate procedures to provide a safe skiing environment. The complaint alleged Lavin was negligent for breaching his duty to others to ski in a reasonably safe manner by skiing in a reckless manner and/or intentionally colliding into plaintiff and causing her injuries.

Prior to the incident, Lavin signed an equipment rental agreement (Rental Agreement) and lift ticket agreement (Release Agreement) in which he agreed to defend and indemnify Mountain Creek from any claims related to his own conduct and use of the property’s equipment facilities. On August 7, 2019, Mountain Creek filed an answer and cross-claims seeking defense and indemnification from Lavin based on the executed Rental and Release Agreements. Mountain Creek previously tendered the defense to Lavin on July 16, 2019.

Plaintiff’s counsel served a report from plaintiff’s liability expert, who concluded that Lavin violated the New Jersey Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -12, and the Skier’s Responsibility Code by failing to control his speed and course and by failing to yield to the skiers ahead of him. The expert opined that Lavin’s reckless conduct caused the accident. On March 27, 2020, Judge Stephan C. Hansbury entered an order granting Mountain Creek’s motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims that Mountain Creek was negligent. Lavin and plaintiff settled and filed a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice dated May 29, 2020.

After plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin, Mountain Creek filed its motion seeking reimbursement from Lavin for defending plaintiff’s allegations and indemnification from Lavin.[1] Lavin filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on September 1. That led to the order under review.

The judge concluded that, as a matter of law, the indemnification provisions were ambiguous and thus unenforceable to compel indemnification in favor of Mountain Creek for claims of its own negligence. The motion judge denied Lavin’s cross-motion for summary judgment in part and granted it in part. The motion judge requested the parties submit the detail and extent of defense costs incurred by Mountain Creek for costs incurred for which liability was only vicarious.

Mountain Creek’s attorneys stipulated that there were no fees or costs incurred from defending vicarious liability claims. On December 14, 2020, Judge Robert J. Brennan entered a consent order resolving all remaining issues as to all parties.

Mountain Creek raises the following arguments on appeal:

POINT I

STANDARD OF REVIEW-DE NOVO[.]

POINT II

THE [MOTION JUDGE] CORRECTLY RULED THAT THE TWO AGREEMENTS WERE NOT CONTRACTS OF ADHESION NOR WERE THEY CONTRARY TO PUBLIC POLICY.

POINT III

THE [MOTION JUDGE] ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE LANGUAGE IN THE AGREEMENTS SIGNED BY . . . LAVIN IS AMBIGUOUS AND INSUFFICIENT TO COMPEL . . . LAVIN TO INDEMNIFY AND DEFEND MOUNTAIN CREEK FOR CLAIMS OF ITS OWN NEGLIGENCE.

A. Special Status Of A Ski Operator.

B. The Two Agreements Were Unambiguous And Should Be Enforced.[2]

Mountain Creek raises the following points in reply, which we have renumbered:

POINT IV

. . . LAVIN’S REQUEST THAT THE APPELLATE DIVISION REVERSE THE [MOTION JUDGE]’S JUDGMENT THAT THE CONTRACTS WERE NOT UNCONSCIONABLE SHOULD BE REJECTED AS NO CROSS-APPEAL WAS FILED.

POINT V

THE AGREEMENTS IN QUESTION ARE ENFORCEABLE AND NOT UNCONSCIONABLE CONTRACTS OF ADHESION.

POINT VI

THE INDEMNIFICATION LANGUAGE IS SUFFICIENT AND EXPRESSLY PROVIDES FOR INDEMNIFICATION FOR CLAIMS ASSERTING MOUNTAIN CREEK’S OWN NEGLIGENCE.

We review the motion judge’s grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo. Branch v. Cream-O-Land Dairy, 244 N.J. 567, 582 (2021). We apply the same standard as the motion judge and consider “whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.” Brill v. Guardian Life
Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

I.

Mountain Creek contends the motion judge erred in ruling the indemnification provisions in the Release and Rental Agreements were ambiguous and unenforceable to compel Lavin to indemnify Mountain Creek for Mountain Creek’s own negligence. Mountain Creek also contends that it should be permitted to obtain indemnification from Lavin based on its special status as a ski area operator under the Ski Statute.

The judge’s role “in construing a contractual indemnity provision is the same as in construing any other part of a contract-it is to determine the intent of the parties.” Kieffer v. Best Buy, 205 N.J. 213, 223 (2011). Generally, courts give contractual provisions “their plain and ordinary meaning.” Ibid. (quoting M.J. Paquet, Inc. v. N.J. Dep’t of Transp., 171 N.J. 378, 396 (2002)). “However, indemnity provisions differ from provisions in a typical contract in one important aspect. If the meaning of an indemnity provision is ambiguous, the provision is ‘strictly construed against the indemnitee.'” Ibid. (quoting Mantilla v. NC Mall Assocs., 167 N.J. 262, 272 (2001)).

We have characterized this approach as a “bright line” rule requiring “explicit language” when “indemnification includes the negligence of the indemnitee.” Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 347 N.J.Super. 516, 523 (App. Div. 2002). Azurak involved a contract between a janitorial company (PBS) and a shopping mall owner (the Mall) that contained the following provision:

Contractor [PBS] shall indemnify, defend and hold harmless each Indemnitee [the Mall] from and against any claim (including any claim brought by employees of Contractor), liability, damage or expense (including attorneys’ fees) that such Indemnitee may incur relating to, arising out of or existing by reason of (i) Contractor’s performance of this Agreement or the conditions created thereby (including the use, misuse or failure of any equipment used by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees) or (ii) Contractor’s breach of this Agreement or the inadequate or improper performance of this Agreement by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees.

[Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 175 N.J. 110, 111 (2003) (alterations in original).]

The plaintiff sued the Mall and PBS for injuries she sustained when she slipped on the Mall’s floor. Ibid. The trial judge granted the Mall’s summary judgment motion on the issue of indemnification based on the contract provision. Ibid. At trial, the jury determined “that plaintiff was 30% negligent; the Mall, 30%; and PBS, 40%.” Ibid. This court disagreed with the trial judge, finding that the indemnification provision did not encompass the Mall’s negligence because the provision’s language was neither explicit nor unequivocal as to claims of the Mall’s own negligence. Id. at 111-12. Our Court affirmed and held that “in order to allay even the slightest doubt on the issue of what is required to bring a negligent indemnitee within an indemnification agreement, we reiterate that the agreement must specifically reference the negligence or fault of the indemnitee.” Id. at 112-13.

Mountain Creek’s Release Agreement contained a provision that states:

INDEMNIFICATION. To the fullest extent permitted by law, I agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees asserted against Mountain Creek by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities WHETHER OR NOT MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

One provision of the Rental Agreement states:

To the fullest extent permitted by law, I also agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees for personal injury, death or property damage against it by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities or the use of this equipment whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

We agree with the motion judge that the indemnity provisions in the agreements are ambiguous as to claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence. Although the provisions reference Mountain Creek’s negligence in bold and capitalized letters, the language “arising out of or resulting from my conduct . . . whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part” is insufficient to meet the Azurak standard. One could reasonably interpret the provisions to require indemnification and defense of Mountain Creek for any claims of negligence against it caused by Lavin’s conduct even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault or to require Lavin to indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for separate claims of its own negligence. See Nester v. O’Donnell, 301 N.J.Super. 198, 210 (App. Div. 1997) (noting that a contract is ambiguous if it is “susceptible to at least two reasonable alternative interpretations” (quoting Kaufman v. Provident Life & Cas. Ins. Co., 828 F.Supp. 275, 283 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 993 F.2d 877 (3d Cir. 1993))).

An indemnitor may expect to indemnify and defend an indemnitee for claims caused by its negligent conduct when the indemnitee may also be at fault but may not expect to be solely responsible to indemnify and defend the indemnitee when the indemnitee has committed separate acts of negligence. That is the case here, as plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was separately negligent for failing to provide adequate instructions to skiers and a safe ski environment. A better-and likely enforceable-provision would explicitly state that the indemnitor indemnifies Mountain Creek for claims arising out of indemnitor’s conduct and for claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence.

The provisions at issue do not meet the bright line rule requiring “unequivocal terms” that the duty to indemnify extends to the indemnitee’s own negligence. Thus, the provisions are ambiguous and must be strictly construed against Mountain Creek. The same reasoning and standards apply with equal force to Mountain Creek’s defense costs. The provisions’ ambiguity precludes their enforcement against Lavin for recovery of the costs incurred by Mountain Creek for defending its own negligence claims.

We also conclude Mountain Creek’s argument that the Ski Statute supports enforcement of the indemnification provisions is without merit. While the Ski Act may emphasize the inherent risk that skiers assume when skiing, the Act provides separate duties to the ski operator, which include establishing and posting a system for identifying slopes and their difficulty, ensuring the availability of information to skiers, and removing hazards as soon as practicable. N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a). The allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, which include failing to provide adequate signage and failing to instruct skiers properly, do not fall under the risks that “are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate” defined in the statute. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). In fact, plaintiff’s complaint addressed the responsibilities of a ski area operator as prescribed by the Act. Requiring indemnification in favor of a ski resort for claims of its own independent negligence does not further the Ski Act’s purpose of allocating the inherent risk of skiing between the skier and ski resort. Moreover, the public policy of the Ski Act has no bearing on our interpretation of the indemnity provisions and our conclusion that the provisions are ambiguous.

II.

Lavin argues, on an alternative basis, that the Rental and Release Agreements are unconscionable contracts of adhesion. Lavin was not required to file a Notice of Cross-Appeal to preserve this argument for appeal because “appeals are taken from judgments, not opinions, and, without having filed a cross-appeal, a respondent can argue any point on the appeal to sustain the trial [judge’s] judgment.” Chimes v. Oritani Motor Hotel, Inc., 195 N.J.Super. 435, 443 (App. Div. 1984). Even if Lavin were required to file a cross-appeal, we will address the merits of his argument.

As a threshold issue, we determine that the Release and Rental Agreements were contracts of adhesion. If a contract is characterized as a contract of adhesion, “nonenforcement of its terms may be justified on other than such traditional grounds as fraud, duress, mistake, or illegality.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353 (1992). An adhesion contract is one that “is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Vitale v. Schering-Plough Corp., 231 N.J. 234, 246 (2017) (quoting Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 355). “Although a contract of adhesion is not per se unenforceable, a [judge] may decline to enforce it if it is found to be unconscionable.” Ibid.

We agree with the motion judge that “the Agreements at issue evidence characteristics of contracts of adhesion.” The Release and Rental Agreements were standardized form contracts that fit our Court’s definition as “take-it-or-leave-it” adhesion contracts. See ibid. All potential skiers at Mountain Creek’s resort are obligated to sign the Release Agreement, and there is little to no negotiating done before the agreements’ execution. However, an agreement found to be an adhesion contract may nevertheless be enforced if it is not unconscionable. See ibid.

When determining whether an adhesion contract is unconscionable, we evaluate four factors that “focus on procedural and substantive aspects of the contract to determine whether the contract is so oppressive, or inconsistent with the vindication of public policy, that it would be unconscionable to permit its enforcement.” Id. at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., Inc., 225 N.J. 343, 367 (2016)). Those factors include “the subject matter of the contract, the parties’ relative bargaining positions, the degree of economic compulsion motivating the ‘adhering’ party, and the public interests affected by the contract.” Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 356. The first three factors speak to procedural unconscionability, and the last factor speaks to substantive unconscionability. See Rodriguez, 225 N.J. at 367. We consider these factors using a “sliding scale analysis.” Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).

The motion judge correctly relied on Stelluti in determining the agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. In Stelluti, the plaintiff was injured in a spinning class at a private fitness center and argued that the pre-injury waiver of liability she signed was unenforceable on unconscionability grounds. Id. at 291, 300. The Court found that although the pre-printed form was an adhesion contract, it was not procedurally unconscionable. Id. at 301-02. The Court reasoned the plaintiff was not in a position of unequal bargaining power, despite being a layperson and not being fully informed of the legal effect of an adhesion contract, when she had the ability to take “her business to another fitness club,” to find a form of exercise different than joining a private gym, or to contemplate the agreement for some time before joining the gym and using its equipment. Id. at 302.

Under the Court’s reasoning in Stelluti and applying the four-factor test, the Release and Rental Agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. At the time of the incident, Lavin was twenty years old and a layperson without specialized knowledge of the law. He maintains he did not read the agreements before signing them despite having the opportunity to do so. Lavin also stated that he did not have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the agreement. However, Lavin was engaging in a recreational activity like the adhering party in Stelluti, and he was under no economic duress or obligation to consent to the agreements. Lavin could have chosen to take his business to another ski resort, rented skis from a different facility, or could have simply read the agreements or contemplated them before signing.

As for the remaining factor-the impact on public interest-Mountain Creek points to the “strong public policy of protecting ski operators and allocating the risks and costs of inherently dangerous recreational activities” under the Ski Statute. The Act’s purpose is to make explicit a policy of this State which clearly defines the responsibility of ski area operators and skiers, recognizing that the sport of skiing and other ski area activities involve risks which must be borne by those who engage in such activities and which are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate. It is, therefore, the purpose of this act to state those risks which the skier voluntarily assumes for which there can be no recovery.

[N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b).]

We agree that the Agreements are not substantively unconscionable. The agreements do not contain terms that are so “harsh” or “one-sided” to render them unconscionable and unenforceable. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of
Rehoboth Beach, Del., 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006). Construing the indemnity provision against Mountain Creek due to its ambiguity, the provision requires that Lavin indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for claims arising out of Lavin’s conduct while using Mountain Creek’s equipment and facilities, even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault. This indemnification scheme is consistent with the Ski Act’s purpose to promote “the allocation of the risks and costs of skiing” as “an important matter of public policy.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(a). Moreover, in Stelluti, the Court considered that “some activities involve a risk of injury and thus require risk sharing between the participants and operators” and that our Legislature has enacted statutes to address the allocation of risk in those circumstances. 203 N.J. at 308. It would not be against public policy to require indemnification of Mountain Creek by Lavin for claims of vicarious liability due to Lavin’s reckless conduct; however, Mountain Creek stipulated that it did not incur any costs in defending claims of vicarious liability.

Affirmed.

———

Notes:

[1] Mountain Creek did not contribute towards plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin.

[2] To comport with our style conventions, we altered the capitalization of Mountain Creek’s Points A and B but omitted the alterations for readability.

———


I can’t figure out why this Equine Liability case is winning, except it is in Utah.

Utah historical seems to write big checks to injured kids, seems to be the case here.

Nasserziayee v. Ruggles (D. Utah 2022)

State: Utah, United States District Court, D. Utah

Plaintiff: Farooq Nasserziayee and Lenore Supnet, and daughter, M.N., a minor

Defendant: Jack Ruggles and Jane Doe Ruggles, Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC, Joshua Ruggles; Clay Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk, Express Assumption of the Risk, Release

Holding: Partial win for the defendants but going to trial

Year: 2022

Summary

The plaintiff’s mother, father and daughter went on a trail ride. The daughter fell off the horse and was injured. Now she wants money.

Facts

The facts of the case are interspaced in the opinion, so they are pulled here in an attempt to explain what happened that gave rise to this litigation.

On March 4, 2020, Nasserziayee and Supnet filed a complaint alleging their minor daughter, M.N., was badly injured in a March 21, 2016, fall off of a horse at Jacob’s Ranch.

First, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that helmets were not offered. Second, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that Clay Doe encouraged the horses to go faster at one point, even though the horses carried inexperienced riders.

The plaintiff’s signed up to go for a horseback riding trip. The father signed a release. It is disputed whether the plaintiffs were offered a helmet prior to the ride. It is disputed that the trip leader encouraged everyone to hurry up, about the same time, the daughter fell off her horse.

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

The first issue the court reviewed was whether the defendant could be grossly negligent if the defendant did not offer the plaintiff’s helmets to wear before the ride.

“In Utah, gross 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.'”[36]Under Utah law, resolution of a gross negligence claim is typically within the province of the factfinder. Summary judgment is only appropriate on a gross negligence claim when “reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion” as to whether a defendant observed even slight care.

Both parties submitted affidavits from themselves and people on the ride. The plaintiff’s affidavits stated the defendant did not offer the riders any helmets. The defendants’ affidavits stated that helmets were offered. As such the court found there was a factual issue that could not be resolved. However, without any analysis, the court stated that failure to offer a helmet could be found to be gross negligence.

What was very interesting was how the court looked at the statement in the release that stated the plaintiffs were offered a helmet.

Defendants also suggest that because Plaintiffs signed the Release, which contains a clause agreeing that the signer had been offered a helmet, no factfinder could conclude that Plaintiffs were not offered helmets. While that clause may be evidence that Plaintiffs were offered helmets and may be relevant in evaluating an assumption of risk defense, it is not dispositive of helmets being actually provided. Resolution of such a question is within the province of the factfinder.

Rarely, if ever have a contract provision, which makes a statement been ruled as not controlling. This does not bold well for releases in Utah to some extent.

The next issue was assumption of the risk both as an express assumption of the risk agreement signed by the father, the risk assumed by statute with the Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act, and the risk of falling you assume when you get on a horse. However, whether a plaintiff assumed the risk is usually a decision for the fact finder or jury so although a great defense is rarely wins at the motion for summary judgment level.

Utah recognizes three types of assumption of the risk.

There are three types of assumption of risk in Utah: primary express, primary implied, and secondary.

• Primary express assumption of risk “involves a contractual provision in which a party expressly contracts not to sue for injury or loss which may thereafter be occasioned by the acts of another.”

• Primary implied assumption of risk occurs in inherently risky activities, where the defendant as a matter of law owes no duty of care to a plaintiff for certain risks because no amount of care can negate those risks.

• Secondary assumption of risk occurs when a person voluntarily but “unreasonabl[y] encounter[s] . . . a known and appreciated risk.” Secondary assumption of risk is treated akin to contributory negligence, and is “no longer recognized in Utah as a total bar to recovery.”

The court then proceeded to eliminate assumption of the risk as a defense at this level of the trial and to a certain extent, back at the trial level.

Primary express assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Primary express assumption of risk allows a party to contract with another that they will not sue in case of injury or loss. This type of assumption of risk is more closely related to contract law, and typically takes the form of preinjury liability releases, such as the Release in this case

The Release shows that Plaintiffs only agreed to assume those “risks, conditions, & dangers [which] are inherent” to horseback riding. As discussed below, the negligence Defendants are accused of is not the type “inherent” to horseback riding. Accordingly, primary express assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims on this record.

I always though falling off a horse was an inherent risk of horseback riding. However, this court does not see the case in that way. Assumption of the risk as expressed in the release is not a bar to the claims because “how” the child fell off the horse is the issue according to the court.

The court even stretched further to deny assumption of the risk as defined by primary implied assumption of the risk.

Primary implied assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Primary implied assumption of risk only applies to “inherently risky” activities. In order for primary implied assumption of risk to bar a plaintiff’s claims, the injury must have resulted from a risk “inherent” to an activity, and be one that a defendant cannot eliminate through imposition of reasonable care. Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act (the “Act”) has essentially codified this doctrine as it relates to horse-related injuries. Both the Act and the doctrine of primary implied assumption of risk distinguish between injuries resulting from the inherent risks of the relevant activity and injuries resulting from negligent behavior. Inherent risks of horseback riding may include a horse’s propensity to bolt when startled or other unpredictable behavior. It may also refer to a rider’s failure to control the animal or not acting within one’s ability. If an injury “was caused by an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated by the use of ordinary care, such a hazard is not . . . an inherent risk” of an inherently risky activity

The court found that secondary assumption of the risk is not a bar to the claims also.

Secondary assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Secondary assumption of risk, “the unreasonable encountering of a known and appreciated risk, ” is more properly viewed as an “aspect of contributory negligence.” Contributory negligence is not a complete bar to recovery, but rather involves the apportionment of fault. Once the combined negligence of plaintiff and defendant has been established, evaluation of a comparative or contributory negligence defense is within the province of the factfinder.

The court did rule in favor of the defendant on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim finding that under Utah’s law the actions of the defendant in causing this injury must almost be intentional.

Rather, Utah courts have described the type of conduct required to sustain a claim for IIED as “extraordinary vile conduct, conduct that is atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.” The Tenth Circuit has similarly described Utah law as setting “high standards” to establish a claim for IIED.

So Now What?

This case has several issues that raise concerns about the law in Utah now an in the future.

The first is discounting the requirements or agreements in a contract, in this case the release. When you sign a contract, you agree to the terms of the contract. The release stated the plaintiff was offered a helmet. The court did not care.

The next issue is failing to offer a helmet to someone is possibly gross negligence. This is not that far of a stretch, but the first time I have seen it in any outdoor recreation case. However, failure to provide safety equipment that usually accompanies any recreational activity is an easy way to lose a lawsuit.

But these two issues create an additional problem. How do you prove you offered a helmet or other safety equipment to someone. Normally, you would put it in the release. Here that does not work. Videotape the helmet area? Have a separate document saying you agree not to wear a helmet?

Finally, you can see where a case is headed or what type of attitude a court has about a case when all three forms of assumption of the risk recognized under Utah’s law are found not to apply in this case. The court was right that the language of the Utah Equine and Livestock Activities Act only covers the inherent risks of horseback riding and therefore, provides no real protection.

I’ve said it for years, the equine protection laws enacted in all 50 states are 100% effective. No horse has been sued since those laws have been in place. However, their effectiveness in stopping claims again, the horse owners or stables are worthless. In fact, lawsuits and judgements over injuries caused by horses have increased since the passage of the equine liability laws.

When you are lifted up or climb up onto an animal whose back is 5′ to 6′ above the ground, if you fall off that animal don’t you think you can suffer an injury? This court does not think so.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Nasserziayee v. Ruggles (D. Utah 2022)

Nasserziayee v. Ruggles (D. Utah 2022)

FAROOQ NASSERZIAYEE AND LENORE SUPNET, husband and wife, on their own behalf, and on behalf of their daughter, M.N., a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
JACK RUGGLES and JANE DOE RUGGLES, husband and wife; ZION CANYON TRAIL RIDES AT JACOB’S RANCH, LLC, a Utah limited liability company; JOSHUA RUGGLES; CLAY DOE, Defendants.

No. 4:19-cv-00022-DN-PK

United States District Court, D. Utah

January 7, 2022

Paul Kohler, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

DENYING MOTION TO STRIKE AND

GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

David Nuffer United States District Judge

This case arises out of an alleged accident at Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch (“Jacob’s Ranch”), a recreational horseback riding facility. Plaintiffs Farooq Nasserziayee (“Nasserziayee”) and Lenore Supnet (“Supnet”) filed a complaint on behalf of themselves and their daughter, M.N., alleging that M.N. was injured during a horse-riding accident due to the actions of Defendants.

Defendants Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, Jack Ruggles, and Jane Doe Ruggles (collectively “Moving Defendants”) moved for summary judgment. They allege that summary judgment is appropriate because (1); no reasonable factfinder could find gross negligence; (2) Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury; (3) no reasonable fact finder could find negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (4) no reasonable fact finder could find intentional infliction of emotional distress. For the following reasons, the Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

Contents

Background ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2

A Prior Ruling Eliminated Some Claims …………………………………………………………………. 3

This Motion for Summary Judgment ………………………………………………………………………. 3

Undisputed Material Facts ……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 4

Discussion ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 6

Defendant’s Motion to Strike is Denied ………………………………………………………………….. 6

Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment Will be Granted in Part and Denied in Part 8 A Reasonable Factfinder Could Conclude Defendants Were Grossly Negligent … 9

Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar Plaintiffs’ Negligence Claims ………………….. 13

The Prior Ruling Granted Summary Judgment on the Negligent Infliction of Emotional

Distress Claim …………………………………………………………………………………………. 16

Summary Judgment Will be Granted on the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Claim ……………………………………………………………………………………………………… 17

Conclusion and Order ……………………………………………………………………………………………………. 18

BACKGROUND

On March 4, 2020, Nasserziayee and Supnet filed a complaint alleging their minor daughter, M.N., was badly injured in a March 21, 2016, fall off of a horse at Jacob’s Ranch.[1] The complaint asserted claims for negligence, gross negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Jacob’s Ranch, Jack Ruggles, and Jane Doe Ruggles.[2] In April 2020, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, which added identical claims against Joshua Ruggles and Clay Doe, and alleged, “[b]ased on the statements of Defendant Jack (“Pappy”) Ruggles and Defendant Jacobs Ranch, ” that Joshua Ruggles and Clay Doe were independent contractors.[3]

A Prior Ruling Eliminated Some Claims

In October 2020, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment[4], which was granted in part and denied in part (“Prior Ruling”).[5] The Prior Ruling granted summary judgment for Defendants on the claims for ordinary negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, based on the Release Plaintiffs signed prior to the horseback ride.[6]However, the Prior Ruling denied summary judgment on the claims for gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress because those claims were not barred by the Release.[7]The Prior Ruling also found there was sufficient evidence to support a claim for gross negligence, because there were disputed facts not amendable to resolution based on the record at the time. Specifically, the Prior Ruling noted that Plaintiffs had submitted evidence that helmets were not made available to the group, and the horses were at one point encouraged to go faster, even though they were carrying inexperienced riders. The Prior Ruling concluded that this evidence, if believed by a jury, could support a finding of gross negligence against Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Jacob’s Ranch.[8]

This Motion for Summary Judgment

On September 16, 2021, Moving Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC filed this motion for summary judgment on all remaining issues (“Motion”), which is resolved in this ruling.[9] Plaintiffs filed a response on October 14 (“Response”), [10] and a supplemental response on October 28, 2021 (“Supplemental Response”).[11] Moving Defendants filed a reply on October 28, 2021(“Reply’).[12]

On November 3, 2021, Moving Defendants moved to strike Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Response, arguing it was untimely filed.[13] Plaintiffs filed an opposition to the Motion to Strike on November 15, 2021.[14] On November 17, 2021, a docket text order was entered construing the opposition as a motion under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 6(b) and directing Defendants to file a further reply.[15] Defendants did so on November 29, 2021.[16]

UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS

1. On March 21, 2016, Plaintiffs Farooq Nasserziayee, Lenore Supnet, and their daughter M.N. went horseback riding at Jacob’s Ranch.[17]

2. Prior to the start of the ride, Supnet signed a liability waiver (the “Release”) on behalf of her, Nasserziayee, and M.N.[18]

3. The Release contained the following relevant language:

INHERENT RISKS/ASSUMPTION OF RISKS: I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT: Horseback riding is classified as RUGGED ADVENTURE RECREATIONAL SPORT ACTIVITY & that risks, conditions, & dangers are inherent in (meaning an integral part of) horse/equine/animal activities regardless of all feasible safety measures which can be taken & I agree to assume them. The inherent risks include, but are not limited to any of the following: The propensity of an animal to behave in ways that may result in injury, harm, death, or loss to persons on or around the animal. The unpredictability of an equine’s reaction to sounds, sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, persons, or other animals. Hazards including but not limited to surface or subsurface conditions. A collision, encounter and/or confrontation with another equine, another animal, a person or an object. The potential of an equine activity participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury, harm, death, or loss to the participant or to other persons, including but not limited to failing to maintain control over an equine and/or failing to act within the ability of the participant . . . . I also acknowledge that these are just some of the risks & I agree to assume others not mentioned above.

. . .

I/WE AGREE THAT: I for myself & on behalf of my child and/or legal ward have been fully warned & advised by THIS STABLE that protective headgear/helmet, which meets or exceeds the quality standards of the SEI CERTIFIED ASTM STANDARD F 1163 Equestrian Helmet should be worn while riding, handling and/or being near horses & I understand that the wearing of such headgear/helmet at these times may reduce severity of some of the wearer’s head injuries & possibly prevent the wearer’s death from happening as the result of a fall & other occurrences. I/WE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT: THIS STABLE has offered me, & my child and/or legal ward if applicable, protective headgear/helmet that meets or exceeds the quality standards of the SEI CERTIFIED ASTM STANDARD F 1163 Equestrian Helmet. I/WE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT: Once provided, if I choose to wear the protective headgear/helmet offered that I/WE will be responsible for properly securing the headgear/helmet on the participant’s head at all times. I am not relying on THIS STABLE and/or its associates to check any headgear/helmet strap that I may wear, or to monitor my compliance with this suggestion at any time now or in the future.

. . .

I AGREE THAT [i]n consideration of THIS STABLE allowing my participation in this activity, under the terms set forth herein, I for myself and on behalf of my child and/or legal ward, heirs, administrators, personal representatives or assigns, do agree to release, hold harmless, and discharge THIS STABLE, its owners, agents, employees, officers, directors, representatives, assigns, members, owners of premises and trails, affiliated organizations, and Insurers, and others acting on their behalf (hereinafter, collectively referred to as “Associates”), of and from all claims, demands, causes of action and legal liability, whether the same be known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated, due to

THIS STABLE’S and/or ITS ASSOCIATE’S ordinary negligence or legal liability; and I do further agree that except in the event of THIS STABLE’S gross negligence and/or willful and/or wanton misconduct, I shall not bring any claims, demands, legal actions and causes of action, against THIS STABLE and ITS ASSOCIATES as stated above in this clause, for any economic or non-economic losses due to bodily in[j]ury and/or death and/or property damage, sustained by me and/or my minor child or legal ward in relation to the premises and operations of THIS STABLE, to include while riding, handling, or otherwise being near horses owned by me or owned by THIS STABLE, or in the care, custody or control of THIS STABLE, whether on or off the premises of THIS STABLE, but not limited to being on THIS STABLE’S premises.[19]

4. Plaintiffs allege that at some point during the ride, M.N. fell off her horse and was injured.[20]

DISCUSSION

Defendant’s Motion to Strike is Denied

Defendants moved to strike Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Response under Fed. R. Civ. P. 6, arguing it was filed untimely.[21] Although Defendant is correct that the Supplemental Response was filed untimely, the Motion to Strike will be denied.

DuCivR 7(1)(b)(3)(a) requires a party responding to a motion for summary judgment to file the response within 28 days of service.[22] Plaintiffs do not dispute that the Supplemental Response was filed more than 28 days after the Motion was served. Therefore, the Supplemental Response was filed untimely.

Rule 6 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows for an extension of a deadline after the deadline has passed. The United States Supreme Court has instructed courts that “any postdeadline extension [under Rule 6] must be on ‘upon motion made’ . . . .”[23] However, Rule 6(b)(1) should be “liberally construed to advance the goal of trying each case on the merits.”[24]Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Rsrv. v. McKee[25]construed an opposition to a motion to strike as a “motion made” under Rule 6(b). For the same reasoning, the Supplemental Response is construed as a motion under Rule 6(b). Like the opposition in Ute Indian Tribe, the Supplemental Response contains a high degree of formality and precision, and presents arguments for an extension under Rule 6. Defendants have been noticed of and were permitted to respond to Plaintiffs’ arguments in the form of a reply. Therefore, the filing will be accepted if Plaintiffs have demonstrated excusable neglect.

When considering whether a Rule 6(b)(1) movant has shown excusable neglect, a court should consider (1) the danger of prejudice to the nonmoving party; (2) the length of the delay and any impact it may have on judicial proceedings; (3) the reason for the delay, including whether it was within reasonable control of the movant; and (4) whether the movant acted in good faith (the “Pioneer factors”).[26] Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment on September 16, which included three new affidavits which Plaintiffs claim had not been disclosed to them prior to the Motion’s filing.[27] Plaintiffs filed a timely response on October 14[28], and then a supplemental response on October 28, which included a new affidavit from Mike Pelly, who was in the riding party when M.N. was allegedly injured.[29] Plaintiffs assert the reason for the late filing of the supplemental affidavit was that due to Defendants’ recent disclosure of new evidence, they were “put in the position of having to investigate, contact witnesses, and obtain refuting Affidavits on short notice.” and they were unable to obtain the Pelly affidavit prior to October 28.[30]

While Plaintiffs should have filed a motion to extend time, their actions are excusable under the circumstances. There is little danger of prejudice to Defendants, as they were able to respond to Plaintiffs’ arguments concerning the supplemental affidavit in a Supplemental Reply.[31] The length of the delay was only a matter of weeks, which courts have typically found to not be substantial, and will have minimal impact or delay on trial.[32] And all indications are that Plaintiffs acted in good faith. At least three of the four Pioneer factors favor a finding of excusable neglect. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motion to Strike will be denied, and Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Response and attached affidavit will be accepted.

Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment Will be Granted in Part and Denied in Part

“Summary judgment is proper if the movant demonstrates that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact” and that it is “entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”[33] In applying that standard, a court views the factual record and any reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[34] There is a genuine dispute of material fact if, based on the record as a whole, a reasonable factfinder could find in favor of the nonmoving party.[35]

A reasonable factfinder could find that Defendants were grossly negligent. Therefore, summary judgment will be denied on that count. However, a reasonable factfinder could not find Defendants committed intentional infliction of emotional distress. Therefore, summary judgment will be granted on that count.

A
Reasonable Factfinder Could Conclude Defendants Were Grossly Negligent

The Prior Ruling identified two pieces of evidence Plaintiffs submitted which, if believed by a jury, could support a finding of gross negligence. First, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that helmets were not offered. Second, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that Clay Doe encouraged the horses to go faster at one point, even though the horses carried inexperienced riders.

“In Utah, gross 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.'”[36]Under Utah law, resolution of a gross negligence claim is typically within the province of the factfinder.[37] Summary judgment is only appropriate on a gross negligence claim when “reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion” as to whether a defendant observed even slight care.[38]

After submitting multiple sets of affidavits alongside a renewed motion for summary judgment, Moving Defendants argue they have established that no reasonable fact finder could find helmets were not offered or the horses were encouraged to go faster. But the new affidavits only set up genuine issues of material fact, asking the court to resolve disputed questions of fact or credibility. Those questions are more properly addressed to the factfinder. Because there is sufficient evidence for a factfinder to conclude helmets were not offered to the group or that the horses were encouraged to go faster, and these acts may have caused M.N.’s injuries, summary judgment will be denied.

(1) There is Sufficient Evidence for a Factfinder to Conclude Helmets were not Offered to the Group

A reasonable factfinder could also conclude that Plaintiffs were not offered helmets by Moving Defendants. Plaintiffs have submitted affidavits by both Supnet[39] and a third-party present on the trail ride that day, Mike Pelley[40], that they did not observe helmets being offered to the group. Moving Defendants counters with affidavits from Jack Ruggles[41], Sheryl Mintz (who was a wrangler on the day of the incident at question)[42], and Dr. Fred Schwendeman, another third-party on the trail ride[43], that they observed helmets were made available to all members of the ride. It is the province of the factfinder, not a court ruling on a motion for summary judgment, to resolve competing and contradictory pieces of evidence.

Defendants argue that even taking Plaintiffs’ proffered affidavits as true, no factfinder could conclude that helmets were not offered to the group.[44] They argue the witnesses cannot testify that no one received a helmet, just that they did not personally observe any helmets being offered. But a reasonable factfinder could infer from Supnet and Pelley’s affidavits that no helmets were offered to the group. Taking all inferences in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, a reasonable factfinder could find that helmets were not offered to the group.

Defendants also suggest that because Plaintiffs signed the Release, which contains a clause agreeing that the signer had been offered a helmet, no factfinder could conclude that Plaintiffs were not offered helmets.[45] While that clause may be evidence that Plaintiffs were offered helmets and may be relevant in evaluating an assumption of risk defense, it is not dispositive of helmets being actually provided. Resolution of such a question is within the province of the factfinder.

Moving Defendants also argue that any actions in failing to offer helmets were “at most” negligent, not grossly negligent.[46] The Prior Ruling concluded that a factfinder could find failure to offer helmets was grossly negligent. Moving Defendants have not offered any contrary case law. A reasonable factfinder could conclude a failure to offer helmets on a horseback ride constituted the failure to observe even slight care.

Therefore, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Plaintiffs were not offered helmets, and such a fact-finding could constitute gross negligence.

(2) There is Sufficient Evidence for a Factfinder to Conclude that Clay Doe Told the Riders to Quicken the Pace.

There is sufficient evidence that Clay Doe may have told the riders to “quicken the pace, ” and that statement could support a claim for gross negligence. Plaintiffs have submitted an affidavit by Supnet that Clay Doe instructed the riders to quicken the pace. Supnet states in her affidavit that she heard Clay Doe make the statement, temporarily left M.N., and then returned to find M.N. fallen and injured on the ground.[47] Defendants argue that this evidence is insufficient to show that the statement to “quicken the pace” was the but for cause of M.N.’s injuries.[48] But in a motion for summary judgment, a court should make all inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[49] A reasonable factfinder could infer from Supnet’s affidavit that Clay Doe’s statement was the but for cause of M.N.’s injury, and led to M.N.’s horse accelerating, M.N. falling off her horse, and M.N.’s injury.

Moving Defendants further argue that Clay Doe was an independent contractor, and therefore, Moving Defendants cannot be liable under this theory.[50] If Clay Doe was an independent contractor, it is possible that Moving Defendants would not be liable for his actions. The status of Clay Doe as an independent contractor depends on many facts.[51] However, resolution of this question would have no effect on the Motion for Summary Judgment because other actions by Moving Defendants, such as the alleged failure to offer helmets, could support a finding of gross negligence. Therefore, whether Clay Doe was an independent contractor will not be resolved at this time.

(3) Plaintiffs’ affidavits are not “self-serving” and are proper to oppose summary judgment.

Defendants additionally argue that the affidavits Plaintiffs submit are “self-serving” and are thus insufficient to oppose summary judgment.[52] Their focus on whether the affidavits are self-serving is misplaced. “[V]irtually any party’s testimony can be considered ‘self-serving,’ and self-serving testimony is competent to oppose summary judgment.”[53] “So long as an affidavit is based upon personal knowledge and sets forth facts that would be admissible in evidence, it is legally competent to oppose summary judgment, irrespective of its self-serving nature.”[54] The affidavits Plaintiffs have submitted are based in key part on the declarant’s firsthand knowledge and observations, and are thus sufficient to oppose summary judgment.

Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar Plaintiffs’ Negligence Claims

Defendants initially argue Plaintiffs assumed the risk of any harm, based on the Release, the inherent risks of horseback riding, and Plaintiffs’ knowing disregard of those risks.[55] To the extent an assumption of the risk argument is relevant here, it will be a question for the factfinder to consider, preventing summary judgment on this issue.

There are three types of assumption of risk in Utah: primary express, primary implied, and secondary.[56]

• Primary express assumption of risk “involves a contractual provision in which a party expressly contracts not to sue for injury or loss which may thereafter be occasioned by the acts of another.”[57]

• Primary implied assumption of risk occurs in inherently risky activities, where the defendant as a matter of law owes no duty of care to a plaintiff for certain risks because no amount of care can negate those risks.[58]

• Secondary assumption of risk occurs when a person voluntarily but “unreasonabl[y] encounter[s] . . . a known and appreciated risk.”[59] Secondary assumption of risk is treated akin to contributory negligence, and is “no longer recognized in Utah as a total bar to recovery.”[60]

While Defendants presumably are arguing that the primary express and primary implied types of assumption of risk are relevant here, their arguments that Plaintiffs knowingly disregarded the risks of horse-riding seems more akin to secondary assumption of risk. Regardless of the type of assumption of risk Defendants are arguing, none would allow summary judgment to be granted on Plaintiffs’ claims.

Primary express assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Primary express assumption of risk allows a party to contract with another that they will not sue in case of injury or loss. This type of assumption of risk is more closely related to contract law, and typically takes the form of preinjury liability releases, such as the Release in this case.[61] The Prior Ruling held that the Release does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims for gross negligence. The Release shows that Plaintiffs only agreed to assume those “risks, conditions, & dangers [which] are inherent” to horseback riding. As discussed below, the negligence Defendants are accused of is not the type “inherent” to horseback riding. Accordingly, primary express assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims on this record.

Primary implied assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Primary implied assumption of risk only applies to “inherently risky” activities. In order for primary implied assumption of risk to bar a plaintiff’s claims, the injury must have resulted from a risk “inherent” to an activity, and be one that a defendant cannot eliminate through imposition of reasonable care.[62] Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act (the “Act”)[63] has essentially codified this doctrine as it relates to horse-related injuries.[64] Both the Act and the doctrine of primary implied assumption of risk distinguish between injuries resulting from the inherent risks of the relevant activity and injuries resulting from negligent behavior. Inherent risks of horseback riding may include a horse’s propensity to bolt when startled or other unpredictable behavior.[65] It may also refer to a rider’s failure to control the animal or not acting within one’s ability.[66] If an injury “was caused by an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated by the use of ordinary care, such a hazard is not . . . an inherent risk” of an inherently risky activity.[67] M.N.’s injury was alleged to have been caused by the grossly negligent behavior of Defendants in failing to offer M.N. a helmet and in urging the horses to speed up. These actions are not unavoidable risks – these risks could be eliminated by use of reasonable care. Whether primary implied assumption of risk could bar Plaintiffs’ claims depends on the factfinder’s conclusions as to what caused the injury. The disputed factual circumstances surrounding M.N.’s injury means that this question is not amenable to resolution on summary judgment. Therefore, primary implied assumption of risk would not bar M.N.’s claims at this stage.

Secondary assumption of risk does not bar Plaintiffs’ claims. Secondary assumption of risk, “the unreasonable encountering of a known and appreciated risk, ” is more properly viewed as an “aspect of contributory negligence.”[68] Contributory negligence is not a complete bar to recovery, but rather involves the apportionment of fault. Once the combined negligence of plaintiff and defendant has been established, evaluation of a comparative or contributory negligence defense is within the province of the factfinder.[69] There are genuine issues of material fact regarding both Defendants’ and Plaintiffs’ alleged negligence.[70] Therefore, it will fall to the fact finder to apportion fault in this case, and summary judgment based on secondary assumption of risk will not be granted.

The Prior Ruling Granted Summary Judgment on the Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Moving Defendants argue that summary judgment should be granted on the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. The Prior Ruling already granted summary judgment on that claim, ruling that a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim was barred by the Release. Therefore, this argument is moot.

Summary Judgment Will be Granted on the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Moving Defendants also request summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claim (“IIED”). As Defendants correctly point out, the Prior Ruling did not rule on whether sufficient evidence had been presented to support an IIED claim, but only concluded that an IIED claim was not barred by the Release.

To establish a claim for IIED under Utah law, Plaintiffs must prove that (1) Defendants’ conduct was outrageous and intolerable; (2) that Defendants intended to cause or acted in reckless disregard of the likelihood of causing emotional distress; (3) that Plaintiffs suffered emotional distress; and (4) that distress was proximately caused by Defendants.[71] “[T]o to sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a defendant’s alleged conduct must be more than unreasonable, unkind, or unfair[;] it must instead be so severe as to ‘evoke outrage or revulsion.'”[72] Conduct is not outrageous merely because it is “tortious, injurious, or malicious, or because it would give rise to punitive damages, or because it is illegal.” Rather, Utah courts have described the type of conduct required to sustain a claim for IIED as “extraordinary vile conduct, conduct that is atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”[73] The Tenth Circuit has similarly described Utah law as setting “high standards” to establish a claim for IIED.[74]

No reasonable factfinder could find that the conduct alleged by Plaintiffs rises to the level of outrage. Defendants’ alleged conduct in failing to provide a helmet and encouraging inexperienced riders to “quicken the pace” could evidence Defendants failed to observe even slight care, which would be sufficient to state a claim for gross negligence.[75] But as a matter of law, the alleged conduct does not constitute the extreme and outrageous conduct which Utah courts have required to establish a claim for IIED.

CONCLUSION AND ORDER

For the foregoing reasons, Moving Defendant’s Motion[76] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Summary Judgment will be entered on the claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Summary Judgment will not be entered on the claim for gross negligence. Additionally, Defendants’ Motion to Strike[77] is DENIED.

18

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Notes:

[1] Complaint, docket no. 2, filed March 4, 2019.

[2]
Id. at 3-4.

[3] First Amended Complaint, docket no. 33, filed April 14, 2020, at 3-4.

[4] Motion to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC, docket no. 38, filed October 30, 2020.

[5]
Nasserziayee v. Ruggles, No. 4:19-CV-00022 DN PK, 2021 WL 778603 (D. Utah Mar. 1, 2021).

[6]
Id. at *4.

[7] Id.

[8]
Id. at *5.

[9] Docket no. 63, filed September 16, 2021.

[10] Plaintiffs’ Response to Defendants Ruggles’ and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 68, filed October 14, 2021.

[11] Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Response to Defendants Ruggles’ and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 70, filed October 28, 2021.

[12] Defendants’ Reply Memorandum Supporting Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 71, filed October 28, 2021.

[13] Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC Motion to Strike Docket Document Nos. 70 and 70-1 (“Motion to Strike), docket no. 72, filed November 3, 2021.

[14] Plaintiff’s Response to Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC Motion to Strike Docket Document Nos. 70 and 70-1, docket no. 75, filed November 15, 2021.

[15] Docket no. 77, filed November 17, 2021.

[16] Defendants’ Supplemental Reply Memorandum Supporting Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 78, filed November 29, 2021.

[17] Motion at 4, Statement of Undisputed Facts at ¶1; Opposition at 3-4.

[18] Id.

[19] Motion at 4-5, Statement of Undisputed Facts at ¶2; Opposition at 4-6.

[20] Motion at 10, Statement of Undisputed Facts at ¶20.

[21] Motion to Strike at 2.

[22] DuCivR 7-1.

[23]
Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 873 (1990).

[24]
Rachel v. Troutt, 820 F.3d 390, 394 (10th Cir. 2016).

[25] No. 2:18-CV-00314 CW, 2019 WL 1931713, at *4 (D. Utah May 1, 2019).

[26] Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Assocs. Ltd. P’ship, 507 U.S. 380, 395 (1993).

[27] Plaintiff’s Response to Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC Motion to Strike Docket Document Nos. 70 and 70-1 at 2.

[28] Plaintiffs’ Response to Defendants Ruggles’ and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment on All Remaining Issues.

[29] Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Response to Defendants Ruggles’ and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC’s Motion for Summary Judgment on All Remaining Issues.

[30] Plaintiff’s Response to Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC Motion to Strike Docket Document Nos. 70 and 70-1 at 2.

[31] Defendants’ Supplemental Reply Memorandum Supporting Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 78, filed November 29, 2021.

[32] See Ute Indian Tribe, 2019 WL 1931713, at *6.

[33]
Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)).

[34] Adler, 144 F.3d at 670.

[35] See Finlinson v. Millard Cty., 455 F.Supp.3d 1232, 1238 (D. Utah 2020).

[36]
Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 423 P.3d 1150, 1159 (Utah 2017).

[37] Milne v. USA Cycling Inc., 575 F.3d 1120, 1130 (10th Cir. 2009)

[38] Penunuri, 423 P.3d at 1159.

[39] Affidavit of Lenore Supnet, docket no. 68-1, filed October 14, 2021.

[40] Affidavit of Mike Pelley, docket no. 70-1, filed October 28, 2021.

[41] Declaration of Jack Ruggles in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 64, filed September 16, 2021.

[42] Declaration of Sheryl Mintz in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 66, filed September 16, 2021.

[43] Declaration of Dr. Fred Schwendeman in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Jack Ruggles, Jane Doe Ruggles, and Zion Canyon Trail Rides at Jacob’s Ranch, LLC on All Remaining Issues, docket no. 67, filed September 16, 2021.

[44] Motion at 11-12.

[45]
Id. at 12-13.

[46] Motion at 11.

[47] Affidavit of Lenore Supnet, docket no. 68-1, filed October 14, 2021, at 4.

[48] Motion at 13.

[49]
Brown v. Parker-Hannifin Corp., 746 F.2d 1407, 1411 (10th Cir. 1984).

[50] Motion at 14.

[51] The allegation in the Amended Complaint that Defendant Jack (“Pappy”) Ruggles and Defendant Jacobs Ranch stated Defendant Joshua Ruggles was acting as an independent contractor is, like the Moving Defendants’ affidavits, not conclusive of independent contractor status. Amended Complaint at 3.

[52]
Id. at 10-11.

[53]
Greer v. City of Wichita, Kansas, 943 F.3d 1320, 1325 (10th Cir. 2019).

[54]
Janny v. Gamez, 8 F.4th 883, 900 (10th Cir. 2021) (quoting Speidell v. United States ex rel. IRS, 978 F.3d 731, 740 (10th Cir. 2020)).

[55] Motion at 16-17.

[56]
Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Fin., Co., LLC, 445 P.3d 474, 488-89 (Utah 2019).

[57] Jacobsen Const. Co. v. Structo Lite Eng’g, Inc., 619 P.2d 306, 310 (Utah 1980).

[58] Rutherford, 445 P.3d at 489.

[59]
Id. (quoting Moore v. Burton Lumber & Hardware Co., 631 P.2d 865, 870 (Utah 1981)) (alterations and omission in original).

[60]
Hale v. Beckstead, 116 P.3d 263, 268 (Utah 2005).

[61] See Rutherford, 445 P.3d at 489.

[62] Id.

[63] Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202(2).

[64] See Feldman v. Salt Lake City Corp., 484 P.3d 1134, 1145 (Utah 2021) (discussing how the Utah legislature codified primary implied assumption of risk in the context of recreational park related injuries).

[65] See Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 301 P.3d 984, 989 (Utah 2013).

[66] Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-201(5).

[67] See Clover v. Snowbird Ski Resort, 808 P.2d 1037, 1047 (Utah 1991) (discussing primary implied assumption of risk in the context of ski resorts).

[68] Moore, 631 P.2d at 870.

[69] See Acculog, Inc. v. Peterson, 692 P.2d 728, 730 (Utah 1984).

[70] See Mason v. Brigham Young Univ., No. 2:06-CV-826 TS, 2008 WL 312953, at *2 (D. Utah Feb. 1, 2008).

[71] Retherford v. AT & T Commc’ns of Mountain States, Inc., 844 P.2d 949, 971 (Utah 1992), holding modified by Graham v. Albertson’s LLC, 462 P.3d 367 (Utah 2020).

[72]
Davidson v. Baird, 438 P.3d 928, 945 (Utah App. 2019), cert. denied, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019) (quoting Cabaness v. Thomas, 232 P.3d 486 (Utah 2010), abrogated on other grounds by Gregory & Swapp, PLLC v. Kranendonk, 424 P.3d 897 (Utah 2018)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

[73]
Chard v. Chard, 456 P.3d 776, 791 (Utah App. 2019) (quoting Retherford, 844 P.2d at 977 n.19).

[74]
Hogan v. Winder, 762 F.3d 1096, 1112 (10th Cir. 2014).

[75] Penunuri, 423 P.3d at 1159.

[76] Docket no. 63, filed September 16, 2021.

[77] Docket no. 73, filed November 3, 2021.

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One line not filled in properly, and NOT needed anyway, stops defendant from winning motion to dismiss a case.

Release used for a dog sledding accident asked for the minor child’s name which was not written in, so the release failed.

Sturm v. Weber (D. Colo. 2022)

State: Colorado: United States District Court, D. Colorado

Plaintiff: Sandra Sturm, and Timothy Sturm and Sandra Sturm, as parents and next friends of their minor child, Holly Sturm Plaintiff

Defendant: Josef Weber a/k/a Joseph Weber, Krabloonik, Incorporated

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and, in the alternative, premises liability pursuant to the Colorado Premises Liability Act

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: split decision

Year: 2022

Summary

Dog sled guide fell off the dog sled, and the sled hit a tree injuring the plaintiff. The release failed initially to stop the litigation because on line on the release was not filled in correctly. The line was not needed for the release to be valid.

Facts

Krabloonik is a recreational dogsled operation in Snowmass Village, Colorado. Krabloonik employs “mushers” to steer the dogsleds during the rides it offers its customers. Krabloonik’s dogsleds are not equipped with track-braking systems; instead, mushers are trained to use resistance and counterbalance to steer and control the speed of Krabloonik’s dogsleds. Josef Weber operated Sandra and Holly Sturm’s dogsled on March 11, 2019.

According to his Musher Accident Report, Weber steered the dogsled into a rut, causing it to tip. When Weber attempted to level the dogsled, he fell off, leaving Sandra and Holly Sturm on a runaway sled. Without Weber to break and steer, the dogsled did not come to a stop until it collided with a tree. Plaintiffs claim that as a result of the collision, Holly Sturm suffered a broken leg that had to be surgically repaired and Sandra Sturm injured her elbow. Per the Amended Complaint, Holly Sturm also suffers from PTSD, mental stress, and anxiety as a result of the dogsledding incident.

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

The entire case resolves around one issue at this point. Was the release ineffective or void because a blank line on the release was not filled in or filled in with incorrect information.

Timothy Sturm, as Holly Sturm’s parent, is permitted to waive negligence claims on her behalf. See C.R.S. § 13-22-107(3) (“A parent of a child may, on behalf of the child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence.”) Therefore, the Court agrees with Defendants that the lack of Holly Sturm’s signature is irrelevant. Notwithstanding this fact, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that the Participation Agreement signed by Timothy Sturm is an effective release of his daughter’s claims. No name-let alone Holly’s-appears in the clearly marked space provided to identify the minor whose claims are being released, and neither party has explained to the Court who “Whitney” is. Therefore, the Court denies the Construed Motion with respect to Holly Sturm’s claims.

The issue is there was a line where the minor child’s name was to be written if the release was to stop a lawsuit by the minor child. That line was either blank or filled in with the name Whitney. Since the name of the injured child and daughter of the parent, signing the release was not on the line, the release is not valid to stop the claims of the minor child.

There is NO Need to have the name of the children on the release to begin with.

So, for whatever reason, a line to collect information or a desire to know the name on a release defeated the release. The Colorado statute is pretty clear C.R.S. § 13-22-107, all you have to do for a release to stop a claim by a minor, is to identify that the parent is signing away the child’s right to sue. No information has to be collected about the child or children.

A release was signed by the father which had the blank line. A release was also signed by the mother. The mother’s release did not indicate she was signing away her child’s right to sue. If the mothers release would have had language indicating she was signing away the child’s right to sue, the failure of the father’s release to be effective would not have mattered.

The mother also argued that the actions of the defendant were willful and wanton. This was an attempt for the mother to have the release she signed thrown out. Willful and wanton acts on the part of the defendant in Colorado, like all other states, bars the release from stopping claims for those acts.

Under Colorado law “”[w]illful and wanton conduct is purposeful conduct committed recklessly that exhibits an intent consciously to disregard the safety of others.” Not specifically plead, the court was able to find language in the complaint that might lend itself to a claim for willful and wanton conduct that would not be covered by the release.

In all other issues, the court found the release was valid under Colorado law.

On a procedural note, the motion giving rise to this decision was filed early in the case, prior to discovery being completed. Consequently, the court felt that because the facts of the case had not been fully briefed, it had little choice but to rule in favor of the plaintiff’s because there were so many questions of fact that had not been brought forward yet.

Discovery was completed by the time this decision was issued. The court in its motion stated the defense could file another motion for summary judgment because more information was available and because of the timing of the first motion, the court had ruled on it as a preliminary motion not a motion for summary judgement.

So Now What?

A release is a contract. It is not a marketing information collection document. Do not collect any information other than what is required for the release. Signatures are required, and dates help identify the person. Address, phone and other contact info could be helpful. But don’t confuse your guests or the judge and make it something it is not.

Why there were two releases does not make any sense. One for a parent to sign with minor children and one without? Why not have one release, that correctly states that signing the release gives up the parents right to sue and the child’s right to sue under Colorado law. That would have easily stopped this lawsuit.

Poor releases give way to bad decisions in courtrooms.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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Sturm v. Weber (D. Colo. 2022)

Sturm v. Weber (D. Colo. 2022)

SANDRA STURM, and TIMOTHY STURM and SANDRA STURM, as parents and next friends of their minor child, HOLLY STURM Plaintiff,
v.
JOSEF WEBER a/k/a JOSEPH WEBER, KRABLOONIK, INCORPORATED, Defendants.

Civil Action No. 21-cv-0684-WJM-GPG

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 16, 2022

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

William J. Martínez United States District Judge

Plaintiffs Sandra Sturm individually, and Sandra and Timothy Sturm as parents and next friends of their minor child, Holly Sturm, (collectively, “the Sturms”) sue Defendants Josef Weber and Krabloonik, Incorporated (jointly, “Defendants”) for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and, in the alternative, premises liability pursuant to the Colorado Premises Liability Act (“CPLA”), Colorado Revised Statutes §13-21-115, for injuries sustained during a 2019 dogsledding accident in Snowmass Village, Colorado. (ECF No. 5.) This matter is before the Court on Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”) (ECF No. 31.) Defendants make one argument- because the Sturms released Defendants of all claims for negligence, Plaintiffs cannot maintain this lawsuit as a matter of law. (ECF No. 31 at 2.) In support, Defendants attach signed copies of Krabloonik’s Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk (“Participant Agreement”) (ECF No. 31-1 at 3-4.)

Due to the early stage of the litigation at which the Motion was filed and the purely legal basis of Defendants’ argument, the record was not as robust as the Court would normally see on a motion for summary judgment. No doubt this in great part reflects the fact that the Motion was filed prior to the close of discovery. Given the legal nature of Defendants’ sole argument, and state of the record at the time the Motion was filed, the Court exercises its discretion to construe the Motion as a motion directed to the sufficiency of the factual allegations of Plaintiffs’ operative complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6) (“Construed Motion”). For the reasons set forth below, the Construed Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

Krabloonik is a recreational dogsled operation in Snowmass Village, Colorado. (ECF No. 31 at 2.) Krabloonik employs “mushers” to steer the dogsleds during the rides it offers its customers. (See ECF No. 31 at 1-2.) Krabloonik’s dogsleds are not equipped with track-braking systems; instead, mushers are trained to use resistance and counterbalance to steer and control the speed of Krabloonik’s dogsleds. (ECF No. 32 at 11; ECF 38-1 at 2.) Josef Weber operated Sandra and Holly Sturm’s dogsled on March 11, 2019. (ECF No. 31 at 3 ¶¶ 6-7.)

Prior to embarking on the dogsled ride with Weber, Sandra and Timothy Sturm each signed a copy of Krabloonik’s Participant Agreement. (See ECF No. 31-1 at 3-4; ECF No. 31-2 at 10.) The parties agree that Sandra Sturm signed the Participation Agreement on her own behalf. (ECF No. 31 at 2.) The parties disagree, however, on whether the Participation Agreement signed by Timothy Sturm was properly signed on behalf of Holly Sturm. (See ECF No. 31 at 2; ECF No. 32 at 4.)

The Participant Agreement provides two spaces for signatures: one for customers 18 years of age and over to sign for themselves, and one for parents or guardians to sign on behalf of a minor. (ECF No. 31-1 at 3.) The section to be completed on behalf of a minor provides a large space with instruction to “print [the] minor’s name].” (Id.) Holly Sturm’s name does not appear on this line on either copy of the Participant Agreement completed by the Sturms. (Id. at 3-4.) The form completed by Timothy Sturm has “Timothy Whitney Holly” written at the bottom of the page on and near the line provided for the signature of the minor’s parent or guardian. (Id. at 3.)

The Participant Agreement included the following exculpatory provisions:

I hereby agree to release, indemnify, and discharge KKEN, [2]on behalf of myself, my spouse, my children, my parents, my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estate as follows:

1. I acknowledge that my participation in dog sled tour activities entails known and unanticipated risks that could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or to third parties….

The risks include, among other things: . . . losing control of the dogs may result in collisions with other sleds and/or manmade and natural objects such as bridges, trees, rocks, cliffs, streams and other obstacles; . . . equipment failure; . . . I understand that sled dog touring is a wilderness activity that exposes me to all elements of the outdoors and natural surroundings.

Furthermore, KKEN employees have difficult jobs to perform. They seek safety, but they are not infallible. They might be unaware of a participant’s fitness or abilities. They might misjudge the weather or other environmental conditions. They may give incomplete warnings or instructions, and the equipment being used might malfunction.

2. I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless KKEN from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of KKEN’s equipment or facilities, including any claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of KKEN….

By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or property is damaged during my participation in this activity, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against KKEN on the basis of any claim from which I have released herein.

I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I have read and understood it, and I agree to be bound by its terms….

In consideration of (print minor’s name) (“Minor”) being permitted by KKEN to participate in its activities and to use its equipment and facilities . . . I further agree to indemnify and hold harmless KKEN from any and all claims which are brought by, or on behalf of Minor . . . connected with such use or participation by Minor.

(ECF No. 31-1 at 3 (emphasis in original).)

According to his Musher Accident Report, Weber steered the dogsled into a rut, causing it to tip. (ECF No. 32-12.) When Weber attempted to level the dogsled, he fell off, leaving Sandra and Holly Sturm on a runaway sled. (Id.) Without Weber to break and steer, the dogsled did not come to a stop until it collided with a tree. (Id.) Plaintiffs claim that as a result of the collision, Holly Sturm suffered a broken leg that had to be surgically repaired and Sandra Sturm injured her elbow. (ECF No. 5 at 4 ¶¶ 22, 28.) Per the Amended Complaint, Holly Sturm also suffers from PTSD, mental stress, and anxiety as a result of the dogsledding incident. (Id. at 4 ¶ 22.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a cause of action for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The 12(b)(6) standard requires the Court to “assume the truth of the plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). In ruling on such a motion, the dispositive inquiry is “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Granting a motion to dismiss “is a harsh remedy which must be cautiously studied, not only to effectuate the spirit of the liberal rules of pleading but also to protect the interests of justice.” Dias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 567 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

III. ANALYSIS

In the Construed Motion Defendants argue that the Participation Agreement bars all of Plaintiffs’ claims. Plaintiffs argue that dismissal is inappropriate for two reasons: (1) under Colorado law, an exculpatory agreement cannot shield against willful and wanton acts or omissions; and (2) the Participation Agreement is invalid under Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981).

A. Holly Sturm’s Claims

Timothy Sturm, as Holly Sturm’s parent, is permitted to waive negligence claims on her behalf. See C.R.S. § 13-22-107(3) (“A parent of a child may, on behalf of the child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence.”) Therefore, the Court agrees with Defendants that the lack of Holly Sturm’s signature is irrelevant. Notwithstanding this fact, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that the Participation Agreement signed by Timothy Sturm is an effective release of his daughter’s claims. No name-let alone Holly’s-appears in the clearly marked space provided to identify the minor whose claims are being released, and neither party has explained to the Court who “Whitney” is. Therefore, the Court denies the Construed Motion with respect to Holly Sturm’s claims.

B. Sandra Sturm’s Claims

“Under Colorado law, ‘exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored,’ B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998), and it is well-established that such agreements cannot ‘shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,’ Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010).” Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 883 F.3d 1243, 1249 (10th Cir. 2018). “But claims of negligence are a different matter. Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence.” Espinoza v. Ark. Valley Adventures, LLC, 809 F.3d 1150, 1152 (10th Cir. 2016).

“The determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court to determine.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). Accordingly, the Colorado Supreme Court has instructed courts to consider the following four factors when determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language [collectively, the ‘Jones factors’].” Id. An exculpatory agreement “must satisfy all four factors to be enforceable.” Raup v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 734 Fed.Appx. 543, 546 (10th Cir. 2018).

1. Willful and Wanton Conduct

Plaintiffs argue that the exculpatory provisions of the Participation Agreement cannot be enforced in this instance because Plaintiffs’ injuries are the result of Defendants’ willful and wanton conduct. (ECF No. 32 at 8.) Defendants argue the Court cannot consider whether Defendants’ conduct was willful and wanton because Plaintiffs have not properly pleaded such conduct in the Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 31 at 12.) Plaintiffs erroneously claim that they do not need to have pleaded willful and wanton conduct for the Court to consider their arguments.[3] (ECF No. 32 at 15-16; s ee Suddith v. Citimortgage, Inc., 79 F.Supp.3d 1193, 1198 n.2 (citing Jojola 55 F.3d 488, 494 (10th Cir. 1995)).) While Plaintiffs do not explicitly describe Defendants’ conduct as “willful and wanton” in the Amended Complaint (see ECF No. 5), the sufficiency of Plaintiffs’ pleading is determined by the presence (or lack) of facts rather than talismanic phrases. See Schneider, 493 F.3d at 1177.

The Court has reviewed the Amended Complaint, in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, with an eye for allegations that might sufficiently plead willful and wanton conduct. Under Colorado law, “[w]illful and wanton conduct is purposeful conduct committed recklessly that exhibits an intent consciously to disregard the safety of others.” Forman v. Brown, 944 P.2d 559, 564 (Colo.App. 1996). The Court finds only one allegation that can fairly be characterized as pleading conscious disregard for the safety of others. In their Second Claim for Relief (Negligence – Krabloonik, Inc.), Plaintiffs allege Defendant Krabloonik “put[] profit over safety by deliberately choosing to continue dog sledding trips on unsafe terrain and in unsafe weather conditions.” (ECF No. 5 at 8 ¶ 42.a.) Though this allegation is relatively thin, the Court finds that when considered in connection with the factual allegations relating to the icy terrain, lack of snow, and obstacles on the dogsled track, it is sufficient to plead willful and wanton conduct. Therefore, Defendants’ Construed Motion is denied with respect to Sandra Sturm’s Second Claim for Relief.

2. Validity of the Participation Agreement Under Jones

Defendants discuss each of the four Jones factors. (ECF No. 31 at 3-11.) In their Response, Plaintiffs only address the fourth Jones factor and concede that “[f]or recreational releases such as the one at issue here, the issue generally turns on the final Jones factor.” (ECF No. 32 at 17.) Given Plaintiffs’ concession, the Court concludes that the Participation Agreement satisfies the first three Jones factors, and therefore the Court need only address the fourth factor.

Under the fourth factor, “[t]he inquiry should be whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989). The Colorado Supreme Court has explained that “[t]o determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [a court may] examine[ ] the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.'” Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004).

After carefully analyzing the Participation Agreement, the Court finds that it was the intent of the parties to extinguish liability, and this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed. The language in the Participation Agreement is not overburdened with extensive or complex legal jargon, nor is the Participation Agreement inordinately long (less than a page) or unusually complicated. See Lahey v. Covington, 964 F.Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (concluding that a release agreement of “just over one page” was “short”).

Moreover, the Court finds that the organization of the Participation Agreement makes it highly unlikely that the exculpatory provisions could have been missed or reasonably misunderstood. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468. The very top of the form reads, in bold font and all capital letters, “PARTICIPATION AGREEMENT, RELEASE AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” (ECF No. 31-1 at 3.) Sections of the Participation Agreement are written in bold font to draw the eye, including provisions highlighting the wide range of risks related to participation in the dogsled ride and releasing potential future claims alleging “negligent acts or omissions.” (Id.) Immediately above Sandra and Timothy Sturm’s signatures are two sentences whereby they acknowledged the opportunity to read the Participation Agreement in full and agreed that they had in fact read and understood it. (ECF No. 31-1 at 3-4.) The Court therefore finds that, under the standard articulated by the Colorado Supreme Court in Chadwick, the exculpatory provisions of the Participation Agreement were clear and unambiguous. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467-68.

Plaintiffs maintain that the Participation Agreement is not enforceable because the provisions do not contain “specific language making reference to specific risks, specific activities, and specifically waiving personal injury claims based on the activity being engaged in.” (ECF No. 32 at 18 (citing Wycoff v. Grace Church of the Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1265 (Colo.App. 2010)).) According to Plaintiffs, because the Participation Agreement does not explicitly reference the possibility of the precise course of events Plaintiffs allege occurred, [4] the exculpatory provisions therein are invalid. (ECF No. 32 at 18-22.)

Contrary to Plaintiffs’ argument, Colorado law does not require “that an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter. Rather, an exculpatory agreement bars a claim if the agreement clearly reflects the parties’ intent to extinguish liability for that type of claim.” Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 715 F.3d 867, 873 (10th Cir. 2013); see also Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785. Here, again, the Court finds that the exculpatory provisions of the Participation Agreement unambiguously reflect the parties’ intent to extinguish liability for Plaintiffs’ type of claims.

Plaintiffs also allege they were injured when Weber lost control of the dogsled Sandra and Holly Sturm were on, causing it to careen into a tree. (ECF No. 5 at 2 ¶¶ 89.) However, Plaintiff “expressly agree[d] and promise[d] to accept and assume all of the risks existing” in the dogsled ride, including “collisions with other sleds and/or manmade and natural objects such as . . . trees.”[5] (ECF No. 31-1 at 3.) Plaintiff alleges Krabloonik failed to install a braking system to help mushers control the speed of dogsleds (ECF No. 5 at 9 ¶ 42), but Plaintiffs expressly waived all “claims which allege negligent acts or omissions” by Defendants. (ECF No. 31-1 at 3 (emphasis in original).) Plaintiffs allege Weber lost control due to icy conditions and because the dogsled hit a rut (see ECF No. 5 at 3 ¶ 11); however, among the risks Plaintiffs agreed to accept and assume was the possibility that Weber might “misjudge the weather or other environmental conditions” and, again, they waived all claims alleging negligence. (ECF No. 31-1.) Thus, it is irrefutable that the Participation Agreement reflects an intent of the parties to extinguish liability for Plaintiffs’ type of claims, and that Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are the type of injuries contemplated by the Participation Agreement.

For all these reasons, the Court finds that all four of the Jones factors are satisfied and that the exculpatory provisions of Participation Agreement are valid and enforceable as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Eby, 998 F.2d 858, 862 (10th Cir. 1993) (“If the plain language of the waiver is clear and unambiguous, it is enforced as a matter of law.”). In addition, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ claims fall within the scope of the enforceable Participation Agreement. Accordingly, dismissal of Sandra Stum’s claims, other than her Second Claim for Relief, is appropriate.

IV. CONCLUSION

Since the Construed Motion was briefed, discovery in this case has closed. In this Order the Court has considered and ruled on the Construed Motion solely in light of the pleading requirements of Rule 12(b)(6). As a result, the parties have not yet had the opportunity to fully brief the question, as it regards the claims not dismissed by the terms of this Order, of whether there are no genuine issues of material fact entitling the movant under Rule 56 to judgment as a matter of law. Therefore, the provisions of WJM Revised Practice Standards III.F.2 notwithstanding, the Court will grant Defendants leave to file a renewed motion under Rule 56 addressing all evidence in the record through the close of discovery, and directed solely to the remaining claims in this case.

For the reasons set forth above, the Court ORDERS as follows:

1. Defendants’ Construed Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 31) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as set forth above;

2. Defendants are granted leave to file a renewed motion for summary judgment by no later than July 15, 2022;

3. Plaintiffs shall file their response to Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, if any, by no later than August 5, 2022; and

4. Defendants shall file their reply in support of their renewed motion, if any, by no later than August 19, 2022.

———

Notes:

[1] The following facts are undisputed unless attributed to a party or otherwise noted. All citations to docketed materials are to the page number in the CM/ECF header, which sometimes differs from a document’s internal pagination.

[2] KKEN is defined as “Krabloonik Kennels, their agents, owners, officers, volunteers, participants, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on their behalf” in the Participant Agreement. (ECF No. 31-1 at 3.)

[3] Plaintiffs also argue that, if the Court finds their pleading insufficient, they can amend under Rule 15. However, Plaintiffs have not requested leave to amend. Even if the Court construes this argument as a motion for leave to amend their complaint, Plaintiffs’ mid-brief request directly violates D.C.COLO.LCivR 7.1(d)’s admonition that “[a] motion shall not be included in a response or reply to the original motion. A motion shall be filed as a separate document.” It also contradicts the undersigned’s more explicit instructions in his Revised Practice Standard III.B. Therefore, the Court considers this argument no further.

[4] Plaintiffs stress that Krabloonik was on notice from prior incidents that certain risks might materialize. (See, e.g., ECF No. 32 at 18) (“[In the Participation Agreement” there is a complete lack of discussion on numerous specific safety risks which Krabloonik was well aware of prior to the incident.”).)

[5] Plaintiff argues that this provision is not specific enough to effectively waive liability because it indicates that losing control of dogs, rather than mushers falling off the dogsled, can lead to collisions with trees. (ECF No. 32 at 18-19.) The Court disagrees. The portion of the Participation Agreement containing this phrase is merely a set of examples, and not an exhaustive, itemized list of potential harms being disclaimed. The Participation Agreement provides that claims arising from collisions with objects resulting in injury are among the types of claims the parties intended to extinguish. Under Jones and Chadwick, this is enough.

———


The path down from the road to a river is an open and obvious danger that the plaintiff assumes before walking down the path.

Plaintiff worked hard to come up with any possible legal theory to win.

Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

Plaintiff: Jessica Rooney

Defendant: Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Company, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2022

Summary

Plaintiff sued for injuries she received while walking down a path to the river to go tubing. Defendant tube rental company proved the risks were open and obvious, and the plaintiff assumed the risks.

Facts

In July 2018, plaintiff sustained injuries when she slipped on a rock located on an access path while attempting to access the Battenkill River to go water tubing.

This is a case out of New York so the facts are few, and the decision is short.

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

Not all the legal arguments made by the plaintiff are going to be discussed here. The case is easy to read, and you understand them on your own.

The plaintiff was walking down an embankment to the river, which was not owned by the tubing company, when she fell. She sued for negligence and argued the defendant owed her a high duty of care because the defendant was a common carrier.

The trail court adopted that position and upheld the plaintiffs’ claims on that theory; however, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because she assumed the risk causing her injury. The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court did not review the common carrier question.

(It would be extremely rare and unlikely that any transportation that was incidental to the recreational activity and only taking people from the shop to the put in would be found to be a common carrier by any court in any state.)

The gravamen of plaintiff’s contention is that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is inapplicable here because, although she had traversed the at-issue access path on a prior occasion, such activity is not an inherent risk associated with water tubing. “Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”

The duty of the defendant in this situation is to exercise reasonable care to make sure the conditions are as safe as they appear. The defendant has a duty to search for unknown risks that may not be obvious to the guest. Meaning any risk that is visible is assumed by the guest, those risks that are hidden are not assumed by the guest.

The duty owed under these circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty”

The court found that the defendant had met its burden and showed there were no hidden risks and the risks the plaintiff encountered were open and obvious.

Given this evidence, we find that defendant established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law that plaintiff, who had prior experience water tubing and who had on a prior occasion used the same access path, assumed the inherent risk of her injuries. The risk of falling on uneven and rocky terrain while traversing the river’s embankment to access the river is a commonly appreciated and an obvious risk inherent in and arising out of the nature of the sport of river tubing…

Under New York law, when the defendant meets this threshold then the burden of proof shifts to the plaintiff to prove the defendant hid the risks or made the risk greater than they appeared.

Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant concealed or unreasonably enhanced the danger, engaged in reckless or intentional conduct or created conditions that were unique and not inherent in river water sports activities

The plaintiff failed to do so in two different ways. First, the plaintiff was unable to prove the defendant had anything to do with the path leading to the water, or that the path was in terrible condition with hidden dangers. Second, the plaintiff walked the same path in prior years without incident when tubing.

The court then summed up its analysis on why the plaintiff could not overcome her burden.

“One who engages in water sports assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity” and it is foreseeable that, in order to gain access to the river, plaintiff needed to traverse down an uneven embankment consisting of rock and gravel. Although plaintiff encountered less than optimal conditions on the river embankment access path in July 2018, the risk of falling on the natural, rocky terrain is interwoven with and inherent in the sport of river water tubing and therefore was assumed by her. Plaintiff’s vague and equivocal testimony that defendant unreasonably increased the risk of traversing the path was insufficient to create a question of fact. Moreover, although plaintiff testified that there was no warning sign at the access point, a warning sign is unnecessary as “[t]he duty to warn… does not extend to open and obvious dangers – particularly those encompassing natural geographic phenomena which can readily be observed by those employing the reasonable use of their senses”

So Now What?

In New York, it is always an issue as to whether or not an activity will fall within the purview of New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 which prohibits a place of amusement from using a release. Several courts have interpreted New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 to mean a physical place and so a river may not qualify. However, based on several other decisions it might be worth putting release language into a written agreement for guests to sign.

At the very least, the defendant could use an assumption of risk agreement where the agreement points out the risk of tubing, including accessing the river, reinforce those risks in a safety talk and protect from more than the inherent risks of tubing.

It might not bring closure any quicker; however, it might deter a plaintiff from starting a case to begin with.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

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Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

Rooney v. Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Co. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2022)

Jessica Rooney, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
Battenkill River Sports & Campground Holding Company, LLC, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 2022-02606

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

April 21, 2022

Calendar Date:February 10, 2022

Basch & Keegan, LLP, Kingston (Derek J. Spada of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Mark D. Goris, Cazenovia, for respondent-appellant.

Before: Egan Jr., J.P., Clark, Aarons, Reynolds Fitzgerald and McShan, JJ.

Reynolds Fitzgerald, J.

Cross appeals from an order of the Supreme Court (McGrath, J.), entered July 1, 2021 in Rensselaer County, which granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

In July 2018, plaintiff sustained injuries when she slipped on a rock located on an access path while attempting to access the Battenkill River to go water tubing. Plaintiff subsequently commenced this negligence action against defendant, the company that rented her the tube and shuttled her by van to the river’s access point. Following joinder of issue and discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the basis that defendant did not owe or breach any duty to plaintiff and that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. Plaintiff opposed the motion arguing, among other things, that defendant was a common carrier and, as such, it owed a duty of care to maintain the access path. Supreme Court found that defendant operated as a common carrier, and that questions of fact existed as to whether the embankment’s access path was primarily used for defendant’s business and whether defendant assumed a duty of care. Nevertheless, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion and dismissed the complaint, finding that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied to bar plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff appeals and defendant cross appeals from those portions of the order that found defendant to be a common carrier and that questions of fact exist as to whether defendant owed plaintiff a duty of care. [1]

The gravamen of plaintiff’s contention is that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is inapplicable here because, although she had traversed the at-issue access path on a prior occasion, such activity is not an inherent risk associated with water tubing. “Under the assumption of risk doctrine, a person who elects to engage in a sport or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Schorpp v Oak Mtn., LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 1137 [2016] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 484-485 [1997]; Thompson v Windham Mtn. Partners, LLC, 161 A.D.3d 1366, 1366 [2018]; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d 957, 958 [2008]). “The duty owed under these circumstances is a duty to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 958 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]).

In support of its motion, defendant submitted photographs [2] of the access path used by plaintiff and the particular rock that plaintiff identified as the one on which she slipped. Defendant also relied on the depositions of plaintiff and Suzanne Piekarz, the daughter of defendant’s owner. Plaintiff’s testimony confirmed that she had previously used the same access path on a prior water tubing excursion. Piekarz, who has worked at the business since she was a child, testified that the access path consisted of dry dirt and was not particularly rocky, and that the business did not own or maintain the river’s embankment access path. Her testimony also revealed that customers were warned by posted and written materials to walk and not run to the river, and that they assumed the risk for all river water activities, including one sign, which read:” you assume risk of injury and/or death when participating in river activities .” Given this evidence, we find that defendant established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law that plaintiff, who had prior experience water tubing and who had on a prior occasion used the same access path, assumed the inherent risk of her injuries. The risk of falling on uneven and rocky terrain while traversing the river’s embankment to access the river is a commonly appreciated and an obvious risk inherent in and arising out of the nature of the sport of river tubing (see Sara W. v Rocking Horse Ranch Corp., 169 A.D.3d 1342, 1343-1344 [2019]; Martin v State of New York, 64 A.D.3d 62, 64 [2009], lv denied 13 N.Y.3d 706 [2009]; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 959).

Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether defendant concealed or unreasonably enhanced the danger, engaged in reckless or intentional conduct or created conditions that were unique and not inherent in river water sports activities (see Morgan v State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d at 487). Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she previously rented a tube from defendant on two prior occasions and that she was taken by shuttle van to an access point, including on one occasion to the same access point where the accident occurred. Plaintiff recalled receiving documentation to fill out, viewing some warning signs at or near the rental office and receiving some general instructions during the shuttle van ride, but she did not recall any specific discussions, warnings or instructions regarding the access point or how to traverse from the shuttle van down to the river’s embankment access path to the river. Plaintiff described the river’s embankment access path as a narrow, rocky path that was difficult to navigate while holding a tube. Plaintiff stated that she was wearing flip flops and did not know what caused her to fall. Lastly, plaintiff asserted that when she went river tubing in 2017, the river embankment access path was a much smoother surface consisting of hard packed dirt and gravel.

“One who engages in water sports assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity” Sartoris v State of New York, 133 A.D.2d 619, 620 [1987] [citation omitted]), and it is foreseeable that, in order to gain access to the river, plaintiff needed to traverse down an uneven embankment consisting of rock and gravel. Although plaintiff encountered less than optimal conditions on the river embankment access path in July 2018, the risk of falling on the natural, rocky terrain is interwoven with and inherent in the sport of river water tubing and therefore was assumed by her. Plaintiff’s vague and equivocal testimony that defendant unreasonably increased the risk of traversing the path was insufficient to create a question of fact. Moreover, although plaintiff testified that there was no warning sign at the access point, a warning sign is unnecessary as “[t]he duty to warn… does not extend to open and obvious dangers – particularly those encompassing natural geographic phenomena which can readily be observed by those employing the reasonable use of their senses” (Arsenault v State of New York, 96 A.D.3d 97, 101 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). In view of the foregoing, we find that Supreme Court’s award of summary judgment to defendant dismissing the complaint was proper (see Martin v State of New York, 64 A.D.3d at 65; Youmans v Maple Ski Ridge, Inc., 53 A.D.3d at 959-960).

Egan Jr., J.P., Clark, Aarons and McShan, JJ., concur.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed, without costs.

ORDERED that the cross appeal is dismissed, without costs.

———

Notes:

[1] As Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, defendant is not aggrieved by Supreme Court’s July 2021 order (see CPLR 5511), and defendant’s cross appeal must therefore be dismissed (see Matter of Village Green Hollow, LLC v Assessor of the Town of Mamakating, 145 A.D.3d 1134, 1135 n 2 [2016]; Maldonado v DiBre, 140 A.D.3d 1501, 1503 n 3 [2016], lv denied 28 N.Y.3d 908 [2016]). Although defendant’s arguments are properly before us as alternative grounds for affirmance, our decision renders them academic (see Ford v Rifenburg, 94 A.D.3d 1285, 1285 n 1 [2012]; McCormick v Bechtol, 68 A.D.3d 1376, 1378 n 2 [2009], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 701 [2010], cert denied 562 U.S. 1063 [2010]).

[2] Said photographs reflect the position and size of the rock, neither of which is particularly remarkable, and confirm plaintiff’s contention that the rocks located on this river access path were “not even.”

———


This is a confusing case concerning whether or not a person is an intendent contractor or employee, has the right to sue the employer and whether the insurance company for the employer must provide coverage because of the confusion

This is a long and complicated case because know one understood what was needed and no one read their insurance policy.

Atain Specialty Ins Co v Ne Mountain Guiding LLC D NJ 2020

State: New Jersey, US District Court for the District of New Jersey

Plaintiff: Atain Specialty Insurance Co.

Defendant: Northeast Mountain Guiding, LLC, et al.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

An employee or independent contractor was hurt, maybe working, and sued his employer over his injuries. The insurance company for the employer, mountain guiding company, denied coverage because he was not an employee and they did not provide coverage for independent contractors.

This case is still a mess, but the important part is make sure you are honest on your insurance applications and make sure you know what you are buying when you purchase a policy.

Facts

Vulpis is the founder and sole member of NMG, a limited liability company in the outdoor adventure and education industry Vulpis has significant training and experience, as well as multiple certifications, in the field in which NMG operates. Enberg provided administrative assistance to NMG, developed a search and rescue training for NMG to provide to clients, and served as a mountaineering guide for NMG. Manchester performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide.

Donald Pachner is the sole member of Pachner & Associates, LLC and Pachner Risk Management, LLC. Donald Pachner and Pachner & Associates, LLC possess insurance broker licenses under New Jersey law.

Vulpis retained Pachner to obtain general commercial liability insurance for NMG. As part of this process, Pachner and Vulpis worked together to fill out an application (the “Application”) for insurance. The Application required Vulpis to estimate NMG’s gross revenues for the coming year. On Pachner’s advice, Vulpis checked the “No” box when answering the Application’s question concerning whether NMG “hire[s] Concessionaires, Independent Contractors, or Subcontractors.” As part of the Application, Vulpis initialed next to a requirement NMG (1) obtain from all participants an Atain-approved waiver of liability form, and (2) maintain those forms for three years. In response to NMG’s Application, Atain issued an insurance quote (the “Quote”), which Vulpis reviewed with Pachner. Among other things, the Quote contains a summary of several of the terms the Policy would contain

Pachner procured insurance (the “Policy”) from Atain for NMG. The Policy limits coverage to “GUIDED MOUNTAINEERING INCLUDING TOP ROPE CLIMBING & RAPPELLING; GUIDED KAYAK TRIPS; GUIDED SNOWSHOEING; GUIDED HIKING/BACKPACKING INCLUDING CAMPING.” The Policy excludes coverage for injuries suffered “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG.

On November 21, 2015, Manchester suffered an injury (the “Injury”) while using certain equipment (the “Equipment”) to engage in a certain activity (the “Activity”). Much of the dispute in this case centers on the proper characterization of the Activity and the Equipment. The essence of the Activity is that the participant uses the Equipment to move between two points. The evidence conflicts concerning whether the Equipment is a “Tyrolean Traverse” or a “Clifftop Zipline.” Ziplines were derived from Tyrolean Traverses, but the differences are too fine for untrained individuals to differentiate between the two.

On November 21, 2015, three NMG guides—Christy DeMarco, Enberg, and Vulpis—went to Allamuchy State Park to test the Equipment NMG expected to offer in the future for its customers. Vulpis and the other three guides set up the Equipment. Manchester was present at the time, and engaged in the Activity by traveling on the Equipment. While engaged in the Activity, Manchester suffered the Injury.

Following his Injury, Manchester filed a state court negligence action against Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG. NMG made a claim for coverage with Pachner and Atain. When reporting the claim to Atain, Pachner described Manchester as an independent contractor for NMG.

Atain filed this coverage action against its Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG, and also joined Manchester as a defendant. Atain seeks declaratory judgments against Vulpis, Enberg, NMG, and Manchester, authorizing Atain to disclaim coverage Manchester’s Injury. Additionally, Atain seeks a declaratory judgment voiding the Policy under common law rescission principles and the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq.

Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG brought a third-party action against NMG’s insurance broker Pachner, alleging Pachner’s negligence caused any failure of coverage by Atain. Manchester brought a similar action against Pachner.

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

The is the second of two decisions so far in this case, and it is still on going. This decision is based on multiple motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment filed by everyone.

I’m not even going to cover every issue involved in this order, just a few to make some points.

Another issue is the language of mountaineering, rock climbing and guiding is not totally understood by the court, so in some cases the decisions are not made for that reason. That can be because the court was not made away of the issues or the attempt to educate the court failed on the part of the parties.

First Issue: The activity giving rise to the injury is not covered.

The first issue is whether the activity giving rise to the injury is one that is covered under the insurance policy. The injured employee/contractor was not on the trip to learn; he just tagged along. He had not paid to attend the training and was not required to be there.

Because the insurance policy is unclear as to how it is interpreting what occurred, and the court is unclear on what relationship employee/contractor had while on the trip, the court determined it could not decide the issues on a motion for summary judgement.

Second Issue: Worker’s comp exclusion

In every general liability policy, there is an exclusion, no coverage for claims that should be insured by worker’s compensation. In this case that exclusion was called Employer’s Liability Exclusion. Employees in all states must be covered by worker’s compensation for any injury they receive while on the job. Since this person was claiming, in some aspects of the case, to be an employee, the general liability insurance company based on this exclusion should not have to pay for the damages.

The court refused to rule on this saying several of the statements made by the injured employee/contractor indicate he was not an employee.

Manchester was a participant acting outside the scope of his NMG employment at the time of his Injury. Manchester testified he had come to participate in the Activity because he “thought it would be fun.” Vulpis testified similarly: Manchester “came just to travel along the Tyrolean traverse. He wanted to try it out.” Manchester testified he never informed NMG he would be attending the Activity and further testified NMG did not know he would be attending. Manchester did not consider himself an employee or representative of Vulpis or Enberg at the time of the Injury.

At the same time, the court found several issues that indicated the injured employee/contractor was an employee at the time of his injury.

Most importantly, Manchester acknowledged he performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. Vulpis and Manchester both testified Manchester came to be at Allamuchy State Park on the date of his Injury because Vulpis posted an invitation to a Facebook group whose members consisted only of NMG guides and staff Enberg testified although Manchester was not involved in setting up the Equipment and mostly observed others do so, Manchester did help Enberg “pull tension once, so just pull on a rope for me.” Enberg also testified, “[A]s far as I know, we just there all volunteering and testing the system.”

Until a jury determines the legal classification for the injured plaintiff, what insurance coverage is available cannot be decided.

Issue three: recission of the policy

Recission of an insurance policy is a rarely seen legal argument. It is granted when there is proof of fraud when entering into the contract. When there is recission of a policy, the court places the parties back in the position they were before the policy was issued. The insured gets a full refund, and the insurance company does not have to pay a claim.

“In the field of insurance, rescission has long been recognized as an available and necessary remedy to combat fraudulent behavior by an insured” It is settled that a material factual misrepresentation made in an application for insurance may justify rescission [of the resulting insurance policy] if the insurer relied upon it to determine whether or not to issue the policy” Rescission voids the [insurance policy] ab initio, meaning that it is considered ‘null from the beginning’ and treated as if it does not exist for any purpose.”

Here the insurance company was requesting recission of the policy because of fraudulent misrepresentation.

Rescission of an insurance policy for fraudulent misrepresentation is appropriate if four conditions are satisfied: (1) the applicant must make an “untruthful” representation to the insurer, (2) the representation must be “material to the particular risk assumed by the insurer,” (3) the insurer must “actually and reasonably rel[y] upon [the representation] in the issuance of the policy,” and (4) if the “insurance application . . . calls for subjective information,” then “the insured [must] kn[o]w that the information was false when completing the application.”

Again, the court would not rule on this motion because recission takes more than a mere oversight or honest mistake. It must be based on a specific intentional act or acts to defraud the insurance company. Here the answers placed on the policy were done so with the help of the insurance agent. And the court was not sure the acts of the insured were intentional. The other issue was, did the insurance agent supply the answers or where the answers supplied by the insured.

Fourth Issue: Projected Revenues

Most insurance policies are issued based on the projected revenues of the company. In rare instances, some outdoor recreation policies are issued based on expected user days. User days are used when it is easy to verify the number of user’s days, as in a whitewater rafting company working on river controlled by a federal land management agency which is also tracking user days. User days are the number or days a client is on the river. A half day counts as a full user day.

So, an insurance policy application has a place for the applicant to enter an estimate of the projected revenues for the season or year. Your premium is based on that number. When you sign the application, in most cases, you are also agreeing to be audited to make sure the number you put on the application is what your sales or income is. In this case, those projections were lower than the prior year.

Atain argues the projected amount listed on the Application was substantially lower than NMG’s actual revenue for the year preceding the Application and disproportionately less than the revenue NMG actually received in the Policy year.

The court rejected this argument because the projection was based on several factors that made the insured believe that his income was going to be lower that year.

First, Vulpis was divorcing his spouse, which he believed would impact NMG’s ability to remain in business. Second, Vulpis had hired new guides, and expected revenues would be lower while his new guides gained experience. Third, “a chronic, life-threatening auto-immune disease” hospitalized Vulpis shortly before he filed the Application, and he was “not sure [he] would live through” the year, “much less have any revenues in NMG.” Even taking those factors into account, the revenue Vulpis projected on the Application was approximately equal to NMG’s annual revenue two years prior to the Application, and was slightly lower than the average of the revenue for the preceding three years. Taking these facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine NMG did not knowingly misrepresent its projected income.

Fifth Issue: use of independent contractors

The outfitter specifically stated on the insurance application that he did not use sub-contractors or independent contractors. Then after the accident it came to light that some people working for the outfitter might be independent contractors.

The court did not accept this motion because it was unclear what the people working for the outfitter were. Also, the outfitter had been told by the insurance agent to say no on the application about sub-contractors or independent contractors.

You had two conflicting issues that prevented the appellate court from deciding this issue. The first was further complicated because the court felt the insurance did not understand what an independent contractor was.

Sixth Issue: Knowing Misrepresentation

The insurance company argued that the policy should be rescinded because the outfitter made knowing misrepresentations, about whether or not he was hiring independent contractors or used only employees.

The court through this motion because it felt the outfitter really did not know the difference.

Given the issue’s complexity, the Court is not surprised Vulpis’s testimony suggests he had genuine difficulty distinguishing between employees and independent contractors. Vulpis’s testimony concerning his thinking at the time demonstrates his confusion. For instance, Vulpis described his guides as “1099 employees,” something of a misnomer. When completing the Application, Vulpis discussed how to answer the “independent contractor” question with Donald Pachner, whose less-than-illuminating explanation was to describe the meaning of independent contractor as a “gray area Even when answering interrogatories in this case—presumably with the assistance of counsel—Vulpis initially described his guides as independent contractors, then amended his answer to strike that characterization. The Application does not instruct the applicant on the meaning of “independent contractor,” nor does it suggest which (if any) of the legal tests an applicant should apply—missing an opportunity to dispel Vulpis’s confusion.

The court stated:

The variety of tests creates a “paradoxical truth that even when the same person performs the same acts at the same time in the same place under the same conditions,” the person “may be considered an employee for one purpose and an independent contractor for another.”

The court recognized the issue that whether or not a person working for you is an independent contractor or not is not only confusing and constantly litigated by the courts, not necessarily something a non-lawyer can understand.

Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis merely failed to appreciate every nuance of the difference between employees and independent contractors when he wrote on the Application NMG did not use independent contractors or subcontractors. Such a misunderstanding would constitute an “honest mistake,” not a “lie” or a “willful” falsification.

Seventh Issue: Failure to Maintain Signed Liability Waivers

This next issue is a two-factor issue. If the employee/contractor signed a release, he was probably not an employee and was either a contractor or guest. A release was a factor required by the insurance company. If a release was signed it would stop the lawsuit by the injured employee/contractor. A release or liability waiver signed by all participants was a condition of coverage under the policy.

If there was no release signed, then the injured employee/contractor was probably an employee and covered by Worker’s Compensation. Either way, a signed release or no release provided an out for the insurance company.

New Jersey law permits an insurer to escape liability for its obligations under an insurance policy if the insured breaches a condition of coverage, but only if the insurance carrier suffers appreciable prejudice from the breach.

There is a two-factor test under New Jersey law the insurance company must meet to win on a coverage condition argument.

“[F]irst, ‘whether substantial rights have been irretrievably lost’ as a result of the insured’s breach, and second, ‘the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim’ had there been no breach.”

Since the insurance company wrote the policy, the insurance company has the burden of proving both factors of the test.

The motion for summary judgment was denied because the outfitter said that he misplaced the waiver. An even bigger reason for not granting the motion was:

Second, even if Atain cannot obtain Manchester’s waiver in time to rely on the waiver against Manchester in the underlying state court litigation, the absence of Manchester’s waiver will not necessarily reduce “the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim.”

The court is probably correct in this statement because the injured guide had signed several releases previously. There was just not one for the day of the accident.

NMG has provided Atain with Manchester’s signed acknowledgment of receipt of NMG’s employee handbook, which contains a waiver form. Moreover, while Vulpis acknowledged he could not locate the forms, Vulpis testified Manchester had previously signed a waiver (1) when Manchester initially became was a customer of NMG prior to serving as a guide, and (2) for the year 2015, when Manchester served as a guide. The only contrary evidence is Manchester did not sign a waiver on the day of the Injury. Atain points to no evidence contradicting Vulpis’s testimony concerning Manchester previously signing a waiver before the day of the Injury. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG’s loss of Manchester’s waiver will appreciably prejudice Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

At this point, the case is scheduled to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

1.    I’ve said dozens of times, every person on a trip has to be identified as either an employee or a participant. If the person is an employee, they have to be listed on the worker’s compensation insurance. Everyone else, paying customer, friend, independent contractor or your mother-in-law must sign a release.

2.    Independent contractors are a liability mess. Many companies attempt to use independent contractors because they believe it saves them state and federal taxes. It might. And it can be a good way to get a company started for the first several months. However, the issue of independent contractors has more traps than value.

There are no liability savings. As the outfitter or company, you are liable for any incident no matter if the person who caused the issues is an employee or independent contractor. If nothing else, you are liable for hiring an independent contractor who failed to do their job properly.

First contractors, especially in the outdoor industry, don’t have health insurance. So many, if injured, have no way to pay for their medical bills. Consequently, using independent contracts increases your chances of having a lawsuit, just like this one, because an independent contractor needs money to pay his or her medical bills and other bills when they can’t work.

On top of the other issues, proving someone is an independent contractor is very difficult. Many states have adopted the rule that says unless certain requirements are met, such a written contract, an independent contractor is an employee. An independent contractor has the right to show up at the job site at any time they want unless written differently in the contract. They should bring their own tools to work and have the freedom to make decisions. The only control the person hiring the contractor has over the independent contractor is to specify the job, the time frame, and how much they are going to pay for the job.

An even bigger issue for an employer is what is everyone else in the industry doing. If all of your competitors are using employees and not independent contractors, you face an insurmountable hurdle.

As the court stated:

Distinguishing independent contractors from employees is among the most contentiously litigated issues in courts today, arising in a host of different contexts, each with a different standard.

3.    UNDERSTAND your insurance application, do not lie on it. If there are issues or questions, then attach a supplemental letter to the broker or to the policy explaining the decisions or answers on the application.

4.    When you get your policy read it. You must know and understand all conditions of coverage. What must you do to make sure the policy covers you.

You also must know what you bought. Does the policy cover the activities that your company is doing? If in the summer you teach fishing at a pond and once in a while in the winter people ice skate on the same pond, you are more than a fishing guide and you better have coverage for ice skating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)

Atain Specialty Ins. v. Ne. Mountain Guiding, LLC (D. N.J. 2020)

ATAIN SPECIALTY INSURANCE CO. Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHEAST MOUNTAIN GUIDING, LLC, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 3:16-cv-05129-BRM-LHG

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

January 30, 2020

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

MARTINOTTI, DISTRICT JUDGE

Before this Court are Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 70 & 73) filed by Plaintiff Atain Specialty Insurance Co. (“Atain”) and Third-Party Defendants Donald Pachner, Pachner & Associates, LLC, and Pachner Risk Management (collectively, “Pachner”). Defendant Michael Manchester (“Manchester”) opposes both motions. (ECF No. 80.) Defendants Northeast Mountain Guiding, LLC (“NMG”), Joseph Vulpis (“Vulpis”), and Bryan Enberg (“Enberg”) also oppose both motions. (ECF No. 86.) Pachner supports part and opposes part of Atain’s motion. (ECF No. 81.) Atain opposes part of Pachner’s motion and takes no position as to the remainder. (ECF No. 85.)

Having reviewed the parties’ submissions filed in connection with the motions and having declined to hear oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b), for the reasons set forth below and for good cause having been shown, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Northeast Mountain Guiding and Its Guides

Vulpis is the founder and sole member of NMG, a limited liability company in the outdoor adventure and education industry. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 4.) Vulpis has significant training and experience, as well as multiple certifications, in the field in which NMG operates. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 5-7.) Enberg provided administrative assistance to NMG, developed a search and rescue training for NMG to provide to clients, and served as a mountaineering guide for NMG. (ECF No. 86-15 ¶ 3.) Manchester performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.)

B. Pachner Procures Insurance from Atain for Northeast Mountain Guiding

Donald Pachner is the sole member of Pachner & Associates, LLC and Pachner Risk Management, LLC. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1.) Donald Pachner and Pachner & Associates, LLC possess insurance broker licenses under New Jersey law. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.)

Vulpis retained Pachner to obtain general commercial liability insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 7.) As part of this process, Pachner and Vulpis worked together to fill out an application (the “Application”) for insurance. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 8-10; ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000331-41.) The Application required Vulpis to estimate NMG’s gross revenues for the coming year. (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN000332.) On Pachner’s advice, Vulpis checked the “No” box when answering the Application’s question concerning whether NMG “hire[s] Concessionaires, Independent Contractors, or Subcontractors.” (ECF No. 73-33, at ATN 000334; ECF No. 73-12, at 221:11-222:11.) As part of the Application, Vulpis initialed next to a requirement NMG (1) obtain from all participants an Atain-approved waiver of liability form, and (2) maintain those forms for three years. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000339.) In response to NMG’s Application, Atain issued an insurance quote (the “Quote”), which Vulpis reviewed with Pachner. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:24-234:23.) Among other things, the Quote contains a summary of several of the terms the Policy would contain. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2.)

Pachner procured insurance (the “Policy”) from Atain for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 12.) The Policy limits coverage to “GUIDED MOUNTAINEERING INCLUDING TOP ROPE CLIMBING & RAPPELLING; GUIDED KAYAK TRIPS; GUIDED SNOWSHOEING; GUIDED HIKING/BACKPACKING INCLUDING CAMPING.” (ECF No. 86-6, at Atain 47.) The Policy excludes coverage for injuries suffered “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.)

C. Manchester’s Injury

On November 21, 2015, Manchester suffered an injury (the “Injury”) while using certain equipment (the “Equipment”) to engage in a certain activity (the “Activity”). Much of the dispute in this case centers on the proper characterization of the Activity and the Equipment. The essence of the Activity is that the participant uses the Equipment to move between two points. (ECF No. 73-12, at 16:2-7.) The evidence conflicts concerning whether the Equipment is a “Tyrolean Traverse” or a “Clifftop Zipline.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 33-36; ECF No. 73-12, at 75:1-10, 186:6-191:4.) Ziplines were derived from Tyrolean Traverses, but the differences are too fine for untrained individuals to differentiate between the two. (ECF No. 73-12, at 58:5-7.)

On November 21, 2015, three NMG guides—Christy DeMarco, Enberg, and Vulpis—went to Allamuchy State Park to test the Equipment NMG expected to offer in the future for its customers. Vulpis and the other three guides set up the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 46.) Manchester was present at the time, and engaged in the Activity by traveling on the Equipment. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 46-47.) While engaged in the Activity, Manchester suffered the Injury. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 47.)

D. Litigation

Following his Injury, Manchester filed a state court negligence action against Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 12.) NMG made a claim for coverage with Pachner and Atain. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 51-52.) When reporting the claim to Atain, Pachner described Manchester as an independent contractor for NMG. (ECF No. 70-21, at 161:11-13.)

Atain filed this coverage action against its Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG, and also joined Manchester as a defendant. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 1-5.) Atain seeks declaratory judgments against Vulpis, Enberg, NMG, and Manchester, authorizing Atain to disclaim coverage Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 31-51.) Additionally, Atain seeks a declaratory judgment voiding the Policy under common law rescission principles and the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-65.)

Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG brought a third-party action against NMG’s insurance broker Pachner, alleging Pachner’s negligence caused any failure of coverage by Atain. (ECF No. 29 ¶¶ 28-34.) Manchester brought a similar action against Pachner. (ECF No. 28, at 3-7.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is “a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party,” and it is material only if it has the ability to “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. See id. at 248. “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party’s evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002). “Summary judgment may not be granted . . . if there is a disagreement over what inferences can be reasonably drawn from the facts even if the facts are undisputed.” Nathanson v. Med. Coll. of Pa., 926 F.2d 1368, 1380 (3rd Cir. 1991) (citing Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 340 (3d Cir.)); Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. John Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 744 (3d Cir. 1996).

The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence is not susceptible to different interpretations or inferences by the trier of fact. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 553 (1999). On the other hand, if the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the non-moving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56’s burden of production by either (1) “submit[ting] affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s claim” or (2) demonstrating “that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330 (Brennan, J., dissenting). Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the non-moving party to “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324; see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). In deciding the merits of a party’s motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

There can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact,” however, if a party fails “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non[-]moving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).

III. DECISION1

A. Coverage for “Guided Mountaineering”

Atain and Pachner both argue Manchester’s Injury is not covered under the Policy because the Policy covers only “guided mountaineering,” and Vulpis and Enberg both testified Manchester’s Injury did not occur during a “guided” activity. (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:4-10; ECF No. 70-7, at 115:19-116:6.) Conflicting evidence prevents the Court from granting summary judgment. First, Vulpis’s testimony was more nuanced than Atain and Pachner suggest. While Vulpis testified he would not consider the Activity to be “guided,” Vulpis did consider the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Second, Vulpis testified Manchester received training and instruction from both Vulpis and Enberg for the Activity immediately prior to Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) A reasonable jury could conclude Vulpis’s and Enberg’s training and instruction “guided” Manchester, who had little previous experience with the Equipment. (ECF No. 72, at 28:7-10.)

The Court is unpersuaded by Atain’s and Pachner’s argument alleging Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies demonstrate the parties’ “intent” the Policy not cover the Activity. “[W]hen interpreting an insurance contract, the basic rule is to determine the intention of the parties . . . .” Simonetti v. Selective Ins. Co., 859 A.2d 694, 698 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004). While the contractual language is the Court’s primary tool, the Court may consider evidence of the parties’ intention beyond the four corners of the contract when, as here, the language of the insurance contract is ambiguous. See, e.g., Welcome v. Just Apts., No. L-9821-01, 2008 WL 2696252, at *3-4 (N.J. App. Div. July 11, 2008).

Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimonies are two such pieces of evidence, but not the only evidence, of NMG’s intent when agreeing to the Policy. Other evidence suggests NMG did intend the Policy to cover the Activity. For instance, Vulpis testified he considered the Activity to be “part of guided mountaineering.” (ECF No. 72, at 115:22-116:2.) Enberg testified he understood a “guided” activity to be an activity in which there is “a guide who is leading the activity.”2 (ECF No. 70-7, at 115:17-18.) According to Vulpis’s testimony, this is exactly what happened. Vulpis and Enberg lead the Activity, instructing Manchester before Manchester participated. (ECF No. 72, at 85:20-86:12.) Manchester did not have the requisite training to serve as a guide on the Activity. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 11.) In light of this conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether or not the parties intended for the Policy to cover the Activity. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

B. Injury “In the Course of Employment . . . or Service”

Atain next argues the Court should grant it summary judgment because the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage for Manchester’s Injury because Manchester was acting “in the course of employment by or service to” NMG. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000402.) Pachner3 seeks summary judgment against Atain on this claim, arguing the Employer’s Liability Exclusion does not apply. Neither party is entitled to summary judgment concerning the effect of the Employer’s Liability Exclusion because the evidence conflicts concerning whether Manchester was, in fact, acting in the course of his NMG employment.

Several facts weigh in favor of finding Manchester was a participant acting outside the scope of his NMG employment at the time of his Injury. Manchester testified he had come to participate in the Activity because he “thought it would be fun.” (ECF No. 70-8, at 61:25-62:1.) Vulpis testified similarly: Manchester “came just to travel along the Tyrolean traverse. He wanted to try it out.” (ECF No. 72, at 85:13-14.) Manchester testified he never informed NMG he would be attending the Activity and further testified NMG did not know he would be attending. (ECF No. 70-8, at 62:18-20, 68:5-7.) Manchester did not consider himself an employee or representative of Vulpis or Enberg at the time of the Injury. (ECF No. 70-8, at 20:10-19.)

However, other factors weigh in favor of finding Manchester was acting within the scope of his employment or service to NMG. Most importantly, Manchester acknowledged he performed work for NMG as a Lead Backpacking Guide and Assistant Rock Guide. (ECF No. 70-8, at 16:6-20.) Vulpis and Manchester both testified Manchester came to be at Allamuchy State Park on the date of his Injury because Vulpis posted an invitation to a Facebook group whose members consisted only of NMG guides and staff. (ECF No. 72, at 56:11-57:14; ECF No. 70-8, at 162:8-21.) Enberg testified although Manchester was not involved in setting up the Equipment and mostly observed others do so, Manchester did help Enberg “pull tension once, so just pull on a rope for me.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 95:23-96:8.) Enberg also testified, “[A]s far as I know, we just there all volunteering and testing the system.” (ECF No. 70-7, at 96:19-20.)

In short, the conflicting evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact. Accordingly, no party is entitled to summary judgment either for or against Atain’s claim concerning whether the Employer’s Liability Exclusion precludes coverage.

C. Rescission of the Policy

Atain also argues it is entitled to rescind the Policy in light of NMG’s material misrepresentations in the Application. Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain because Atain ratified the Policy despite knowing of the misrepresentations. The Court cannot grant summary judgment either for or against rescission because genuine issues of material fact remain (1) concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented any material facts, and (2) about the factual bases for rescission.

“In the field of insurance, rescission has long been recognized as an available and necessary remedy to combat fraudulent behavior by an insured.” Rutgers Cas. Ins. Co. v. LaCroix, 946 A.2d 1027, 1035 (N.J. 2008). “It is settled that a material factual misrepresentation made in an application for insurance may justify rescission [of the resulting insurance policy] if the insurer relied upon it to determine whether or not to issue the policy.” Citizens United Reciprocal Exch. v. Perez, 121 A.2d 374, 378 (N.J. 2015). “Rescission voids the [insurance policy] ab initio, meaning that it is considered ‘null from the beginning’ and treated as if it does not exist for any purpose.” First Am. Title Ins. Co. v. Lawson, 827 A.2d 230, 237 (N.J. 2003).

Rescission of an insurance policy for fraudulent misrepresentation is appropriate if four conditions are satisfied: (1) the applicant must make an “untruthful” representation to the insurer, (2) the representation must be “material to the particular risk assumed by the insurer,” (3) the insurer must “actually and reasonably rel[y] upon [the representation] in the issuance of the policy,” and (4) if the “insurance application . . . calls for subjective information,” then “the insured [must] kn[o]w that the information was false when completing the application.” Id.

Examples of subjective information include when an insurer asks an insured to indicate a belief about the status of his or her health, or when . . . an insurer asks whether an applicant is aware of any circumstances which may result in a claim being made against the firm[.] [A] subjective question will not constitute equitable fraud if the question is directed toward probing the knowledge of the applicant and determining the state of his mind and . . . the answer is a correct statement of the applicant’s knowledge and belief[.]

Id. (citations omitted).

A “mere oversight or honest mistake” will not support rescission. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of N.J., 582 A.2d 1257, 1261 (N.J. 1990)). “The lie must be willful.” Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating the applicant “knew and believed” the information provided on the application was false and “knowingly misrepresented” the information provided to be true, but need not demonstrate the applicant “harbored an intent to defraud.” Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Manzo, 584 A.2d 190, 195 (N.J. 1991).

1. Projected Revenues

First, Atain argues this Court should void the Policy because NMG materially misrepresented its projected revenues on its Application. The Court disagrees because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, precludes the Court from finding NMG knowingly4 misrepresented its projected revenues.5
Atain argues the projected amount listed on the Application was substantially lower than NMG’s actual revenue for the year preceding the Application and disproportionately less than the revenue NMG actually received in the Policy year. The Court declines to find these numerical discrepancies demonstrate a knowing misrepresentation. Vulpis testified several considerations left him doubtful NMG would succeed financially in the coming year when he filled out the Application for NMG. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) First, Vulpis was divorcing his spouse, which he believed would impact NMG’s ability to remain in business. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Second, Vulpis had hired new guides, and expected revenues would be lower while his new guides gained experience.6 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Third, “a chronic, life-threatening auto-immune disease” hospitalized Vulpis shortly before he filed the Application, and he was “not sure [he] would live through” the year, “much less have any revenues in NMG.” (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Even taking those factors into account, the revenue Vulpis projected on the Application was approximately equal to NMG’s annual revenue two years prior to the Application, and was slightly lower than the average of the revenue for the preceding three years. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 23.) Taking these facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine NMG did not knowingly misrepresent its projected income.

Atain also points to Vulpis’s testimony about how he projected NMG’s revenue by merely “guess[ing] what I thought we might do for the season” and answered “no” when asked if he did any math to figure out the projected revenue. (ECF No. 72-1, at 217:3-12.) Atain argues these answers demonstrate Vulpis did not make a good faith revenue projection. The Court disagrees. When read in context, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis attempted to accurately project NMG’s revenues. Immediately before testifying he “guessed,” Vulpis testified he “guestimated” the revenue figures, and further testified his projection considered revenues “from previous years of business.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 216:23, 217:13-14.) Combined with his more detailed testimony about how Vulpis considered his divorce, new hires, and his medical condition when projecting revenue on the Application, and viewed in the light most favorable to NMG, genuine issues of material fact exists concerning whether Vulpis failed to make a good faith attempt to project NMG’s revenue.

2. Independent Contractors

Atain argues it is entitled to summary judgment because a second, unrelated misrepresentation on the Application—Vulpis’s statement claiming NMG did not use subcontractors or independent contractors—warrants rescission of the Policy. Pachner7 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on this ground because NMG accurately represented it did not use independent contractors. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim Pachner negligently (1) advised Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors or (2) misidentified Manchester as an independent contractor when communicating with Atain. The Court rejects all these arguments because the evidence creates genuine issues of material fact concerning whether NMG (1) knowingly misrepresented its use of independent contractors, and (2) used independent contractors at all.8

i. Knowing Misrepresentation

Distinguishing independent contractors from employees is among the most contentiously litigated issues in courts today, arising in a host of different contexts, each with a different standard.9 The variety of tests creates a “paradoxical truth that even when the same person performs the same acts at the same time in the same place under the same conditions,” the person “may be considered an employee for one purpose and an independent contractor for another.” EEOC v. Zippo Mfg. Co., 713 F.2d 32, 35-36 (3d Cir. 1983) (“paradoxical truth”); Hoag v. Brown, 935 A.2d 1218, 1228 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2007) (“may be considered”).

Given the issue’s complexity, the Court is not surprised Vulpis’s testimony suggests he had genuine difficulty distinguishing between employees and independent contractors. Vulpis’s testimony concerning his thinking at the time demonstrates his confusion. For instance, Vulpis described his guides as “1099 employees,” something of a misnomer.10 (ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 17.) When completing the Application, Vulpis discussed how to answer the “independent contractor” question with Donald Pachner, whose less-than-illuminating explanation was to describe the meaning of independent contractor as a “gray area.” (ECF No. 72-1, at 221:19-222:17.) Even when answering interrogatories in this case—presumably with the assistance of counsel—Vulpis initially described his guides as independent contractors, then amended his answer to strike that characterization. (ECF No. 72, at 19:7-23:20.) The Application does not instruct the applicant on the meaning of “independent contractor,” nor does it suggest which (if any) of the legal tests an applicant should apply—missing an opportunity to dispel Vulpis’s confusion. (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN00034.)

Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could determine Vulpis merely failed to appreciate every nuance of the difference between employees and independent contractors when he wrote on the Application NMG did not use independent contractors or subcontractors. Such a misunderstanding would constitute an “honest mistake,” not a “lie” or a “willful” falsification. Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035; Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261. Drawing all inferences in non-movant NMG’s favor, a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Vulpis knowingly misrepresented NMG’s use of independent contractors.

ii. Independent Contractors vs. Employees

While Atain is not entitled to summary judgment on its claim concerning Vulpis’s knowing misrepresentation of his use of independent contractors, neither is Pachner entitled to summary judgment against Atain on the same issue. Pachner argues Vulpis’s representation was accurate because NMG’s guides were not independent contractors. A host of evidence suggests the opposite. For instance, Vulpis deducted over $10,000 for “cost of contract labor” and “subcontractors” on the 2015 federal income tax form (and corresponding worksheet) covering NMG’s profit and loss. (ECF No. 70-19, at sch. C, line 11.11) Manchester testified NMG classified its guides as “subcontractors” in its accounting software. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:12-20.) Manchester further testified Vulpis repeatedly used the term “independent contractor” to describe guides. (ECF No. 70-7, at 54:23-55:8.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant Atain, this evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether NMG’s guides were in fact independent contractors.

iii. Pachner’s Advice to Vulpis

Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate against any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent advice to Vulpis to answer “no” to the question on the Application asking about NMG’s use of subcontractors or independent contractors. However, as Pachner points out, Pachner’s negligence in this instance “is only relevant insofar [as] Atain is seeking to rescind the Policy based on [NMG’s] answer” concerning independent contractors or subcontractors. (ECF No. 73-2, at 19.) Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on the basis of NMG’s use of independent contractors, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact necessarily exist concerning Pachner’s alleged negligent advice to Vulpis concerning this question. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

iv. Pachner’s Misdentification of Manchester as a Contractor

Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on any claim concerning Pachner’s negligent mislabeling of Manchester as an independent contractor when Pachner first reported Manchester’s Injury to Atain. The Court cannot grant summary judgment. As with Pachner’s advice to Vulpis, Pachner’s statement to Atain identifying Manchester as an independent contractor relates only to Atain’s claim for rescission of the Policy for NMG’s misrepresentation of its use of independent contractors. Because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Atain may rescind the Policy on this basis, see part III.C.2.i., supra, the same genuine issues of material fact exist concerning Pachner’s characterization to Atain of Manchester as an independent contractor. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground.

3. Training and Education Relating to “Search and Rescue” Operations

Atain also argues NMG committed a knowing misrepresentation when it failed to disclose its training and education programs concerning search and rescue operations. The Court declines to grant summary judgment on this claim, because Atain did not plead this claim in its complaint.

“Each and every claim for relief that a plaintiff seeks to press must be set forth in the Complaint.” Bravo v. Union Cty., Civ. No. 12-2848, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8 (D.N.J. May 23, 2013). Failure to do so has consequences. One consequence is that this Court may not “grant[] summary judgment on a claim that was never pleaded.” Day v. White, 764 F. App’x 164, 166 (3d Cir. 2019) (quoting Michelson v. Exxon Rsrch. & Eng’g Co., 808 F.2d 1005, 1009 (3d Cir. 1987)). “To the extent the plaintiff discovers new information giving rise to additional claims, the plaintiff must amend the Complaint to assert those claims and properly put the defendant on notice of them.” Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8; see also Tavarez v. Twp. of Egg Harbor, Civ. No. 09-6119, 2012 WL 13186197, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 3, 2012); Durham v. Vekios, Civ. No. 09-5376, 2011 WL 3667560, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 22, 2011).

Atain contends it “asserted a cause of action for rescission based upon material misrepresentation” in its complaint, which Atain argues is broad enough to cover any misrepresentation relating to NMG’s training and education programs concerning search and rescue. (ECF No. 93, at 29.) The Court disagrees because Atain’s “Material Misrepresentation” claim—Count Six12—alleges only a material misrepresented concerning NMG’s engagement in “Ropes/Challenge Course Facilitation.” (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 52-59.) Count Six does not mention search and rescue, much less allege a material misrepresentation relating to NMG’s education and training concerning search and rescue operations.

Atain further argues it did not learn of the misrepresentation concerning search and rescue operations until well into the discovery period of this litigation. This fact does not excuse Atain from seeking to amend its complaint. If Atain learned late in the litigation it had an additional claim of which it was previously unaware, its appropriate course was to seek leave to amend its complaint to add the new claim. See Bravo, 2013 WL 2285780, at *8. Atain did not do so. Because Atain’s complaint does not plead any claim related to search and rescue operations, Atain may not obtain summary judgment on this unpleaded claim. See Day, 764 F. App’x at 166.

However, even if Atain did plead this claim, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment concerning whether NMG knowingly failed to disclose its education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations. The record contains evidence Vulpis and Enberg both believed these activities were no different than NMG’s other activities NMG had already disclosed on NMG’s initial Application. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 37-42; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 3-6.) Viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, this evidence13 is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.

4. Ratification of the Policy

Pachner14 argues the Court should grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission because Atain has ratified the Policy. The Court disagrees because (1) the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit this Court from construing the allegations in one claim as an admission against an alternative or inconsistent second claim, and (2) the evidence conflicts concerning whether Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the Policy.

i. Ratification by Lawsuit

First, Pachner argues Atain cannot file a lawsuit demanding both to disclaim coverage or, in the alternative, to rescind the Policy. Doing so, Pachner argues, constitutes ratification of the Policy and bars rescission. See Merchants Indem. Corp. v. Eggleston, 179 A.2d 505, 514 (N.J. 1962). Assuming without deciding New Jersey law treats an action to disclaim coverage as a ratification of the Policy and thus prohibits a claim for rescission, Pachner is still not entitled to summary judgment because “[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit parties to file pleadings containing inconsistent factual and legal allegations.” W.V. Realty, Inc. v. N. Ins. Co., 334 F.3d 306, 316 (3d Cir. 2003).

“A party may state as many separate claims or defenses as it has, regardless of consistency.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(d)(3). For instance, a plaintiff may simultaneously plead claims for both breach of contract (which requires the existence of a contract) and unjust enrichment (which requires the non-existence of a contract). See Hughes v. TD Bank, N.A., 856 F. Supp. 2d 673, 680 n.4 (D.N.J. 2012); Dewey v. Volkswagen AG, 558 F. Supp. 2d 505, 528-29 (D.N.J. 2008); cf. Showalter v. Brubaker, 283 F. App’x 33, 36 (3d Cir. 2008) (permitting defendants in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to simultaneously plead both (1) they are entitled to governmental immunity and (2) their actions were wholly private and therefore not under color of state law).

Importantly, this allowance for inconsistent claims “has been interpreted to mean that a court ‘may not construe [a plaintiff’s] first claim as an admission against another alternative or inconsistent claim.'” Indep. Enters. v. Pitt. Water & Sewer Auth., 103 F.3d 1165, 1175 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Henry v. Daytop Village, 42 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 1994)). For instance, a claim for abuse of process does not implicitly concede the legitimacy of a prosecution so as to invalidate a simultaneous claim for malicious prosecution. See Evans v. City of Newark, Civ. No. 14-120, 2016 WL 2742862, at *5 n.7 (D.N.J. May 10, 2016).

Atain’s claims are subject to this rule. Assuming without deciding a claim to disclaim coverage and a claim to rescind the Policy are inconsistent under New Jersey law, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit Atain to make both claims simultaneously. Accordingly, Atain’s claim for disclaimer of coverage does not constitute a ratification of the Policy.

ii. Ratification by Action

Second, Pachner argues Atain’s actions constitute ratification of the contract. Genuine issues of material fact preclude the issuance of summary judgment on this ground.

“[T]he remedy [of rescission] is discretionary and will not be granted where the claimant has not acted within a reasonable time or where there has been substantial performance.” Farris v. Cty. of Camden, 61 F. Supp. 2d 307, 336 (D.N.J. 1999) (quoting Notch View Assocs. v. Smith, 615 A.2d 676, 680 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1992)); see also Rowen Petrol. Props., LLC v. Hollywood Tanning Sys., Inc., Civ. No. 08-4764, 2011 WL 6755838, at *10 (D.N.J. Dec. 23, 2011) (same). “[W]here a party ‘is cognizant of fraud or misrepresentation and fails to promptly rescind the . . . agreement or transaction, and instead engages in conduct which assumes the validity of the [agreement], then the agreement or transaction may be deemed ratified.'” Everest Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Sutton, Civ. No. 07-722, 2008 WL 3833586, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 13, 2008) (quoting Notch View, 615 A.2d at 685).

Pachner argues Atain received notice of its potential grounds for rescission on or before November 30, 2015, when Atain received an e-mail with a description of the events leading to Manchester’s Injury and a discussion of how Manchester was an “independent contractor” for NMG. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Assuming without deciding this e-mail put Atain on notice of its potential grounds for rescission,15 the evidence of ratification following this date is mixed, precluding summary judgment.

For instance, Atain issued a “Notice of Conditional Renewal” to NMG on January 6, 2016, “to advise that [Atain is] agreeable to renewing this policy subject to” new terms and conditions and a rate increase. (ECF No. 73-45, at 1.) This explicit statement suggests Atain treated the Policy as valid. However, this evidence of ratification is tempered by testimony from Atain’s former director of director of underwriting for recreational programs, Grace Cunningham, who noted Atain issued the conditional renewal “until [Atain] received more information about the claim.” (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:10-11.) Cunningham also testified, “We rescinded this,” after Atain learned more. (ECF No. 73-16, at 270:16-19.)

Other evidence is also ambiguous. Although, Atain appears to have kept the Policy premium16 rather than refund it to NMG, the normal course of rescission litigation appears to allow an insurer to maintain the premium while litigation is pending, and to refund the policy-holder after the litigation is successful. See, e.g., Liebling v. Garden State Indem., 767 A.2d 515, 465 n.1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001). Additionally, Atain negotiated an explicit agreement with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to allow Atain to follow this procedure. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000051, ATN000068.) Under these circumstances, the Court cannot say Atain’s retention of the Policy premium necessarily demonstrates Atain ratified the Policy.

The record also contains contrary evidence suggesting Atain did not act to ratify the Policy, but instead acted with diligence concerning the possibility of rescinding the Policy. For example, Atain wrote a letter to NMG on February 23, 2016, in which it sought to reserve its right to rescind the Policy. (ECF No. 73-44, at 2.) Likewise, Atain negotiated and, on August 8, 2016, executed non-waiver agreements with Vulpis, Enberg, and NMG to protect Atain’s right to seek rescission of the Policy. (ECF No. 70-13, at ATN000049-53, ATN000066-70.) And, of course, Atain filed this action on August 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1, at 21.) Pachner points to deficiencies in Atain’s reservation-of-rights letter, but no matter the deficiencies, the letter, non-wavier agreement, and declaratory judgment action are not the acts of a company taking action to ratify the Policy. Cf. Annito v. Trump Marina Hotel Casino, No. L-5622-02, 2005 WL 4344137, at *8 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 25, 2006) (“By paying his casino debts when he was sober, plaintiff ratified his prior promises to repay the loans, even if they were made while he was intoxicated and not competent to contract.”).

However, the most important evidence is missing. Pachner’s critical argument is Atain ratified the Policy by failing to act promptly after learning of the potential grounds for rescission as a result of the November 30, 2015 e-mail. (ECF No. 73-43, at Atain 73-75.) Pachner does not point to any evidence—other than the mere passage of time—showing Atain failed to follow-up on the e-mail or to investigate the potential grounds for rescission the e-mail raised. Coupled with the ambiguous or contrary evidence above, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Atain ratified the Policy. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against Atain on its claim for rescission.

D. Failure to Maintain Signed Liability Waivers

Atain’s final argument is NMG’s failure to comply with a coverage condition—namely, obtaining a signed waiver and release of liability from all participants in NMG’s activities, and maintaining the signed document for three years—relieves Atain from its obligation to cover NMG’s exposure to Manchester’s underlying litigation. The Court rejects this argument because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s waiver form appreciably prejudices Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

New Jersey law permits an insurer to escape liability for its obligations under an insurance policy if the insured breaches a condition of coverage, but only if the insurance carrier suffers appreciable prejudice from the breach. See, e.g., Gazis v. Miller, 847 A.2d 591, 595 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005). When determining the existence of appreciable prejudice, a court must consider two factors. “[F]irst, ‘whether substantial rights have been irretrievably lost’ as a result of the insured’s breach, and second, ‘the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim’ had there been no breach.” Hager v. Gonsalves, 942 A.2d 160, 164 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008) (quoting Sagendorf v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am., 679 A.2d 709, 715 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996)); see also Ohaus v. Continental Cas. Ins. Co., 679 A.2d 179, 185 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996).

The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating appreciable prejudice. See, e.g., Kenny v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 746 A.2d 57, 59 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2000). The existence of appreciable prejudice is generally a question for the finder-of-fact, and generally not appropriate for summary judgment. See, e.g., State Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Cty. of Camden, 10 F. Supp. 3d 568, 582-83 (D.N.J. 2014).

A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether the loss of Manchester’s misplaced waiver form will appreciably prejudice Atain. First, the record is not clear whether Manchester’s waiver form—and therefore, Atain’s ability to defend the underlying state court litigation using Manchester’s waiver—has been “irretrievably lost.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. Although NMG cannot locate the waiver at present, Atain points to no evidence NMG will be unable to locate the waiver in the future. In fact, NMG indicates it will willing to allow opposing counsel access to its physical files to conduct its own search for Manchester’s missing waiver. (ECF No. 86-2 ¶ 5.) Atain does not indicate it has accepted NMG’s offer.

Second, even if Atain cannot obtain Manchester’s waiver in time to rely on the waiver against Manchester in the underlying state court litigation, the absence of Manchester’s waiver will not necessarily reduce “the likelihood of success of the insurer in defending against the accident victim’s claim.” Hager, 942 A.2d at 164. NMG has provided Atain with Manchester’s signed acknowledgment of receipt (ECF No. 86-4, at 1) of NMG’s employee handbook, which contains a waiver form (ECF No. 86-3, at 22-24). Moreover, while Vulpis acknowledged he could not locate the forms, Vulpis testified Manchester had previously signed a waiver (1) when Manchester initially became was a customer of NMG prior to serving as a guide, and (2) for the year 2015, when Manchester served as a guide. (ECF No. 72, at 55:13-56:3, 87:1-6.) The only contrary evidence is Manchester did not sign a waiver on the day of the Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 99:18-100:4; ECF No. 70-8, at 161:23-162:1.) Atain points to no evidence contradicting Vulpis’s testimony concerning Manchester previously signing a waiver before the day of the Injury. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to NMG, a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG’s loss of Manchester’s waiver will appreciably prejudice Atain’s defense of Manchester’s underlying state court litigation.

E. Pachner’s Insurance Producer Licenses

Pachner argues it is entitled to summary judgment on any negligence claim relating to Pachner’s failure to maintain insurance producer licenses. No party opposes Pachner’s argument. Assuming without deciding Pachner owes a duty to its clients or third parties to maintain appropriate licenses as an insurance producer, the uncontested evidence demonstrates Pachner in fact possessed the requisite licenses at the time he assisted NMG with its search for insurance coverage. (ECF No. 73-31, at 1-2.) Therefore, there is no genuine dispute of material fact concerning Pachner’s licensure, and Pachner is entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

F. Pachner’s Explanation of the Policy to NMG

Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment against NMG’s claims relating to Pachner’s failure to explain mountaineering-related terms in the Policy or the Application. The Court declines to grant summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact remains concerning whether Pachner fulfilled his obligations to NMG as a broker.17

An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). A broker’s failure to inform a client about critical facts related to the client’s pursuit of insurance can constitute a breach of the broker’s duty. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 666 A.2d 146, 157 (N.J. 1995).

1. Subjective vs. Objective Understanding of Policy Terms

Pachner is not entitled to summary judgment concerning whether Pachner failed to explain certain mountaineering-related terms. The report of NMG’s expert Frank Seigel explains Pachner breached an insurance broker’s duty because Pachner “should have been familiar with how Atain handled and considered ‘mountaineering’ and ‘guided mountaineering’ and whether or not those terms, in Atain’s eyes, included the assembly and use of a Tyrolean Traverse.” (ECF No. 80-4, at 13.) Pachner argues Atain’s subjective understanding of these contested terms is irrelevant because of “the general rule that the terms in an insurance policy should be interpreted in accordance with their plain and commonly-understood meaning,” not the subjective meaning of the insurer. Cypress Point Condo. Ass’n v. Adria Towers, LLC, 143 A.3d 273, 286 (N.J. 2016).

This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment. Pachner is correct that courts must “first consider the plain meaning of the language at issue.” N.J. Transit Corp. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, ___ A.3d ___, 2019 WL 6109144, at *4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Nov. 18, 2019). But the plain language analysis is only one part of the approach to the interpretation of insurance contracts. Courts’ “goal in interpreting [insurance] policies is to ‘discover the intention of the parties[,]’ by considering ‘the contractual terms, the surrounding circumstances, and the purpose of the contract.'” Id. at *5 (quoting Marchak v. Claridge Commons, Inc., 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Atain’s subjective understanding of these terms is relevant to “discover[ing] the intention of the parties.” Id.

2. Vulpis’s Reliance on Pachner’s Information

Pachner also argues none of the Pachner entities breached any duty to inform NMG about relevant Policy terms because Vulpis testified he did not rely on Pachner for information about these terms. Vulpis’s testimony does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment because Vulpis could not have relied on Pachner for information Pachner did not provide, but should have. Cf. Brill, 666 A.2d at 157.

3. Vulpis’s Greater Level of Expertise Compared to Pachner

Pachner further argues Vulpis, as an expert in the mountaineering field, had greater familiarity than Pachner with terms like “mountaineering” and equipment like a “Tyrolean Traverse.” Therefore, Pachner argues, NMG had no need for any explanation from an individual like Pachner with a lesser level of expertise than Vulpis. The Court cannot grant summary judgment on this ground. The fact an insured possesses greater knowledge and expertise in a field than the insured’s broker does not relieve the broker from “exercis[ing] diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, 162 A.3d at 317.

4. Pachner’s and Vulpis’s Awareness of NMG’s Activities

Pachner next points out Vulpis informed Pachner NMG engaged in “mountaineering” activities and requested insurance for those activities (ECF No. 70-17, at ATN000336), but Vulpis never alerted Pachner that NMG engaged in the Activity. Pachner asks this Court for summary judgment because, the argument goes, Pachner could not reasonably have been expected to procure coverage for an Activity of which it had no knowledge. Pachner also argues summary judgment is appropriate because Vulpis was aware the Policy did not cover the Activity because the Activity was not a “mountaineering” activity. The same genuine issue of material fact—namely, the conflicting evidence concerning whether the Activity qualified as a “mountaineering” activity (ECF No. 72-1, at 253:19-24; ECF No. 70-20, at 18:8-13; ECF No. 70-8, at 20:20-21:4)—precludes the entry of summary judgment on both grounds.

G. Pachner’s Failure to Recommend Workers’ Compensation Insurance

Pachner asks the Court to grant summary judgment on NMG’s claim related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance, as required by law. The Court cannot grant summary on this basis because genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether (1) Pachner attempted to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG and (2) workers’ compensation insurance would have protected either NMG or Manchester.

An insurance broker’s obligations are “(1) to procure the insurance; (2) to secure a policy that is neither void nor materially deficient; and (3) to provide the coverage he or she undertook to supply.” President v. Jenkins, 853 A.2d 247, 569 (N.J. 2004). “[A]n insurance broker owes a duty to his principal to exercise diligence in obtaining coverage in the area his principal seeks to be protected.” Satec, Inc. v. Hanover Ins. Grp., 162 A.3d 311, 317 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2017) (quoting Werrmann v. Aratusa, Ltd., 630 A.2d 302, 304 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993)). When a client retains a broker to procure insurance, the broker must procure legally mandated workers’ compensation insurance. See Schustrin v. Globe Indem. Co. of N.Y., 130 A.2d 897, 898 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1957) (noting the jury’s finding that broker was obligated to procure workers’ compensation insurance for client).

Pachner argues a broker owes no duty to recommend additional coverage for a client. This argument does not affect the Court’s analysis. Pachner correctly points out New Jersey law imposes “no duty [on an insurance broker] to advise an insured to consider higher amounts of homeowner’s insurance.” Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1292 (N.J. 1994) (citing Wang v. Allstate Ins. Co., 592 A.2d 527, 532-33 (N.J. 1991)). Assuming without deciding this principle extends to workers’ compensation, the principle still does not apply here. NMG does not claim Pachner failed to advise NMG to consider the option of purchasing higher policy limits. Instead, the case concerns an alleged failure by a broker to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for a client who was legally mandated to obtain such insurance. (ECF No. 80-4, at 13-14.) Were the Court to adopt Pachner’s argument, then NMG would possess a legal obligation to obtain workers’ compensation insurance, see N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:15-71 (requiring employers to obtain workers’ compensation insurance), but NMG’s insurance broker Pachner would have no legal obligation to procure the insurance for NMG. This is not the law in New Jersey. See Schustrin, 130 A.2d at 898.

The delineation of a broker’s duties does not end the Court’s inquiry, because a plaintiff must show more than the failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance before liability will attach. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish[] that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.

Two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment. First, the record contains conflicting evidence concerning whether Pachner in fact attempted to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 73-10, at 6; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 18.) Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner did not attempt to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.

The second genuine issue of material fact concerns whether (1) Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss or (2) their loss would not have occurred had NMG purchased workers’ compensation insurance. As discussed earlier, genuine issues of material fact remain concerning whether Manchester qualified as an employee or an independent contractor. See part III.B., supra. Given this uncertainty, the record does not conclusively demonstrate whether or not workers’ compensation insurance would have covered Manchester’s Injury. Viewing this uncertainty in the light most favorable to non-movants NMG and Manchester while making all reasonable inferences in their favor, a reasonable jury could find Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG either contributed to NMG’s and Manchester’s loss, or their loss would not have occurred but for Pachner’s failure. In light of the two genuine issues of material fact, the Court cannot grant summary judgment against NMG’s and Manchester’s claims related to Pachner’s failure to procure workers’ compensation insurance for NMG.

H. Pachner’s Failure to Provide a Copy of the Policy

Pachner requests summary judgment on any claim it negligently failed to provide NMG with a copy of the Policy. The Court cannot grant summary judgment in light of the conflicting evidence.

An insurance broker has a duty to provide its client with any policy it receives from the insurer within 10 days of receipt by the broker. See N.J. Admin Code § 11:17A-4.6. According to Pachner, when “Pachner & Associates received a copy of the Policy, we made it available to NMG through our web portal.” (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 13.) Vulpis testified that he never received the Policy until after Manchester’s Injury. (ECF No. 72, at 112:16-25.) In light of the conflicting evidence, a genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment.

Pachner argues even if Pachner did not provide Vulpis with a copy of the Policy, Pachner’s failure did not proximately cause any of NMG’s damages because Vulpis received a copy of the Quote. (ECF No. 72-1, at 233:21-236:8.) A genuine issue of material fact also precludes summary judgment on this basis. “To succeed in an action against an insurance broker, the plaintiff must prove that in addition to being negligent, the broker’s negligence was a proximate cause of the loss.” Harbor Commuter Serv., Inc. v. Frenkel & Co., 951 A.2d 198, 207 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008). Put another way, the plaintiff must “establish[] that its loss would not have occurred but for defendants’ negligence, or that defendants’ negligence constituted a substantial contributing factor to the loss.” Id.

A genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether Pachner’s failure to provide the Policy to NMG substantially contributed to NMG’s loss by depriving Vulpis of important Policy details that would have prompted Vulpis to make inquiries about, and adjustments to, NMG’s insurance. The Policy contains substantially more details about coverage than the Quote. For instance, while the Quote merely mentions the insurance “Excludes Injury to Employees, Leased Workers, Volunteers, and Independent Contractors,” the Policy actually defines several of these terms. (ECF No. 73-37, at 2; ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000373-76.) Unlike the Quote, the Policy spells out the exact terms of the exclusion for injury to employees or independent contractors. (ECF No. 70-5, at ATN000383.) Making all reasonable inferences in favor of non-movant NMG, a reasonable jury could find Vulpis would use the more detailed information in the Policy to inquire about his insurance and adjust it so as to explicitly cover incidents like the one in which Manchester suffered an Injury. Accordingly, the Court cannot grant summary judgment.

I. Pachner’s Duty to Manchester

Pachner asks this Court to grant summary judgment against Manchester because New Jersey law precludes Manchester from bringing an action against Pachner until Manchester obtains a judgment against NMG and the judgment is returned unsatisfied.18 The Court disagrees because Manchester is a foreseeable injured third-party to whom Pachner, a broker, owes a duty. See Carter Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., Leasing Div. v. EMAR Grp., 638 A.2d 1288, 1297-98 (N.J. 1994).

“[A]n insurance broker may owe a duty of care not only to the insured who pays the premium and with whom the broker contracts but to other parties found within the zone of harm emanating from the broker’s actions as well.” Id. at 1297. When a broker negligently fails to procure insurance that would cover the injuries of a third-party, the broker owes a duty to the third-party, making the third-party an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action against the broker. See Impex Ag. Commodities Div. Impex Overseas Corp. v. Parness Trucking Corp., 576 F. Supp. 587, 591 (D.N.J. 1983) (applying New Jersey law). Pachner, as a broker, owes a duty to procure appropriate insurance not just to NMG, but also to Manchester—a foreseeable, injured third-party whose Injury NMG expected the Policy to cover. Because Pachner owes Manchester a duty, Manchester is therefore an appropriate plaintiff in a negligence action. Accordingly, summary judgment against Manchester on this basis is inappropriate. Pachner argues New Jersey is not a direct action state, meaning an injured third party may not bring an action directly against a tortfeasor’s insurance company in lieu of the tortfeasor. See Manukas v. Am. Ins. Co., 237 A.2d 898, 524 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1968). But Pachner is not an insurance company against whom Manchester brings an action in lieu of the tortfeasor. Rather, Pachner is the tortfeasor. Manchester brings a negligence action against Pachner for Pachner’s negligent failure to obtain appropriate insurance for NMG that would cover Manchester’s Injury. Manchester does not bring an action against Pachner in the capacity of an insurer. Therefore, Pachner’s “direct action” argument is inapposite.

Pachner further argues New Jersey law imposes a bar against direct actions such as this one until the plaintiff obtains a judgment against the tortfeasor and is unable to execute on the judgment. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:28-2. This argument does not entitle Pachner to summary judgment against Manchester for two reasons. First, as previously explained, Manchester has not brought a direct action against an insurer, because Pachner is the tortfeasor, not the tortfeasor’s insurer. Second, the statute’s language merely imposes a requirement on insurance contracts; it does not limit the circumstances under which a plaintiff may bring a tort action. See id. (“No policy of insurance . . . shall be issued or delivered in this state by any insurer authorized to do business in this state, unless [the policy allows the plaintiff to recover directly against the insurer if the tortfeasor is insolvent.]”). Because Manchester is not bringing an action for breach of an insurance contract, the statute has no application here.

Finally, Pachner argues Manchester cannot bring an action against Pachner until it has obtained a judgment against NMG. See Estate of Atanasoski v. Arcuri Agency, Inc., No. A-2291-17T4, 2019 WL 1986539, at *3-6 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 6, 2019). Because an action by Manchester against NMG concerning Manchester’s Injury is pending in state court, the appropriate course for this Court would not be to grant summary judgment against Manchester (which would permanently extinguish Manchester’s right to recover against Pachner), but to await the outcome of the state court case before issuing any final judgment against Pachner in favor of Manchester.

J. Action Against Pachner Risk Management

Pachner argues, and the Court agrees, summary judgment is appropriate against Pachner Risk Management (“PRM”) because PRM had no relationship with Manchester, Enberg, Vulpis, or NMG, nor was PRM involved in procuring insurance for NMG. No party contests this argument, and the evidence supports it. Donald Pachner testified PRM has always been an inactive company and further testified PRM has never had anything to do with NMG. (ECF No. 73-11, at 126:14-127:5.) When asked whether “there was anything you came across that suggested [PRM] owed or breached any duty to [NMG],” NMG’s expert Frank Seigel testified he did not recall any reference to PRM in the file he reviewed. (ECF No. 73-15, at 180:8-23.) Because the undisputed evidence shows PRM had no connection to NMG, Vulpis, or the other parties in this case, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of PRM.

K. Donald Pachner as Agent of His Disclosed Principal, Pachner & Associates

Pachner argues the Court should grant summary judgment in favor of Donald Pachner because he cannot be liable for the torts of his disclosed principal Pachner & Associates if Donald Pachner was merely serving as the agent of Pachner & Associates. See City of Millville v. Rock, 683 F. Supp. 2d 319, 326-28 (D.N.J. 2010). In light of New Jersey’s “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability, the court disagrees.

Under New Jersey law, the “long-standing rule [is] that ‘[a]n agent who does an act otherwise a tort is not relieved from liability by the fact that he acted at the command of a principal or on account of the principal.'” Ballinger v. Del. River Port Auth., 800 A.2d 97, 110 (N.J. 2002) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Agency § 343 (1958)). New Jersey law refers to this as the “participation theory” of principal-agent tort liability.

[T]he essence of the participation theory is that a corporate officer can be held personally liable for a tort committed by the corporation when he or she is sufficiently involved in the commission of the tort. A predicate to liability is a finding that the corporation owed a duty of care to the victim, the duty was delegated to the officer and the officer breached the duty of care by his own conduct.

Saltiel v. GSI Consults., Inc., 788 A.2d 268, 272 (N.J. 2002); see also Reliance Ins. Co. v. The Lott Grp., 776-77 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2004).

As the sole member of Pachner & Associates who served as the primary individual responsible for dealing with NMG during NMG’s effort to insure its activities, Donald Pachner meets these requirements. (ECF No. 73-3 ¶ 1; ECF No. 86-14 ¶ 16.) Accordingly, the Court may not grant summary judgment on this ground.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above, Atain’s motion is DENIED and Pachner’s motion is GRANTED IN PART in favor of PRM on all claims and in favor of all Pachner parties on any claims relating to Pachner’s negligent failure to maintain appropriate licensure and DENIED IN PART in all other respects. An appropriate order will follow.

/s/ Brian R. Martinotti
HON. BRIAN R. MARTINOTTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Dated: January 30, 2020

——–

Footnotes:

1. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

2. Pachner also argues the Activity could not be “guided” as the Policy uses the term unless Vulpis or Enberg met the definition of “guide” in NMG’s Guide Handbook—”specially trained and experienced mountaineers, climbers, instructors, and outdoor professionals for hire.” (ECF No. 73-35, at 7.) The Court rejects this argument—which Pachner raises for the first time in a reply brief—because “arguments raised for first time in [a] reply brief will not be considered.” Washington v. Doran, 717 F. App’x 151, 155 (3d Cir. 2017).

Were the Court to consider Pachner’s argument on its merits, the argument would fail. First, Pachner offers no evidence the parties intended the Guide Handbook’s definition of “guide” to govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, nor any evidence the parties even considered the Guide Handbook’s definition at the time Atain issued the Policy. Second, even if the Guide Handbook’s definition did govern the Policy’s coverage for “guided” activities, Vulpis and Enberg meet the definition. Both Vulpis and Enberg possess special training, and were available for hire. (ECF No. 86-14 ¶¶ 4-7; ECF No. 86-15 ¶¶ 2-3.) The Guide Handbook’s definition does not require Manchester in fact have hired Vulpis or Enberg to guide Manchester on the day of the incident.

3. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

4. Because a genuine issue of material fact exists concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenue, the Court need not decide (1) whether NMG’s projected revenue was material to the particular risk assumed by the Atain, nor (2) whether Atain’s remedy is limited to a retroactive increase in the Policy premium.

5. The Court declines to consider two of Atain’s arguments concerning whether NMG knowingly misrepresented its projected revenues. First, Atain argues—for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25)—Vulpis improperly projected zero revenue from NMG’s Professional Services Division, which NMG had created shortly before applying for Atain’s insurance. Second, Atain argues—again, for the first time in its reply brief (ECF No. 93, at 25-26)—even if NMG’s revenue figures were reasonable at the time of the Application, NMG’s failure to update the figures as circumstances changed constitutes a knowing misrepresentation. The Court will not consider either argument because an argument raised for the first time in a reply brief is waived. See Haberle v. Borough of Nazareth, 936 F.3d 138, 141 n.3 (3d Cir. 2019).

Were the Court to consider Atain’s arguments on their merits, neither argument would prevail. With regard to revenue from NMG’s newly created Professional Services Division, the Court notes, “[m]ost new businesses fail. Pretty much all studies agree on that.” Thomas J. McIntyre, Note, Discriminatory Opportunism: Why Undertaking Self-Employment to Mitigate Damages Creates Unique Challenges, 45 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 549, 550 n.11 (2012) (quoting Scott A. Shane, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship 98 (2008)). That Vulpis projected no revenue from NMG’s new venture is unsurprising. In conjunction with the other evidence and viewed in the light most favorable to non-movant NMG, a reasonable fact-finder could still determine Vulpis did not knowingly misrepresent NMG’s projected revenue. With regard to NMG’s failure to update its revenue figures as its circumstances changed, the evidence viewed in a light most favorable to NMG does not rule out the possibility NMG’s failure to update its Application was a “mere oversight or honest mistake.” Rutgers, 945 A.2d at 1035 (quoting Longobardi, 582 A.2d at 1261).

6. Atain argues the existence of new hires indicates NMG’s business was growing, and is reason to expect a good faith estimate of NMG’s revenues would have been higher. While Atain’s argument is one permissible inference concerning this piece of evidence, the Court must draw all inferences concerning the new hires in favor of non-movant NMG.

7. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

8. Because these two genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on these issues for both Atain and Pachner, the Court need not decide (1) whether principles of preclusion or estoppel require the Court to treat the guides as independent contractors for purposes of this litigation, nor (2) whether NMG’s representation concerning subcontractors and independent contractors was material to the particular risk assumed by Atain.

9. In the copyright context, a work is “made for hire” if the work’s author or creator is an “employee” under a non-exhaustive thirteen-factor test derived from the common law of agency. See Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (“CCNV”), 490 U.S. 730, 751 (1989). The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates the wages of individuals who meet a six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test focusing on the “economic reality” of the employer-employee relationship. See Verma v. 3001 Castor, Inc., 937 F.3d 221, 229-30 (3d Cir. 2019). The Americans with Disabilities Act covers businesses with a minimum number of “employees” as determined by a different six-factor, totality-of-the-circumstances test, focusing on the employer’s right to control the employee. See Clackamas Gastroenterology Assocs. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440, 449-50 (2003). New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act protects a person from retaliation against whistle-blowing if the person is an “employee” under the totality of the circumstances after analyzing a three-consideration, twelve-factor test analyzing both the employer’s right to control the employee and the economic realities of the employer-employee relationship. See D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 927 A.2d 113, 120-22 (N.J. 2007). When distinguishing employees from independent contractors in the context of federal employment taxes, the U.S. Tax Court, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Court of Federal Claims each use a different test. The Tax Court considers seven factors while the IRS considers twenty, and the Court of Federal Claims adopts the Reid test from copyright law. See Ewens & Miller, Inc. v. Comm’r, 117 T.C. 263, 270 (2001); Consol. Flooring Servs. v. United States, 38 Fed. Cl. 450, 455 (1997) (quoting CCNV, 490 U.S. at 751-52); Rev. Rul. 87-41, 1987-1 C.B. 296, 298-299). This is not an exhaustive list.

10. A business uses IRS Form W-2 to report payments to an employee, but uses IRS Form 1099 to report payments to a non-employee independent contractor. See Hopkins v. Duckett, Civ. No. 02-5589, 2006 WL 3373784, at *4 & n.2 (D.N.J. Nov. 21, 2006).

11. The Court reminds the parties of their obligation to redact social security numbers and tax identification numbers from filings, including copies of tax returns attached as exhibits. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2(a). The parties shall coordinate with the assigned magistrate judge to bring all non-compliant filings into compliance with this rule.

12. Atain does not contend Count Seven, a claim under the New Jersey Insurance Fraud Prevention Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 17:33A-1 et seq., covers the claim for misrepresentation concerning the training and education programs for search and rescue operations. (ECF No. 93, at 28-33.)

13. The Court rejects Atain’s argument asking the Court to disregard Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations as “conclusory, self-serving affidavits . . . insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Gonzalez v. Sec’y of Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 678 F.3d 254, 263 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Kirleis v. Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 560 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2009)). Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations “detail[] the specific circumstances” surrounding NMG’s education and training programs concerning search and rescue operations, rendering the declarations far from conclusory. Kirleis, 560 F.3d at 161. Notwithstanding any arguable inconsistencies with his deposition testimony, Enberg’s declaration is not so unbelievable that “the [C]ourt, based on all of the evidence, can say with confidence that a rational trier of fact could not credit” Enberg’s declaration. United States v. 717 S. Woodward Street, 2 F.3d 529, 534 (3d Cir. 1993). Both Vulpis’s and Enberg’s declarations (like all declarations) are self-serving, but this is no reason to disregard them entirely. See Paladino v. Newsome, 885 F.3d 203, 209 (3d Cir. 2018). Accordingly, the Court must consider Vulpis’s and Enberg’s testimony, and their testimony creates a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.

14. Manchester joins Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 80, at 19.) NMG, Vulpis, and Enberg also join Pachner’s arguments. (ECF No. 86, at 30.)

15. Atain argues the relevant date is January 5, 2016, when NMG received a letter from Manchester’s attorneys providing a notice of claim. (ECF No. 85-5, at 2.)

16. The record is ambiguous on this point. When asked whether, after Manchester’s Injury, Atain retained NMG’s Policy premiums or returned them to NMG, Atain’s representative testified, “I don’t believe so. I don’t know for sure. I can’t verify.” (ECF No. 73-18, at 149:14-15.) For the purpose of Pachner’s motion, the Court assumes Atain did not refund the Policy premium to NMG in light of Atain’s argument claiming Atain may retain the premium without forfeiting Atain’s right to rescission. (ECF No. 85, at 13-14.)

17. As part of its argument, Pachner contends the testimony of Grace Cunningham is irrelevant because Cunningham was not designated as Atain’s organizational representative under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(6) and because she did not work at Atain at the time of her deposition. Accordingly, Pachner argues, the Court should disregard not only Cunningham’s testimony but other evidence relying on Cunningham’s testimony. The Court disagrees. Cunningham’s testimony is relevant to this case and the Court will consider it.

A person need not be an organizational representative under Rule 30(b)(6) nor still employed with a defendant to provide relevant testimony. Cf. Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 932 F.3d 170, 183 (3d Cir. 1991) (observing “many potentially relevant witnesses may no longer be employed by” a defendant company). Testimony is relevant to the extent “(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without [her testimony]; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining [this] action.” Fed. R. Evid. 401.

Pachner does not argue any particular item of Cunningham’s testimony fails to meet this definition. Instead, Pachner argues only the Court should wholesale disregard Cunningham’s entire testimony because none of it can be relevant if Atain no longer employs Cunningham. The Court cannot agree. As the director of underwriting for recreational programs at Atain when NMG contracted with Atain under the Policy, Cunningham was personally involved with Atain’s issuance of the Policy to NMG. (ECF No. 70-20, at 12:22-13:6, 32:19-23.) Given her position and personal involvement, the Court cannot say her testimony is entirely irrelevant. Accordingly, the Court considers both Cunningham’s testimony and other evidence relying on her testimony.

18. Pachner characterizes this argument by saying Manchester lacks “standing” to sue Pachner. (ECF No. 73-2, at 25-26; ECF No. 92, at 4-5.) The Court declines to adopt this phrasing, to avoid confusion with the doctrine of justiciability under Article III of the Constitution. See, e.g., Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916, 1929 (2018). Pachner’s underlying argument concerns whether Manchester is an appropriate plaintiff—which, in a negligence action like this, is best analyzed in terms of whether Pachner owes a duty to Manchester.

——–


Iowa Supreme upholds release for injuries due to an accident on a zip line.

However, case goes to trial based on plaintiffs’ claims of gross negligence, which do not exist under Iowa law?

Lukken v. Fleischer, 962 N.W.2d 71 (Iowa 2021)

State: Iowa, Supreme Court of Iowa

Plaintiff: Thomas Lukken

Defendant: Korby L. FLEISCHER, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area ; Samantha Fleischer, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area; Mt. Crescent Ski Area, an unknown business entity; Safehold Special Risk, Inc., an Illinois corporation; Challenge Quest, LLC, an Oklahoma Corporation d/b/a Challenge Quest, LLC ; and Kirk Gregory Engineering, P.C., a Texas Corporation; KG Structural Solutions, LLC, a Texas Corporation; and Atlas Engineering, LLC, a Nebraska Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and strict liability, and requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Granted to specific defendants and reversed as to others

Year: 2021

Summary

A zipline braking system was not reset before the plaintiff slammed into the end. The plaintiff sued the original designer and installer of the zipline who had not designed or had anything to do with the new braking system that failed.

The court also found that the release protecting the zipline operator would not protect the zipline operator from claims of greater than ordinary negligence. What is confusing is Iowa does not recognize gross or willful and wanton negligence as a legal claim.

Facts

Thomas Lukken stepped off an elevated platform and sped down a zip line at the Mt. Crescent Ski Area. An employee at the end of the zip line had failed to reset the zip line’s braking system after the previous rider exited. By the time the employee realized his mistake, it was too late. Lukken slammed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and fractured his neck. He sued the zip line’s original designer and its owner. The district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s designer primarily based on the fact that the braking system that failed to stop Lukken had been completely replaced by a different supplier before the incident. And the district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s owner based on a liability waiver that Lukken signed before riding. Lukken appeals.

Double Diamond, Inc. d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area (Mt. Crescent) operates a skiing and sledding business in winter months and offers other outdoor recreational activities, including zip lining, in warmer months. The zip line begins on a twenty-four-foot-high platform atop the ski hill. Harnessed riders travel down the zip line reaching speeds of up to forty miles per hour before landing on a lower thirty-three-foot-high landing platform at the bottom of the hill. The zip line extends 1576 feet from start to finish.

In April 2014, Mt. Crescent contracted with Challenge Quest, LLC, to build and install the zip line. Challenge Quest designed the zip line to have enough slack so that riders would nearly run out of momentum before reaching the landing platform. To bring riders nearing the landing platform to a complete stop, a small device with wheels that rode on top of the zip line and connected the rider’s harness to the zip line (referred to as a “trolley”) made contact with a padded brake block. The brake block connected to a rope-pulley system. An operator on the landing platform held onto a rope connected to the pulley and applied manual resistance to bring riders to a complete stop. This rope-braking feature slowed riders as the rope ran through the operator’s hands, with operators tightening or releasing their hold as needed to apply the appropriate amount of friction. Because slack in the zip line could cause riders to slide back away from the landing platform once a rider’s forward momentum stopped, the brake block also featured a capture arm that prevented riders from backsliding. The operator used the same rope-pulley system to pull stopped riders all the way onto the landing platform. After an operator unhooked a completed rider on the landing platform, the operator would use the same rope-pulley system to manually move the brake block back out for the next rider.

Challenge Quest completed construction of the zip line in August 2014. It then provided, as contemplated by the parties’ contract, a four day “site specific high technical training for full time staff,” including training on the braking system, after which it turned full control of the zip line over to Mt. Crescent. After the zip line opened to the public, Mt. Crescent’s operators in several instances failed to sufficiently slow riders using grip friction on the rope to control the brake block. Riders arrived at the landing platform at speeds in excess of six miles per hour, the maximum recommended by a trade association called the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which develops safety standards for zip line courses. In some cases, these riders collided with the Mt. Crescent employees engaged in stopping them. A handful of injuries resulted, the most serious apparently being an injured ankle.

Mt. Crescent decided to consult with a different contractor about a different braking system than the original one Challenge Quest had installed. This new contractor, Sky Line, inspected Mt. Crescent’s zip line and recommended a “zipSTOP” braking system. Mt. Crescent had initially considered a zipSTOP braking system as part of the zip line that Challenge Quest designed but decided against it. Mt. Crescent agreed with Sky Line’s recommendation and hired Sky Line to install the zipSTOP system on its existing zip line. Sky Line completed the installation in July 2016. Mt. Crescent informed Challenge Quest of none of this.

Like the original braking system, the zipSTOP braking system also uses a brake block to bring riders to a complete stop. But instead of rope pulleys controlling the brake block using an operator’s hand resistance, the brake block uses a magnetic-resistance wheel to bring riders to a complete stop. The brake block automatically moves back to the correct position on the zip line in preparation for the next rider, but an operator must manually redeploy it before it will move.

Lukken rode Mt. Crescent’s zip line in October 2016 with the zipSTOP braking system in place. The Mt. Crescent employee on the landing platform forgot to redeploy the brake block after the rider ahead of Lukken finished. Lukken was already whizzing down the zip line toward the landing platform by the time the operator realized his mistake. The operator’s tardy redeployment of the zipSTOP braking system didn’t permit enough time for it to stop Lukken, and he crashed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and suffered a neck fracture.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest, holding that it breached no duty to Lukken and that it didn’t cause Lukken’s injuries. The district court reasoned that Challenge Quest owed no duty to Lukken because it had completed its work under its contract and transferred control of the zip line to Mt. Crescent by the time of the incident, and, further, that its actions were not the “cause” of Lukken’s injuries because it didn’t install the allegedly defective braking system in place when Lukken was injured.

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

The first claim pleaded by the plaintiff was the builder of the zip line owed him a duty of care. Under Iowa law “To maintain a claim for negligence, Lukken must prove that Challenge Quest owed a duty to protect him from the harm he suffered.”

To prove his claim the plaintiff argued:

Lukken contends that Challenge Quest owed a bevy of duties to Mt. Crescent, including a duty (1) to design and construct a zip line that complied with industry standards, (2) to provide Mt. Crescent appropriate instruction on how to operate the zip line, (3) to address Mt. Crescent’s safety concerns about the zip line, (4) to ensure that Mt. Crescent had procedures in place to train new employees, and (5) to address safety issues with Mt. Crescent arising in future safety inspections. Lukken argues that Challenge Quest owes each of these duties to Mt. Crescent and, based on the risk of physical harm to Mt. Crescent’s zip line riders, these duties extend to Lukken as well.

The court looked at the issue as one of control. Who had control of the zip line after Challenge Quest was no longer involved in the operation, maintenance or repair of the zipline.

Since Challenge Quest was no longer servicing the zip line and had been replaced by another company, Challenge Quest had no control over the zip line. That lack of control extended both to the design, installation and operation of the zipline as well as its operation on the day the plaintiff was injured.

So too here, once Mt. Crescent decided to replace the braking system, any machine- or human-related flaws in that system ceased to be Challenge Quest’s responsibility. Challenge Quest’s braking system didn’t fail; it no longer existed. Challenge Quest likewise had no connection to the actions of Mt. Crescent’s employee who failed to reset the brake in time to stop Lukken. The employee didn’t work for Mt. Crescent when Challenge Quest conducted its four-day technical training for Mt. Crescent employees prior to Mt. Crescent opening the course to the public. Challenge Quest had no role in the employee’s hiring, supervision, or instruction.

That lack of control extended to the new braking system. Challenge Quest did not design, install or operate the new braking system that was not reset properly on the day of the accident.

And Challenge Quest neither designed nor constructed the braking system that the employee failed to reset when Lukken rode the zip line. By that time, Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system had replaced Challenge Quest’s original system. Challenge Quest owed no duty of care to prevent Mt. Crescent from changing the braking system. Because Challenge Quest owed no duty of care associated with the zip line’s braking system after its own braking system had been uninstalled, no cause of action for negligence exists as a matter of law, and the district court thus properly granted summary judgment in Challenge Quest’s favor.

Because there was no control over the zipline or braking system, Challenge Quest could not be held liable for the failure of the new braking system.

The Supreme Court then reviewed the dismissal of the complaint against the ski area based on the release.

Under Iowa law, releases are valid.

Exculpatory clauses, sometimes referred to as “hold harmless” clauses, relieve parties from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. “[W]e have repeatedly held that contracts exempting a party from its own negligence are enforceable, and are not contrary to public policy.” An enforceable waiver must contain “clear and unequivocal language” notifying a casual reader that by signing, she agrees to waive all claims for future acts or omissions of negligence. An intention to absolve a party from all claims of negligence must be clearly and unequivocally expressed in the waiver.

The court in its analysis of the arguments made by the plaintiff veered into the idea that a release under Iowa law cannot stop a claim for greater than normal negligence, (gross or willful and wanton negligence).

However, Iowa does not recognize any negligence other than ordinary negligence.

“Gross negligence” is not a distinct cause of action under our common law, but instead is a measure of conduct in a cause of action for negligence. “In this state, as is well known, the actionable character of negligence is not dependent upon its ‘degree,’ and the ancient differentiation into ‘gross,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘slight’ has come to mean little more than a matter of comparative emphasis in the discussion of testimony.” Under our common law “there are no degrees of care or of negligence in Iowa, and we thus do not recognize a tort cause of action based on “gross” negligence as distinct from “ordinary” negligence.

The court then wove through an intricate review of statute and case law to determine that although Iowa does not recognize greater than ordinary negligence, if greater than ordinary negligence is found in this case, the release will not stop a claim for it.

We therefore hold that the contractual waiver limiting Mt. Crescent’s liability is unenforceable to the extent it purports to eliminate liability for the willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that Lukken has alleged. To the extent Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent involve culpability that constitutes only negligent conduct (regardless of any degree of negligence), his claims fail as a matter of law based on the liability waiver.

So Now What?

The release could have stopped several more of the claims if it had been written better. Besides the ski area, the release could have protected the builder of the zip line and anyone who worked on the zip line after it was built.

As to the release, the Iowa Supreme Court seems to have not muddied the water but moved the entire river to a different stream bed. I do not know how to interpret a case where a release cannot apply to a legal claim that does not exist.

However, this analysis is not that far outside of the laws in most other states. It is just how the court got to this position that is confusing.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Lukken v. Fleischer, 962 N.W.2d 71 (Iowa 2021)

962 N.W.2d 71

Thomas LUKKEN, Appellant,
v.
Korby L. FLEISCHER, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area ; Samantha Fleischer, individually and d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area; Mt. Crescent Ski Area, an unknown business entity; Safehold Special Risk, Inc., an Illinois corporation; Challenge Quest, LLC, an Oklahoma Corporation d/b/a Challenge Quest, LLC ; and Kirk Gregory Engineering, P.C., a Texas Corporation; KG Structural Solutions, LLC, a Texas Corporation; and Atlas Engineering, LLC, a Nebraska Corporation, Appellees.

No. 20-0343

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted March 24, 2021
Filed June 30, 2021

Matthew A. Lathrop (argued) of Law Office of Mathew A. Lathrop, Omaha, Nebraska, and Robert M. Livingston of Stuart Tinley Law Firm, LLP, Council Bluffs, for appellant.

Thomas Henderson (argued) and Peter J. Chalik of Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C., Des Moines, for Mt. Crescent appellees.

Joshua S. Weiner (argued) and Robert M. Slovek of Kutak Rock LLP, Omaha, Nebraska, for appellee Challenge Quest, LLC.

McDermott, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring specially.

McDERMOTT, Justice.

Thomas Lukken stepped off an elevated platform and sped down a zip line at the Mt. Crescent Ski Area. An employee at the end of the zip line had failed to reset the zip line’s braking system after the previous rider exited. By the time the employee realized his mistake, it was too late. Lukken slammed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and fractured his neck. He sued the zip line’s original designer and its owner. The district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s designer primarily based on the fact that the braking system that failed to stop Lukken had been completely replaced by a different supplier before the incident. And the district court dismissed the claims against the zip line’s owner based on a liability waiver that Lukken signed before riding. Lukken appeals.

I.

Double Diamond, Inc. d/b/a Mt. Crescent Ski Area (Mt. Crescent) operates a skiing and sledding business in winter months and offers other outdoor recreational activities, including zip lining, in warmer months. The zip line begins on a twenty-four-foot-high platform atop the ski hill. Harnessed riders travel down the zip line reaching speeds of up to forty miles per hour before landing on a lower thirty-three-foot-high landing platform at the bottom of the hill. The zip line extends 1576 feet from start to finish.

In April 2014, Mt. Crescent contracted with Challenge Quest, LLC, to build and install the zip line. Challenge Quest designed the zip line to have enough slack so that riders would nearly run out of momentum before reaching the landing platform. To bring riders nearing the landing platform to a complete stop, a small device with wheels that rode on top of the zip line and connected the rider’s harness to the zip line (referred to as a “trolley”) made contact with a padded brake block. The brake block connected to a rope-pulley system. An operator on the landing platform held onto a rope connected to the pulley and applied manual resistance to bring riders to a complete stop. This rope-braking feature slowed riders as the rope ran through the operator’s hands, with operators tightening or releasing their hold as needed to apply the appropriate amount of friction. Because slack in the zip line could cause riders to slide back away from the landing platform once a rider’s forward momentum stopped, the brake block also featured a capture arm that prevented riders from backsliding. The operator used the same rope-pulley system to pull stopped riders all the way onto the landing platform. After an operator unhooked a completed rider on the landing platform, the operator would use the same rope-pulley system to manually move the brake block back out for the next rider.

Challenge Quest completed construction of the zip line in August 2014. It then provided, as contemplated by the parties’ contract, a four day “site specific high technical training for full time staff,” including training on the braking system, after which it turned full control of the zip line over to Mt. Crescent. After the zip line opened to the public, Mt. Crescent’s operators in several instances failed to sufficiently slow riders using grip friction on the rope to control the brake block. Riders arrived at the landing platform at speeds in excess of six miles per hour, the maximum recommended by a trade association called the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which develops safety standards for zip line courses. In some cases, these riders collided with the Mt. Crescent employees engaged in stopping them. A handful of injuries resulted, the most serious apparently being an injured ankle.

Mt. Crescent decided to consult with a different contractor about a different braking system than the original one Challenge Quest had installed. This new contractor, Sky Line, inspected Mt. Crescent’s zip line and recommended a “zipSTOP” braking system. Mt. Crescent had initially considered a zipSTOP braking system as part of the zip line that Challenge Quest designed but decided against it. Mt. Crescent agreed with Sky Line’s recommendation and hired Sky Line to install the zipSTOP system on its existing zip line. Sky Line completed the installation in July 2016. Mt. Crescent informed Challenge Quest of none of this.

Like the original braking system, the zipSTOP braking system also uses a brake block to bring riders to a complete stop. But instead of rope pulleys controlling the brake block using an operator’s hand resistance, the brake block uses a magnetic-resistance wheel to bring riders to a complete stop. The brake block automatically moves back to the correct position on the zip line in preparation for the next rider, but an operator must manually redeploy it before it will move.

Lukken rode Mt. Crescent’s zip line in October 2016 with the zipSTOP braking system in place. The Mt. Crescent employee on the landing platform forgot to redeploy the brake block after the rider ahead of Lukken finished. Lukken was already whizzing down the zip line toward the landing platform by the time the operator realized his mistake. The operator’s tardy redeployment of the zipSTOP braking system didn’t permit enough time for it to stop Lukken, and he crashed into a wooden pole at the base of the zip line and suffered a neck fracture.

Before riding on the zip line, Lukken signed a release and waiver-of-liability agreement in favor of Mt. Crescent. It stated in relevant part:

I am aware and fully understand that these activities are very dangerous. They involve the risk of damage, serious injury and death, both to myself and to others.

I understand that there are many potential causes for property damage, serious injury and death at Mt Crescent Ski Area including the negligence of Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, and equipment as well as my own negligence and the negligence of others.

In consideration of being permitted to participate in the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area I hereby agree to release, waive, discharge, and covenant not to sue Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, or rescue personnel as well as any equipment manufacturers and distributors involved with the Mt Crescent Ski Area facilities from any and all liability from any and all loss or damage I may have and any claims or demands I may have on account of injury to my person and property or the person and property of others, including death, arising out of or related to the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area whether caused by the negligence of Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, equipment manufacturers, or distributors or otherwise.

….

In consideration of being permitted to participate in the activities offered at Mt Crescent Ski Area, I agree that this Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement extends to any and all acts of negligence by Mt Crescent Ski Area, its owners, agents, employees, volunteer staff, rescue personnel, and equipment manufacturers, and distributors, including negligent rescue operations and is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by Iowa law and that if any portion is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall continue in full legal force and effect.

He filed suit against Mt. Crescent (and related individuals and entities alleged to own it) and Challenge Quest (and related entities alleged to have participated in the zip line’s design and construction), pleading causes of action for negligence and strict liability, and requesting punitive damages.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest, holding that it breached no duty to Lukken and that it didn’t cause Lukken’s injuries. The district court reasoned that Challenge Quest owed no duty to Lukken because it had completed its work under its contract and transferred control of the zip line to Mt. Crescent by the time of the incident, and, further, that its actions were not the “cause” of Lukken’s injuries because it didn’t install the allegedly defective braking system in place when Lukken was injured.

The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of Mt. Crescent, holding the waiver dispositive of the claims. The district court reasoned that Iowa courts consistently uphold exculpatory agreements and that the waiver at issue contained language sufficiently “clear and unequivocal” to demonstrate that Lukken understood he was waiving future claims of negligence. The court held that the express language of waiving “any and all negligence” waived all of Lukken’s negligence claims, including his claim for gross negligence. The district court declined to hold the waiver unenforceable based on public-policy grounds and held that the waiver wasn’t preempted by statute.

Lukken appeals each of the district court’s summary judgment rulings.

II.

We turn first to Lukken’s claims against Challenge Quest. Lukken pleaded claims against Challenge Quest under theories of both negligence and strict liability. Yet his summary judgment and appellate briefing contain no separate legal arguments distinguishing the two theories. He cites no products liability law despite the fact that his petition alleges claims for strict liability based on design defects in the zip line. He instead focuses solely on traditional negligence principles. We will thus analyze Challenge Quest’s liability through the lens of a negligence claim.

To maintain a claim for negligence, Lukken must prove that Challenge Quest owed a duty to protect him from the harm he suffered. See
Thompson v. Kaczinski , 774 N.W.2d 829, 834 (Iowa 2009). Lukken contends that Challenge Quest owed a bevy of duties to Mt. Crescent, including a duty (1) to design and construct a zip line that complied with industry standards, (2) to provide Mt. Crescent appropriate instruction on how to operate the zip line, (3) to address Mt. Crescent’s safety concerns about the zip line, (4) to ensure that Mt. Crescent had procedures in place to train new employees, and (5) to address safety issues with Mt. Crescent arising in future safety inspections. Lukken argues that Challenge Quest owes each of these duties to Mt. Crescent and, based on the risk of physical harm to Mt. Crescent’s zip line riders, these duties extend to Lukken as well.

Whether a defendant owes a duty of care under particular circumstances is a question of law for the court. Hoyt v. Gutterz Bowl & Lounge L.L.C. , 829 N.W.2d 772, 775 (Iowa 2013). The district court in granting summary judgment held that Challenge Quest owed Lukken no duty of care for the injury he sustained. We review the district court’s holding for correction of legal error. Lewis v. Howard L. Allen Invs., Inc. , 956 N.W.2d 489, 490 (Iowa 2021).

The central issue here is the scope of Challenge Quest’s duty in regard to the braking system after the braking system had been replaced without Challenge Quest’s involvement. We have reiterated that, under the Restatement (Third) of Torts, control remains an important consideration in whether a duty exists and liability normally follows control. See
McCormick v. Nikkel & Assocs., Inc. , 819 N.W.2d 368, 371–73 (Iowa 2012). In McCormick v. Nikkel & Associates, Inc. , we held as a matter of law that a subcontractor owed no duty to assure the safety of a jobsite once it locked up the switchgear and transferred control back to the contractor. Id. at 373–75. So too here, once Mt. Crescent decided to replace the braking system, any machine- or human-related flaws in that system ceased to be Challenge Quest’s responsibility. Challenge Quest’s braking system didn’t fail; it no longer existed. Challenge Quest likewise had no connection to the actions of Mt. Crescent’s employee who failed to reset the brake in time to stop Lukken. The employee didn’t work for Mt. Crescent when Challenge Quest conducted its four-day technical training for Mt. Crescent employees prior to Mt. Crescent opening the course to the public. Challenge Quest had no role in the employee’s hiring, supervision, or instruction.

And Challenge Quest neither designed nor constructed the braking system that the employee failed to reset when Lukken rode the zip line. By that time, Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system had replaced Challenge Quest’s original system. Challenge Quest owed no duty of care to prevent Mt. Crescent from changing the braking system. Because Challenge Quest owed no duty of care associated with the zip line’s braking system after its own braking system had been uninstalled, no cause of action for negligence exists as a matter of law, and the district court thus properly granted summary judgment in Challenge Quest’s favor.

Lukken argues more specifically that Challenge Quest should have incorporated an emergency brake as part of its original braking system. But this argument fails, too, based on the replacement of the braking system and Challenge Quest’s lack of any control at that point. When Mt. Crescent decided to install a different braking system, it became the responsibility of Mt. Crescent and Sky Line to assure the safety of that system. Challenge Quest’s original braking system (without an emergency brake) apparently resulted in some minor mishaps until it was replaced in July 2016. Sky Line’s replacement braking system (without an emergency brake) had the potential to result in a more serious accident in the event of an operator’s error. It would be unfair to make Challenge Quest legally responsible for this replacement system. See
Huck v. Wyeth, Inc. , 850 N.W.2d 353, 381 (Iowa 2014) (reaffirming the “long-standing” rule that requires the plaintiff “to prove the defendant manufactured or supplied the product that caused her injury, and [declining] to extend the duty of product manufacturers to those injured by use of a competitor’s product”). In this case, to the extent any product failed, it wasn’t Challenge Quest’s product. Cf. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Thermogas Co. , 620 N.W.2d 819, 825 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (“[T]o establish assembler liability, the plaintiff must show that the assembler actually sold or otherwise placed the defective product on the market. Baughman [ v.
Gen. Motors Corp. , 780 F.2d 1131, 1132–33 (4th Cir. 1986)] (refusing to hold truck manufacturer liable for defective wheel rim that was placed on vehicle after sale and that manufacturer did not supply); Exxon [ Shipping Co. v. Pac. Res., Inc. , 789 F. Supp. 1521, 1522–23, 1527 (D. Haw. 1991)] (refusing to hold designer of mooring terminal liable for defective replacement chain).”) That Lukken claims the new, different product was similarly defective does not provide him a basis to pursue Challenge Quest for a defect in a product that Lukken never used and that didn’t injure him. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Prod. Liab. § 15 cmt. b , illus. 2, at 232 (Am. L. Inst. 1998).

Lukken also contends that Challenge Quest’s zip line design defects caused riders to reach speeds in excess of ACCT’s standards, which left the braking system unable to safely stop him. But the record demonstrates that Sky Line independently examined the existing zip line, recommended the zipSTOP braking system, and (at Mt. Crescent’s direction) installed it. As the district court correctly found, the actions of Sky Line and Mt. Crescent cut off Challenge Quest’s liability. See
McCormick , 819 N.W.2d at 374 (noting that the party in control “is best positioned to take precautions to identify risks and take measures to improve safety”). In this case, when Mt. Crescent scrapped Challenged Quest’s original braking system and installed Sky Line’s zipSTOP braking system, Challenge Quest was relieved of any liability associated with insufficient stopping capacity or other defects in its original braking system.

Lukken further claims that Challenge Quest breached a duty to provide Mt. Crescent information, training, and policies to ensure Mt. Crescent’s safe ongoing operation of the zip line. Lukken asserts that had Challenge Quest instructed Mt. Crescent on safety procedures that included, for instance, operational redundancies or checklists, Mt. Crescent might have ensured the braking system was properly deployed and cross-checked before Lukken ever started down the zip line. But this claimed duty on Challenge Quest fails for reasons inherent in the different braking systems that were installed. The original braking system required an employee’s active, manual stopping efforts to ensure riders stopped at the landing platform. Yet the zipSTOP system stops riders through an automated brake that requires no similar manual exertion. Challenge Quest had no reason to provide the type of instruction or policies that would have caused Mt. Crescent’s employees to remember to redeploy an automated braking system that, at the time, didn’t exist on this zip line. Challenge Quest trained Mt. Crescent’s employees on how to stop a rider using the original manual stopping method; we see no basis to impose on Challenge Quest some requirement to provide instruction or procedures on operating a distinct braking system that hadn’t been installed. On these facts, Challenge Quest had no duty to provide training or policies on the safe operation of a braking system that relied on a completely different stopping mechanism and that required completely different actions by Mt. Crescent’s employees.

We thus affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Challenge Quest.

III.

We turn to the dismissal of Lukken’s negligence claim against Mt. Crescent.

The district court found that the waiver Lukken signed before riding the zip line was “broad in its inclusiveness and contained clear and unequivocal language sufficient to notify Plaintiff that by signing the document, he would be waiving all future claims for negligence against Defendants.” Lukken argues that even if the waiver’s language could be considered “clear and unequivocal,” Mt. Crescent’s negligence went beyond ordinary negligence and into the realm of gross negligence. He argues that the gross negligence alleged in this case involves conduct more culpable than the inadvertence or inattention of ordinary negligence and that, as a matter of public policy, Iowa courts should not enforce clauses that exculpate parties from grossly negligent conduct.

Exculpatory clauses, sometimes referred to as “hold harmless” clauses, relieve parties from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. “[W]e have repeatedly held that contracts exempting a party from its own negligence are enforceable, and are not contrary to public policy.” Huber v. Hovey , 501 N.W.2d 53, 55 (Iowa 1993). An enforceable waiver must contain “clear and unequivocal language” notifying a casual reader that by signing, she agrees to waive all claims for future acts or omissions of negligence. Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf , 762 N.W.2d 873, 878–79 (Iowa 2009). An intention to absolve a party from all claims of negligence must be clearly and unequivocally expressed in the waiver. Id. at 878–79 ; see also
Baker v. Stewarts’ Inc. , 433 N.W.2d 706, 709 (Iowa 1988) (stating that an intent “to absolve the establishment from liability based upon the acts or omissions of its professional staff … must be clearly and unequivocally expressed”).

Exculpatory clauses reside at the intersection of tort law and contract law. Under tort law, courts generally permit a party to whom a duty of care is owed to pursue damages against another for acts that breach that duty if those acts were the factual cause of the harm and within the other party’s scope of liability. See
Thompson , 774 N.W.2d at 837. But under contract law, “parties of full age and competent understanding must have the greatest freedom of contracting, and contracts, when entered into freely and voluntarily, must be upheld and enforced by the courts.” 5 Richard A. Lord, Williston on Contracts § 12:3, at 862–870 (4th ed. 2009). Not enforcing exculpatory clauses advances the interests of tort law (deterring unsafe conduct and compensating accident victims) but abridges parties’ power to contract; enforcing exculpatory clauses advances the parties’ power to contract but abridges tort remedies.

Courts attempt to strike a balance by not enforcing exculpatory contracts that contravene public policy. See
Wunschel L. Firm, P.C. v. Clabaugh , 291 N.W.2d 331, 335 (Iowa 1980). Admittedly, courts have struggled to articulate a predictable framework for parties to anticipate which agreements will contravene public policy in a future given case and which will not. We have stated in general terms that courts should not enforce a contract that “tends to be injurious to the public or contrary to the public good.” Walker v. Am. Fam. Mut. Ins. , 340 N.W.2d 599, 601 (Iowa 1983). Yet declaring contracts unenforceable as violating public policy “is a delicate power which ‘should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.’ ” Wunschel L. Firm, P.C. , 291 N.W.2d at 335 (quoting Richmond v. Dubuque & Sioux City R.R. , 26 Iowa 191, 202 (1868) ). We will not “curtail the liberty to contract by enabling parties to escape their valid contractual obligation on the ground of public policy unless the preservation of the general public welfare imperatively so demands.” Walker , 340 N.W.2d at 601 (quoting Tschirgi v. Merchs. Nat’l Bank of Cedar Rapids , 253 Iowa 682, 690, 113 N.W.2d 226, 231 (1962) ); see also
Robinson v. Allied Prop. & Cas. Ins. , 816 N.W.2d 398, 408 (Iowa 2012) (” ‘[T]here is a certain danger in too freely invalidating private contracts on the basis of public policy.’ … To do so ‘is to mount “a very unruly horse, and when you once get astride it, you never know where it will carry you.” ‘ ” (alteration in original) (first quoting Skyline Harvestore Sys., Inc. v. Centennial Ins. , 331 N.W.2d 106, 109 (Iowa 1983) ) (second quoting Grinnell Mut. Reins. v. Jungling , 654 N.W.2d 530, 540 (Iowa 2002) )). And yet, in Galloway v. State , we held that “public policy precludes enforcement of a parent’s preinjury waiver of her child’s cause of action for [negligently inflicted] injuries” on an educational field trip. 790 N.W.2d 252, 253, 256, 258 (Iowa 2010). But see
Kelly v. United States , 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 437 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (anticipating that the North Carolina Supreme Court would enforce the parent’s liability waiver for fifteen-year-old’s high school enrichment program and describing Galloway as an “outlier”).

Lukken argues that we should not enforce an exculpatory clause against him that purports to release claims of “any and all acts of negligence” as contrary to public policy to the extent it includes claims of gross negligence. While we have never provided an all-encompassing framework for analyzing public-policy exceptions, in Baker v. Stewarts’ Inc. , we recited several factors that might be considered to determine whether a contract implicated a public interest. See 433 N.W.2d at 708. The district court in this case found that one of these factors—whether “the party seeking exculpation performs a service of great importance to the public which is of practical necessity for at least some members of the public,” id. —cut sharply against a finding that zip lining implicated a sufficient public interest to warrant interference with the parties’ contract. The district court noted that the Iowa Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion determined that snow sledding was a “purely recreational activity” and thus not a service of great importance or necessity to the public to justify applying the public-policy exception. Lathrop v. Century, Inc. , No. 01-1058, 2002 WL 31425215, at *3 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2002).

But this focus somewhat misconstrues Lukken’s argument. Lukken’s focus isn’t on whether Mt. Crescent may enforce an exculpatory clause for voluntary recreational activities (under Iowa law, it may), but whether Mt. Crescent may enforce an exculpatory clause that negates claims for more culpable conduct. Lukken argues that the district court’s ruling overlooks the differences between “ordinary” negligence and “gross” negligence, and thus overlooks the public-policy implications associated with the differences in the culpability of the conduct that he alleges.

In his summary judgment and appeal briefing, Lukken contends that gross negligence includes “wanton” conduct based on its description in Iowa Code section 85.20. That statute describes gross negligence as conduct “amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect.” Iowa Code § 85.20(2) (2018); see also
Thompson v. Bohlken , 312 N.W.2d 501, 504 (Iowa 1981) (en banc). Lukken recites cases that define gross negligence similar to wanton conduct (and wanton conduct’s close sibling, reckless conduct) as a basis for refusing to enforce contracts that include exculpatory clauses for gross negligence. Yet Lukken’s argument—that his gross negligence claim includes wanton or reckless conduct—glosses over a distinction in our cases between our common law conception of gross negligence and different statutory renderings of gross negligence.

“Gross negligence” is not a distinct cause of action under our common law, but instead is a measure of conduct in a cause of action for negligence. Unertl v. Bezanson , 414 N.W.2d 321, 326–27 (Iowa 1987) (en banc). “In this state, as is well known, the actionable character of negligence is not dependent upon its ‘degree,’ and the ancient differentiation into ‘gross,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘slight’ has come to mean little more than a matter of comparative emphasis in the discussion of testimony.” Denny v. Chi., R.I. & P. Ry. , 150 Iowa 460, 464–65, 130 N.W. 363, 364 (1911). Under our common law “there are no degrees of care or of negligence in Iowa,” Tisserat v. Peters , 251 Iowa 250, 252, 99 N.W.2d 924, 925–26 (1959), and we thus do not recognize a tort cause of action based on “gross” negligence as distinct from “ordinary” negligence. Hendricks v. Broderick , 284 N.W.2d 209, 214 (Iowa 1979).

Yet analysis of “gross negligence” appears frequently in our cases interpreting statutes that employ the term. See, e.g. , Thompson , 312 N.W.2d at 504 (interpreting the meaning of “gross negligence” in section 85.20 ); Sechler v. State , 340 N.W.2d 759, 761 (Iowa 1983) (en banc) (interpreting the meaning of “gross negligence” in section 306.41). In Thompson v. Bohlken , for instance, we analyzed the term “gross negligence” in section 85.20, which the statute describes as conduct “amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect.” 312 N.W.2d at 504 (quoting Iowa Code § 85.20 (1977)). We determined that the term “gross negligence” under this statute included elements requiring proof of the defendant’s knowledge of the danger, the defendant’s knowledge that injury is probable (not merely possible) to result from the danger, and the defendant’s conscious failure to avoid the danger. Id. at 505. These elements generally track the definition of recklessness in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. See
Leonard ex rel. Meyer v. Behrens , 601 N.W.2d 76, 80 (Iowa 1999) (per curiam) (relying on the definition of “recklessness” in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500, at 587 (Am. L. Inst. 1965) ).

But we have warned that conceptions of “gross negligence” deriving from statutory uses of that term are not to be applied beyond those statutes. In Sechler v. State , a case tried before Iowa’s adoption of comparative negligence, we defined gross negligence for purposes of Iowa Code section 306.41 (1983) as not to include wanton neglect. 340 N.W.2d at 761. We later stated that, “[f]ar from creating a new basis of liability, the ‘gross negligence’ discussed in Thompson was a restriction, not an expansion, of the scope of negligence suits.” Unertl , 414 N.W.2d at 327. The notion of gross negligence as including “wanton” conduct under section 85.20 thus is “a concept limited by its terms to workers’ compensation cases.” Id. at 326–27.

As a result, Lukken’s argument that common law gross negligence incorporates wanton or reckless conduct based on the description in section 85.20 doesn’t square with our cases. The district court, reciting our cases stating that gross negligence is simply another degree of ordinary negligence, determined that the exculpatory clause releasing “any and all negligence” likewise released Lukken’s gross negligence claims, and thus dismissed Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent.

Lukken’s confusion about how reckless or wanton conduct falls within the scope of gross negligence doesn’t end the analysis in this case, however, because Lukken in his petition alleged that Mt. Crescent engaged in not only negligent conduct but also willful, wanton, and reckless conduct. We have long recognized separate grounds for tort liability based on these more culpable types of conduct. See, e.g. , Leonard ex rel. Meyer , 601 N.W.2d at 80 (recognizing a cause of action in tort for reckless disregard for safety); see also
Hendricks , 284 N.W.2d at 214 (analyzing alleged reckless conduct separate from negligence).

Both the Restatements of Contracts and Torts disfavor exculpatory clauses that attempt to limit liability for harm caused recklessly or intentionally. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1), at 65 (Am. L. Inst. 1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.”); Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liab. § 2 cmt. d , at 20 (Am. L. Inst. 2000) (stating that generally “contracts absolving a party from intentional or reckless conduct are disfavored”).

The Restatement (Second) of Torts notes that “[i]n the construction of statutes which specifically refer to gross negligence, that phrase is sometimes construed as equivalent to reckless disregard” of the interest of others. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 282 cmt. e , special n. 5, at 11. And so it has been in Iowa. Wanton conduct “involves the combination of attitudes: a realization of imminent danger, coupled with a reckless disregard or lack of concern for the probable consequences of the act.” Thompson , 312 N.W.2d at 505. While willfulness is “characterized by intent to injure,” wantonness is characterized by “indifference as to whether the act will injure another.” Id. (citing 57 Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 102, at 452–53 (1971) ).

Many courts have considered in the same classification the concepts of wantonness, recklessness, and willfulness in declaring liability waivers unenforceable to the extent they seek to release such conduct. See, e.g. , Wolfgang v. Mid-Am. Motorsports, Inc. , 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (recognizing that under Kansas common law “any attempt to limit liability for gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct is unenforceable”); Moore v. Waller , 930 A.2d 176, 179 (D.C. 2007) (recognizing that courts generally don’t enforce exculpatory clauses limiting a party’s liability for “gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts” (quoting Carleton v. Winter , 901 A.2d 174, 181 (D.C. 2006) )); Jones v. Dressel , 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981) (en banc) (holding that “in no event will such an [exculpatory] agreement provide a shield against a claim for willful and wanton negligence”); Brady v. Glosson , 87 Ga.App. 476, 74 S.E.2d 253, 255–56 (1953) (holding an exculpatory clause unenforceable to relieve liability for willful or wanton conduct); Wolf v. Ford , 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (1994) (stating that “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for … the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, wanton, or gross”); Anderson v. McOskar Enters., Inc. , 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (stating that “any ‘term’ in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable” (quoting Wolfgang , 898 F. Supp. at 788 )); New Light Co. v. Wells Fargo Alarm Servs. , 247 Neb. 57, 525 N.W.2d 25, 30 (1994) (holding that public policy prevents parties from limiting damages for “gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct”). We conclude that, consistent with the great weight of authority, exculpatory clauses purporting to negate liability for acts that are wantonly or recklessly committed generally violate public policy.

We therefore hold that the contractual waiver limiting Mt. Crescent’s liability is unenforceable to the extent it purports to eliminate liability for the willful, wanton, or reckless conduct that Lukken has alleged. To the extent Lukken’s claims against Mt. Crescent involve culpability that constitutes only negligent conduct (regardless of any degree of negligence), his claims fail as a matter of law based on the liability waiver. Yet Lukken maintains the opportunity, notwithstanding the liability waiver, to pursue against Mt. Crescent his claims of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.

We reverse the district court’s summary judgment ruling as to Mt. Crescent and, in light of this determination, need not address the plaintiff’s other arguments concerning the claims against Mt. Crescent in this appeal. We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

All justices concur except Appel, J., who concurs specially.

APPEL, Justice (concurring specially).

I cannot join the majority’s overbroad duty analysis suggesting that because of lack of control, duty invariably evaporates. If the zip line was negligently constructed by Challenge Quest and a patron was injured as a result of the negligent design, a potential claim by the injured patron would not be defeated by a lack of duty. As noted by comment g of the Restatement (Third), section 49, a contractor no longer in possession “is subject to a duty of reasonable care as provided in § 7 for any risk created by the contractor in the course of its work.” 2 Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. for Physical and Emotional Harm § 49 cmt. g , at 235 (Am. L. Inst. 2012). See generally
McCormick v. Nikkel & Assocs., Inc. , 819 N.W.2d 368, 377–83 (Iowa 2012) (Hecht, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (describing the duty of care for contractors after relinquishing possession of land). The analysis after a contractor is no longer in control of the premises concerns the fact-based questions of whether the risk was within the scope of liability and causation, not the legal question of duty. See generally
Morris v. Legends Fieldhouse Bar and Grill, LLC, 958 N.W.2d 817, 828–42 (Iowa 2021) (Appel, J., dissenting) (describing the proper analysis in most negligence cases rests with the fact questions of breach of duty and causation).

Generally, of course, these fact questions are not amenable to summary judgment. See
Thompson v. Kaczinski , 774 N.W.2d 829, 832 (Iowa 2009). But here, causation is not present with respect to the design of the braking system itself as the allegedly defective Challenge Quest system was entirely replaced by another independent vendor. To the extent there was an equipment defect in the braking system (i.e. not having an emergency brake), it was the defect in the new braking system, and not the original braking system, that caused the accident. And, the plaintiff showed no linkage between the unfortunate accident and the nebulous and allegedly insufficient training and safety policies, or the accident and the newly installed braking system (with a fundamentally different design from the original Challenge Quest system). So I concur in the district court’s conclusion that any claim against Challenge Quest fails. But this is an oddball case tightly controlled by its facts that should not be decided based on the legal principles of duty.

I concur in the majority’s holding with respect to the waiver of claims sounding in gross negligence.


Release upheld to stop claims for injuries sustained on a high rope’s course.

Plaintiff’s arguments failed because Colorado is supportive of releases.

Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

State: Colorado, US District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Jodi Sheldon

Defendant: Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene, d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center, Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC, Kent Fielden Mcilhany, an individual, and John Doe Corporations 1-10, Defendants

Plaintiff Claims: Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

The plaintiff signed a release to go to a Church retreat prior to attending the retreat. At the retreat, she was injured on a ropes or challenge course. She sued the retreat, the church and the builder of the course and lost because of the release she had signed.

Facts

The facts in this case are sparse.

On June 29, 2018, plaintiff Jodi Sheldon was seriously injured while participating in a high ropes course at the Golden Bell Ranch (“Golden Bell”).

Ms. Sheldon sued Golden Bell under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. She also brought a claim of negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

The defendants claim the plaintiff’s claims are barred by the release she signed.

Ms. Sheldon received the Waiver from her aunt3 after having been given a list of activities offered at Golden Bell and indicating her interest in participating in the high ropes course.

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

The court started its analysis of the case by reviewing case law on releases.

Exculpatory agreements “stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts,” Thus, although such agreements are generally disfavored, and cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,” “Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence,”

The court then reviewed the four factors that affect the validity of a release under Colorado law.

Colorado courts have identified four factors which inform the decision whether to enforce an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”

If a release meets any of the four factors, then under Colorado law, the release is unenforceable. The first two factors can be ignored because the activities were recreational in nature. Colorado courts have long held that there is no public policy or necessity in recreational cases.

The same applies to the third test, because the services offered were recreational in nature, the third test does not apply.

Nor is there any argument or evidence to establish that the third factor – whether the contract was fairly entered into – is applicable here. Indeed, because recreational activities are not considered either essential services or practically necessary, “a person is not ‘at the mercy’ of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities.”

Consequently, under Colorado law only the fourth test can be used to show a release should be void in a recreational case. This test is a simple legal test, is the release written properly and does it convey to the possible plaintiff the intention of the document.

Thus, whether the Waiver is enforceable turns exclusively on the fourth factor, “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” In analyzing this factor, the court focuses on whether the parties’ intent to “extinguish liability . . . was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”

The plaintiff argued the language of the release did not cover the risks of a high rope’s course. However, the court found the language did cover the risks; the language was broad enough in scope to cover the risks and injury the plaintiff incurred.

Ms. Sheldon insists the Waiver is ambiguous as to whether the high ropes course was within the scope of the activities covered. I am not persuaded. Here, the Waiver defined the term “Activities” as “recreational activities . . . including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to participants.” (Emphasis added.) The use of the term “including” plainly signifies that some – but not all – of the Activities covered by the Waiver will be hazardous or involve a risk of physical injury. Thus, even accepting Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that a high ropes course is not a hazardous activity, her argument fails.

Colorado is extremely lenient on the language allows to prevent a claim.

Nor does the Waiver’s failure to refer specifically to the high ropes course render it ambiguous with respect to the type of activities covered. Colorado law does not require “an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter.”

The language was interpreted to be broad enough to protect the builder of the course, also.

Relatedly, the Waiver also clearly bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA. “A person not a party to an express contract may bring an action on such contract if the parties to the agreement intended to benefit the non-party, provided that the benefit claimed is a direct and not merely an incidental benefit of the contract.”

The plaintiff also argued the waiver lacked consideration because of the lapse in time between when she signed the release and when her injury occurred. The court did not agree.

The Waiver does not fail for lack of consideration. Contrary to Ms. Sheldon’s arguments, the mere lapse of time between her payment to participate in the activity and the date the waiver was delivered to Golden Bell is not fatal to its enforcement. Instead, the pertinent question is whether the release of liability was a contract modification or rather is part of the same transaction and thus enforceable without additional consideration.

Consideration is a benefit flowing from one party to the other. Every contract must have consideration. In 99% of the contracts, consideration is defined as money, an amount. The other side of the contract in consideration for money exchanges or provides services or products. In this case the exchange was a fee, money, paid by the plaintiff in exchange for a service, the ropes course, for the fee paid by the defendant.

The Plaintiff then argued the release should be void because of mutual mistake. That argument failed because the plaintiff could not show where there was any issue that was not clearly covered in the release. If a release is written with clarity and signed, their argument of mutual mistake is nearly impossible to prove.

The doctrine of mutual mistake permits a party to rescind a contract “if all parties labored under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”

The mutual mistake argument was then expanded by the plaintiff to say because the state had no licensed the high ropes course, then the release should be void by mutual mistake.

Mutual mistake in a contract means both parties to the contract made the same mistake in the contract unenforceable or such that neither party wants to enforce the contract. Normally in a mutual mistake claim, the court re-writes the contract to meet the terms needed to eliminate the mutual mistake.

The state of Colorado does not license ropes course.

For one thing, it is not clear that Ms. Sheldon’s asserted mistake – that Golden Bell’s high ropes course had been licensed by the state of Colorado – was sufficiently similar to Golden Bell’s mistake – that it did not require such a license – to warrant application of the doctrine at all. Assuming arguendo that it does, however, the doctrine of mutual mistake permits reformation of the contract “where both parties’ understanding of their agreement is contrary to the terms of a written instrument due to a drafting error[.]”(“A mutual mistake claim requires a showing that both parties were laboring under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”) (doctrine of mutual mistake applies only to mistakes going to a “basic assumption” underlying the contract)

The plaintiff claimed the mutual mistake was the ropes course was not licensed. There was a mistake that because the course was unlicensed, the contract was not correct, there was a mistake.

There could not be a mutual mistake because no term in the contract, the release, required that one party have the rope’s course licensed. Meaning, a mutual mistake is not a legal theory that brings in outside issues into the analysis of the contract. A mutual mistake is something that was not understood within the contract.

The plaintiff then argued there was a unilateral mistake that should void the release.

[A] unilateral mistake by one party to a contract can permit reformation if the evidence demonstrates that, at the time the contract was formed, the non-mistaken party was aware of the mistaken party’s mistake.” Thus, one party’s unilateral mistake may permit reformation where “the other engaged in fraud or inequitable conduct.

However, there was nothing in the contract, the release or the evidence that could be identified as one party engaging in fraud or inequitable conduct.

None of these circumstances pertains here. It cannot be unconscionable to enforce an exculpatory contract which, like this one, is enforceable under Colorado law. Moreover, there is no hint in the record that Golden Bell knew or had reason to know that Ms. Sheldon did not know its high ropes course was not licensed by the state. Nor is there evidence to suggest Golden Bell was required to make its licensing status known to participants or that it purposefully hid its licensing status from Ms. Sheldon.

The release was upheld to prevent the claims brought against all three defendants.

So Now What?

Release law is written by poor releases. My releases never go to court because they are written to cover the issues like this. The Socratic method used in law school to learn still applies when practicing law, you learn from failure not success.

Here the release squeaked through, because of the breath of the case law in Colorado supporting releases. In other states, this release would fail.

Have your release written by an attorney who understands release law and understands what you do so you do not become a learning opportunity for the rest of your industry.

The remaining arguments made by the plaintiff were without any merit, and I write about them just as additional caution and to understand what those arguments really mean.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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James H. Moss

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